Matt Hublinger from the Hombu Dojo wrote the following Makiwara article. Nice observations and insights that you can use and adapt for your training.
While the practice of kata holds the central position of class instruction, it should not be forgotten that the use of the makiwara is just as essential to the development of karate. With proper instruction, makiwara training makes Shorin-ryu an extremely effective form of self-defense, enabling the practitioner to focus a great deal of loose power and speed into a single point with precision. The following points will ensure that maximal benefit is achieved in your own makiwara training.
First off, the interview of Sensei Iha by Sensei Estrada, which can be found on our dojo’s website, covers most of the basics in terms of what can be explained in words. The actual use of the makiwara is only grasped by seeing it used properly and then imitating the movement. I can give you a few pointers, but perhaps one of the reasons that it is difficult to find information on its use is owing to the fact that it isn’t too useful to read about it. Most aspects of the martial arts are passed manually and orally, with the written teachings (densho, okuden, etc), if they even exist, being more useful for the initiated practitioner who has had the physical instruction. With that in mind, the following notes are a few pointers that will hopefully help you in your development of outpower and practice of traditional Okinawan Shorin-ryu karate-do.
Concerning Naha and Shuri style of makiwara
The main difference between Naha and Shuri makiwara is the height and degree of stiffness. Naha makiwara are often shorter than the bottom of one’s sternum, which is more difficult to use since a lower stance is required to punch it correctly with proper shoulder alignment. Since most of us are pretty lazy, we like the taller Shuri board. I would recommend that you use both heights, since they engage the hips in a different manner. Even so, in Shuri-te the height of both soft and stiff boards is typically that of the sternum, assuming you punch near the top of the board, so that the shoulder is level to the top of the board when the knees are bent over the toes. Moreover, it is a bit inaccurate to make too sharp of a distinction between martial arts on Okinawa, as there exists a great degree of cross-pollination between most of them. A main difference, however, and a significant one, is where the fist is chambered before the punch. Naha-te tends to chamber it just below the height of the nipple (on a relatively healthy male!) on the side of the ribs. If you have seen Naha stylists punch, you would notice that they often “squeeze” the fist and arm away from the body. On the other hand, Shuri-te of the Gusukuma school (Iha-style) chambers the fist on the floating ribs, where the elbow rests when at the side of the body. The resulting angle of the elbow joint in this position forms the heart of blocking for Shorin-ryu; almost a 90 degree angle. The importance of this angle cannot be overstated. As in the kata, the body and the arms move together, but with a coordinated sliding motion which really does revolutionize your body movement (tai sabaki) and forms the core of power generation. One way of explaining it is to say that when your right hand, for instance, is chambered on your hip and then moves to block, the angle of the elbow joint remains identical. The wrist lines up with the shoulder. This is for kagite, shuto uke and nearly all other angled blocks. This alignment and coordination with the body is at the heart of things.
Concerning stiff and hard makiwara
The stiff makiwara is used to develop “heavy hands” and a great amount of outpower (chinkuchi) and piercing focus (kikome). When used correctly, the resulting punch is devastating. It is also the type of board that the more advanced student uses, since punching a board that is too stiff can result in joint damage in beginners. Let the beginner use only the soft makiwara for some time, perhaps several months or a year, and then gradually move into the harder makiwara. Of course it is essential to use both makiwara for the entirety of your practice. We do not outgrow the soft board. The soft board is used not only for the beginner, but also for the development of the fast punch. And if someone never “graduates” to the harder board, that is fine. Everyone needs to listen to their own body and obey its needs.
Pointers for each board
Soft board: Any wood can be used, but oak or ash is recommended. It must be pliable, but not too flexible so as to offer no resistance. Only you can gage what resistance is best for you, but the typical measurement is as follows. The board is never set into the ground at a 90-degree angle. Sensei says that anywhere between 65 and 80 degrees is good for a light board. Set the soft board at an incline so that if you were to use a plumb line, it would be a few inches off center from the top to base, leaning toward you. A typical distance is the space from the tip of your thumb to the tip of your index finger when you make an “L” with your left hand. When you have punched, the board should be perfectly upright and your lower two knuckles under your fore- and middle finger should be touching the board along with the main knuckles. If you roll it over and off your main knuckles you are overextending your punch and would be possibly off balance in your application with a partner. Hit with the foreknuckle and middle knuckle, with about 70% of the power being on the foreknuckle. Eventually put more emphasis upon the foreknuckle, depending upon your hand structure. You can use all sorts of other hand positions when striking, in accordance with the kata or your own enlightenment, but the fist is the main weapon, following the kata.
