Modern Applictions of Old-School Hojo Undō Training: The Secret to More Power, Endurance and Conditioning

By Joel Williams | Home Study Students

Sep 28

Hojo undō (補助運動) is a Japanese word that means “supplementary exercises” utilizing various types of traditional equipment that can be traced back to ancient Chinese martial arts. Hojo undō training is used to develop muscular strength, endurance, power, speed, and strong posture required for martial arts. This training is also used to develop mental toughness and resilience. The purpose of this blog post is to provide the reader with an overview of Hojo undō and stimulate a desire to explore these traditional methods to augment one’s mental and physical fitness.  

Not Just for Meatheads…

Image source: Adobe Stock

It is true that when you view individuals performing Hojo undō, you will certainly see some degree of straining, sweating, grimacing, etc. However, we all do those things pretty often during our training sessions – at least you will if you push yourself and work hard. Now… let’s explore Hojo undō applications to better understand their purposes.

” For [the Okinawans] karate training begins with junbi undo (preparation exercises), followed by hojo undo (conditioning exercises), then kata (prearranged strategy training in thin air), and finally bunkai (the fighting application of the kata’s strategy on a training partner). “
– Michael Clarke, Kyoshi (7th Dan), Okinawan Goju-ryu

hojo undo equipment
Hojo undō includes exercises and implements originally developed in China plus additional methods and tools devised and added by the early Okinawan Karate masters.
Image source: Adobe Stock

” The primary goal of Karate is to make the muscles hard as stone and the bones hard as iron. The hands should become like spears while the legs are halberds. ”
– Anko Itosu

Types Of Hojo Undō

Preparation Exercises

Preparation exercises, known as junbi undo, are exactly as they sound… These exercises are intended to increase blood flow, stretch the muscles, open up the joints and prepare the body for work. What do you typically do for a pre-workout warm up routine? Is it always the same or is it workout-specific? Whatever you do for a warm-up, this is junbi undo. In some martial arts there is a prescribed set of warm up exercises that are typically done in a specific order – and always done that way regardless of the focus of the class that follows. You will notice that GMAU class warm-ups are designed to prepare you for the specific workout that follows. Either way, warm-up “routines” usually involve the major joints and muscle groups from head to toe. The next time you are warming up, remember that you are doing junbi undo.

Lifting Tools

There are many different types of “lifting tools” found in old-school martial arts. This category is widely referred to as hojo undo, although some specific styles of martial art use that term to refer to partner conditioning drills. These exercises are used to develop the physical attributes of muscular (and tendon) strength and endurance, joint stability, balance, core strength as well as the mental attributes of concentration, discipline and spirit (enduring discomfort and fatigue). Examples of old-school lifting tools include:

