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Part 5 of 6. Footnotes, references, and demonstration video clips will be posted in the last entry.
Stick and Move
Now that the whole thing is firmly in the ground and well padded, what exactly can one do with it? For starters, try out a straight reverse punch. As with all makiwara practice, take it slow at first. If tenderness begins to develop around the proximal phalanges, in the carpal or metacarpal areas when making a fist, this is a sign that your alignment is off and you are hitting too hard for your hand. Take a few days or weeks off from hitting anything hard until the discomfort subsides, and begin lightly when resuming training on this makiwara. Since the shape of the ude makiwara is rounded as opposed to flat, these sorts of injuries are very easy to rush into. Punches with a curved trajectory will probably feel awkward, particularly if you are only used to throwing straight “karate” punches, or hitting bags. Even a solid makiwara-conditioned wrist will have a tendency to hyper extend as it deals with the circumference of the impact area. Using a tate or vertical/standing punch might feel more reliable to you than the standard corkscrew type punch. The wrist is generally stronger in a vertical postion as opposed to fully pronated.
Experiment with light strikes from different ranges and vectors of movement, noting hand, wrist, elbow and shoulder alignment. I recommend limiting yourself to three sets of ten punches per hand for the first several sessions. Apply this plan to the different types of punch and strike; becoming fmailiar with a straight punch on the ude makiwara is not the same as being used to throwing hooks or uppercuts, so spend some time working on them seperately. After several sessions of moderated acclimation, the fun can begin.
The main advantage of the round design is the expanded striking area afforded by its shape. Critics of makiwara training often cite that the flat post only offers one surface to strike, thereby making it an unrealistic training experience. While I find this to be a misinformed perspective, I do agree that a flat makiwara does limit the techniques that can be trained upon it. This is not an issue for the ude makiwara. Combinations of punches can be thrown to the sides of the post while facing it straight on, such as jab/hook/elbow. As another example, a roundhouse kick can be followed by an elbow smash without having to readjust the body. Performing a switchback with the feet allows you to repeat strikes and combinations with both sides of the body in alternation. Striking from different angles will highlight a poorly centered punch in that it will simply graze off of the circumference. If your knuckles are not properly aligned, a very hard punch might seem to “bounce” off of the surface. Again, if discomfort develops anywhere in the punching arm, a misalignment of the impact surfaces or supporting joints is indicated.
This feedback, if heeded, provides a valuable insight into the technique being practiced. Since karate techniques will be applied bare-knuckled in the context of a violent encounter, it is imperative that practitioners have an awareness of exactly which knuckles are making contact at the termination of punches, especially rounded ones. Throwing a hooking punch changes the alignment of the standard “karate” straight punch and often places the unsupported metacarpal bones of the ring and little finger in line to absorb the impact, which can have very unpleasant results.11 This is easy to miss when hitting a bag (very firm ones being an exception), which will deform enough to accommodate the fist wherever it lands. A blow that may well damage the hand on a more rigid target will still feel powerful without any negative feedback aside from a scraped knuckle. But considering that the human face is made up of rather bony structures, a refined awareness of knuckle alignments on all punching trajectories is an imperative skill to develop.
Striking the makiwara from different angles can also highlight any weakness in the muscular contraction around the shoulder joint and torso, and throughout the body, during the delivery of rounded and hooking punches. A hooking punch that is not ‘connected’ via muscular contraction to the body core will produce a feeling of separation in the shoulder joint as the body follows through and the arm stays behind, absorbing most of the impact, and losing power at the joint. This particular problem is not as evident against a bag, where the punch will still move the target regardless of anatomical efficiency (or lack thereof). If the shoulder is driven upwards upon impact more contraction of the shoulder girdle, lats, serratus anterior is needed to stabilize this area (on impact- tensing before impact will slow the punch and rob it of power). Likewise if the shoulder is raised in anticipation of this rebound, the punch will feel as though it bounces lightly off the makiwara, regardless of body follow through. Extending the arm into a wider hook will concentrate this feedback at the elbow and indicate where a weakness has developed there. Fully committed body rotation behind a punching arm strongly integrated (via contraction of the shoulder/lat etc.) to the body will provide a blow that transfers power smoothly from the drive of the legs to the target without losing any in the displaced shoulder joint. The ude makiwara can inform bag work as an adjunct for ‘fine-tuning’ and naturalizing properly supported form. Alternating between striking the ude makiwara and striking the heavy bag is a good way to higlight bad habits and problems that may develop unnoticed on either tool if used alone.