Keep these tips in mind when you punch: Keep your head directly over your center and lower your power into your “tanden,” the lower abdomen. Maintain a straight, but still supple spine. Relax your shoulders so that they do not rise up when you punch. This also means that you are pulling your latissimus down with moderate tension upon impact. Pull your chin in slightly and open your gaze. Breathe in through your nose and hold some of your breath in your tanden. Do not be forceful with breathing but, in the beginning especially, inhale when you are finished striking and exhale when you strike. Once you get the feeling, vary your breathing patterns and strike on inhalation or between cycles. You can do this naturally if you hold a conversation with someone while punching.
Before you strike the board you should set your body into the standard position. This means that you line your punching shoulder or pectoral up with the board, with that side’s foot in the back. The rear foot, from which the power of the stance comes, should also be in line with the makiwara. You may use a back stance, or just have a relaxed and equal distribution of your weight with the punch’s anchoring foot in the rear. The main point is that you must be able to freely turn your hips into the punch, having your sternum a little more than square with the makiwara when you finish hitting. To get the proper distance, square your shoulders to the board and rest your punching side’s wrist upon the top of the makiwara. Your punch should be able to move the board about two or three inches and hold it there with each strike. The development of the tendons, alignment and the feeling of kikome start with this holding. If you cannot do this, the board is too stiff for you, so shave it down some.
Before your fist leaves the side of your body, it should be chambered on the floating ribs and face, along with your sternum, away from the board, perhaps at a ninety degree angle. This would look like the initial move in Pinan Godan. By the time the fist slides along the body to where the elbow is on the ribs, the sternum should be almost facing the board and the fist should be starting to turn over. The hips should also be shifting forward to add weight, stability and a unified body to the impact. As the fist finally touches, it should almost be completely turned over and then finally turns on the board to face downward. The hips and sternum are a little passed square and you now hold the board in place with an extended arm and no bend in the elbow. This slight screwing of the fist on the moment of impact is a critical aspect of punching in the Okinawan style, especially when doing short punches. Again, when your punch hits the board you must fully extend your elbow by following through with the punch. Do not keep the elbow bent when your power is released. When you make contact, hold the fist on the board for a second, holding the angle of the bend, and let your power move out of you. This develops what is called ateifuwa or kikome. It means that you are in control of your muscles and tendons when you execute a strike and can pierce with your power, not just deliver surface strikes.
This is one of the most important points to be made. Do not strike with a bent elbow. Otherwise power will stay in your arm or go out at the angle of the elbow and not into the target. Moreover, unless extension is made, the power of the strike will not be one that pierces into the opponent. The fist must act like a bullet. If you keep your fist very tight you won’t hyperextend your elbow, the fear of which causes many to try to keep their elbow bent. You should, however, have control over your elbow when you punch. While it doesn’t need to be completely pointing downwards when making a typical straight punch, having it slightly downturned does add to the connection of the torso to the punch. It also helps keep the shoulder low and aides in brief tensing the latissimus, which is also a key to outpower. That said, it can be overdone to the point of rigidity. Find your balance. You should at least be able to turn your elbow down when your arm is fully extended as a way to slip from armbars. Also, do not line the board up with the center of your body, but with your shoulder or your nipple. Of course I may want to punch you in your center, but my own arm will generally be in line with my shoulder or lower pectoral, especially if my shoulders are broad.
Don’t forget that your pulling hand, your hikite, must use at least the same power, line of movement and opposite rotation as that of your punching arm. This is crucial, since Shorin-ryu uses the whole body’s movement to generate outpower, not just muscles of the body and certainly not just the muscles of the arm. While the position of the chambered hand is always on the floating ribs, sometimes practitioners find it useful to chamber it higher upon the immediate pull of a punch when doing a lunge punch (oi zuki). It is a little wilder in application, but play with it and find your balance. However, remember that high chambering may add unnecessary tension to your arm and shoulder, which robs you of speed and power in the next movement. So don’t leave it high even if you use it that way for the hikite.