  • Makiagi – Imagine a wooden handle (1-2 inches in diameter) with a rope tied in the middle of the handle with some sort of weight at the end of the rope (could be a weight plate, rock, cement, metal bar, etc.). This tool is used to develop shoulder, upper arm, forearm and grip strength and endurance. To use this tool one would hold the handle straight out in front of them and wind the weight up by twisting the handle, thus shortening the rope and winding the weight up. Next, reverse that motion and let the weight down. Repeat. This is makiagi.
  • Chiishi – Also called, “strength stones”, chiishi have been used for thousands of years in India, the Middle East, and Asia. Chiishi come in single handle and double handle forms. Imagine a piece of cement with a single handle sticking out of it so that all of the weight of the cement is on one end of the handle. This is the single-handle chiishi. Imagine a chunk of cement with two handles (shorter than the single-handle version) sticking out. This is the double-handle chiishi. The single-handle chiishi can be used one at a time (with one or two hands at a time) or the user can wield two at a time (with one in each hand). Although the single-handled version can come in a wide range of weights, the double-handled versions are heavier and thus require both hands to use. These tools are lifted in front of the body, over the head and behind the body, from side to side (in the front) and are lifted with a variety of grips (thumb up, thumb down). Karateka will use chiishi in a free weight fashion or they will perform kata while holding the tools.
  • Nigiri Gami – Also known as “gripping jars”, nigiri gami are used to develop upper body strength and endurance but specifically aid in developing grip strength. Imagine a clay jar with an open top just large enough for you to grip with your hands using a palm-down claw hand shape. This is nigiri gami. The jars are usually filled with sand or rocks to add weight (obviously the weight would increase over time as strength improves) and thus challenge the user’s upper body and hand gripping strength and endurance. The jars can also be held tightly in a palms-facing position where the tool is essentially used for developing upper body strength and endurance (without the hand and finger gripping focus). This tool is used repetitively or they are held to the sides as the karateka does kata (usually Sanchin kata).
  • Tan – This tool is essentially a barbell. Imagine a barbell (one that is smaller and shorter than the 45 pound barbell found on the bench press) with a single weight plate on each end. This is tan. The tan can be used in a variety of ways including for standing curls, overhead presses, front or back squat or held while extending the arms straight out in front of the body. Tan can also be used to develop core strength and spinal rotation by holding the tool while in a static stance (e.g., shiko dachi) and twisting (rotating) side to side. This is a unique exercise for movement in the transverse plane; most workout movements and exercises we do are in either the sagittal or frontal planes. One last interesting use of this tool is where the user rolls the bar up and down both arms simultaneously while the arms are extended out to the front. Not only is there a strength and endurance benefit, as the user becomes proficient in using the tool in this way s/he can roll the bar down the arms, flip it into the air and catch the tan with the arms, then repeat. This specific usage also provides a conditioning (body hardening) benefit.
  • Ishisashi – Also known as “stone locks” these are essentially old-school dumbells, typically made out of cement with a short wooden handle. When held by its short handle the ishisashi looks almost like a large set of brass knuckles. These are used in the same way you would use dumbells at home or in your local gym. Not much else to say about them other than one unique application by old-school karateka is that they would also place their feet under the handles and lift them with their legs while practicing kicks.
  • Kongoken – Also known as the “iron ring” kongoken is a very unique tool. Imagine an oval shaped iron ring roughly 16 inches wide and 5 feet tall. The bar itself is 2.5 – 3 inches in diameter. This is kongoken. While traveling to share the history and benefits of karate, the founder of Goju Ryu, Chojun Miyagi, observed Hawaiian wrestlers using this tool. The use of this tool is difficult to describe… I will simply say that the tool can be used by one or two individuals at a time. Weighing in around 50 pounds, and given its shape, simply manipulating the tool, e.g., holding one end and twisting/flipping the device while the other end rests on the ground can be quite a workout. It can also be used as resistance for squats and push-ups. Many of the two-person applications involve passing the tool back and forth.
  • Tesu Geta – Imagine really heavy flip flops… like ones made of iron or cement. Oh yeah, and instead of having a flat bottom, geta have one or two (usually square-shaped) blocks on the bottom. This is tesu geta. As you can imagine, simply moving around with these on your feet would be quite challenging. Now do stance training and practice balancing on one foot while practicing kicks – this tool produces a challenging lower body workout.
Here I demonstrate the use of modern equipment to simulate exercises with lifting tools found in the hojo undo methods from Okinawan Karate.

Impact Tools

Impact tools are designed to deliver impact, or “shock”, to the body. There is both a physical body-hardening and mental toughness that results from the use of impact tools. This is the most dangerous category of hojo undo because great care must be taken to slowly and systematically increase the intensity or number of repetitions over time. Further, those with a “no pain – no gain” attitude are at risk of over-doing it when using impact tools and may injure themselves due to over-zealousness. Systematic and consistent usage of these tools are essential for gaining maximum benefits. Examples of old-school impact tools include:

  • Makiwara – Also known as a “striking post”, makiwara is probably the most well known hojo undo tool. Although makiwara can be a round post, most of the time when you see one it will more than likely look like a 2X6 board. Makiwara are attached to the floor (inside) or buried in the ground (outside). They are usually wider at the bottom and thinner at the top and are typically about shoulder height. Most makiwara have some type of padding on the striking surface. Old-school versions used straw wrapped in rope. Today’s versions use high density foam covered in leather or some type of flexible material. Not only does makiwara toughen the skin and strengthen the bones and soft tissue it is also used to understand distancing for striking and proper body alignment for power generation. Makiwara is a versatile tool for punches, strikes, blocks and kicks, depending on if the user is standing straight-on (squared off), angled toward, or to one side of the post.
  • Tou – Sometimes called taketaba, the tou is very useful in training nukite (spearhand) striking. Tou are usually make of a bundle of small-diameter bamboo or other flexible wood. The material is bound tight enough to form a bundle but loose enough to allow the fingers and hand to enter the bundle upon striking. Many will use the tau to practice gripping and pulling with the hands as well. Interestingly, some karate styles, such as Uechi Ryu, known for toe-kicking, will also use the tou to condition the feet and toes.
  • Jari Bako – The jari bako is essentially a large bowl or bucket filled with material that holds material into which the user thrusts their fingers and hands, e.g., nukite. Another application is grabbing the material to develop grip strength. In either case, exposing the hands to the material not only toughens the skins but also strengthens the underlying soft tissue and bone. Over time, the user can change the contents from “softer” to “harder” materials. An example progression might follow (from softer to harder): beans, rice, sand, rocks, ball bearings.
  • Ude Kitae – Also known as a “pounding post”, the ude kitae are posts mounted to the floor (inside) or put into the ground (outside) and used to practice various parts of the body including, but not limited to, shin conditioning (ahshi barai), foot conditioning via front kick (mae geri) and side kick (yoko geri kekomi ), forearm conditioning via low blocks (gedan barai), middle blocks (chudan uchi uke), outside blocks (soto uke), and elbow blocks (empi uke), hammer fist (tettsui uchi), knife hand (shuto uchi), and palm strikes (shotei ushi).
  • Kakite Bikei – Also knows as a “blocking post”, kakite bikei is a standing post that has a hinging arm that can be used to simulate blocking, moving and controlling an opponent’s outstretched arm. The movable arm typically has bungee cords or a weight on the backside to add resistance. Often the pressing block (shotei uke) or grasping block (hikei uke) are practiced on this tool. The user can add follow-up strikes or kicks after (or simultaneously with) the block. Another application would also involve the practice of body shifting (tai sabaki).
Here I demonstrate the use of hard implements to condition the body.

