Modern Hojo Undo

Why I like a stiff makiwara

Jonathan WalterComment

Why I like a stiff makiwara

Last week I introduced a new, less stiff, makiwara designed to lower the bar for makiwara training and even let kids benefit from makiwara training. I realized there was an unspoken question in that article that I’ve never fully addressed before. Why do I make my makiwaras so darn stiff in the first place? If you don’t have much experience with makiwaras you won’t have much to compare it to, but I can confirm that they are in fact stiff. The boards are stiff, and the pads are stiff. I do that on purpose because I believe it’s better.

First, makiwaras have always been stiff. Then you see a master punching his makiwara and see the post flex it is easy to expect a lot of flex when you go to hit the makiwara. The problem with that is, unless you’re also a master, you won’t be hitting it anywhere near as hard. It takes years of practice to get to the point where you can safely put a lot of force into a makiwara. Also, if what you’re seeing is a demonstration there’s every reason to think that they’re playing it up a bit for effect.

Second, makiwaras simply work better when stiff. The purpose of makiwara training is to instill good technique. The way it does that is by giving instantaneous feedback on exactly how you’re contacting the pad. The stiffer it is the better the feedback. If you’re skeptical about that go punch a pillow and see how little feedback there is. That’s one reason why heavy bags don’t work as well for karate punches. It’s also why boxing styles changed after they introduced gloves. Obviously there is a balance. We don’t, and shouldn’t, go around punching rail-road ties. Some flex is necessary. It provides safety. It also provides progressive resistance which is good for building strength. It’s just important to keep that flex minimal to preserve the most important part of makiwara training.

Third, a stiff makiwara lasts longer. When a material flexes it develops microscopic breaks and tears that in time will cause it to fail. Some materials are more resistant than others. I’ve been using my makiwara for years with no problems, but it will eventually break. A stiff makiwara with less flex will be less damaged with each use, and therefore last longer.

I make my pads stiff for the same reasons, but also for one more. A stiff pad helps protect your wrist. The absolute last thing you want in a pad is for it to bend your wrist sideways when striking. I’ve used softer makiwara pads that almost felt like a heavy bag they were so padded. That not only defeats the point of the stiff board, but is simply less safe.

Agree? Disagree? Is there some makiwara you’ve used that is your favorite? I’d love to hear about it.

Kids vs Hojo Undo, part 2, the Makiwara

Jonathan WalterComment

Kids vs Hojo Undo, part 2, the Makiwara

If you’re new to hojo undo then this is not the ideal jumping on point. I’ve written several articles here on the makiwara that go more in-depth on exactly how it works, but for review purposes the short and dirty explanation is: the makiwara strengthens striking muscles, toughens striking surfaces and bones, and most importantly reinforces correct striking technique. Although it often gets overlooked the technique aspect of makiwara training is really the most important.

Last week we talked about whether or not kids should participate in hojo undo. Traditionally the answer has been no, but current research suggests that with proper supervision there is no reason a child cannot get all the same benefits as an adult if on a smaller scale. There are problems that can come from children overtraining, and over-loading, but keep it reasonable and you should be good. All the benefits and concerns we discussed last week still apply to the makiwara so I do recommend checking out that article if you haven’t already. Makiwara training is the most important part of hojo undo training so I wanted to devote a separate article to it and give it the attention it deserved.

The problem with makiwara training compared with strength training is it deals with high impacts concentrated on relatively small surface areas instead of loads distributed over the entire body. It also concentrates on parts of the body that are inherently more fragile. This means that it’s easier to overdo it with the makiwara, and more difficult to correct a student before they do. When done correctly makiwara training is perfectly safe it’s just that the margin of that safety is smaller. We also don’t have any scientific studies done on the makiwara. I’ve talked about this before. There is every reason to apply lessons we’ve learned from other exercise research, but none of it is going to apply completely. Also, if you read my last article you’ll remember the discussion of growth plates. Children’s hands are approximately 60% growth plates. It is hard to break growth plates, but this is actually a pretty good recipe to do it. And that is especially true when you consider the fact that a makiwara built for adults is going to have virtually no flex when used by a child. Of course that doesn’t really matter because they won’t be able to reach high enough to hit it in the first place. I makiwara that is too tall is exactly as useful as that stair stepper you got for Christmas and have only ever used as a clothes rack. So in summation, while makiwara training could benefit a child just like all hojo undo the risk of injury is higher, the possible impact of that injury is greater, the makiwara won’t work correctly for them, and they probably won’t be tall enough to use it anyway.

This is, to me, too many problems to overcome, and I’ve never let children use the makiwara in my own classes. The closest I’ve come was substituting a light heavy bag. That was better than nothing, but a heavy bag is not the same thing as a makiwara. I’ve got an article that discusses the differences here.

If you’ve read many of my articles or seen the equipment I sell you can probably guess that this didn’t end there. Most of problems come down to the makiwara being too stiff and too tall. It took me a while, but I think I’ve worked around them. I’m calling it the beginner makiwara. Instead of using the post itself as a spring I’ve used metal springs that keep the post under control, but don’t offer too much resistance. That way they can develop the correct technique with a minimal risk of injury. Obviously this will drastically decrease how useful it will be for toughening purposes, but that’s kind of the point, and as I’ve said before, the technique is the most important part. I also designed a base that can attach to either the floor or the wall so it can go wherever you want to put it.

This is a new kind of makiwara, designed solely to help teach striking technique while taking out as much of the conditioning as possible. Instead of hitting it as hard as possible the idea is to work through the full range of motion of the technique, making good contact, and maintaining constant contact with the pad. Like with a regular makiwara if you hit it wrong you can immediately feel it. Unlike with a regular makiwara if you hit it wrong it will not injure your hand. If you use it like a regular makiwara it will probably break. In fact it’s designed to break before it will injure.

