Facing The Challenge

At once both vilified by some as being a cause of physiological damage, and at the same time feted by others as being a vital part of daily traditional karate training, the makiwara or striking post of Okinawan Karate is a source of some interest for those wishing to pursue authentic Karate training.

With the advent of more and more interest being shown in some of the more old-fashioned and classical methods of karate and associated training methods, it is perhaps fitting that we scrutinise one of the most important training aids that has been around since Karate first appeared. The makiwara is principally an Okinawan training tool, and it's use can be traced back to Japanese texts from feudal times in Okinawan history. Many are under the misconception that the purpose of the makiwara is to produce large callused knuckles which are impervious to impact and whilst this may have a degree of truth in it, this is not the main reason for training with the makiwara, and calluses more accurately represent a by-product of the use of this tool.

First and foremost, it is said that the primary aim of facing the makiwara is to develop a strong punch or strike and also to condition the hand and wrist to absorb some impact in order that the punch may be delivered correctly and effectively. This may seem somewhat obvious, however if a majority of your training involves "fresh air" techniques, then it is vital that you become accustomed to hitting something solid. It is highly likely that if this is not undertaken, then the first time you hit something hard with your best gyakuzuki, your wrist will give way before your opponent does so! Facing the makiwara also has the added benefit of ensuring that correct breathing and form are employed as poor technique soon manifests itself !

The Japanese word makiwara means coiled rope and in this context, the makiwara gets it's name from the fact that in the past, the padding used was rice straw which was wound into a rope and then coiled into a pad. This type of makiwara padding is still available, and is said to have a rather unusual feature in that the resins in the straw are supposed to provide a natural antiseptic effect for when one skins one's knuckles, (which will happen at some stage or another, when facing the makiwara) and also helps to harden the skin of the knuckles quite quickly. The downside of using this type of padding however, is that it can lead to rather ugly hands as the resins also tend to darken the skin and it more readily causes calluses. It is also not particularly durable and gets worn out very quickly with prolonged daily use.

There are also a number of different types of makiwara, with the most common types being the tachi makiwara (or standing makiwara), and the Age-makiwara which is a type which can be hung from the ceiling and then kicked. There are two kinds of tachi makiwara - the first being the type most people associate with the word which is a post with a pad at the top which is hit from the front. The other type of standing makiwara is usually constructed of a round pole which is set in the ground. The top surface is usually cut at an angle so shuto and tettsui strikes can be practised on this part of the post. Rope straw could also be wrapped around the top foot or so of the post and this was then beaten with a piece of wood to make it smooth. Strikes and kicks could then be practised against this surface. For the purpose of this article, we shall concern ourselves with the first type of tachi makiwara as this is the most common and easily constructed. When building a makiwara, it is important to pick a site which is not going to be too affected by the weather. This may seem somewhat irrelevant but if your makiwara is outside, you could end up standing ankle deep in mud whilst attempting to hit your post which is not ideal. Ensure that the ground you are planting your makiwara in has good drainage and is firm. You will need a post approximately 7 feet long by about 5-6 inches wide. The post should be tapered so that the thick end is buried in the ground and the thinner end finishes at about mid-chest height when standing naturally in front of your post. (See fig 1). When adopting a stance, the height should be just about right. Examine you piece of timber carefully for flaws and knots and have the best surface toward you.

The end which is buried in the ground needs to be treated with some form of wood preservative to stop it from rotting. In the past the way in which this was done was to burn the end which was to be buried. The end then needs to be bolstered by the use of boulders or kerb stones. Make sure also that you have sufficient room to move around your makiwara. Whilst this is one Karate training aid which does not need huge amounts of room, it is important that you do not feel confined when facing your makiwara, also it is good to practice moving in on it in a number of different ways, all of which require some room. You also need sufficient room to be able to swing kicks at your post. makiwara need not be used solely for the conditioning of seiken, but can also be used very effectively to practice and condition our bodies for employing uraken, kote/ude, shuto, haito, koken, shotei, hiji, ippon ken, plus hiza geri, mae geri, mawashi geri, yoko geri, in fact if you use your imagination the list goes on and on.

The type of padding you use depends on your taste. Some may wish to opt for the more traditional approach and go for the coiled straw rope with it's associated pros and cons. Some may prefer to use a softish rubber, especially at first until such time as your skin has developed some thickness and the tendon has begun to protect the joint of the knuckle. Finally, you may elect to use leather. This is an excellent medium to use and can be used over the rubber pad or may be placed directly over the bare wood. I would not advocate the last practice until such time as your hands have become developed in order to cope with the impact on your knuckles which would be after quite some time.

The key to developing your punch and other techniques on the makiwara is to take your time. Rushing your progress will only end up in damage to your body. You cannot rush your progress in Karate and this is just one other element of the process, so take your time and enjoy the training. It is important to "warm your hands up" before striking the makiwara with any force. Starting with your weak side, hit the makiwara about ten times with one fist, slowly and steadily. Change hands and do the same with the other hand. When you go back to the hand you used first, you will find that it is warm and the blood flow to the hand has increased, you can now begin your training regimen. When you first begin to hit the makiwara, do so lightly and slowly, but make sure that on each stroke, the weight of your body is pushed into the post, without losing your posture. Start off with a low number of repetitions, and use double the number on your weak side compared to your natural side. No more than thirty would be a good number to start with.

