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Makiwara Training:One Blow, One Life

By Michale Rovens

To develop ikken hisatsu and stop an opponent with one blow, a price must be paid to the makiwara in blood, sweat and tears.

It was during a karate clinic, back in 1972, that students witnessed a display of power that still echoes in the halls of Fred Christian’s matsubayashi-ryu school in Ohio. The clinic was conducted by two young karate sensei from Okinawa: Eihachi Ota, who was already well known for his kumite ability, and Takayoshi Nagamine, the son of Grandmaster Shoshin Nagamine, founder of the matsubayashi style of shorin-ryu karate. Along the wall of Mr. Christian’s dojo were four makiwara (posts of wood set in the ground and used as punching targets). While they were warming up, Ota Sensei jokingly said to Takayoshi that he thought he could break the makiwara with a single punch. Takayoshi, in disbelief, called Ota Sensei’s bluff. He challenged Ota Sensei to break the makiwara. Undaunted, Ota Sensei snapped the first post with a reverse punch like it was a popsicle stick. Immediately a crowd of students gathered around to see what was happening.The students were each invited to break one of the makiwara, if they were able. Several tried unsuccessfully using punches, elbow strikes, and even kicks. Then they tried to use their combined strength to break the wooden posts by pulling and bending the wood. Even with their combined strength and weight they were unable to crack the makiwara. Once again, Ota Sensei demonstrated his ability by snapping the makiwara effortlessly with one punch, leaving the students stunned by the power of his technique. Keep in mind that Ota stands 5’4" tall and only weighed about 135 pounds.
This demonstration was repeated many times that year, leaving a legacy of Ota’s ability that is vividly remembered to this day. In his typical modesty, Ota Sensei downplays the significance of these awesome demonstrations of power. Nevertheless, Ota admits that he has never seen or heard of anyone else ever performing such a feat, either in the United States or in Okinawa. Ota warns that the angle of attack must be absolutely perfect or the practitioner will cause serious injury to himself, especially considering the force required to break makiwara, which can amount to thousands of pounds of pressure. Even the slightest deviation will certainly result in broken bones. Of course, the purpose of makiwara training is not to break the makiwara, but to develop the hands into lethal weapons. The makiwara has historically always been an essential aspect of Okinawa karate, which was developed as a means for the people of Okinawa to defend themselves after the Japanese Shogun had banned them from carrying weapons. Master Nagamine, Ota’s teacher, is 90 years old and still practices with the makiwara on a daily basis. Indeed, in The Essence of Okinawan Karate-Do, Master Nagamine asserts, "I do not know of any karate men who do not hit the makiwara."
Years later, students know Ota to be extremely reserved, but he has never stopped training on the makiwara. Ota Sensei recognizes that people practice karate for a variety of reasons. Many train simply because they find it is an enjoyable way to improve their health or physical fitness. To Ota this is not a problem because there are many positive benefits to karate practice besides developing deadly punching power. The demands of makiwara training are too physically punishing for the average karate student. However, for students who want to develop "battle-ready" punching technique, or ikken hisatsu (one-punch stopping power), then makiwara practice is a must.
Makiwara is prevalent in other styles of karate as well. In Conversations With The Master, Masatoshi Nakayama, former head of the JKA, when questioned about his training under Master Gichen Funakoshi, replied, "The training sessions under Master Funakoshi were very strict and rigid. During class sessions at the university, Funakoshi Sensei would have us perform technique after technique, hundreds of times each. When he selected a kata for us to practice, we would repeat it at least 50 or 60 times, and this was always followed by intense practice on the makiwara , and I can vividly remember him striking the makiwara as many as 1,000 times." The legendary Choki Motobu, one of Master Nagamine’s instructors, in his book Okinawan Kempo explains, "The method of using the makiwara developed at the Shuri Castle was unique in at least two aspects: one general and one specific to the exercises themselves. Generally speaking, makiwara training was the central focus point of their daily practice. All other aspects of their training were based on a supposition of knowledge and performance dependent on years of makiwara practice. Specifically the way they hit the makiwara developed a special type of force and control."