I’ve made a video to try and demonstrate how it works. This is my biggest departure from traditional hojo undo so obviously it will take more explaining. I really think I’m on to something with this. As important as the makiwara is it does come with risks and a lot of people simply don’t want to deal with them. I’ve had several students who couldn’t get over how uncomfortable the makiwara can be when you start that they ended up quitting before they got used to it. The beginner makiwara lowers the bar for getting into makiwara training. This can be as useful for adults as children. Starting on the beginner makiwara can help you establish good technique before moving on to a normal makiwara and adding conditioning to that technique, which could very well decrease the risk of injury. It is also nice for developing pressure point strikes, which are notoriously hard on a regular makiwara.

I’m going to ship them with a 4 ft tall post, which is adult sized. It is very easy to cut down to a better length for kids. If you know what height you need you can let me know and I’ll do that before shipping.

Hopefully the pictures and video help to answer your questions, but if you have any more please let me know. I’m excited to hear what you think. Let me know in the comment

Kids vs Hojo Undo, Part 1

Jonathan Walter

Kids vs Hojo Undo, Part 1

I've gotten some questions about what kinds of hojo undo are appropriate for younger students and if I could make some equipment specifically for children. I thought this was a really interesting question since children make up the majority of most martial arts schools. Thankfully, the issue of strength training for kids is not unique to martial arts so we have a lot of research to draw on. For purposes of readability I'll outline the conclusions and list the sources at the end.

Let’s start with the main question. Is strength training safe for children? Yes, if done correctly. The traditional argument against resistance training for prepubescent children is that it could stunt their growth. The fear is that weight training could damage their bones in such a way that they would stop growing. This can actually happen. Children’s bones have sections called growth plates where new bone tissue is added. If that plate is broken it can stop working and the bone can be permanently stuck at that length. Thankfully the growth plate is made of cartilage so breaking it is difficult, and even if it is broken there are treatments that can help. (1) Still, it is a serious injury and it should be avoided if at all possible. For that reason the Mayo Clinic recommends children not participate in competitive strength sports like Olympic weightlifting, bodybuilding, or powerlifting. (2) The drive of competition can lead to injuries especially when good technique falls apart under maximum weight. But that only applies to professional level training. Strength training is not itself dangerous. Even at top levels Olympic weightlifters experience injury rates of 0.24 – 5.5 per 1000 hours of training. (3) Compare that to distance runners who report rates of 2.5 – 12.1 per 1000 hours and you can see how safe it really is. Add to that the fact that in a martial arts context the weights will be lower than in most strength sports and that they will have more access to good coaching, and we can see that the injury risk is extremely minimal. Considering that most of martial arts training involves trying to punch each other in the face hojo undo is likely to be the least dangerous part of a class.
Alright, you say, I can accept that children can safely do hojo undo, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they should. If there’s even a chance that they could be injured why not just wait until they’re grown? Good question. First, because that argument is for quitters and communists. Second, because not only can children expect the same relative safety of strength training they can expect the same benefits such as injury prevention, improved performance, stronger bones, healthier blood pressure and cholesterol, weight maintenance, and improved confidence and self-esteem. In short, children should do hojo undo for the exact same reasons that adults should.

Alright, you say again, I can accept that too, but what exactly to you mean by “children.” There are more differences than similarities between a 5 year old and a 17 year old. That is, of course, true. No one is suggesting you try and jam a kongoken in your baby’s crib. If you do though, post a picture. That sounds adorable. Obviously, this all depends on the exact child in question, but if they are big enough to use the equipment they can benefit from using the equipment. Obviously, they shouldn’t go overboard. A 5 year old cannot do kongoken pushups, and they shouldn’t even try, but they can do some light chi ishi work. With my standard chi ishi handles you can even strip off all the weight and just let them practice the technique. The earlier they learn to do something the earlier they can master it. If they learn the basics when they are little when they are big enough to add real weight and intensity their progress will be all the quicker. Every student is different and we have to treat every student differently, but with the same careful attention we give to them in every other part to training every student can benefit from hojo undo training. 
My standard chi ishi handles (4), 5lb concrete chi ishis (5), and 5lb ishi sashi (6) are specifically designed to work for children as well as adults. If anyone is interested in other equipment designed for children let me know and I can see what I can do. I know I can make gripping jars with smaller grips, for example.

The astute reader may have noticed that for this entire discussion I’ve used strength training and hojo undo almost interchangeably. That’s mostly true, but has one very large exception: the makiwara. Makiwara training is just not as simple as all that, and doesn’t follow the same rules. Add to that the fact that it’s the most important piece of hojo undo equipment and we have something that absolutely needs to be addressed. So as to not short change the subject I’m going to devote an entire article to kids and the makiwara next week.

So, what do you think? I think the research makes a good case, but I’d still like to hear your thoughts. Do you let your students do hojo undo? How do they like it? Are there any tips or tricks you’ve learned that help? Is a kongoken the greatest teether of all time? Let me know.


What to do after makiwara training.

Jonathan Walter

What to do after makiwara training.

So you've just finished training with the makiwara. Your hands and your pride swells. Life is pretty good. But now what? Do you just go back to your non-makiwara life cold turkey, or do you need to cool down somehow? Maybe there's some supplement you now need like a makiwara equivalent to the "anabolic window." Who even knows? I'm not a doctor, but I have been doing this for 25 years. This is what has worked for me and my students.

This question has a short answer and a long answer. The short answer is: if you can use the makiwara everyday without accumulating pain then what you're doing is working. You don't have to over-think it any more than that. The long answer is, well, longer.

Before we can get into what you should do to prevent/fix problems we first have to establish what kinds of problems you're likely to encounter. For the sake of length we're also going to talk specifically about hand injuries. The makiwara is primarily designed to train hand strikes, and the hands are the most likely striking surface to be injured. We're also going to talk mostly about the knuckles since, again, they're the most likely part of the hand to be injured. 
With that said makiwara injuries will fall into one of three categories: fractures, abrasions, and contusions.

