Dec 14, 2010

Martial Arts Training Equipment Reviewed

There's an old photograph that is often reproduced in karate books. The blurry black-and-white image depicts eight martial artists training outdoors with different types of training apparatuses. One item resembles a rock with a stick stuck into it; another looks like a cinder block with a handle carved into it; and yet another consists of a set of large jars probably filled with sand or pebbles with raised lips. One man and they are all men is wearing what can only be described as platform flip-flops, the base of which is probably made of a heavy, solid material.

Though primitive by today's standards, the training equipment depicted in the photo is to a large extent still popular among martial artists, especially karate students. The rock with the stick stuck into it? That's a "chishi." Updated versions of it are still used to strengthen grips and wrists. Its user simply grabs it, then slowly swings it around in a controlled way. She might swing it in front of her body or behind her head, using one hand or both hands.

In addition to the chishi, many types of training equipment have been developed to strengthen the all-important grip. But if tradition isn't part of your training curriculum, you may never be introduced to such equipment. To strengthen students' grips, a teacher might instruct his students to do simple exercises. He might have students strengthen their grips by extending their arms straight out and squeezing their hands closed into a fist and then opened flat¡ªseveral hundred times. The same can be achieved by gripping tennis balls or small smooth stones.

The gripping jars depicted in the picture, called "nigiri-game" (NIGERE-GAMA), are also designed to strengthen grips. New students would generally start gripping the raised lips of two empty jars. Later they might add weight to the jars by filling them with sand. Real show-offs might even oil the mouths of the jars to make them slippery.

A traditional karate school might also have a "makiwara" (MAKE-WARA), which is basically a striking post. Originally constructed of straw rope wrapped around the top of a wooden board, today's makiwara is often made of black rubber. Karate students strike it to harden the knuckles of their index and middle fingers, which are the first point of contact for a straight punch. Students can also kick the post to harden the sides of their feet.

Today's martial artists are less likely to be found kicking or punching traditional makiwaras, or swinging chishis around their heads. Traditional makiwara posts have been replaced by canvas-covered makiwara boards that can be held by one student while another strikes it. As with traditional makiwaras, it's still relatively easy to break the skin on your knuckles using these boards. Some instructors encourage students to strike boards or pads until their knuckles are raw and bleeding. I always shied away from this. The minute I feel the skin on my knuckles breaking, or see any trace of blood, I ease up on my punches. No amount of praise from my instructor is worth bleeding over.

But not all martial arts emphasize the need for strength like karate. Certainly, tae kwon do and jeet kune emphasize powerful moves. But many styles of martial arts don't involve such intensive conditioning. Still, you should be familiar with the most common types of training equipment if only to help you choose the style best for you.

More common types of training equipment fall into two categories: pads and bags. Pads are usually made of foam wrapped in vinyl or canvas; bags often come filled with cotton fiber wrapped in vinyl or canvas. Both pads and bags enable students to strike and kick at full force.

Small pads, usually about ten inches by ten inches, are held closely at chest level by means of cloth handles. It's important that the student holding the pad exhales each time her partner strikes it. The problem for female students is obvious. Depending on how big you are on top, taking blows to your chest can range from annoying to painful to embarrassing to all three. The most logical move an instructor can make is to pair off female students with female students. But unfortunately logic doesn't always prevail in a martial arts school. If your instructor isn't in the habit of taking a woman's anatomy into consideration when pairing up students for this type of exercise, tell your male partner straight out to take it easy.

Large pads, which are about two feet long and a foot and a half wide, are held in front of the body also by means of cloth handles. Because of their size, these pads enable students to throw a greater variety of strikes and kicks. They also offer students holding them more protection than their smaller counterparts. Manufacturers have recently come out with large pads containing air and foam, which together absorb more impact than pads containing only foam. If your school has these, consider it fairly progressive. On the other hand, schools with the most-advanced equipment pay for it with students' tuition dollars, and may have to charge high tuition fees.