Once you feel comfortable doing this, maybe after a year or so, you may want to occasionally add to your soft board striking repertoire (without neglecting the previous approach). Move back from the board a few inches so that when your arm is fully extended, the board is only partially pushed back, maybe less than an inch. From this position, punch very fast and hold your arm straight and tense, flipping the end of the board back and forth against your fist. This is where the speed comes from. Don’t forget to have your arm fully extended and your punching shoulder just passed the other shoulder, as when you naturally walk. After you get this feeling, try punching it in the same manner but right after you touch pull your fist away quickly, or punch twice, or uppercut and hooking combinations. You can then move into the board a little bit, by moving your center closer (and not by leaning forward). Remember, all straight punching involves not only the rotation of the hip, but also the forward momentum of the hip as it rotates. Punch fast and let the tension of the wood throw your fist back to your side for the other arm to theoretically punch again (see above point on hikite). This helps you to develop a supple torso that can react with a tight fist but a loose shoulder. In all punching have a loose and relaxed shoulder. Tension in the shoulder robs you of your power. You may feel stronger, but you are actually much weaker. Moreover, your speed is cut dramatically and your punch is telegraphed more easily. Also, do not breathe with your upper lung, as this tenses the shoulders and raises your center of balance.
You shouldn’t feel that you have to punch it aggressively every time. You should be able to punch every day a few hundred times after a few months of practice and not feel that you have done damage to your hand, elbow, or shoulder. What is most important is the proper body movement. Don’t raise your shoulder or overextend it. It should be a natural turn of the body that flows from the ground, into your trunk, and out of your arm. Use your latissimus at the proper time. Pull the non-punching hand to the base of your floating ribs, where your elbow is when your arm is at your side, as noted above. Do this very quickly to develop power and speed.
Stiff board: Most of what is written above also applies to the hard board as well. This board is set into the ground or floor-mounted brace with only a very slight incline. Maybe two inches off center will do. Again, the resistance of the board depends upon your own body type, but usually the heavy board should be about two or three times as resilient to pressure as the light board and is also only meant to be pushed back two to three inches. While it is fun to try to whack it back to the wall, it is not necessary and it is usually the time when injuries occur. When you punch this board, start off gently. Your punch on this board differs from the soft board in that you shouldn’t punch it and pull away fast. Maintain atefei. The point is to let your power flow into the target while you remain in control of your muscles and tendons, keeping your fist firmly planted. Pulling away is good for speed and combination strikes, but not for outpower. Moreover, it may be easier to have a relaxed shoulder when you don’t pull away since the board stops your punch instead of your muscle contraction.
Here it should be understood that with the soft board, it is very important to hold your punch on the bent board as the standard method. Again, this allows the tendons, muscles, breathing and hips to learn how to work together without you having to think about it. With the stiffer makiwara it is productive to not always hold the bend, even though you are still developing outpower, and if you cannot hold the bend on the stiffer board, that is fine. What is critical is that you are able to hit it back a few inches every time with a punch that finds more resistance than when working with the lighter board. In fact, many practitioners have only one makiwara that offers a resistance between the two. If this is the case, then you should be able to hold the bend with at least a few inches. All in all, you have to just put in the sweat to see where you are on the spectrum of development. Play with the boards to find your own balance with this.
Again, the point of the heavy board is to develop outpower and “heavy hands,” whereby you can generate a great amount of piercing power in a very short distance. Shorin-ryu emphasizes soft blocks and fast and penetrating attacks. Thus the relaxed power you develop from makiwara training is at the heart of our art. Once you get a feeling of chinkuchi and kikome (quick, relaxed outpower), start punching the heavy board with your fist not at your hip, but with your elbow connecting to your hip. Fire the punch out from this point, using your hip and relaxed power. You may also try kata with this variation from time to time.
A powerful punch comes from the connection between the ground and the hips, with the legs and hips giving drive and spring, while the arm simply allows that energy to be released. When you punch, various stances can be employed, but the main thing is remembering that you are using your whole torso, and especially your hips (koshi) to generate power from the ground. It can be helpful for beginners to use a variation of the back stance (kokutsu dachi). This helps train the hips and legs to move correctly so that proper power can be sent though the shoulders and arms in a forward direction. This would look something akin to the second move of Pinan Godan. However, you must drive your fist with the body, so if your stance is weak or your back foot is pointed too much to the outside, your punch will have little power in it. Sometimes the use of lower stances helps keep the beginner mindful of using the floor and hips, but it can be overdone and needs to be balanced with less deep work. Remember: strong stance, driving hips, loose top, momentary squeezing of the latissimus, tight fist.