Fractures are, of course, the most severe, but thankfully they're also the least common. If you take the time to develop good technique, and use basic common sense you should not break your hand on the makiwara. Always remember that hitting it correctly is the goal; not hitting it hard. That being said if you notice any of the following symptoms:
swelling or bruising over a bone,
deformity of the area,
pain that gets worse when the hand is moved, or
pressure is applied
then for God's sake stop hitting the makiwara and go get an x-ray.

The next most serious injury you may experience is a contusion. A contusion is a soft tissue injury, basically a bruise inside your hand. This is most common on the knuckles since there is very little tissue there to handle all the force, but it can also happen on your other striking surfaces. I've personally gotten a few from knife-hand strikes. The best thing for minor contusions is simply ice and rest. The best thing for major contusions, and all major injuries, is to go to the doctor. My regime is to ice for the first two days then alternate ice and heat; never using either longer than feels good. Depending on the severity 15min with ice right afterwards might just clear it up. It is important not to train again until its healed. Contusions are caused by broken blood vessels inside the tissue. Continuing to train with that area will prevent it from healing correctly. You should be able to train other areas so long as it doesn't continue to aggravate it. For example, a mild knuckle contusion should not prevent you continuing to train knife-hand strikes on that same hand. Just remember the cardinal rule, if you can do it without pain (you know what I mean) then it's probably fine.

The last, and most common, makiwara injury you might experience is an abrasion. Skinning your knuckles is very common when you first start with the makiwara. That's why the leather pad has beaten out the original rope pad. It causes less abrasions. Most of the time with abrasions you simply tear off the outermost layer of skin and it stings a bit, but is really fine. I usually train right through small abrasions. You can use a liquid bandage like New-Skin if you like to seal it up. Personally I usually just let it stop bleeding on its own, but then I also build my own makiwaras. I wouldn't feel as comfortable bleeding on someone else's makiwara. Obviously, a severe abrasion or a callus rip is another story. Remember the cardinal rule, and if it isn't healing on it's own you might want to take some time off. There aren't extra points for extra pain. Makiwara training is about repetition and consistency. If an abrasion is making that difficult then just let it heal. The makiwara will still be there when you come back to it.

Those are the most common injuries you're likely to encounter, but ideally we'd like to not be injured at all. Thankfully there are a few things we can do to prevent them.

The first and most important injury preventer is constant attention to technique. This cannot be over-emphasized. The repetitive nature of makiwara training can cause you to "zone-out" while striking. Without absolute focus it is very easy to miss align your fist, miss the pad with one knuckle, hit with a bent wrist, ect... As soon as you start training with the makiwara you should start training yourself to only hit it with complete focus. If you only take one thing from this article let it be constant, complete focus.

In addition to good technique there are also herbal medicines that are supposed to help reduce swelling, and generally help your hands heal faster. If you search for "hit-medicine" or "Dit Da Jow" you can find several different kinds. Many very accomplished martial artists use them regularly and testify to their effectiveness. Personally, I'm sceptical. I certainly won't say they don't work, but since I've never tried any I can't recommend them either. The directions for these products usually call for it to be rubbed into the effected area, and this sounds a lot like something I absolutely can recommend, which is a good hand massage. After every makiwara session I always give my hands a firm massage while stretching out my fingers and wrist. This is the main "pre-hab" I do. After a good makiwara session my hands usually feel very stiff, a little raw, and generally unsuited to any function except hitting things. The massage and stretch is what restores them to their regular function. I would never use the makiwara without stretching and massaging afterwards.

The last topic to discuss is callus management. Despite what most people think the purpose of the makiwara is not to build big calluses. In fact, the bigger the callus the more likely it is to tear off leaving a big hole. That is the exact opposite what we're going for. There are plenty of ways to take off excessive calluses. The way that's worked best for me is something like an emery board or small sanding block with a fine sand paper. The idea is to wear them down to something more manageable. I like to go down to the point that the skin regains most of it's flexibility, but stop before I get all of the way through the callus. A little callus makes hitting the makiwara a lot more comfortable. If you notice the skin getting too stiff then just sand it down a bit. It doesn't take much and doesn't hurt.

So, that's a basic run-down on basic makiwara "pre-hab" and rehab. Preventing and treating makiwara injuries is really the same as preventing and treating any other kind of injury. Maintain good technique, don't go too hard too early, stretch your hands after each session, file down any calluses that get into Mas Oyama territory, and you should be good. If for whatever reason you do need to take some time off, then do. And if you have any more quesions, comments, Dit Da Jow recipes, leave them in the comments.

What about Cardio?

Jonathan Walter

What about cardio?

Conversations about Hojo Undo usually center around strength training. This happens for a few reasons. First, cardio is not karate specific. Second, Hojo Undo is mostly championed by Naha-Te styles; which are inherently more strength focused than Shuri-Te. Third, the meat-heads who actively looks for new heavy things to lift are rarely as proactive with cardio.

Actually, I'm curious about that last point. Does anyone out there actually like both strength training and cardio? Personally, I only do strength training because I recognize that it's really important. I run because I like it. I find it relaxing. My instructor on the other hand always said that he took up karate so he never had to run again. He would wax lyrical about weight lifting, though. I've never met anyone who did both for fun.

Anyway, back to cardio. The first question is: is it important? It is absolutely important for life. Cardio-vascular health is the most important kind of health. It's less important for martial arts, however. Assuming you're not focused primarily on sport fighting, and if you're doing karate then chances are you're not, then you're mostly worried about the quicker and dirtier world of defensive fighting. "Real" fights are rarely long enough to require much cardio-vascular endurance; at least not more than you will develop from regular practice of things like kata and basics. If you can get through your normal class then you can get through a fight. It certainly wouldn't hurt to have a bigger gas tank, though. Fights are very stressful things, and having one less week point is always good. Even as merely a psychological advantage it can be helpful. Still, strength is definitely more useful than cardio in a self-defense situation.