Lessons from Makiwara
Many karate students think the purpose of makiwara training is to toughen the hands and knuckles, especially the bones in the hands. According to Ota Sensei, developing "hard hands" is only a by-product of makiwara training, not the main objective. Ota enjoys pointing out the obvious, "You cannot control your bones. Karate techniques require students to develop control over their muscles and tendons. Your ability to control your own body determines the amount of force or power you are able to deliver. By precisely coordinating the contraction and relaxation of opposing muscle groups, karate practitioners are able to generate forces that exponentially exceed their combined weight and velocity. This is the purpose of makiwara training.
Choki Motobu poetically wrote, "Hitting the makiwara in a method reminiscent of a willow branch snapping in the wind, but holding the final point of contact as firmly as a piece of steel rod for a brief time, developed a type of focused strike easily recognized as the thrusting punch of karate-jutsu."
After striking the makiwara for a period of time, students begin to learn by feel to apply the appropriate amount of force with the shoulder, elbow, and wrist. The alignment of these joints is critical, especially at the point of delivery. If the joints are held too tightly, then not enough speed will be generated and the resulting force will be greatly reduced. Moreover, this can eventually lead to injuries. If the joints in the shoulders, elbows, and wrists are too loose, then there is a lack of focus and again the resulting force will be inadequate. In both of these scenarios, the student is merely throwing out his arm, not developing the execution of effective techniques. Makiwara training helps students to develop body control so that they can increase speed and acceleration and maximize their striking power: This is ikken hisatsu.
Ota Sensei explains that there are two ways to punch the makiwara. The first is like a normal punching motion where the fist is retracted immediately after contact has been made. This is repeated continuously until you are unable to continue.Striking the post in this way allows the makiwara post to vibrate unimpeded, graphically demonstrating the force of the blow. The movement of the makiwara dramatically increases the difficulty of striking the target in the right place with the correct part of the hands. If the timing is not perfect injury may result, especially with the force of Ota’s blows. The second method of striking the makiwara is to leave the punch extended, maintaining contact with the makiwara and allowing your fist to absorb the vibration. This strategy forces the practitioner to hold the fist tighter for a longer duration of time, which develops muscle control at the essential moment of impact. This type of training uses a different rhythm and cadence than the first. Together both techniques develop the foundation for ikken hisatsu.
Another lesson Ota has learned from his years of training on the makiwara is the proper delivery of a strike. By relaxing the muscles immediately after making contact, the amount of force he generates is increased significantly. Without releasing that energy, the force of the strike is severely limited. Perhaps even more importantly, this type of incorrect delivery will inevitably result in injury. Ota Sensei asserts that much of the power from the technique is derived not only from the moving forward momentum, but also from the action of pulling back, resulting in a quick snapping blow. Perfecting this kind of technique can take a lifetime. The speed with which you pull back after a technique will determine how fast you are able to set up for the next technique. Pulling back quickly will help you to set up for the next move, and the speed that you are able to generate on the pull-back will contribute to the speed and resulting force of any subsequent moves that are executed in combination. Building-up speed on the pull-back motion is the basis of all combination moves. Indeed, it is the speed of his pull-back action that has enabled Ota Sensei to develop his lightning quick speed and devastatingly powerful combinations which are the hallmark of Ota’s reputation in Okinawa. This ability to move with lightning speed is also what enabled him to break the makiwara that day in Ohio, to the amazement of everyone in attendance, despite the fact that many larger and heavier students could not repeat the same feat even by pulling and bending.

