"There are no karate men who do not use the Makiwara."
- Nagamine Shoshin shinshii
- Nagamine Shoshin shinshii
This is the second article in my series on training with the Makiwara (Machiwara in Uchinaaguchi). The previous article provided a look at my indoor makiwara design to give folks some ideas about building their own. In this article I want to address what I see as the four most widespread misconceptions which exist about Makiwara training. This hopefully will allow us to move forward into the instructional articles with a minimum of inaccurate baggage...
Misconception #1: Makiwara is mainly about hand conditioning.
Okinawan martial artists have a gazillion conditioning methods (most of which they inherited from the Chinese) so they hardly needed to invent a new one. Moreover, I am not convinced a makiwara is ideal for that function anyway. Conditioning is a side benefit but not the -main- purpose. The two things that set a makiwara aside from all other punching-posts and punching-bags are:
a) Progressive resistance
b) The forceful "spring back" (the makiwara returning to its original position)
Progressive resistances means the harder you hit or push the device, the more resistance the makiwara offers. This makes it ideal power development. Heavy-bags, Chinese style punching posts, and wooden-man dummies (devices which Okinawans also used, which are usually called sunabukuro, ude-makiwara, and kakete-biki) simply do not offer any progressive resistance and are therefore inferior for developing power.
The "spring back" forcefully pushes your arm back a spit second after impact. This makes it ideal for solo training of "immovable body" skills. In so-called “internal arts” like Tai-chi and Aikido they spend much time and effort practicing remaining immovable while a partner forcefully pushes on their arm (actually this skill is part of Okinawan shime/kitae training too, but that is another topic). A makiwara allows you to practice this same “immovable body” skill but without the need for a partner. You just do a progressive "body audit" by mindfully paying attention to joint after joint, feeling for any "give" or movement. You do this "body audit" from the hand all the way through the body to the feet. Eventually you can hit the makiwara with a hard shot that bends it well back, but results in zero discernible push-back (the makiwara remains bent and no motion can be seen in the body until the practitioner -chooses- to release it). So while the makiwara does condition the hands, conditioning was never its *main* function.
If the device does not offer progressive resistance and a forceful “spring back” (which can be used for kinesthetic feedback) then that device is NOT a makiwara. This leads me to the next misconception…
Misconception #2: The devices which cause arthritis or joint damage are types of makiwara.
In truth, the devices which are most commonly associated with joint damage which are *called* makiwara are NOT in fact actually makiwara at all (I think the most common example would be punching a 4x4 post).
An iron-shot filled wall-bag is not a makiwara. A wall mounted pad/target is not a makiwara. A clapper style wall device is not a makiwara. A post in the ground is not a makiwara. A thick inflexible board is not a makiwara. If it doesn’t bend backwards several inches when struck and then immediately spring back to its original position (if not impeded) then it is SOME OTHER type of punching device and is not a makiwara. Because genuine makiwara DO bend when hit, they are very unlikely to ever cause joint damage (when struck by a normal healthy individual).
This is not to say you can’t injure yourself on a makiwara. You most certainly can… but you won’t wind up with badly damaged hand joints. Wrist injuries are another issue but they are avoided with good form. I’m not saying all of the other devices will damage the joints (or cause arthritis) if they are -used correctly- .
I am just saying that the makiwara gets blamed for injuries that were actually caused by completely different punching tools which are only erroneously CALLED makiwara.
Misconception #3: Hand conditioning is about calluses.
As already mentioned, conditioning is only a secondary goal to power-development and developing a rooted structure. Although it is secondary, it -is- still a goal. However, conditioning has little to do with calluses. Body conditioning is about strengthening bones (via bone remodeling) as well as strengthening dense regular connective tissues containing closely packed bundles of collagen fibers. These connective tissues include fasciae, aponeuroses, ligaments, and tendons. All of these tissues remodel according to imposed demands and bulk mechanical properties like modulus, failure strain, and ultimate tensile strength can be significantly increased over time with consistent training.
Creating callus does little to strengthen anything of any importance. Callus is a bit harder to rip so it can prevent some skin tearing. However, callus is generally less flexible which can actually make tearing more likely in the case of rotational force (violent twisting while in contact) so it is a bit of a mixed bag… Hitting a makiwara without callus feels like the skin is getting pinched between two hard objects (because it is). This pinch is annoying but far from debilitating. In my mind discomfort (to a degree) is good because it develops mental toughness. However I’ll admit I was glad when the pinch stopped being felt. You don’t need to have a lot of callus for the pinch to be dulled or eliminated. 1/5 of an inch is probably plenty. Lemus shinshi has mentioned that many Okinawan teachers do not want to advertise their martial experience, and choose to remove the accumulation of callus as it develops. This is probably a good idea IMHO. If somebody knows you are dangerous they are likely to attack you with a tire-iron to the back of the head rather than punch you in the jaw! The subject of callus removal segues nicely into the next misconception…
|As you can see, the hand is largely normal looking after callus removal|
Misconception #4: Makiwara hand care is mostly about hit-medicines.
Hit-medicine is only one of several things you should have available to care for your hands. An emery board will remove the callus efficiently with no pain and leave your hands mainly normal looking. It also will remove (mostly anyhow) what I call “perma-scab”. If you look at a serious makiwara person’s hands you will often notice a small scab-like sore in the middle of at least one knuckle. These take months or even years to go away. However, an emery board will remove this perma-scab and the surrounding callus pretty effectively. Once removed, you should apply “new-skin” to the area to prevent the perma-scab from re-forming. “New-skin” is my second essential tool in the makiwara hand care kit. When you get the inevitable skin tear, just remove the skin that was detached with a nail-clipper (it NEVER will reattach in my experience so get rid of it right away) and apply pressure with a paper y towel until the bleeding stops. After that dab the area every few minutes (you want to remove the liquid which accumulates and will turn into a scab) until the area remains dry. Then apply the new-skin in a thin layer to the whole area (including a little past the tear itself) and blow on it to speed drying. Add a second (and possibly a third) coat the next morning. At that point you are GOOD TO GO. No need to miss any makiwara training!! It belongs in every makiwara kit. Next, I recommend using a good hand lotion once in a while to prevent the skin from drying and cracking. This is especially true if you live somewhere with really cold winters.
Regarding hit-medicines, I believe much of the value of applying them comes simply from the act of thoroughly massaging the hands and knuckles before and after training. Just the massage (without any medicine) will speed recovery time a great deal. In terms of the medicinal value of hit-medicines, their main significance seems to be their remarkable anti-inflammatory properties. The reduced swelling, reduced bruising, and faster healing are all (IMHO) directly the result of the anti-inflammatory effect.
I use the "Golden Lotus" 34 herb formula as my hit-medicine of choice. I was quite impressed with the reduction in swelling which took place very quickly and also the increased speed in bruise healing (which was less dramatic but still impressive). The same formula is also available from Shen and several other suppliers but this supplier was recommended to me by Rod Morgan.