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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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Happy training! See you at the dojo.