Conditioning the Hands
In addition to the skills that are acquired through makiwara training, an additional purpose is to develop the fists into effective weapons. This is achieved through repeatedly striking the makiwara until the tendons that pass over the knuckles are pushed off to the sides around the knuckles. After sufficient training in this manner, the tendons permanently adopt this position, enabling the practitioner to strike directly with the bones of the hand and thus protecting the more delicate tendons in the process.
Striking the makiwara with enough forceful repetition to alter the path of the tendons also causes the skin around the knuckles to tear. The skin will easily tear even after only a few strikes and should be peeled away when this occurs. Students should not stop striking the makiwara until the skin around the knuckles can be entirely removed. After the skin is completely torn away, a second skin begins to form slowly. Each subsequent skin grows back tougher and tighter than the last. This process of tearing the skin must be repeated several more times to achieve the optimal results. Ota cautions that the knuckles may look rather scary at this point (like something you might expect to see at a butcher’s shop) but it is a necessary feature of makiwara training and must be repeated several times. Ota believes that this is a critical time because many students will submit to the pain and quit.
There are two different kinds of makiwara: those with soft padding and those with hard padding or no padding at all. Students who train only on soft makiwara, which includes most practitioners in Japan and Okinawa, can be recognized by their large, swollen knuckles covered over by layer upon layer of scar tissue. This scar tissue serves only to cushion the force of the blow, and does nothing to harden the fists or to move the delicate tendons out of harm’s way. The swollen knuckles actually prevent the bone from making contact on the makiwara. Ota tells students that they must use both kinds of makiwara in order to develop ikken hisatsu.

Close Distance: Karate students should begin by striking the makiwara at a close distance. Place one foot in front of the other and practice the reverse punch on both sides. As students increase their sense of distance and timing, they should begin to increase the twisting of the joints in the hips, knees, and shoulders to build tension and to maximize the distance of travel to the point of contact in order to build up more speed.
Intermediate and Long Distance: When students become proficient striking the makiwara at a close distance, they should begin to move progressively further away from the striking post. Ota warns that as the distance from the makiwara increases, the difficulty becomes exponentially more difficult. Accuracy at a long distance away from the makiwara is extremely difficult. Most students inevitably miss the target and severely injure their wrists. Yet, they must continue if they are going to develop ikken hisatsu to the degree that it will be effective in combat situations. This is important for kumite practice because the distance it demands is generally longer than the close distance most people use when training with the makiwara.
Spinning Technique: Ota Sensei also practices striking the makiwara, while stepping in a spinning motion, in order to generate even greater speed and force. In this way he is also able to use the momentum generated by the coordinated movements of the entire body. Students have to develop control over all the joints in the body as well, in order to control their accuracy at long distances.

Training with a Partner: Ota recommends that students train in pairs. When students begin makiwara practice the pain can often be overwhelming and they soon give up. But when practicing with a partner, students can inspire each other to go further and use each others rhythm and pace to challenge themselves. Indeed, the rhythmical sounds of trading punches inspires concentration and focus. Students should face across from each other, each having the outside foot forward and begin trading reverse punches, one with the left hand and the other with the right side. After a while the students should change sides and use the other hand.

Kicking: While most makiwara training is directed at developing the hands and hand striking techniques, the feet and proper kicking technique may also be effectively developed by training with the makiwara.

Other Strikes: Students can also develop open handed striking and blocking techniques by training on the maikwara. They can also be practiced in combination with other fighting techniques.

Makiwara training is often overlooked by the majority of karate dojos which Sensei Ota has observed over the past 25 years in America. Sensei Ota recognizes that there are many benefits to karate training. Ota does not insist that his students practice on the makiwara, although he readily admits that it is essential to the development of ikken hisatsu. There are many other benefits derived from makiwara training as well, just as there are many benefits derived from karate training itself. Ota Sensei recognizes that most students are not willing to risk the bodily injury that inevitably results from serious makiwara training, so he prefers to leave the decision open to each individual student. The makiwara in Ota’s dojo are always right there on the main floor, but everyone is left to address them on their own terms. Ota does not include makiwara training as part of the regular group class curriculum, but it is always encouraged as an extra-curricular necessity.

Eihachi Ota is a seventh degree black belt in matsubayashi shorin-ryu with over 35 years of experience and is an expert in traditional Okinawan kobudo. Michael Rovens is chief instructor at Ota’s dojo in Los Angeles. For further information contacted their central dojo at 10546-A Pico Blvd. West Los Angeles, California 90064. Telephone: (310) 558-0264, email sensei@shorin-ryu.com, or visit www.shorin-ryu.com.

reprinted with permission from CFW Enterprises