Makiwara – The Return of the Karate Tool

By Michael Ehrenreich

The Makiwara is a piece of wood with padding. This is what a makiwara consists of: a post and some padding, which is traditionally a roll of rice straw attached to the top of the post. In addition, this is also where the name derives from, maki for roll and wara for straw.

What is a Makiwara?

The makiwara originated from Okinawa where, with very little natural resources, they do have wood or rice straw. The length and the width of the posts vary but ideally reach about head level and are at least 12 cm (about 5 inches) wide. The resistance of the posts varies also, from not giving at all (good when hitting combinations) to flexing on impact. For the post oak, cherry, maple, walnut, or just plain pine are the most common types of wood. The padding is usually foam rubber covered with leather or wrapped with duct tape. Some people still go with the traditional straw pads. The posts are than attached to a wall or driven into the ground.

My Beginnings With the Makiwara

Over time and through the length of my karate career, the makiwara had vanished from most dojos. That is true for western countries as well as Japan. At least when it comes to Shotokan karate. As a result, the makiwara became almost a myth. The first generation of karateka in Germany still hit this wooden post, but it had long disappeared when I started with karate in the late 1970s. Then one day this guy showed up at our dojo, Siegfried Trapp was his name, and he had brought with him a makiwara. His goal was to market his version of a makiwara and he gave us one to try it out. Well, that was in the mid-1980s and you can image his success rate. I never saw him again. But at least our dojo had its first makiwara.

It was the time when sport karate started to get more popular. With weight classes, protection gear all around the body, and a multiple point system, there was clearly no need for this kind of training equipment. And who needs a makiwara for belt tests anyway? As a result, the makiwara was plainly uncool. When people saw me hitting the post, they would only give me a pitiful smile. Maybe even try to get me some professional help. I kept hitting the makiwara anyway; I was hooked for life.

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Limited Knowledge and an Okinawa Master

Back then I practiced the only way I knew, by throwing gyaku zukis with both sides and a lot of them. A regular karate class would run 90 minutes and so I would hit the makiwara for almost that long, after warming up a little. In the early 1990s Sakumoto Tsuguo, a former kata champion from Okinawa, was staying for one year in Cologne. Ochi Hideo, the German national trainer at that time, told me to take care of him and so I did. We practiced almost daily together at our dojo, the Sportcenter Bushido in Cologne, headed by the late Horst Handel. We lifted weights and, of course, hit the makiwara.

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First thing Sakumoto did, though, was change the padding. He bought a wooden board, about 30 cm (about 12 inches) long and wrapped a rope around it. That was our pad. Imagine my knuckles after the first practice.  (After Sakumoto had left Germany it took months to get them back into their original shape.)

Techniques From a Short Distance

However, the other thing he introduced me to were techniques from a short distance. Punches, but also strikes. I wasn’t convinced at first. You know, he was a rather short man from Okinawa, a kata guy. So, he was thankfully very patient with me. Firstly, he gave me a demonstration. He had me tightening my abs and then hit me with his flat hand from a distance of about 5cm (2 in.). Now he got my attention and for the next few days I would witness all imaginable discolorations appearing on my stomach. So, I started hitting short techniques as well.

Why I Changed My Makiwara Training

As a result, I had changed the intensity of my makiwara training. Instead of hitting non-stop for 90 minutes, I went with 10 repetitions and varying number of sets. As a sports major I took some inspiration from weight and athletic training, especially from track and field coaches. I was also competing in the shobu-ippon-system. So, I focused on punches and hit 10 gyaku zuki alternating right and left and repeated that a second time. Then I took a 1-minute break.

The idea behind the breaks were that I was able to hit at 100% until the very last punch. These two rounds made one set, with 10 sets in all. After gyaku zuki I hit tate zuki (straight punch from a shorter distance with a vertical fist) with the same structure but only in 5 sets. That resulted in a total of 300 punches for each side. I did this program 3-times a week. My goal here as a competitor was to be able to stop any opponent, also much heavier ones. I was part of the JKA-group and we didn’t have weight classes. Meaning, I would encounter heavier fighters, the biggest I faced off with was about 40kg (90lbs) heavier than me. This program worked well for me.

A Variety of Techniques

As I mentioned above, Sakumoto also introduced me to strikes. After retiring as a competitor, I added those to my program. All kind of strikes, shuto uchi (knife hand strike), teisho uchi (palm heel strike), haito uchi (ridge hand strike) etc. I also kicked with mae geri, added combinations and did some techniques gliding towards the makiwara. I added different punches, yama zuki and kage zuki for instance, hook punches from above or a different angle.

Less Repetitions But 100% Focus

Over the years I have been doing less repetitions. But I still hit the makiwara 3-4 times a week. I still go with the 10-repetition structure but usually only with 3 sets. With 7-8 different techniques each time, that makes 200-250 punches or strikes with each side. Working on my hitting power is still my goal, so I hit each time with 100%. But I also want to include more muscle groups in my workout with the makiwara. Training in a more balanced way. So I hit from different distances, angles, and with a bigger variety of techniques.

