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: http://ryukyuma.blogspot.com/…/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.