Impact Conditioning Gear
A friend of mine brought up an interesting point the other day. As a forty-something year old martial artist, and an individual who makes his living as a writer, he questioned the wisdom of continuing his daily training with elements such as makiwara and other impact related conditioning techniques. We’ve all seen board and brick breaking demonstrations, and most of us remember the main antagonist from The Karate Kid II pounding on a twelve inch chunk of hardened drift wood, but how practical is that element of toughening the body?
Traditionally, makiwara, or the striking of a semi-flexible, wooden post wrapped with straw and rope (or foam and duct tape for 21st century dojos) to increase strength, focus, and stability, is intrinsic to Okinawan martial arts practice. Alongside other kinds of Hojo-undo (translated “supplementary exercises”), makiwara is used to develop the necessary body mechanics for achieving the utmost out of our training.
However, as is the case with my friend, many of us in our modern world use our hands for typing on a keyboard and texting on a tiny smart phone much more often than we use them fighting for our lives. So, with that in mind, are conditioning techniques such as makiwara and jaribako (striking the fingers and hands into bowls of stones, sand, or dry rice) still necessary and beneficial? Or are they an anachronistic element left over from days when a warrior would fight hard, and die young?
Improving Your Technique
I think the answer lies in examining our perception of what makiwara is supposed to do. Too often in the dojo have I heard an over-zealous student pronounce that makiwara is supposed to “build toughness” or “condition the hands”. While that is true to a degree, to focus on that single aspect of makiwara is dangerous. If makiwara were simply about smashing your hand into a hard surface, every dojo would come equipped with a large concrete slab on one wall. The real benefits from this kind of training come from a few other elements: first, the flexion of the makiwara board is designed to spring back against the force of a strike, demanding that the practitioner maintain a strong, stable, engaged body position.
Second, the slight forward lean of traditional makiwara is there so that, once the strike has made contact, the student can drive through with their technique, forcing the post into a fully upright position and through this, training strength into the muscles responsible for generating power in the technique. The fact that a student is toughening the skin and bones of the hands is, and should most certainly be, secondary to these other benefits of makiwara training.
With these aspects of the training in mind, we can see that makiwara training in particular has major benefits for any martial artist. However, the question remains, are body hardening techniques a good idea for the modern karateka? It is part of our mindset as martial artists to be as prepared as possible for as many situations as we can. In the event that we have to punch someone with full force, or grip a ledge for an extended period, we want to have the necessary strength and endurance to do so. However, if the cost is arthritic immobility in our sixties, is that preparedness still a benefit?
Remembering some important points about the nature of conditioning in this manner can perhaps help to steer you in the direction of balancing preparedness with practicality. Most importantly, no student should begin training with a makiwara or any other kind of heavy impact Hojo-undo until around the age of sixteen to eighteen. High impact training with hard surfaces before the bones of the hands and arms are fully developed can harm the growth plates, stunting growth. Also, no matter the age, if damage occurs while training with makiwara, such as excessive swelling and bruising, or serious abrasions or lacerations, training should be discontinued until the damage is fully healed.
Lastly (and this should go without saying, but it never seems to), always remember to get your ego out of the way when conditioning your body. Push yourself, but only to the point of positive development. Knowing your own body is crucial with any physical endeavor, but particularly martial arts training, and most especially any kind of Hojo-undo. Try and be honest in your assessment of whether or not you are going to excess with your training and doing yourself a disservice. As with all things in our training and lives as karateka, we seek balance above all else. Punching an opponent should, hopefully, be equally as easy as punching keys on a keyboard well into old age.