Since the ude makiwara may be struck from all angles the practitioner is not limited to one general direction of movement. “Walking the circle” drills can be utilized, allowing the user to move around the target, letting the techniques be trained in a free-moving manner, also good for reinforcing an awareness of the ever-changing centerline. The same mobility can be experienced with a hanging or standing bag, although the ude makiwara offers feedback and rotational conditioning that are lacking in bags.
In the absence of training partners, arm conditioning may be pursued on the ude makiwara. Inward and outward blocks/strikes can be thrown in succession without constant readjustment, also motivating hip rotation. There are no angles to be avoided, and the round shape provides a surface that is similar to the curves of an arm or leg. As such, the impact feels a bit more concentrated than with a flat surface. A word of caution: take care that the elbow joints are not locked, and no more than ¾ of the way extended to provide some protection to the joint upon impact. Hitting this target with the arms locked will damage the joint as intensity is increased; pay attention to stiffness and pain between uses, a sensation not unlike tennis elbow. Avoid slamming the lateral and medial edges of the forearm into the post, as the ulnar and radial nerves/arteries run along the respective bones. Forearm smashes should likewise be inclined towards the posterior surface to avoid compressing these pathways. Since the arms can be used in alternation, everything may be done while moving around the makiwara to add variety to training and incorporate footwork.
Virtually all of the strikes in the karate vocabulary may be practiced on this makiwara in conjunction with free moving footwork. Individual techniques can be worked into more dynamic drills as well with the makiwara serving as a proxy for another person. All of these techniques can be worked on both arms in succession, or with a combination of other techniques. Forearm smashes and elbows thrown with alternating arms provides good motivation for core rotation behind the techniques, distancing for close-in fighting and a good general workout (such as Tabata Protocol style “burst training”). Alternating roundhouse kicks against an unomving (but springy) target develops good commitment to the kicks. Shifting off the center from a designated ‘front side’ while utilizing rolling hands or two handed parrying into counter strikes provides nice training for shifting off an attack and counterattacking along an opponent’s weak angle. Sanchin style takedowns can be conditioned by shifting around the makiwara and entering with a close strike followed by hooking the leg around the post as the upper body drives into it.
In closing, I would hope that the information presented in this article lives up to the final comments in Funakoshi’s makiwara appendix in Karate-do Kyohan: “The makiwara is suggested simply because it can be made cheaply and easily; thus anything can be made with some ingenuity, without too much cost, and with readily available materials will be suitable.”
Next: Part 6, in which some training methods for the ude makiwara will be demonstrated
Part 4 of 6. Footnotes, references, and demonstration video clips will be posted in the last entry.
Now Dig It
Securing this makiwara in the ground is a similar process to installing a regular one, but there are a few additional considerations. It will be hit from all sides, meaning that bracing has to be attached to accommodate force coming from all directions as opposed to just one. This can be achieved using 4” screws to attach lengths of treated 2×4 lumber to the post. Four of these braces should be at least a foot and a half long, and two of them a foot long. Attach two of the long boards horizontally at the bottom of the post, directly opposite from each other. A foot and a half above these, attach two more long pieces opposite each other. On the two “sides” remaining, attach the foot long boards about halfway in between the longer pairs, opposite from each other. This should provide enough bracing all around to prevent the post from eventually being uprooted under repeated omnidirectional onslaught.