Did you Know?

Adaptability is “hard wired” into our physiology. The late 1800s German anatomist Julius Wolff was the first explain (Wolff’s Law) how bones remodel and become more dense as imposed demands are consistently applied. Likewise, an American orthopedic surgeon named Henry Gassett Davis, detailed in the late 1800s how soft tissue (tendons, ligaments and fascia) similarly adapts under stress (Davis’ Law). 

As the body is exposed to repetitive imposed demands, it will undergo external changes to shape and internal changes to structure and blood flow. Both laws, then, also apply to non-use, i.e., without stimuli, the body will reserve it’s resources. Therefore, soft tissue and bones undergo constant states of growth (hypertrophy), shrinkage (atrophy), or maintenance (no change) in response to the intensity and consistency of demands placed on them.

Here I demonstrate the use of bags and pads for conditioning the body.

Body Conditioning Exercises

These two person conditioning drills emphasize “shock” to condition the body and the mind to prepare oneself for contact that occurs during sparring (kumite) or an actual physical confrontation (self-defense). Such drills are rather simple yet complex enough they are difficult to describe in words. These drills are best learned through video or in-person instruction. In short, these drills mainly focus on blocking strikes and counter-striking. Benefits gained from such exercises include enhancement in body conditioning, distance, timing and technique precision.

Auxiliary Exercises

These are basically exercises without tools or implements. Any type of body weight exercise or calisthenics fall into this category. Auxillary exercises can be done alone or with a partner. Examples include push-ups, sit-ups, stand-ups, the cat stretch (same as a dive-bomber push-up), squats (with or without a partner), leg lifts (with or without a partner), and torso wheel (ab wheel) just to name a few.

Here I demonstrate the use of resistance bands to strengthen punches and kicks and improve balance.

And that concludes this overview of hojo undo. It is my intention to increase awareness about these old-school strengthening and conditioning exercises that can be useful adjuncts to your kihon, kata, kumite and self-defense training. Those interested in exploring this topic further are encouraged to check out the additional links provided at the end of this blog.

My Dearest Wish
When you hear about the heavenly technique of the Southern Seas,
They are speaking of the empty fist
This dreadful state of affairs
Means that the true teachings may vanish
Will a person emerge to undertake the task of reinvigorating this art?
My heart pounds with trepidation as I pray to the heavens.
– a poem by Gichin Funakoshi

Still Curious? Check Out These Links:

The Art of Hojo Undo: Power Training for Traditional Karate by Michael Clarke

A concise overview of Hojo undō equipment

Hojo undō equipment explained

Old footage of Hojo undō in action

Footage of Hojo undō training in present day Okinawa

DIY – make your own Hojo undō equipment

About the Author

Husband. Father. University Professor. GMAU Certified Krav Maga Instructor.

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(2) comments

Jim Lubbe October 5, 2019

Great article, Joel! Thanks for compiling and sharing this information. The videos are a very effective complement to the written material. I like that these exercises can be adapted to most any martial arts style. I will definitely be incorporating some of these drills into my own practice sessions.

    Joel Williams October 14, 2019

    Jim – Thank you for the kind words, sir! This one was a bit more work than usual but I enjoyed every minute of putting it together. I wish you all the best in your training. – Joel

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