Pads that are worn on the forearms are often used in martial arts styles that use kicks, such as karate and tae kwon do. Like with the other pads, the wearer simply slips her forearms into the cloth handles on the back of the pads. Unlike other pads, these are probably the most comfortable pads for women to wear. Instead of holding them in one place, such as the chest area, a student can raise her arms high, prompting her partner to extend her leg high to strike what might be an opponent's head. Or she can lower her arm, prompting her partner to execute what would be a kick to an imaginary opponent's leg.

I've always preferred punching bags to pads for the simple and obvious reason that I don't have to hold them. (Although, to keep them in place, the bags may have to be held if a particularly strong student is kicking or punching them.) Punching or striking bags hang from the ceiling or are attached by two elastic ropes - one that extends to the ceiling, the other to the floor. Punching bags are also the one type of training equipment you're likely to meet that most resembles a person. By imagining that the bag is your boss, enemy, or the customer service representative who never heard of the words "thank you," you can punch and kick your aggressions away.

Until you've stepped up to a small hanging punching bag the kind you often see boxers using you'll never realize how difficult it is to work with. Here coordination is the name of the game. Not only must you hit it, but you've also got to develop timing and speed. It takes a lot of practice, which is something many students, especially women, avoid, because to become proficient at it, you've got to be willing to look like an uncoordinated fool. After your first few tries, you'll wonder how you manage to walk and chew gum at the same time. But keep at it. You'll increase your upper body strength and size, develop a superior sense of timing and speed, and impress the hell out of every male student in your class.

Large hanging punching bags are a lot easier to practice with. Their size makes them easy to strike at and actually hit. But they're also solid, so be careful. A weak punch thrown at it could result in an injury to the fingers or the wrist. Hard kicks to it could result in bruises or dark red marks. Despite that manufacturers have come out with hanging bags that contain water instead of cotton fiber, and therefore allow students to perform high-impact workouts without incurring injuries, I've yet to see one of these devices in a school.

The best advice is to start easy. Throw some soft punches, then work your way up until you're throwing hard strikes and kicks, but aren't uncomfortable doing so. No matter how loud or forceful your instructor yells for you to "go harder," listen to your inner voice. After all, it's you who will go home with bruises, not him.

In addition to striking and kicking pads, and wearing them when sparring, martial arts students, especially judoists, also roll on padded mats. Some schools have wall-to-wall padding on all the floors; others cover one side of the training floor with padding, the other with a hard wood spring floor; still others bring the mats out on an as-needed basis, then store them when not in use. Either way, they will be your best friend when starting out in your chosen martial art. Just knowing that there's two inches of dense foam awaiting you as you take your first few rolls or falls is enough of an assurance to let you concentrate on what you're doing rather than whether it will hurt.

In addition to pads and bags, you may also train with such equipment as medicine balls and padded mitts. Padded mitts used in the martial arts resemble stiff baseball gloves. They fit over your hands and are used with a partner to improve aim, focus, and timing. The student wearing the mitts moves her hands around, creating a moving target for her opponent to strike at.

In my school, medicine balls are passed around, several at a time, while the class stands in a circle. The idea is to throw it into your neighbor's gut as hard as you can. The problem is sometimes your neighbor aims too high or too low. A word of advice here is to try to stand next to women or students who have good aim and don't throw so hard, or, at the very least, students who are your size. If the person standing next to you is a foot or so taller than you, he might inadvertently throw the ball into your chest. Ideally, the ball should hit you in your stomach area. Always exhale when the ball hits your midsection, and understand that it's okay to tell your neighbor to throw the ball softer.

While one could argue the merits of throwing a heavy ball into someone's gut, it seems to me that some martial arts enthusiasts went a bit too far when they developed a piece of equipment known as the leg-stretching machine. Resembling a seat with wings, these machines hold one occupant, who fits her legs into the "wings," then adjusts them until her legs form a 180-degree angle. Personally, it seems more suited for a torture chamber than a martial arts school. If you can't do this naturally, I don't think your body should be forced into this position.

And, finally, for the martial artist who dreams of glory days where she's breaking boards before crowds of hundreds of cheering fans, there's the re-breakable board. Made of plastic, the re-breakable board can be broken, put easily back together, and re-broken hundreds of times. Hitting the board is supposed to be like striking a three-quarter inch piece of pine not exactly the kind of activity most of us look for when taking up a martial art.


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