Punching Bag and Makiwara Practice – What’s Better?

Hitting a target is helpful for developing speed, power and precision in martial arts. When we learn a new technique, we may initially practice the technique “in the air.” In time, we become more familiar with the basics of the technique. Then it is time to apply the technique against a partner or a target, and experiment with how the technique “works.” Two indispensable training tools here are the punching heavy bag, and the makiwara (maki what? Don’t worry, I will explain shortly). In this article, we will compare them.

Punching bag and makiwara training. What is better?

Different Strokes for Different Folks

There are several different types of targets that are useful in martial arts training:

Heavy bag: I am sure you are familiar with heavy bags from boxing gyms and the movies. A heavy bag is basically a punching bag filled with fibers, sand or other materials, and hung  from a ceiling or a stand. The typical weight of a heavy bag ranges from 70 lbs to 100 lbs (30 to 45 kg).  Although the traditional approach is to suspend a bag from the ceiling, some heavy bags are mounted on a base/pedestal – the Century line of Wavemaster bags, as well as their Body Opponent Bag (BOB) lifelike mannequin are representative examples. The pedestal approach is advantageous in that setting the bag is very easy. However, I find that the base sometimes interferes with being able to move around the bag, and with being able to get close to the bag, as is required for practicing some in-close-fighting techniques such as knee strikes and low kicks.

Punching bag workout at Full Potential Martial Arts in Carmel Valley, San Diego, 92130

Punch mitts: Mitts are padded targets attached to a glove, and are worn on our partner’s palms. Since punch mitts (sometimes calls focus mitts) are fairly thin, they do not support hitting with a lot of force. Rather, we use punch mitts to train precision and versatility. Our partner can move the punch mitts easily, and even “counter attack” with them, allowing us to train both offensive and defensive reflexes.

Shields and pads (and, in particular, Thai Pads): Pads and shields are thick targets, worn on our partner’s forearms or held in both arms. Because they are well cushioned, they can absorb much stronger hits than focus mitts. A very popular and versatile pad is the Thai Pad, so called because of its heavy use in training Mauy Thai fighters (it is also very useful in training in kickboxing and in Mixed Martial Arts – MMA). This pad can be held at different positions and angles to train punches, open hand techniques, elbows, knees, and kicks. Did I say that Thai Pads are incredibly versatile?

Thai Pad workout at Full Potential Martial arts in Carmel Valley, San Diego, 92130

Partner’s body: Regardless of whether the focus of our training is martial arts, combative sports, or self defense, working with a live partner is indispensible. No matter how good a bag is, it will never be able to simulate a live partner. A bag does not hit back, and neither does it tend to want to frustrate your attempts to hit it, as would a live sparring partner. Training with a live partner is especially important for mastering the more intricate and effective techniques found in Okinawan Karate and in Chinese Kung Fu and Tai Chi, where we are hitting a specific pressure point, or manipulating a limb. (It’s pretty hard to practice Jiu-Jitsu and other grappling martial arts on a bag, and without a live training partner). Of course, when we work with a partner, safety is paramount. Therefore, partner work is useful for drilling precision and realism, but not in drilling full power (unless appropriate protective equipment is worn). Also, speed, on some techniques such as joint lock, for safety reason, has to be modulated, so as to avoid injury to our partner or to us.

Another extremely helpful training aid is the makiwara, which we will discuss below.

Gichin Funakoshi training with a makiwara

Gichin Funakoshi, founder of Shotokan Karate and the “father of modern karate”, training with a makiwara (Circa 1915)

The Makiwara

A makiwara (sometimes spelled machiwara) is an Okinawan padded striking post. Many styles of karate use the makiwara to teach proper body posture, power generation and precision. The makiwara is very versatile, and you can practice open hand and closed hand strikes, elbow and knee strikes and kicks with it. A makiwara is part of traditional karate supplemental exercises so-called “Hojo undō”, along with Chi Ishi (concrete weights mounted wooden poles), Nigiri Game (gripping jars), Tetsu Gata (iron clogs) and other implements. Generally speaking, there are two types of makiwara: sage-makiwara, which is hung from the ceiling line a heavy bag, and tachi-makiwara, which is secured in the ground. We will focus on tachi-makiwara, as it is more popular and, in my opinion, useful.

The (tachi) makiwara is a tapered post that is buried deeply in the ground. On the top of the post, an optional small pad is mounted. The makiwara can be used “bare” to condition the hands and other striking surfaces, or with the pad for higher power work.

A key characteristic of the makiwara is that it provides progressive resistance to the practitioner’s force. In other words, the harder the makiwara is flexed, the more resistance it will provide. This is because of the “spring” effect of the tapered makiwara post, which works similarly to the leaf springs in your pickup truck.

BTW, you can make your own makiwara for somewhere around $20. It’s easy — see “how to build a makiwara.


Makiwara vs. Heavy Bag Training

While the makiwara provides progressive resistance to strikes, a heavy bag provides roughly the same resistance to a strike — no matter how hard it is struck. A 100 lbs heavy bag weighs 100 lbs whether you strike it softly or very hard.

A human body, upon impact, is actually quite pliable. Even on a large person, a strike will tend to deform the struck area, and penetrate somewhat. A strong strike is also likely to disbalance a person, and may cause an attacker to fall. Okinawan karateka understood that the makiwara simulated this pliability of the human body. They therefore made the makiwara a central tenant of their training. Furthermore, the makiwara’s progressive resistance means if the martial artists’ joint and body alignment are not good, his or her punch will bounce off the makiwara. With the makiwara you can “feel” whether your technique is good. Once you learn to listen to your body, you can make the postural and technique adjustment and make your technique more and more effective.