Before punching, square your shoulders to the makiwara so that your palm is on the top of the board. This sets the proper distance. When you punch, you will have pushed the board back the approximate distance of your wrist to the end of your fist. That is good penetration for a strike to the body. Once you get a good feel for striking while in place, vary it with strikes while moving into the board, moving away and to the sides, spinning into strikes, pouncing, dropping from high to low (the opening move of Gojushiho for some styles) and other types of body movement. Play with it. This requires more skill, but it is also more natural and jissen-gata in nature. Remember, your muscles will remember what you practice, good or bad.
Let your elbow remain close to your body, as when you punch in kata. This applies for lower hook punches, uppercuts and corkscrew punches. When your elbow is farther from your torso, you lose the connection with the hips and the energy disperses and “whips away.” For the straight punches, the elbow should always be behind the fist, so that if you were to be looking at the fist from the front, you wouldn’t see the elbow. This is essential to a strong punch and the avoidance of “tennis elbow.” Whipping punches are very good and should be used, but they use a different body motion from what is generally used for makiwara or kata. Kata punches use the lunar plexus, whereas whipping strikes often use the solar plexus. Imagine two triangles. The kata strike is a triangle with its base on the bottom; the whipping punch has its “base” floating toward the top.
You can punch the heavy makiwara with force, but be sure you are building up to it. Smacking it around doesn’t equal a good punch. Again, always stick your punch on the heavy board and let your power flow out of you into the board. This is where your kime, chinkuchi and atefei come from. Once you feel strong enough, finish each punching session with ten strikes as hard as you can, starting and ending with your weaker side.
Additions to the Makiwara
Something that is often found in Uechi-ryu dojo is a piece of leather or rubber that is somehow hanging near the makiwara. The point is to grab and pull the rubber as you punch, simulating the clothes or body of an opponent. Sensei Iha believes that although this technique is found in the kata, known as the working hand (shigoto no te), it is not necessary to practice with the actual makiwara. Even so, it may be of use to experiment on your own with at least the idea of seizing and pulling or twisting in mind.
Blisters, Callusing and Bruising
Take care of your hands. As we get older we realize that injuries from our younger days have an unpleasant tendency to reappear. There is no need to overdo any of this. If the form and outcome do not follow the intended function, quit. This goes for any part of your training. What one person can do without injury may not be advisable for you, even if that person is your sensei. You must know yourself well enough to sense when something is sore from not being trained or sore from being abused. There is a difference and your sensei should know it. This is one of the best benefits of training with Sensei, since he has told us not to reinvent the wheel, but to learn natural motion that he struggled many years to find. He knows what is and is not good for the body, even if a younger practitioner can get away with it for a decade or so. This is the wisdom of listening to our elders.
Despite what some may believe, getting large knuckles is not the point of makiwara training. However, you will get blisters and calluses (tako) if you train with a fist. Depending upon your own life’s circumstances, you may or may not want to have disfigured, cut or callused knuckles and you certainly want to avoid infections. Standard care for blisters should be followed, but if you are using a community board at a dojo, consideration of blood-borne disease needs to play a role in when to use the makiwara and when to hold off. It’s best to have your own board or at least your own cover if you do use a community board. That aside, punching on a cut as it is almost healed is how some people create callous- if that is something you are seeking. At the same time, using the pinkie and thumb sides of your palm to strike are also extremely effective ways of developing outpower and heavy hands. It may not be as useful in developing speed or wrist strength, and in application it uses a different body motion, but you will not disfigure your hands and that career as a hand model won’t be in jeopardy.
More than likely you will from time to time bruise your knuckles. Punching on a bruise does no good, and you should take time off or hit with another part of the body. Sometimes, as the main damage starts to subside, gently press your fist against a hard surface for a minute or so several times a day. Some karate-ka find this helpful in getting the fist back into action. But remember, going too hard too fast can lead to deep bone bruising, joint or tendon damage which can have serious and long term side-effects. Slow, consistent progression is key.
You can cover your striking surface with leather, sandpaper of various grains, or the traditional rice rope. Sensei says that when he was young, he and his friends would save their hair from the barber and put it in a pouch, which would then go over the board. It all depends on what sort of calluses you do or do not want to develop and what sort of blisters you want to avoid. However, as mentioned, do not equate large knuckles with power or karate. You can sit on a seat and hit a piece of wood covered in sand paper to get those; it is rather juvenile (and a phase that I continue to pass thru every once and a while). Focus on the technique and your hands will become whatever is natural. Some people callus quickly, others almost never do. Just do the work.
