The makiwara is a training tool in Karate used to condition our arms and legs to create powerful blows with the unarmed weapons of our body.
There are divided opinions about the purpose of the makiwara. Some old masters say that it was just a punishment tool for misbehaving students, others that it was the most important training equipment in the dojo. My view on this is that the makiwara is a good training tool, but we cannot just rely on this kind of training. Unfortunately some karateka overdo this type of training, which results in overgrown knuckles and body deformations.
These big knuckles may look impressive and show devotion to the art of Karate, but in reality it is an injury and is damaging to our body. Executing repetitive strikes using the knuckles helps to stimulate skin growth causing calluses to develop and cushion the knuckles, however hitting too hard causes damages to the bone in the knuckle joints. As a result of this damage the body will try to repair itself by producing new bone tissue, but this tends not to grow normally and so the new bone ends up with small pockets (a bit like pumice stone), which is similar to the effect of osteoporosis. Consequently with every harder punch parts of the new bone are crushed as the pockets collapse, leading to inflammation. Over time this may result in the movement of the hand being restricted as the fingers are prevented from completing a full range of motion. Some research also suggests a link between makiwara overtraining and arthritis, although I have not seen any conclusive evidence to support this.
Punching a rigid makiwara (i.e. one that does not flex when hit) can also cause damage to the wrists, elbows, shoulders and spine as the shock wave travels back through our body. Another unwanted reaction when punching a rigid makiwara is that it can cause whiplash – as a powerful punch is stopped suddenly, the energy of the punch is sent straight back up the arm and into the neck, similar to a car crash. Teachers often say that makiwara conditioning makes our knuckles or shins tougher or harder, but this is misconception. In order to actually achieve this we would have to repeatedly break our major bones (not the joints) and even then the bones would only become denser at the points at which they broke. What makiwara training actually does is to lower our neurological response to pain. This results in our pain barrier getting higher and so we experience less pain when punching.
Let’s focus on the benefits of makiwara training where we have a properly flexible board with a nice training program including resting periods for healing and recovery. Using a makiwara enforces the proper set up of the body as when punching correctly we will feel powerful, penetrating punches. The resistance created by our equipment helps us to use accurate body positioning and mechanics. Through adjusting our stances and muscle tension we can develop a better understanding of our own body, as all of us will have different body positioning for delivering maximum power. The makiwara is perfect for giving us feedback of our body mechanics. When all of the components of a punch or kick are done well you can feel that the blow was right, on the other hand if something was out of order your body will be informed about it as the makiwara can be punishing and cause injury to your skin and joints. Through this training we learn how to be more explosive and get the most of our body mechanics, our makiwara when it flexes mimics human soft tissues and so we learn to “push in” our strikes.
Punching our board also helps to make our joints (tendons, ligaments and muscles) stronger and more effective by overcoming the resistance and providing a shock stimulus.
I recommend makiwara training as part of the art of Karate. When first starting the use of a makiwara it is always best to do so under the instruction of a good teacher.
Below you can find a video of my makiwara training for hands and legs. On the clip you can see that my techniques are being executed in a relaxed manner.
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