Choki Motobu working ippon-ken (single knuckle fist), commonly used in traditional karate, on the makiwara.
There is a lot of misinformation out there about the use of the makiwara (or striking post) in traditional Isshin-ryu Karate training. I thought I would try to clear some of it up … at least as much as you can in a short blog post.
Japanese and Chinese styles certainly have some similar training equipment. For example, the Wing Chung style has the Wing Chung dummy. Karate styles have several different types of Makiwara.
However, the use of the makiwara in traditional Okinawan Isshin-ryu Karate is very different from what I have often seen portrayed in photographs or videos on the web or in books, etc. I have seen photographs of bleeding, badly deformed knuckles and arthritic fingers that could no longer hold a pencil or work a pair of chop sticks. I once saw a video where a Japanese instructor with horribly deformed looking hands was repeatedly pounding them into a large boulder! Folks, this is not the way it was or should be done.
Anyone who has had the life-changing experience of being hit by Sensei Sherman Harrill before he lost his battle to cancer, can attest to the power in his strikes. Sensei Harrill could hit you in the shoulder and pile-drive you right into the floor. It bordered on being a religious experience. I have had the same experience being hit by Sensei John Kerker. There are a few other students of Sensei Harrill running around who can make a true-believer out of you. All that being said, Sensei Harrill could still hold a pencil, sign his name, or shake hands. When you looked at his hands, they looked … you know … normal. You might say they looked like “working” hands. But, by no means were they swollen, deformed, bruised, red, misshapen or otherwise ugly-looking. The two large knuckles of his hands did not look like some kind of mutant walnuts or purple ball bearings. But, those hands were truly deadly.
It has often been wrongly stated by many that the purpose of makiwara training is to build up calluses on the knuckles. Really? Is the purpose of playing the guitar to build up calluses on the fingertips? Or do the calluses build naturally as your fingers become stronger and more dexterous, and the music begins to flow? Has anyone seen a guitarist whose fingers were so deformed he could not hold his pick or quickly change a chord?
What the makiwara offered the karate practitioner was a means to strengthen his strike from the ground up. It offered progressive resistance. The more you moved the punching post, the more it pushed back. You would start by pressing into the post with the two large knuckles of your fist. You would set into your stance, place your knuckles against the post and press. Typically, the first time, the post would not move much. You would feel some weakness somewhere in your stance, or your lower back, or your shoulder, or wrist. Something would feel out of whack. You would make an adjustment to your stance, your posture or your alignment, and try again. After awhile you begin to feel more solid, and the post began to move just a little. Over time, you would continue to press into the post focusing on your improved stance, adding hip rotation, shoulder extension, proper elbow and shoulder alignment. Little by little, the post begins to move more and more. You add breathing … exhaling into your strike.
After a time, you add distance and throw a controlled half-punch, then move to a controlled full punch. Now you are smacking the mak! You try different strikes and striking surfaces. More times passes and you are throwing solid properly aligned punches and strikes and the post is really moving now. You are now also controlling the return of the post. Offering it resistance as it pushes back into your strike. Then one day you look down at your hands and notice the skin is a little tougher on your striking surfaces … harder. But not purple, or black and swollen, or otherwise deformed. They still look pretty damn normal.
The real difference … you are now striking with Chinkuchi! You hit your target with the entire body moving in perfect orchestration. The bone, muscle, sinew are all strengthened, honed, and working in proper alignment. Your strike is now intently focused with a surgical-like precision. It flows seamlessly and effortlessly from a dynamically relaxed movement into a concentrated, well-focused explosion of kinetic energy … which, instantly after impact, returns to a dynamically relaxed state … ready to strike again if needed. It seems effortless and flowing for you. It is natural and a part of you.
The person on the receiving end, however … probably wishes your hands were swollen, bruised, bloody and deformed.