Kicking Your Makiwara
There are two main reasons to kick the makiwara: toe and shin conditioning. While it is not unheard of in the U.S., the kicking makiwara is not as common. The heavy bag is more typically used. Even so, to practice your toe kick, which is a hallmark of all styles of Okinawan karate, the soft board will do. Be gentle, though. There is no reason to go blasting it at the start unless you enjoy walking with a limp. If you want to strengthen your toes you can also just squeeze them together and tap the ground all day with gentleness. This works very well. Moreover, you can use iron geta (Okinawan sandals) and practice slow kicks with them, gripping the steel firmly with your toes. To condition the shin and instep for striking and blocking, which can essentially be one, you can cut a car or motorcycle tire open and strap it to a short makiwara. You can also stuff carpet behind the splayed tire for resistance. You will bruise at first and lose your leg hair, but you will gain a strong mawashi geri; so no one will make fun of your bare shin twice. Remember to sometimes use your hips to drive your shin kick through the target, and use the snapping kick when using the toes. They are different kicks with different applications, so experiment with both types. Ask sensei about keri komi as a type of mai geri
Another tool that quickly develops tendon strength is a sand bag. Excellent for toe kicks, it can also be used to develop single point striking techniques because it has more give than a makiwara. From my own experience, I have found this to be just as important as the striking post.
One final suggestion is that you use your partners as punching bags, so to speak. I don’t mean that you should crank them in the ribs, but that you should have them stand in various kamae and allow you to practice angling your punches, slaps, nerve strikes, kicks, elbow, knees and throw setups, making light to heavy contact as each partner sees fit. Each defensive posture affords opportunities for attacks and this exercise is useful for learning them. You will soon notice that your wrist angling will change according to various strikes and body targets, and that sometimes play in the wrist is to your advantage instead of the standard “flat wrist” that we use in kata.
Along with contact, it is important to think of your fist as touching, and not striking per se. To do this, slowly spar with your partners and make contact on the face’s surface. You may find yourself either hitting your partner too hard or just unable to touch at all. This is the result of being too tense in the arm and mind. Recognizing that we are tense is one of the key aspects of training, so explore this with a partner and see how much you can both touch and be touched without falling into the extremes.
Once you get this down, move on to more free flowing attacks and then into jiyu kumite where there is free give and take of techniques. Don’t be afraid of contact and remember to go with the intention of your partner’s strikes, even if they are not done with full power. This will help you learn how moves lead into one another, especially useful in regard to spinal reflexes such as eye pokes, groin slaps and neck blows. Applying your focus from makiwara training in this exercise is useful and also helps to condition the body. You cannot forget that whenever you fight you will get hit and possibly hurt, so this is good for training in mental jissen, or combat mentality. Combined with learning where to hit someone for various responses, this training gives preparation for the psychological results of actually hitting, anticipating being hit or being hit. Ultimately, our emotional state in training should be neutral when performing these activities and reflective of mushin. Although we may find ourselves becoming angry or frustrated when hit, we must take this as a clue to learning about ourselves in terms of protecting our egos, which is an obstacle to growth. We must confront our insecurities without fear of being “found out” by others. Proper partner work is therapeutic in that it is a safe, semi-controlled environment where we confront ourselves. It is perhaps the main reason to train in this manner. We grow up. And along with taking the strike properly, we must also learn to give the strike without hitting with our ego. Intention is key in proper partner work and purity of heart is its foundation. If we hit to damage, we must have the consent of our uke.
As you hit harder, while slow sparring or with more specific intention, you may experiment with spinal reflexes and see how the kata is built upon some of them by studying the natural reflexes of your partners to pain or the threat of pain. This is when training can take on a whole new direction and you can start to inductively understand the bunkai from experience, rather than only through the standard, curriculum-based, taught deduction. Although the topic is covered in detail in the section on partner work, here again we find that the more open we are to practicing with others by being humble partners, the more we are able understand how the body works. At some point the student can only become the master by moving beyond deductive reasoning and finding the correct direction from the inside. It would not be incorrect to think of the kata and curriculum as deductive tools. The makiwara and free partner work are inductive tools. Both are needed, but it is easy to never move beyond the strict understanding of the curriculum with its rote imitation. This also implies that to move into natural movement we must do more than train in class. Class time should largely be based upon the curriculum, but some of it should be a teaser to move us to see with new insights. To do otherwise is to forever remain the passive learner.