Dig a rectangular hole two and a half feet deep and wide enough to allow the bracing to fit securely against the soil walls on all sides. If the hole is not deep enough, the makiwara will list to one side like the Tower of Pisa after you hit it a few times. If you are working in sandy or very loose soil, you may need to go a bit deeper. Once you have reached sufficient depth, us a tamping bar or the post itself to flatten out the bottom of the hole. A shovel full of gravel will provide drainage as water seeps into the ground around the makiwara’s bottom end.
Place the post into the hole, making sure that the bracing is somewhat close to the walls. If it does not sit level, add some more gravel until it stays upright on it’s own. Once the post is in place, packing several fist-sized rocks tightly around the bottom will help to keep it securely anchored. To pack the soil tightly around the post and bracing, add a few scoops of dirt and then use a tamping bar (a 2X4 end will also work) to compress the soil all around the post. Splash some water into the hole to moisten this layer, then add more soil and back it down. Repeat until the hole is filled. This will result in a much tighter fit than simply shoveling it all back in at once.
Concrete may seem like the more logical (and quicker) choice, but the 60-80 lbs required for such a job would add a considerable counterweight to the overall resistance of the makiwara. The resistance of a post set in unyielding concrete would most likely negate the recoil of the slats and cause excessive strain in the joints of the user.
Initially, I tied the top ten inches of the post with cord per the various diagrams’ instructions. Tying it tightly only forced the slats together, eliminating resistance. After a few experimental whacks, I removed the cord entirely and found flexibility to be more satisfactory. It seems that the rope straw used in the example versions is there to provide an impact surface, which is not necessary if using modern materials for padding. I initially used several yards of ¼” closed cell foam sheeting, wrapped in alternating layers down the length of the slats and bound with heavy duty duct tape. However, after two weeks of consistent use, I found that uppercuts and hook punches thrown with full body rotation (more on this later) tend to tear the tape and foam underneath. Hitting bare wood full on is not a pleasant surprise. In light of this, I recommend using heavier foam rubber as padding. I’ve found a ½” thick foam camping ground mat to be satisfactory (Fig. D). Wrapping it around the makiwara and binding it with duct tape provides an excellent, forgiving surface. Be careful not to bind it too tightly, as this will compress the slats inward and lessen the amount of recoil. I recommend that beginners wrap the mat around the post at least three layers thick. After you’ve gained experience and confidence with the ude makiwara, the layers can be reduced to one or two.
Duct tape wrapped around the entire striking area will hold up quite well and cover any seams. 10 Be sure to use a good sturdy brand, like 3M. For the more enterprising, a covering of leather, canvas or some other durable cloth can be made. If the makiwara is installed outside, it will be exposed to the elements. A heavy rain or a few days of foggy conditions will cause the wood in the slats to swell, decreasing resistance in the makiwara. It’s best to let it dry out for a day or two before attempting to strike it. Freezing temperatures in the winter and hot dry conditions in the summer will eventually “check” or crack the exposed top of the post. Placing a coffee can or bucket over the top in between uses helps keep the weather from deteriorating the post.
Next: Stick and Move- using the ude makiwara
Part 3 of 6. Footnotes, references, and demonstration video clips will be posted in the last entry.
To make one of these makiwara for some hands-on investigation I used the diagram provided in Higaonna’s book as a model, and that is the design that I will describe here, installed outdoors. I have taken a few liberties as far as materials and measurements go, and have attempted to err on the side of caution when deciding upon the post’s diameter and the length of the cuts needed. The post should be of the following dimensions: 8’ long and between 4” and 5” in diameter.
Depending on your location, a suitably sized round post of treated lumber might be easy or difficult to come by (I was amazed to find that no suppliers in my area, a rural part of Virginia, carried these with regularity). You may be able to find one at your local lumberyard, especially in the gardening section during the Spring and Summer months. If that provides no results, call around: rural farm communities and farm supply co-ops may carry them.
If this search is fruitless, there are naturally available alternatives that have the added bonus of involving you in the process of making your training equipment.
