This Guest Post is by my friend and senior, Sensei Pat Nakata. Nakata Sensei is the head of the Okinawa Shorin-Ryu Karate Association in Hawaii. He was a student of Chosin (Choshin) Chibana in Shorin-Ryu, and also studied Ryukyu Kobudo under Sensei Fumio Nagaishi. When he was a young man, he studied Wado-Ryu Karate under Sensei Walter Nishioka.
Makiwara translated is rice straw (wara) that is bound or tied together (maki). Most Karateka today think of makiwara as being a planted wrapped post that is used for striking, but there are many different types of makiwara. In the old days, there were vertically hanging makiwara (like a heavy bag), horizontally hanging makiwara, the standing post makiwara, and round standing post makiwara normally used for blocking. For this discussion, I will use the term makiwara referring to the standing post.
Makiwara is more a Japanese term and in Okinawa it is machiwara, but Chibana Chosin Sensei and most of the other Okinawan teachers in the 1960s called it makiwara. The Okinawan teachers considered makiwara training an essential tool for developing strong punches, but it could also be used for kicks, strikes, and blocking development. Ninety percent of the time it was used for working on one's punches.
The standard makiwara is a tapered 2X4, which in height is about one's solar plexus, but there was a tendency to place it higher. The taller the makiwara, the more flex. Many of the old masters were short, but had high punches. The shoulder height punches were suppose to be punches to the solar plexus (kosen) or the solar plexus line (kosen no sen). These high punches is readily seen in film clips of the old teachers performing Kata. This is a direct result of punching makiwara that is too high.
Regardless of height, a good makiwara must have some flex. Chibana Sensei would say that one may not want to hit a stiff makiwara, but one would be more willing to punch a softer makiwara. He cautioned that a stiff or too rigid makiwara was detrimental to one's health. If a makiwara did not give with a punch because it was too stiff, the power or shock wave would reverse back into the person hitting the makiwara. A makiwara must have flex, but with some resistance.
The Chibana method of punching the makiwara is when one punches the makiwara and bends the makiwara, one must hold the bend of the makiwara with that punch. If one hits a makiwara that is too stiff, one could develop 'kime', but without penetration. In other words, too much of an instant focus (lockup) on contact results in the punch being only a surface hit. A flexible makiwara with a spring like resistance, enables one to develop 'kikomi', which is kime with penetration. To develop a strong kikomi, one must hit the makiwara integrating the timing of a strong upright posture with body mechanics (koshi [hips] and/or hara [pelvic carriage or lower abdominal]), concise breathing, and a strong stance. When one punches a stiff makiwara without trying to penetrate, this practice just hardens the knuckles and strengthens the wrist.
In executing a punch, the fist is held at a palms up position until the elbow is straightened. As the elbow straightens, the fist is twisted instantaneously to a palms down position dropping in the knuckle, which straightens the force that is being transmitted. If one turns the fist too early, keeps the fist in a palms up position, or use a standing fist while fully extending the arm, the power of the punch will be lost at the elbow.
I was originally taught that in hitting the makiwara, muscle lockup (kime) occurs simultaneously as the hip (koshi) twists to full face at the point of contact. I tried hitting Chibana Sensei's makiwara in this manner and could not hold the bend or even bend it. I watched Chibana Sensei punch the makiwara with a far shorter stance than mine, which appeared to be less stable, but his delivery was smooth and almost effortless. The makiwara bent backward about 8 inches with him holding it at that bend. As he continued punching, on close inspection, I noticed his hips did not twist forward until the instant of contact. His stance also planted, transmitted power from the legs into the punch. I realized then that I was spending the power from my hip movement before I hit the target. I learned that kime was the focus and timing of the whole body. The reason why I had no real punching power was because I was just extending my arms without correct timing. I had speed but no power.
After a few years of intensive makiwara training, my punch was stronger, but I had lost mobility in attacking or moving into an opponent with a punch. I tried stepping into or attacking the makiwara as I delivered the punch, but the punch felt more like a push and without any concussion. I started to experiment with a heavy bag. With the heavy bag I could practice a punching attack. Using the heavy bag, one needs a coach that can differentiate between penetration (kikomi), surface hitting, and pushing.
After my trip to Ventura, California, where I had the opportunity to practice hitting a 6 foot heavy bag, I purchased one for the dojo. With this longer, heavier bag we could now practice punches to the head (also low kicks, low strikes, kicks to the head, strikes to the face and head, etc.). All 6 feet long heavy bags are 100+ pounds in weight. Using a100+ pound heavy bag is good training, because if one did not punch correctly, the "bag will hit you back." It will give you good feedback on the correctness of your punch.
Another supplemental equipment for contact training is the hand contact pad, which to some extent resembles a baseball glove. An experienced person holding the contact pad can give feedback on whether the punch or hit is penetrating, surface hitting, pushing, the degree of impact, and whether there is knuckle penetration. The hand contact pad is a supplement to a makiwara or a heavy bag and not an alternative. Ideally, it would be very beneficial to practice with all three; makiwara, heavy bag, and hand contact pads.
Hitting the makiwara is good for power and strength development. I have seen many teachers with punches that were technically incorrect, but were still powerful, because of their dedicated makiwara training. I often wonder about how much more powerful their punches would be if they were technically correct?
As Bob (Snaggy) Inouye said, "Many of the students don't like hitting the bag (or makiwara) and avoid punching the bag, because when they do, they feel 'junk'." Karate is a hitting art. One must hit to understand hitting.