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, www.modernhojoundo.com/index.php/videos.
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.