Outside of fighting the next concern is training. Anything that helps you train longer, safer, or more efficiently is going to translate to more skill in a fight. This is where I find cardio to be the most useful. There was a huge difference in my in-class effectiveness after I started doing dedicated cardio training. Being generally less tired I was able to focus more on the actual learning. In drills with other students I was able to maintain good form for longer because I wasn't distracted my screaming lungs and muscles. Naturally, it was a big help in sparring too. As much as "real" fighting does not require lots of endurance sparring, sport fighting, does. As it turns out, fighting is much easier when you can breathe. Comment below if I just blew your mind. I was more effective, but I was also safer. I made less mistakes because I was less tired. I could capitalize on my opponents' mistakes because my technique was better. My technique was better because my practice was better. My practice was better because I was less tired. I was even less nervous because I knew there was one less thing to go wrong.

So, if cardio is useful after all what kind of cardio is best? Running is the most traditional, and it has a lot to recommend it. Not only is running good cardio training, but it strengthens the legs which are very important for karate. I got a huge boost to my sheiko-dachi endurance when I started running. Also, it's boring. Some people would consider that a downside, but it's one of my favorite parts. The practice of powering through pain with no distractions over a significant length of time has been very helpful to me. A fun fact about distance-running: humans can run further in one stretch than any other animal. We're not the fastest by any means, but we can go the furthest. Ultra-marathoners can run 100 miles in a 24 hour period. One of the oldest forms of hunting, which is still practiced in some parts of Africa, is to separate an animal and simply chase it until it can't run any longer. I like to remember that the next time I do a 5K; that I'm only asking for 3% of my potential as a human.

As big a fan as I am of running I do acknowledge that is does have a few problems; specifically three problems. First, many people absolutely hate it and won't do it under any circumstances. Maybe that's a problem with the people more than the exercise, but the result is the same. Second, some people genuinely can't run. There's nothing inherently harmful in the act of running. Our bodies are in fact designed to be excellent at it, but some medical conditions and injuries can make it difficult. Third, it does take time. Because we're so good at it it takes longer to get a good workout. That problem gets even worse as you do it more. If time is a limiting factor for you it may be difficult to devote enough time to your runs to see good results.

So what else can you do for cardio training? There are any number of options. I can't possibly describe them all, but I can give a few good options that should cover the most number of people.

Rowing is a very popular and effective form of cardio. It's low impact and it involves the biceps: see prior comments about meat-heads. Rowing works the entire body instead of just the legs, and can help with total body coordination. It's also easier to add resistance to your rowing to add a strength component. It does require some equipment, though. You need access to a rowing machine/boat and lake.

Swimming has much the same benefits of rowing, and the same downsides.

Getting away from the more traditional forms of cardio there's HIIT. HIIT stands for High Intensity Interval Training. High Intensity is exercise code for heavy weights. There are many forms, but the essence of all of them is to move heavy stuff as quickly as you can for as long as you can. Since the intensity is so high "as long as you can" won't be very long, and that can make HIIT friendlier for people unable to devote 30 minutes to an hour to cardio. Bodybuilders often use HIIT as a way to burn more calories without losing their "gainz." My favorite HIIT is to string hojo undo exercises together to make a circuit. (Get your own quality hojo undo equipment

Love it or hate it we can all agree that regular cardio training makes us more efficient martial artists. As with anything the key is to find a method that you enjoy and do it regularly. The cardio you do is always better than the "best" cardio that you don't do.

Did I miss your favorite cardio? Let us all know in the comments.

Why Hojo Undo, part 8 Barbell vs Kongoken

Jonathan Walter

Why Hojo Undo, part 8 Barbell vs Kongoken

I'm a big fan of heavy barbell training. There is a real case to be made for general strength training and nothing is more general than barbell training. The beauty of the barbell is it's ergonomics. The weight is centered on a bar you can then center over your center of balance.

I said center too much and now it sounds weird.

Anyway, with the weight so well balanced you can totally focus on recruiting all of the muscles possible and lift the most amount of weight. More muscle lets you lift more weight. More weight equals more work done. More work burns more calories, builds more muscle, and lets you lie about bigger numbers on the bench-press. An off- balance load might feel more difficult, but in a physics-sense more weight is more workout.

In fact, there's only one thing that barbell training doesn't do. It doesn't do anything in particular. Yes, it builds more muscle, but it doesn't teach you how to use it for anything except lifting more weight.

As important as strength is to a martial artist, skill is so much more important that ideally it would be worked into all of our training. That is why the hojo undo answer to the barbell is the kongoken. The kongoken is easily the heaviest single piece of hojo undo equipment; starting at 50lbs and going up to 100lbs. Instead of making the weight as ergonomic as possible its arraigned into a large oval to better approximate a human body. That means that every time you pick up a kongoken you are effectively practicing a throw. (For those you might not know, yes, karate has throws. Lots of them.) Working with a kongoken you start to feel the best ways to tip it, move it, find it's center of balance, and lift it up. You're building grappling skills and strength at the same time. The oval shape also allows you to do twisting motions that build striking and throwing power, and would be completely pointless with a barbell.

I've compiled some kongoken training videos here

I would not consider the kongoken essential to being a good martial artist. It is very good, though. I can't think of another piece of equipment that works so well to develop twisting motions for grappling and striking power. I noticed a major difference in my sheiko-dachi stability after I started using a kongoken. You can also do total body, general strength work. Kongoken squats and kongoken push-ups are both killers. If you don't have a makiwara then get a makiwara. If you don't have a chi ishi then that would be the next thing. But, if after you've covered those basics you're still interested in more hojo undo I highly recommend the kongoken.

P.S. As some of you are no doubt shouting at me through the internet there is actually a traditional Okinowan barbell called the "Tan." It is made from wood with stone weights on either end. While it is used for some barbell-like exercises it's not traditionally as heavy as the kongoken, and is mostly used for iron-body conditioning. Also, I don't sell it. If you're curious about it make sure to add "hojo undo" to your search bar. Just Googling "Tan" will get you something else entirely.