How do we get the most out of our makiwara training? The characteristic of the makiwara is the increasing resistance on impact. That means, the best way to use this karate tool is to hit with thrust techniques. Techniques that go deep into the target. We would therefore hit from a distance that allows us to hit deep.

Makiwara Gives You Direct Feedback

The makiwaras’ big advantage is its direct feedback. It tells us immediately if there is anything wrong with our techniques. Positioning of the joints, hitting with the wrong body part (hitting too much with our fingers instead of the basic joint when doing haito uchi), unstable stance, etc. To make use of this immediate response of our wooden coach, we stay a little longer than usual on impact. This gives us the necessary time to control our posture. With more experience we shorten this time on impact. With more experience we also look behind the target, in the distance. This prevents us from looking only at the target and helps us make use of a more peripheral vision. Adjusting the vision behind the target will further help us hitting deeper into the target.

The most important aspect of a karate technique is that it must hit an opponent in order to eliminate him, the opponent who doesn’t want to get hit and even fights back. If the opponent sees our technique coming, we are not fast enough! So, we always focus on an explosive acceleration first and a strong technique at impact. This is important, also when working with the makiwara! We need to stay sharp! Until the last strike.

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Always start with lightening speed and then hit with a strong impact! We call this power, speed and strength. Don’t fall into this rhythm that works with an even, rather slow speed. Sadly, that is the one we often witness. That is a rhythm that relaxes us more than it forces us to work harder. So, stay sharp and stay focused the whole time! Use speed and strength to increase your hitting power. Especially when working with the makiwara.

Hitting From a Fighting Position

Most beginners will go through the whole range of movement and start their techniques from the hips, as in basics. There is nothing wrong with that. But eventually we should advance from that starting position and hit from a fighting position. When doing so, and especially when hitting from a very close distance, make sure to hit directly towards the target, do not wind up.

Some advice for more experienced karateka. Hit the makiwara with the intention to do some damage. Hit target oriented, don’t be concerned with technical issues. If you do punches, think about your knuckles and the target. Knuckles – target, knuckles – target…Then get the knuckles as fast and as strong as possible into the target. That also means starting the attack from your fist, not from your hips! This is an important point. The fist starts first, and the rest of the body needs to catch up and unites at impact. If you start with a hip motion you will give the opponent more time to react.

The Focus Must be to Eliminate an Opponent

Remember, the makiwara is only a training tool to increase our hitting power in order to eliminate an opponent. The makiwara is a means to an end. It doesn’t help us to hit hard if an opponent sees it coming and is able to react. What I said here about punches is true for all techniques.

Further, add hitting while out of your ideal position, or when off balance. For instance, when you have a wooden floor, put on socks. Add movement to your strikes. Strike from an angle that might not allow the perfect support of your body. Change the time of day when working out. Hit the makiwara after your normal class, just when you’re exhausted. And if you are a competitor, add short punches. Even when you are not using those in competition. But as with sprinters who practice a lot of 10-30m (10-30 yard) sprints, your long punches will benefit from practicing short punches as well when you make sure to focus on a rapid acceleration.

Makiwara Will not Lead to Arthritis

Let me also touch here very briefly on a reappearing myth in karate. “Makiwara training is dangerous and will lead to arthritis.” This is nonsense! Makiwara training is no more dangerous than other work out programs. Just use common sense. Move forward progressively, start slow and easy with an increasing intensity over time. That way you will maximize your hitting power and toughen the body parts you hit with, without getting injured.

In my first book I also have a chapter about makiwara training. When working on it, I talked to several physicians, all karateka, about makiwara and arthritis. Turns out, there is no correlation between these two! There is a strong genetic correlation though. If your parents and grandparents have or had arthritis, you are more likely to suffer from it too. There is also a correlation between joint injuries and arthritis. That is why it is so important to work out in a progressive way and stay focused throughout our workout. But this is true for all different kinds of workouts.

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The Renaissance Of The Makiwara

For a long time and for the past few decades, the makiwara was a tool that the karate world would despise. As mentioned before, it was considered uncool. I am not saying that working out with the makiwara is being regarded as cool now. We are not quite there yet. But the makiwara is being taken seriously again as an important training tool. I don’t know of any other tool to strengthen our hitting power as effectively as the makiwara. In addition, the makiwara increases our overall strength, without damaging the joints (like when hitting without impact).

The Makiwara Is a Honest Tool

In Japan, they say that hitting the makiwara will increase the density of our bones. If lifting weights increases our bone density, than it is likely that makiwara training does the same. The makiwara is an honest tool. It gives immediate and blunt feedback about the quality of our techniques. If we ask the right way. Maybe we karateka are ready for this kind of honesty again. The makiwara is a simple tool, just a piece of wood with some padding. It is a solid tool. In this time of rapid changes and constant stream of information, it is maybe this simplicity and solidity that will make a comeback for the makiwara. The makiwara is loyal. It is always there for us when training partners are absent. Honest and loyal, simple and solid – the makiwara, a traditional karate tool for our modern times!

More and more dojos are adding the makiwara to their equipment. I was even invited to teach a clinic solely on makiwara training the other day. People may still look at us confused (like my neighbors do) when they see us hitting the makiwara, but they don’t laugh at us anymore. So let’s keep hitting!

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