Black locust is a quick growing hardwood that has strong natural rot resistant properties. In fact, locust posts are known to remain solid up to 70 years in direct contact with the ground (our landscape is dotted with grayed locust posts standing beside their decaying treated lumber counterparts). Red and Western Cedar are also naturally resistant to rot and bugs and will hold up for quite a while as well, but cedar is much softer than locust wood. Locust will resist impact and splitting as well as decay. The bottom line is that you should be able to hurl all types of abuse at it with no problems, and it will last in the elements for a very long time. Extra steps, such as cutting, hauling and debarking, make this option a bit more labor intensive than simply buying a post at the store, but the payoff is worth the trouble. Since I could not readily find a treated post, I decided to use a locust cut from my property. (Fig. A)
The log should be as uniform in diameter as possible; irregularities in the circumference will be magnified once padding is applied. If there are little knobs or angular protrusions where branches were cut, smooth them out with a drawshave or jack planer. Secondly, make sure that the log is sound and doesn’t have fractures in it from past damage, which could weaken the potential striking areas. A seasoned (well cured/dry) piece is preferable to a green one. Carrying the 8’ log through the woods makes for nice Sanchin training. You will also need to remove the bark from the log. A drawshave (pictured in Fig. B) will take care of this in short order. If you don’t have one of those lying around, a horizontally held machete or hatchet can be pulled down the log to achieve the same result. Fig. B shows the debarked and smoothed log.
The next part is slightly more involved, regardless of materials used. In order for the post to be able to give equally from all sides, two cuts must be made into the log lengthwise, making an X shape when viewed from above (Fig. C). These cuts result in four flexible slats that each offer a resistance similar to a typical flat makiwara. For the 5″ diameter log pictured above, I measured my cuts to be about 30 inches from the top end, or roughly halfway down the above-ground portion. Once the post was firmly in the ground I used a chainsaw to make the cuts, but found in later experimentation that securing the log horizontally at waist height makes for more accurate cutting– it’s also safer. I do not recommend this method for those unfamiliar with chainsaws and the requisite safety precautions. A sure hand is required, particularly since locust can give even a sharpened steel cutting chain trouble. I recommend that a table saw with a guide be used for accuracy and safety’s sake. If you are blessed with a willing building supply store, using the cutting services of the lumber department might also be a possibility worth looking into- it usually only costs a few dollars to have them cut something custom for you. Whichever route you take, keep in mind that there needs to be enough space between the slats to allow for them to travel and recoil when struck, so at least ¼ inch of wood needs to be removed from the cut (a chainsaw will do this in one pass). The slats will begin to splay outward slightly as the cuts lengthen (Fig. C).
Once your cuts are made, the slats must be tested for resistance. Too little is dangerous, too much is useless. As with a tachi makiwara the wood should give under moderate static pressure. To test this, stand in a frontward stance and extend a reverse punch, placing the knuckles firmly against an individual slat. Pick up the front leg and lean into the post: the slat should flex inward under this pressure, but not collapse completely. You should be able to bounce lightly against it by lowering your back leg and pushing forward (while still pressing the knuckles firmly against it). Repeat all around the makiwara. If there is too little flexibility, i.e., the slat does not move at all, increase the depth of the cuts. Or, following a variant makiwara shown in Higaonna’s book, a piece of durable rubber placed in between the slats near the bottom of the cuts may resolve the problem by splaying them outward a little bit more and providing some shock resistance. An industrial rubber bushing or piece of an old bumper is a good candidate for this.
by Randy Simpson
Part 1 of 6. Footnotes, references, and demonstration video clips will be posted in the last entry.
The makiwara is a familiar sight to most that practice “traditional karate” of some form or another. A simple plank tapered to provide springy feedback for striking techniques is relatively common in the karate world. It is an aspect of Okinawan karate culture that has survived quite well amidst the cultural transitions and subsequent transformations of the art over the last century. In fact, its ubiquity is interesting in an age wherein stylistic boundaries, commercialism and political bickering often redefine what “is” and “isn’t” karate in a seemingly arbitrary fashion. Politics aside, the need to hit things is a happy universal.