In praise of the Jumbi Undo

Jonathan Walter

In praise of the Jumbi Undo

Last year, after 24 years of Goju Ryu experience I discovered something I'd never seen before; the traditional Jumbi Undo for Goju Ryu. Jumbi Undo means "preparatory exercises, ie: warm-up. As it turns out, Goju Ryu founder Chojen Myagi Sensei formulated his own warm-up routine to best prepare the body for training. Obviously, when I discovered that this was even a thing I had to try it out. What I discovered is simply the best warm up I've ever had.

If, like me, this is completely new information to you the best place to start is this video:

Now that we're all up to speed I think you'll agree that as warm-ups go this one is a bit unusual. Until I tried the Jumbi Undo I never realized just how influenced I'd been by school gym class. The idea of warming up without doing push ups and sit ups never occurred to me. In fact, for some reason, I'd always connected strength training to warming up. For the life of me I don't know why. What you really want in a warm up is to work your joints through their full range of motion and smooth out the kinks. Basic calisthenics, as good as they are, don't do that. A push up is good Hojo Undo, but the swooping push ups of the Jumbi Undo are much better at getting everything loose and moving.

Jumbi Undo is certainly not unique to Goju Ryu, but as far as I know this specifically systematic approach starting at the toes and working up, is unique to Goju Ryu. And, of course, this is something that can be endlessly modified and changed. Jumbi Undo isn't kata. It isn't set in stone. I'm completely sold on it. I've never felt more warmed up and ready to train. I highly recommend you check it out. I think you'll agree. Or you'll just hate me. That might happen too.

Why Hojo Undo, part 7: Makiwara, what is it good for?

Jonathan Walter

Why Hojo Undo, part 7: Makiwara, what is it good for?

we've already adressed the claims that the makiwara makes your fist, or any striking surface, harder and therefore protects your hand. we found that while the callouses don't do that evectively there is a medical principle that suggests that makiwara training will strengthen the hand bones. So despite any focused research into the area there's every reason to believe that the makiwara does exactly what it claims to do with regards to toughening.

The next benefit atributed to the makiwara is increased punching power, and this is where things get tricky. There are a lot of factors that go into punching power. In fact, power is only one of them. I'm going to start calling it punching effectiveness for this article to try and keep things clear. But first, an example. It's generally more effective, in terms of stopping a fight, to stab someone rather than punch them. This isn't because knives increase power. Knives simply focus that power into a very very small area making it more damaging. This means that decreasing the surface area a stike hits with will increase its effectiveness even if the actual force stays the same. In physics the terms power and focus would be force and pressure. The actual pain a person experiences is more to do with the pressure than the force. But since pressure = force / area you can increase pressure either by increasing the force or decreasing the area. Let's look at each one seperately and see how the makiwara might help it.

First, force. This is the oomph behind your strike. striking force is generated by the muscles, usually the hip muscles, and transfered through the body to the actual strike. If your muscles are weak you won't be able to generate much force. If your technique is bad you won't be able to transfer much to your strike. Either way your strike will be weak. The makiwara helps you generate more power by acting like a wooden resistance band. This is one of the main reasons the makiwara bends. When you hit the makiwara and push into it you push not just with your arm, but with your hips as well. It should be said at this point that the point isn't to push the makiwara back as far as possible. The point is to hit it so that your punch naturally ends a few inches into the pad. That way there is still hip drive behind your punch, but you're not forcing it. If it helps this is basically the same exercise as a standing one-arm cable press, or similar press with a resistance band. The only real difference is that with the makiwara you're able to train the punching mechanic much better because you can start the motion without resistance and thus much more explosively. The resistance only kicks in when the resistance would kick in for a real strike, at the end. This is the benefit I constantly see emphasised by the books of masters.

Second, focus. If you've never hit a makiwara then you might not realize how small that pad is. It's surprisingly difficult to hit it square when puching at speed. And even after you've mastered that ability you will still screw it up the instant your mind wanders. Doing 100 punches on the makiwara is an exercise of mental focus as much as punching focus. The karate punch seiken-tsuki hits with the first two knuckles, and it really needs to hit with both of them. The makiwara is spectacular at letting you know whenever you mess that up. Unlike a heavy bag, or similar, the makiwara is absolutely unforgiving in this regard. This is down to it's flat front and little padding. You can feel instantly and unequivocably exactly how you hit. This lets you constantly make small adjustments to your form until you find how to hit consistantly with those two knuckles. Students usually think I'm exagurating when I tell them to start with 100 punches on each side, but when you think of it as a form check instead of a knuckle conditioner it makes a lot of sense. To give another modern exercise example this is a lot like "greasing the groove." Modern power-lifters and weight-lifters often do sets at an easy weight just so they can get more practice with their form; to better engrain the motor pattern. The makiwara is sometimes called the "second sensei" for exactly the same reason. It will literally teach you how to hit. Another way the makiwara helps your stikes be more focued is in building wrist stability. This ties in with last week's safety concerns too. It's one thing to have the raw strength to keep your wrist straight while punching, but even if you do have it you'll still need a lot of practice actually doing it. Remember, a punch happens very quickly. There isn't time to think through the form. It has to just happen. Add to that the fact that each punch is slightly different, even with a consistant target like a makiwara, and building that unconcious ablity to make those small adjustments needed to keep the wrist straight is clearly something that simply takes time and repetition. Thankfully, once you master it on a makiwara you're pretty much good to go. Human targets are a lot squishier and tend to move and bend to fit around your fist making it a lot easier to keep your wrist straight. The makiwara does not do that.

One last point I'd like to make before concluding. The precision the makiwara adds to your punching is another reason it makes your punches safer. Hand bones are at their stongest when stressed straight on. Any wobble is not only less effective, but also much more dangerous for your hand. Being able to hit consistantly straight on and with both knuckles means that the force is distributed in the best possible way. It's another reason for the large number of strikes traditionally recommended.

In conclusion, does the makiwara help you punch harder? Yes. It builds the muscles needs to generate power, and it helps you deliver that power in the most efficient way possible. Those are the things that can be improved. But, as a wise man once said, you don't have to take my word for it. Check to see some makiwara training ideas. That does it for now on the makiwara. Next week: barbell vs kongoken. Happy punching!

