Mark W. Swarthout
Walk into any martial arts studio and in most you will find a number of common training items. Kicking and punching bags filled with water or sand, target dummies to practice kicking and punching on, speed bags to improve hand eye coordination, kicking and punching targets to be held by your training partner. And while most of these are relatively modern innovations, the martial arts have used a number of items of the centuries for training, building strength and toughness.
In the Japanese arts the term Tanren is used. It means to forge the way that a sword blade is forged, through hard work, and sweat, and hours of training. Under the heat and pressure the hard and soft elements in the body, the mind, and the movements are melded together in the same way that a good sword gains its strength out of a combination of both hard and soft steel.
Many of the kung fu movies include some form of training that is not of the ordinary, but which, to a certain extent, make some sense. Whether some of them are truly valid or not is up to the practitioner.
NOTE: While most of the training aids are fairly self-explanatory, any use of them should only be done after being properly shown the techniques by an instructor. High impact devices should be avoided by those that still have active growth plates. Pain is NOT a good thing and should not be a result of properly using any of these training aids. Improper use may result in serious injury.
The term Tanren is also used to refer to the practice of the instructor moving among the students and validating stances and blocks by testing their alignment than angles through strikes on the student. Common kata for this to be done with include the Naihanchi and Sanchin katas.
Very common in the world of Okinawan karate and its descendants. This is a wooden post that stands about 5 foot high. It has an appropriate amount of ‘spring’ to it, so that it isn’t an immovable object, but flexes when punched. The padding can be anything from canvass, leather or even rope. While the makiwara does help build bone density and calluses the knuckles, the primary purpose of the tool is to insure a strong and correct punch. The lining up of the knuckles, the wrist and the arm are all necessary to move the makiwara without harm. With appropriate pads added, the makiwara can be used for elbow strikes and even kicks.
Sashi and Chishi
Both of these items were traditionally made of stone, but are more often found made of concrete and metal. The Sashi is basically a stone with a handle similar to a suitcase. The Chishi is a similar to a long handled hammer. Both are used to build strength in the arms, wrist and shoulders, as well as the affects on the legs and torso.
Large vases or urns. While these build body strength, their primary focus is to build a very strong grip in the fingers and hands. The Sanshingami are picked up with the finger tips on the rim of the clay vessel. Adding water or sand increases the difficulty.
Tan and Kongoken
The Tan is a solid iron barbell and used in the same way, though there are some exercised that are done very differently than the typical weight lifter would do them. The Kongoken is a large oval iron ring, that was adapted from wrestling sports to provide other strength training.
The Wing Chun Dummy is a primary focus for those training in this close in martial art. It provides a wide variety of striking surfaces and help the practitioner learn to fluidly weave and move the body and arms around the obstacles they represent.
In a number of the Chinese arts, balance is improved through the practice of stances and moves on beams or the ends of posts. I have seen martial artist perform the Naihanchi kata on beams or railings to improve balance and correct lateral movements. Training on surfaces as simple as a board on a log or even a ball or post have been used for balance for decades.
There are many arts that have traditionally practiced spear hand or finger tip strikes into buckets of sand, beans, gravel and similar materials to strengthen the hands and fingers. Other bags and certain trees have been used for both punches and palm strikes. Even buckets of water can be used to improve ones ability to perform Iron Palm strikes.
Weapons in general can be considered as training aids in many respects. There are many weapons that have training versions that are used in place of the actual ones when working out or practicing. The additional weight of a weapon improves strength throughout the body and improves ones’ concentration.
There are many ways of training and there are many aids. Some are created using modern manufacturing, plastics and other materials to replace the traditional wood, leather and stone. New and creative machines aimed at specific needs are now available, but many traditionalists will tell you that the old methods and aids are still valid and work just as well as the new ones.
Good luck in your search for ways to improve your martial arts, but don’t forget to look at the traditional items.
And don’t forget to Get in the Car!
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A version of this article was originally published on Suite101
Copyright 2006, Marek Swarthout