Although the makiwara itself has made it to present day practice, the existence and specific histories of several variant designs are not so well known among modern exponents. The language barrier itself is probably one of the most significant causes of this gap in information, as there may well be detailed references that are simply unavailable outside of Japanese, and thus unknown to English readers. From the available writings, we can see that the majority of the karate men writing in the early 20th century mention the makiwara and emphasize it as a necessity for correct development of karate striking techniques.1 Several works, such as Gichin Funakoshi’s Karate-do Kyohan, also include diagrams for reference and suggestions for usage. In at least one of these sources the standard makiwara shares mention with a round variety described variously as a pole or ude makiwara. However, compared to other information published on the makiwara in general, the reference is brief, which leads one to wonder at the reasons for the lack of equal mention. In this article, we will explore the background of this somewhat lesser known variety (based on the available source information), methods of construction for the modern training space, and some observations on its usage. For purposes of clarity, the standard variety will be referred to hereafter as a tachi makiwara, and the round as ude.
The only available “classical” work that mentions an ude makiwara and includes specifications for construction is Motobu Choki’s 1932 Watashi no Karate Jutsu. In the section “How to Make & Use a Makiwara”, Motobu mentions that there are two varieties, the sage (hanging) and tachi (standing).2 He notes here that the tachi is “usually referred to as ‘The Makiwara’” and was in common use among many people. Following some notes on the construction of the sage variety, he introduces “another kind of tachi makiwara that is not so popular but used for developing both arms.” It’s referred to simply as a makiwara made from a round pole. He goes on to describe this version in some detail:
“…A round shaped pole 210 cm in length with a 9 cm diameter, with 75 cm buried firmly in the ground, leaving 135 cm above exposed ground …the top should be 3 cm thick with about 30 cm length wrapped with rope. This makiwara can be struck from the front and sides by either hand to develop power.”
Sadly, no diagram of this design or any pictures of one being used are included. By the description given, we can envision the pole as tapering to a smaller diameter at its top to provide a springy target, but with equal give from all sides. Motobu points out that either hand may be used to strike this makiwara, which may at first seem entirely obvious, and something that one can do on the tachi as well. However, if interpreted to mean that it may be struck by either hand from any position, i.e. an elliptical forearm smash followed by a reverse punch, the statement makes more sense and hints at the practice of more dynamic exercises, which we’ll explore later. Given the diameter that is prescribed, it may also be likely that it was intended more for use as a tool for arm conditioning and forearm/hand/elbow strikes.
Seeing as how Motobu trained under an eclectic variety of teachers from the Shuri and Tomari areas (Anko Itosu, Sokon Matsumura, Kosaku Matsumora and Tokumine Shitsunen Pechin), the historical origin of these plans can only be speculated upon.3 He was probably introduced to this makiwara by one or more of the men he trained with, who in themselves constitute an impressive pedigree of teachers. Judging by the fact that he regarded it as important enough to include in a book, it is reasonable to assume that Motobu made use of it in his own training, and it is further possible that he passed knowledge of this makiwara on to his students, who may then have disseminated it to their own; this record seems to be lacking, though. However, based on his learning from several prominent teachers as well as his exposure to the Motobu family ti tradition (via his older brother, Choyu), it is highly probable that this ude makiwara has a significant history in pre-twentieth century training in one or more of the major centers of karate/ti practice and development. Motobu sensei’s enthusiasm for makiwara training can be attested to by contemporary descriptions of his hands.4
There is another 1930’s publication that mentions yet another variation on this variation. In kobudo preservationist Taira Shinken’s Encyclopedia of Okinawan Weapons, a makiwara specifically for training with the bo is shown in the Bojutsu section. The detailed illustration shows a solid round post with a crosspiece set horizontally through it near the top, and a hole bored through the center. Straw padding is wrapped around these “arms” and the top and lower surfaces of the makiwara.5 Taira notes that the makiwara should be of “average human height.” Although this version is for weapons training rather than empty hand, it does demonstrate the adaptability of the basic “striking post” concept. Functionally speaking, it is reminiscent of the pell, a medieval European weapons training post of Roman extraction.6
Coming in Part 2: A Tale of Two Miyagis, Notes From Matsumura Shorin Ryu