P.S. For the sake of clarity I've used the terms punching and striking interchangibly, but they are, of course, different. We most commonly associate makiwara training with the straight punch because that is the strike most in need of makiwara training. However, all stikes can benefit from makiwara training; hand stikes and kicks.

P.P.S. There is another benefit of makiwara training that I left out intentionally, confidence. While this is a real benefit it can be hard to explain. There's also a healthy loss of confidence that can occur when you first start out and realize just how much room there is for improvement. If you stick with it, though, it does get better.

Why Hojo Undo, part 6: Makiwara, what is it good for?

Jonathan Walter

Why Hojo Undo, part 6: Makiwara, what is it good for?

I touched on something at the end of the last installment that I'd like to expand on over the next two or three weeks. You may have noticed that I am a big believer in the makiwara. So far three parts of the "Why Hojo Undo" series has dealt with the makiwara. I absolutely believe that every adult who studies karate should make the makiwara a regular part of their training. As far as I'm concerned it isn't supplementary at all, it's essential. But why? What exactly does it do? From my own experience I can testify that it makes you better, but how? If it really works we should be able to explain why it works, not just repeat testimonies. The plural of anecdote is not data. Data comes from research, and there simply hasn't been much research into this area. We do research in related areas that probably applies, though. So working from this, and my own personal experiences, I would like to put forth my top theories on how the makiwara works, and hope that someone eventually gets around to more rigorous testing. The purpose of makiwara training is two-fold; to toughen the striking surfaces, and to increase striking power. Let's deal with them in that order. This week we'll look at toughening.

For toughening the most obvious result of hitting the makiwara is the callouses that form, especially on the knuckles. Callouses absolutely do form, that isn't in question, but is that a significant benefit of makiwara training? Calloused skin doesn't break as easily as uncalloused skin. We know this by the fact that with enough stress the entire callous will rip off before breaking; which is the exact opposite of helpful. Also, ripped skin is mostly irrelevant in a fight. With a healthy dose of adrenaline it won't stop or even weaken your strikes. In the moment you won't even feel it. Callouses do make it more comfortable to hit the makiwara, which is nice, but the point of hitting the makiwara isn't just to better hit the makiwara. Callouses alone are simply not a worth-while reason to train with a makiwara. A far more important thing to think about conditioning are the bones in the hand. Hands are actually terrible striking weapons. They are fragile and complicated and very important for many non-fight related activities. In western martial arts, like boxing or pugilism, this problem is addressed very seriously through the use of gloves and limited target areas. In karate, though, it seemingly isn't addressed at all. Karate punches with the first two knuckles and punches pretty much anywhere. This means that we punch with the smallest flat surface of the hand, thus concentrating the force, and we strike hard bony surfaces like the skull. We even go out of our way to punch bricks and boards which can be even harder. This does not make any sense unless there is something outside of the technique that is used to keep the hands from breaking. Obviously makiwara training is the traditional answer, and medical science might know why. Wolff's law is a medical theory developed by Dr Julius Wolff to explain how bones respond to stress over time, and there has been a lot of research showing that bones do strengthen when stressed. They also weaken when not stressed. This is a big problem for astronauts. To the best of my knowledge no one has x-rayed the hands of karateka and compared them to normal people, but it makes sense that the same process that gives weightlifters stronger leg bones and tennis players stronger arm bones on their dominant sides would work exactly the same way when punching the makiwara. I would consider this very strong evidence that makiwara training must make the hand bones stronger. The question of how much can only be answered by actual research, but the effects that have been studied, such as weightlifting and other sports, suggest that it is definitely significant.

That pretty well addresses the toughening benefits of the makiwara. We can prove that the skin is toughened, and we have a well known medical process that suggests that the bones are toughened as well. There is every reason to believe that the makiwara does indeed protect your hands by making them stronger. If you're interested in more on the makiwara I'd suggest this article:…/06/makiwara-misconceptions.h…, which has some great practical advise for your training.

We'll continue this topic next week with the other benefits of the makiwara and how it helps you hit harder as well as safer.

Before I go, I'd like to say thanks to everyone who has left feedback on these articles. I've got a list of topics all lined up, but I'd love to get ideas from you guys too. Is there something hojo undo/karate/martial arts in general that you would like an article on? Let me know in the comments.

Why Hojo Undo, part 5. The Once and Future Chi Ishi

Jonathan Walter

Why Hojo Undo, part 5. The Once and Future Chi Ishi

No one knows exactly where the chi ishi originated, but what we do know is that the idea is hardly unique to Okinawa and karate. It isn't hard to see why either. Any time you add a lever arm to your weight you make it much harder to move and much more realistic for real world strength. I mean, barbells and dumbbells are great and have their place, but they can really trick you into thinking you are stronger than you are. Picking up 100lbs on a barbell is fairly easy, but picking up a 100lb treadmill, then carrying it down stairs, and worming it through the slightly too small door frame is a truely humbling experience. (Tredmills are my nemesis. If you can think of a worse thing to have to move please leave a comment.) The fancy exercise science term for that is "multi-planar movement", and in addition to being the new craze in exercise it's also the old craze in exercise. In fact, we see martial artists using impliments very similar to the chi ishi all over the world.

Indian clubs, so named because they originated in ancient Persia and Eygpt, are esentially chi ishis made entirely from wood. They start at around 3lbs and go up to 50lbs, and are swung in circular motions to develop strength for wrestling.

The Hindu Mace, which looks a bit like a giant all-metal chi ishi, actually was developed in India. Training looks a lot like two-handed chi ishi training, which makes sense since they are both designed to do the same job.

There is even a modern equivalent with the new trend of sledgehammer training. It is literally the exact same thing.