Do not make the same mistake as one rather unfortunate young man I came across last year. His "teacher" had suggested he install a makiwara and this he duly did. However he obviously used too hard a pad and proudly told me that his teacher had told him that he should hit the makiwara as hard as he could for as long as he could. The result of this "advice" was the formation of very large knuckles. The only problem with these massive protuberances was that they were not made this way because of keritanised skin and thickened tendon, but were due to the build up of fluid in the joint and were in fact very soft and swollen and will no doubt give this young man something to regret later in life. But more of the physiological effects of makiwara training later.

As time goes by, you will find that you can increase the number and strength of your punches, but don't get carried away! At some stage, your knuckles will blister and just one mis-timed technique will relieve you of some skin. When this happens, you may not notice at first but stop as soon as you notice and wash the wound thoroughly. Apply some antiseptic cream and cover the wound to prevent any dirt getting in. Just because you have skinned you knuckles does not mean that you cannot use the makiwara however! We have already seen above that there are many different striking surfaces we can be conditioning. Do not recommence hitting the makiwara until any injury has healed completely. You will also find that as the thickness of skin on your knuckles increases, the time taken for skinned knuckles to heal will at first increase. Then later on, you will find that your knuckles do not skin much at all. There are one or two things you should do when you have finished facing the makiwara. Make sure that you wash you hands thoroughly in hot water. You may wish to apply something like Witchazel which will help deal with bruising and also acts as an astringent helping the skin on your knuckles to harden. There are many other things you can use as an astringent from surgical spirit to urine! Also give your hands, wrists and fingers a good stretching. Just because you are working on developing your striking ability does not mean that you have to have hands that prevent you from tying your shoelaces!

So what effect does facing the makiwara have on the physiology of your hands? Some are under the misconception that makiwara training is a sure-fire way of developing rheumatism or arthritis later in life and this is one of the reasons why it's use has fallen off, (other reasons are the increase in the competition arena where impact is not encouraged, and the introduction of alternative training aids such as kick bags and focus mitts). However, this train of thought, whilst valid especially in view of the type of situation as already reported above, is only applicable to those who have chosen to try to short-cut the process of makiwara training. Excessive improper use of advanced makiwara training at an early stage may lead to chronic injury. However, if the correct advice is given and followed, then there is no evidence to support the claim that makiwara training is injurious.

In 1985, the British Journal of Sports Medicine conducted a survey in which the hands and wrists of 22 Karate Instructors were examined under X-Ray and by a physician. All of the instructors had at least 5 years experience. The conclusions of the paper's publishers stated that: "Long term and routine practice of Karate does not appear to predispose to early onset of osteoarthritis or tendonitis in the hands of those studied". If further evidence is needed, Medicine and Science in Sports (Vol 1-2;95, 1970 ) published a report in which the right hand of Masutatsu Oyama, founder of the Kyokushinkaikan and an advocate of regular makiwara practice, was Subjected to X-Ray in both 1955 and 1970. Bearing in mind that Oyama had been facing the makiwara since 1931, over 30 years of makiwara training had produced no malformation of the bones on his hand, there was no evidence of any old fractures or calcification and in both X-Rays, his hands appeared normal. We know however, that Oyama Sensei had very well developed knuckles, so if this was not a skeletal malformation or calcification, what caused his hands to become so developed?

The answer is quite simple - he developed calluses on his knuckles. Callused or Keratinised skin is caused by the repeated striking of an area and will be produced by any form of repetitive application of force to the skin. If you are not sure what I mean, look at where your pen rests against your fingers when you write. If you write frequently, you will see a small callus which is keratinised skin. The body naturally protects itself and if it thinks that a part of the body needs some more padding than was originally provided, it makes it! This is a callus. But what about the bony development of the metacarpal phalangeal joint of the knuckles? Well, we have seen from the above two studies that it is not in fact the bone which is developed or malformed but is a combination of the thickening of the skin of the knuckles and also a thickening of the metacarpal extensor tendon. This tendon covers the metacarpal phalangeal joints (seiken) and when repeatedly struck, causes the body to protect itself, (just like with the skin), and it becomes thicker. (See Fig. 2) Over time, this tendon can become quite enlarged and it is this which causes the appearance of enlarged knuckles when combined with thicker skin. When left alone, callused skin will tend to return to its original form, (providing there is no scar tissue evident but thickened tendons tend not to do this so quickly). I am conscious of this fact as during the winter I find it difficult to get out to my makiwara in the garden everyday. As a result, my knuckles tend to revert back to their soft, dainty appearance (!). The first rays of spring sun however, foretell a return to more percussive interests!

So what is the big deal with "facing the makiwara"? Simply put, it is a challenge. Just like every other aspect of training Karate, it represents a commitment which is hard to live up to. Facing the makiwara is hard - it takes everything you give it and yet demands more - it acts like a teacher, controlling your progress and punishing your errors - it is reflective of your commitment to your studies, neglect it and it shows, practice diligently and you will reap the rewards......Why not give it a try?

Copyright Phil Snewin 1998. All rights reserved.