How to make your hands harder for martial arts

In this article, I’ll discuss not only how to make your hands harder for martial arts but also why it’s important.  We’ll discuss two training tools to help you achieve this: the makiwara and iron palm training bag (such as these featured on Amazon).


I spent several years learning Shotokan Karate and got to a reasonable standard (1st Kyu).  By this I mean that I could perform the strikes and kicks cleanly and had learned the prescribed katas.


To the casual observer, I looked proficient.  


Then one day it dawned on me that for all my training, the only thing I’d really ever hit was air.  Our training sessions would typically consist of the students lined up in rows whilst our Sensei would shout out the technique we were to perform.  With the loud “Kiai” we’d shout, it looked like a scene from a cheesy martial arts film.


Very occasionally, we’d hit a pad held up by another student.  When this happened the sensation of striking something solid was strange and repeated strikes were often uncomfortable.


It was after one of these sessions with the bags, that I thought how ridiculous my current training regime was.  I knew how to form a fist and to throw a punch. My muscle coordination and improving technique was even rewarded with higher belts.  Yet the actual tools involved in striking were underdeveloped.


Part of the reason for studying Karate was for the self-defense aspect.  If I was jumped on the street, my thinking was that I’d be able to pull off a few Mr Miyagi type moves and emerge unscathed.  Yet, the reality was that if I actually threw a punch or a kick, I would probably end up breaking my wrist and fracturing the bones in my hand.


That’s not to say that Karate can’t be an effective self defense system but additional supplementary training is required, namely conditioning the striking weapons of the body: the hands, feet, shins and elbows.   Unless this is done, they will crumple and be injured on impacting a solid object.


I don’t this this supplementary training just applies to Karate if you’re interested in self defense.  


In boxing, gloves are worn to protect the hands and the same is true in MMA.  If practitioners of these fighting styles are attacked on the street, then in all likelihood they’ll damage themselves more than their opponent.

The Makiwara

So how do you harden your hands for martial arts?


One of the best ways is through the use of a makiwara.

This a vertical  post that stands about chest height and features a padded area which can be struck repeatedly.  


It originates in Okinawa, near Japan, where traditional Karate is practiced and is one of a number of supplementary training tools that are used.  


Very much like a boxer might use a heavy bag, the karateka repeatedly strikes the padded area.  

Importantly, this gives the practitioner a sense of what it’s like to feel resistance against their strike.

Newton’s law states that for every reaction, there is an equal and opposite reaction.  When you strike something, force is directed back at you. Unless you’re in a strong stance and the punch properly executed, the strike will simply bounce off.

It’s therefore an excellent tool for developing proper technique.  Moreover, conditioned use will help to harden your hands.

The makiwara is quite “stiff”; there’s not much give to it when you strike it.  It’s not like hitting a punching bag which tends to swing away from you when struck.

As a result, regular use will cause micro-trauma to the bones of the knuckles and hand.  These are microscopic cracks and fractures. The body repairs these quickly and overcompensates, depositing excessive calcium phosphate to make them even stronger than they were before.


Q What strikes can you use on a makiwara?

The makiwara can be used for all the strikes used by most martial arts: punches, palm strikes, knife hand strikes, elbows, and kicks.  Some techniques may require you to stand at an angle from the makiwara.


Q How often should you train on the makiwara?

“Repetition is the mother of skill”, as Tony Robbins says.  In order to get better, you need to compete multiple repetitions.

A regime of 50-100 times per day is generally recommended on both the left and right side.  Indeed, it’s important to develop your non-dominant side and perhaps the easiest way is to simply carry out more repetitions (reps) on that side.

If you’re right handed you could carry out, say,  75 reps on your left side and 50 reps on your right.


Q Can you injure yourself using a makiwara?

When you train, it’s important that you don’t hit the makiwara too hard at first. It will take time for your hands to harden.  You don’t want to put your training back by being injured for several weeks.

It’s important to listen to your body.  If you’re feeling any unusual aches then it’s important you stop and rest.  You shouldn’t be hitting the makiwara so hard that it causes any pain whatsoever.


Iron Palm Training

Iron Palm (or Iron Hand) training is used in a number of Chinese martial arts and involves conditioning the body by striking a tough canvas bag filled with beans or gravel.

It’s another excellent way of hardening the hands.

The bags typically measure about 6-8 inches square and can be placed on a table at about waist height.

In this position, you can try a number of hand strikes:  back hand, palm, knife hand and claw strike. These can be done in rotation before swapping hands.

The difference between the makiwara and the iron palm bags is the one stands vertically and one sits horizontally.

Q How hard should you hit the bags?

You should hit the bags gently at first.  No training session should result in calluses, broken skin or pain.  It’s the gentle repetition, over time, that hardens the hands. Striking the bag excessively hard will only result in injury.

Q Can you injure yourself with iron palm training bags?

It’s important you hit the bags correctly.  For instance, if you try to complete a palm strike but, instead, strike the bag with your fingers first, you’ll likely end up with any injury.  You need to focus and employ correct technique.


Hopefully, this article has given you some tips on how to make your hands harder for martial arts.

Happy training!