The best thing about any multi-planar movements is that they can more closely reflect the movement you really want to train. That is why most chi ishi exercises are done one-handed and from a solid stance. More time in sheikodachi is always good. You're not just building your muscles, but your ability to move momentum through your body. The fancy term for that is kinetic linking, and it's the key to striking power. This is also why most chi ishi training is done with relatively light weight. A 10lb chi ishi is really all you need. At first 10lbs will seem very heavy, especilly with a two foot handle. After a while you'll get used to it and be able to move to a heavier weight, but that doesn't mean you always should. It's very easy to get a weight too heavy to actually control so you end up just flinging it around. Remember, for martial arts, on some level, everything is about practice. It's often better to do more reps with a lower weight so you can better engrain the movement and so you can better feel what you're doing. Incidentally, this is why I started making adjustable chi ishis. I like to mix up the weights without having an entire collection of chi ishis. This is also why it's better to punch the makiwara 100 times lightly instead of 10 times really hard. Your knuckles might feel the same after either, but the more times you hit it with good form the more likely you'll hit squarely if you had to do it for real.

You can find some videos with chi ishi routines The chi ishi is easily the most versitle piece of hojo undo equipment. If you had to choose only one it should be the makiwara. But if you can have two then the chi ishi is a very close second. I highly recommend it for any karateka.





Why Hojo Undo, Part 4. Ishi Sashi vs. Dumbells

Jonathan Walter

Why Hojo Undo, Part 4. Ishi Sashi vs. Dumbells

There are two things to address when comparing dumbbells to ishi sashi, there is the equipment differences themselves and the exercises they are used for. The equipment difference is pretty straight forward. With a dumbbell the weight is centered around the handle and thus around your hand. This allows you to handle the most amount of weight. With an ishi sashi the weight is centered a few inches away from your hand meaning that the weight you feel is magnified by a small lever arm. This means that with an ishi sashi the limiting factor will always be your wrist strength.

This leads nicely into the exercises. Dumbbells are used to train the prime movers, the large muscles of the body. That is why there is so much overlap with barbell training and also why dumbbells come in so many different sizes. Obviously the weight you use for bench press is going to be a lot more than the one you use for bicep curl.

For ishi sashi the main purpose is to train the main limiting factor, wrist strength. All ishi sashi exercises involve controlling the ishi sashi while keeping the wrist from bending. This is fantastically beneficial for keeping a straight wrist while punching, and equally useful for maintaining strength during grabbing techniques. Traditionally ishi sashi come in relatively few weight denominations with around 10lb or 4.5kg being the most common. You simply don't need more weight to strengthen the small joint of the wrist. In fact, it is better to keep the weight low. Low weight prevents injury, allows for more precise control, and lets you do more reps which is better for this kind of strength. For specific exercises check

Bonus Facts:
Dumbbells are so named because they developed from equipment designed to help people train for ringing church bells. Medieval church bells required a lot of strength to ring loudly so people had to train for the job, and since the village didn't want to hear them doing so at all hours they trained with bells that couldn't actually ring, ie dumb bells.

Ishi sashi means stone padlock. The original ishi sashi were fitted handle out next to a door. A board was then slotted through the gap and the door was locked.

Why Hojo Undo, Part 3. Nigiri Game vs. Dead lift

Jonathan Walter

Why Hojo Undo, Part 3. Nigiri Game vs. Dead lift

The dead lift is one of the basic lifts in every list of basic lifts. It is also the lift where most people can move the most weight. You grab the barbell with both hands and stand up. That's it. As with all compound exercises it works the whole body to some degree, but it especially focuses on the back, legs, posterior chain, and the grip. It's a great exercise, but I'll understand if you don't see much correlation to nigiri game. It might help to look at a cousin to the dead lift, the farmer's carry (see picture 1). With the farmer's carry you do the exact same thing as with the dead lift, but instead of picking up a barbell you pick up two barbells, one in each hand. You then take off running as far as you can. Now we're starting to look at nigiri game training.

While the dead lift is designed to let you lift as much weight as possible nigiri game are designed to force you to use martial arts techniques to lift as much weight as possible. Naturally we all understand the benefit of more specified training, but with nigiri game a lot of the reasons have been forgotten. Most people are not taught the techniques that the nigiri game train. You can see a few here: The grabbing you see in the video is not grabbing to hold it is grabbing to hurt. It is a specific technique where you pinch with the fingertips and first thumb joint (see picture 2). There are tons of ways to build grip strength, but nothing but nigiri game builds strength to grip in that way.

So, unlike the dead lift the primary concern of nigiri game is grip strength. That means that the top part where you grip is the most important part of the jar. Historically there have been two designs. Most nigiri game you see today have a very pronounced lip at the top. That lip was introduced after WWII when American GI's started dropping the jars and the Okinawans got sick of replacing them all the time. The original jars looked more like picture 3. They had much smaller, or non-existant, overhangs. This made it much harder to hold them, which made them much more effective for building grip strength. This is also why the tops of my jars look the way they do, see picture 4. It is my attempt to combine both philosophies. You should try and grip the straight section, under the lip. That way you can hold the jar with inward grip pressure, just like how the technique works in practice. If you just grip the lip on top then the jar hangs from your hand and your fingers are just resisting the downward force. That's still good training, of course, it's just not as good. Instead, you can use the lip as a safety net. If the jar slips the lip will prevent it from dropping.

One last difference between the dead lift and nigiri game, it's a lot easier to hit yourself with nigiri game. You can get some excellent leg conditioning by hitting them with your jars. For other training ideas you can check out the video page on my website:

As always, my point is not to vilify any exercise. In fact, if you do general weight training I highly recommend the dead lift. It is fantastic for building overall strength. But for martial artists the nigiri game offers something that you simply can't get anywhere else.





Why Hojo Undo, Part 2. Makiwara vs. Heavy Bag

Jonathan Walter

Why Hojo Undo, Part 2. Makiwara vs. Heavy Bag

This week I'd like to talk about two pieces of equipment that not only work the same general body parts, but do so with the same general goals. Last week we addressed the difference between training the arms for strength and building punching power. Turns out, it was a lot. But this week both our contestants are designed to help you build punching power. This post will be written from the perspective of a karateka. I am not a boxer so I cannot write from that perspective. If you do not practice karate then this post may not apply to you. Feel free to skip it. Also, for simplicity's sake I am going to use "heavy bag" to mean the long cylindrical "typical" bag and "makiwara" to refer to the flat upright post. There are several varieties of both, but these are the most common and the ones I am most familiar with.