Unlike the makiwara, the heavy bag is very firm, and pretty much “stays put” upon impact (other than swinging).  The punching bag lends itself more to being “pushed” than to being “struck.” It is an excellent tool to train absolute power, and is also very helpful in training in gloved sports. For example, in boxing, kickboxing, and Muay Thai, where fighters wear large padded gloves, a heavy bag helps train the fighter to create more movement (displacement) in their technique. For sheer power generation, a punching heavy bag is indispensable.

Muay Thai punch

In summary, both the punching heavy bag and the makiwara are helpful martial arts training aids. They are both friendly, and will stay put for you for as long as you want (unlike a training partner holding mitts, Thai pads, or his body for you to strike, who will tire or get bored). By understanding the utility of the two you can customize your training for better effectiveness.

Questions? Comments? Use the form below or email me.

Happy training! See you at the dojo.


Makiwara Punch

Brian is a life-long martial artist, athlete, and serial entrepreneur. He teaches martial arts and self defense to adult and teen students in San Diego, at the Full Potential Martial Arts dojo in Carmel Valley.

15 comments on “Punching Bag and Makiwara Practice – What’s Better?
  1. Amit says:

    Couldn’t agree more on Makiwara!!!

  2. Dean C says:

    The martial arts content at this web site is truly awesome! Keep up the nice work!

  3. Savannah says:

    Do you know where I can find instructions on how to build a Makiwara? I would like to start using a makiwara, to improve my martial arts strikes.

  4. Eli C. says:

    Would you say that makiwara training is essential to developing proper power in martial arts?
    If so, how would you recommend incorporating makiwara work into martial arts training?
    I appreciate your advice!

    • Yes!
      Makiwara practice can add tremendously to martial arts training. In a nutshell, proper training with the makiwara teaches the martial artist how to generate power that comes from relaxation, and is devoid of undue tension. The makiwara also provides direct “feedback” to the martial artist on proper body and joint alignment. Basically, if you are not properly aligned behind the strike to the makiwara, you will feel it in your body (in the form of soreness or pain, usually around the offending joint). On the other hand, if you are totally relaxed and properly aligned, and have learned how to generate power with your whole body (not just the extremities), you will feel the power of the strike breeze through you.
      Having a good and competent martial arts instructor work with you on the makiwara (at martial arts class or otherwise), can both increase the safety and shorten the time to learn those skills. Once the skills are “tuned,” you can add speed, power, and repetition.
      Keep on training!

  5. Matthew W. says:

    I work with both makiwara and punching bags and find them to be complementary to each other.

  6. Rakesh says:

    Sensei Iam learning kyokushin and I wanna improve my striking force .which one you will suggest me .punching bag or makiwara.I will go by your choice

    • Hi Rakesh!

      Both the makiwara and the punching bag (heavybag) have their place in training.

      If you were hard pressed to choose only one training aid, I would choose makiwara. This is because, used properly, the makiwara will teach you a lot about to properly produce power. The makiwara provides progressive resistance to your strikes, and that resistance allows you to learn how to properly align your joints, and how to properly sequence your muscles as you execute different strikes. The makiwara also teaches you how to relax when you hit, which is very important for optimum power generation.

      Best of luck in your martial arts training! If your travels take you to San Diego, be sure to reach out and visit us!

  7. Jerry L. says:

    It has been my experience to build and use makiwara that is wrapped with straw rope rather than installing a pad. What is your opinion on this?
    Thank you.

    • Hello Jerry!

      Straw rope is a traditional and very good choice for wrapping a makiwara. Personally, I like using a makiwara pad better. This is for a couple of reasons:
      1. A pad is more hygienic than straw rope. When you hit the rope you can develop little tears in your skin and bleed (especially for people who are just starting to use the makiwara). If multiple people use the same makiwara, there is a risk of transmitting blood borne diseases that way. With pads, you can have each student bring their own pad, or you can disinfect or wash the pad after each use.
      2. I find that the feel of the rice-filled pad I describe in the article above to be “just right,” and approximating the density of the human body. If you are practicing a close-fist tsuki (punch), in reality, you would be using that punch against a target that is semi-soft, semi-hard like the side of the jaw, the chest, or even an arm of a leg. The pad feels very similar to that.

      But, overall, whether you use a pad or straw rope is a matter of personal preference. The main value in makiwara practice comes from having the makiwara give you “feedback” on your strikes, and learning how to use that feedback to improve your alignment and power generation.

      Keep training!

  8. Soheil says:

    Hi sensei
    How to build my own Makiwara!?
    I am a hapkido trainer in iran.

  9. jon says:

    Very interesting. MY Sensei (Japanese world class) would never tolerate pads or protection etc. Traditional karate linked to the days when it was used in ernest, requires that kind of training. Very hard and for many, too hard. I built a Makiwara fifty years ago when I was young and trained on that. What you learned later on was that a single blocking technique from Sensei was enough to finish the kumite! Such was the power of his technique. He trained on makiwara in his garden each and every day. Karate has become more of a sport seemingly and people get bored with kata. But therein lies failure.
    I suppose it all stems from ‘spirit’ and something deeper than ‘fighting’ in essence.

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