The first and most important difference between the makiwara and the heavy bag is in how the offer resistance. The heavy bag, being so heavy, has a lot of inertia to overcome. Once you get it moving it swings pretty freely, but it then needs even more force to stop it again. In this way the heavy bag resembles hitting a person. It's easy to make a person continue moving in a direction, but it's difficult to start them moving or to change their direction. The makiwara, however, is a spring. The harder to hit it the harder it hits you back. This also means that the makiwara will immediately return to its original position as soon as you remove your force. You cannot build up momentum.

The next difference is the physical dimensions. Heavy bags are big, round, and soft compared to makiwaras, and can be struck all over their surface. The makiwara is narrow, flat, and hard, even when compared to other really hard things. The striking surface is the pad on top which is only a few square inches. You can use lower areas of the post for kicks, but punches should all be directed to the pad.

The last difference I'll address here is the uses. Heavy bags are used with wrist wraps, gloves, and with punches in combinations. Makiwaras are used with no hand support at all, I seriously can't emphasis how wrong it would be to wear gloves when hitting the makiwara, and very little combination work.

Is one better than the other? No. But one is better for karate. The differences above are all deliberate choices that help the karateka.

The spring loading of the makiwara means that there is constant force against your strike. This is ideal because it means you can constantly feel how stable your structure. If at any point your form breaks down you can instantly feel it. The way the makiwara springs back to straight is also useful for practicing good punch retraction. If you pull back too slowly the board will smack your hand on the way back, which hurts. The spring can also be used in the opposite way. By maintaining contact with the pad throughout the punch you develop your "stickiness" or muchimi, the ability to maintain contact with your opponent.

The dimensions of the makiwara force you to be precise with your strikes. Any loss of focus will result in a punch that misses the target in some way. You may miss the pad with one or both knuckles, hit with the wrist in the wrong position, or hit with the wrong part of the hand. Because of the hardness of the makiwara any mistake will be immediately evident. There is no way not to feel a mistake. If you are safe, and not using more power than you are used to, then the mistake does not have to cause injury, but you will know there is a problem and therefore will know to fix it.

We always strike the makiwara without hand protection so as to better condition the hands. The primary purpose is not to be a knuckle conditioner, but it is one, and a very good one. Since karate uses a lot of different striking surfaces it is necessary to condition all of them. There is no reason to assume that you would have any hand protection in a fight, so we don't train with it. Combinations are primarily trained through kata. That is pretty much what kata is, techniques in combination. That frees the makiwara to be used for form, technique, and conditioning.

Hopefully that helped to illustrate the differences between these two pieces of equipment. Can you use a heavy bag with karate? Sure. Can you use both? Sure. That being said every karateka I've ever trained with who had a good makiwara used it exclusively; the heavy bag just hung there gathering dust. For karate the makiwara is just better.

So, how do you use one? While there is no substitute for qualified personal instruction there are some great videos online that can help. I've compiled a few on my website,

The simplest exercise for a makiwara beginner is simply do 100 strikes a day with each had. That may sound like a lot, and it is a lot, which is why you don't strike very hard. Find the force you can use for that many strikes and focus on hitting with perfect form each time. Feel the force travel through your hand, arm, back, and feet. Just keep doing that everyday and you'll be amazed how good it starts to feel.

Why Hojo Undo? Part 1: Makiwara vs Bench Press

Jonathan Walter

Why Hojo Undo? Part 1: Makiwara vs Bench Press

The purpose of this series is to compare the fitness solutions from different schools of thought and see how they compare to the needs of the martial artist. The purpose is not to say that hojo undo is “better” than other ways of exercising, just that it is better for the martial arts. In that vein we’re going to start with Makiwara vs Bench Press. If this seems like comparing apples and oranges, and it is. That is the point. Both deal with making you better at extending your arm that is where the similarities end. One makes you better at pushing. The other makes you better at punching. First, let’s look at each exercise on its own to identify their individual strengths.

Bench Press- The bench press is one of the most important muscle building exercises in modern weight training. Primarily it builds the chest and triceps, but in order to get maximum strength the lifter has to develop a strong core, strong grip, and solid leg base. It is a total body exercise. The lifter also has to develop very precise and consistent form. The weight must follow the exact same perfectly straight path on each repetition. Difficulty is increased by adding more weight over time. How much weight? The current unassisted world record for bench press is over 700lbs!

Makiwara: The makiwara is a lightly padded upright wooden post that is struck near the top. Anything that is not a lightly padded upright post is not a makiwara, even if it claims to be. The makiwara is a very old training device developed in Okinawa and used by every karate style that originated in Okinawa or Japan. Being a tool and not a specific exercise the makiwara can be used in many different ways. For simplicity’s sake we’ll just deal with the most common one which is to stand directly in front of the makiwara and strike the pad with the first two knuckles. The object is to hit the pad with speed, power, and correct joint alignment. The impact is absorbed by the knuckles and transferred through the wrist, arm, shoulder, back, and eventually the feet. If the joints are not aligned correctly then the makiwara gives instant feedback in the form of pain. The main force when hitting the makiwara comes from the hip rotation with the fist and arm simply transferring that force. Over time this develops increased punching power by conditioning the fist, perfecting body mechanics, strengthening hip drive, and increasing confidence in all the above. How effective is it? The world record for most boards broken with the hands in one minute is 487!

So as we can see both the makiwara and the bench press are very effective exercises that target the arms. Both have useful applications for martial artists. If you can do both, great! But if you can not do both which one should you choose? Choose the one that best suits your needs. Choose the one that best helps you perform the techniques you are training. In this case that is the makiwara, hands down.