Anybody remember the scene from the first Karate Kid movie where after Daniel finds out that Johnny and his buddies know karate, he checks out a book from the library and is found by Miyagi practicing kicks from the book?
“No can learn karate from book”
With a fairly long background in martial arts, I thought I’d throw a little light on the topic. The people publishing these books (and videos) make a killing on them, and would have you believe you’re just a read and some practice away from becoming Bruce Lee.
If only life were so simple…
The SHORT answer is that anybody of any level can get SOMETHING out of karate books and videos. How much depends upon what you already know.
What if You’re a Beginner?
Your typical books written for beginners can teach you the basics of fundamental kicks, strikes and blocks. None of it will do you any good without a ton of practice however.
The reason Miyagi said what he did in the movie (and instructors will tell you the same thing in real life) is that there are other critical aspects of self-defense that you’re not going to learn from a book:
Basic footwork and Body mechanics to get the most power out of a strike.
When a particular block, strike or kick is appropriate vs using another technique
Target selection for a particular strike or kick
Potential counters for what you may try, and EVERYTHING has a counter.
Timing and set up for techniques
The “secret” (advanced level) tricks that make techniques more effective
And countless other things from not freezing when you take a strike to when it’s better to walk away in the first place.
What a Beginner CAN Get From a Book:
First, there’s the obvious. ANY knowledge is better than none, so long as you understand the limitations of what you know. That last part is the key factor.
Beginners should approach books as a gateway to understanding a martial art, and to see if it piques their interest enough to merit looking into study at an actual dojo. Most books that cover the basics of a style or art will also include information about the style’s history and philosophy. That information can be just as handy as the technique illustrations in feeling out a particular type of martial arts and if it’s right for you.
If You’re More Advanced In Your Knowledge:
The vast majority of martial arts books are truly intended for intermediate to advanced students. “Advanced” meaning 1st degree black belt or above in this case. Many of the early books available in the West were written by Asian masters who wanted to pass on key points of their style to students studying far away from them; students of students, etc… Hyping their style or school to attract new students to it and spread it’s fame is always a secondary goal as well.
Even at this level, a book can’t show every subtle shift of weight, or the ideal movement to transition from one picture or drawing in a book to the next one. It’s expected that the student is familiar enough with the process that the book serves as a reminder more than a teacher.
So Can You Pick Up a New Style From A Book or Video?
Having trained in six arts and done seminars or had a few lessons in just as many others, I feel fairly qualified to answer this one. It really depends upon how similar the style is to what you already know, and if you’re open minded enough to realize some of what your old or current school taught you might not be fully accurate.
“Similar” is an easy enough concept to understand. Kenpo is similar enough to Japanese Karate that the concepts are easy to grasp. Having also studied Wing Chun briefly however, I can tell you that there are numerous subtleties to the art which make it extremely difficult to become competent in as an outsider. Being designed for very close range fighting, and part of it’s defense being “sticking” or maintaining contact with an opponent to more easily sense and deflect their strikes, it’s quite a different experience. An elbow out of position by an inch can mean the difference between safety and having your guard crushed.
The “fully accurate” thing takes a bit more explaining. An easy example is the varying opinions among different styles of the “X-Block” or cross block:
Filipino marital arts (which specialize in bladed weapon combat) teach to pull backwards and slash downward as a counter to this, likely slicing both wrists. Likewise, if used against an overhead club or bottle swing, the length of the club may allow it to still hit the head as it pivots pivots downward. Because of this, quite a few schools now frown on this particular block.
HOWEVER, one has to understand the original intent of this block. It can be used correctly two ways:
The first is to immediately transition into a two handed wrist grab and circle the opponent’s arm into a lock or control technique. Same if it’s used low against a kick, transitioning into an ankle grab.
Second is where most schools have truly forgotten original intent. This, more than most other blocks is meant to be a POWER block. That means it’s executed as hard as the user can. This can literally shatter both of the major bones in the forearm if properly executed. In one book I have, the author details how that happened to him while working with a student and his arm flopped over like a hinge at the break point.
Gruesome, but it illustrates the point about always seeking deeper understanding of how a technique might be used. An open mind is important at every level of learning.
So, to bottom line it, keep an open mind, remember your training, and be prepared to seek other sources of knowledge to supplement what you’re trying to learn. YouTube has a ton of martial arts training videos for example. The vast majority are mediocre quality, but may still be enough to fill in a piece of insight you’re missing.
Keep in mind that you’ll still have your work cut out for you vs real hands on instruction however. At least assuming you’ve found a good instructor.
One Other Note: Caveat Emptor
Quality of martial arts books can vary widely, as with every other topic out there. Some are put together by otherwise decent instructors who don’t know how to illustrate or describe things in a book so that a novice or outsider will grasp them. They assume knowledge the reader may not have.
Other books, as with every other subject, are just snake oil written by people looking to capitalize on a reader’s desire to feel safe or to be a “badass”. Here’s a case and point:
The cover of this ebook alone should be enough to send up red flags for a potential buyer. First and foremost is the bottom line; “The KGB Special Forces system.”
First of all, the KGB was an Intelligence (spy) Agency. It had no “special forces”. Russian special forces are “Spetsnaz”. While they were under the control of Russian military intelligence, that agency (the GRU) was NOT the KGB. The GRU was disbanded in 1992, and the KGB was replaced by the FSB in 1995. So right away the claims of the author become suspect.
Googling the author gets no results for anyone with a background in any kind of martial arts, intelligence or special operations background either.
A less obvious red flag is that any experienced fighter will tell you that knife and gun defense are the LAST thing you ever want to try to learn from a book, especially as a novice.
So while I normally despise Google’s privacy violations, it and Facebook can be valuable research tools in determining if an author is credible. Do your homework before you buy. Investigate the author, check reviews of the book as well. Search for reviews that seem to be written by somebody who knows what they’re talking about too, not just “it’s great” or “it sucks”. If you can only find an ebook version, Amazon’s “Peek Inside” feature can give you an idea if you can make sense of the instructions in there also, or if they’re workable in real life for the average person.
That last bit makes a difference. There’s a ton of SEAL Team related books out there for example. Most of the hand to hand books are written with the idea that you have the superior strength, reflexes and conditioning of a highly trained SEAL Team member though. The best example I can offer here is actually in one of Bruce Lee’s own early books; “Bruce Lee’s Fighting Method: Self Defense Techniques”. In it, he advocates kicking the knife out of an attacker’s hand with a snap kick to the lower wrist.
Bruce Lee can get away with this. The man was clocked hitting 14 times per second. The average person is not going to be that capable and is likely to get a slashed ankle or knife in the leg for trying that. Most of the book is actually very good, but that one technique… ouch.
Let’s Talk Videos Specifically
I’ve spent a great deal of time on books. Videos can be a better option depending upon how detail oriented the instructor is. More advanced details of techniques often get left out of videos because they’re set up to teach beginners. Let me give you a good example:
This is a Kenpo Karate self defense technique against somebody grabbing you by the shirt. Classic bully move that you don’t see that much anymore because attackers realize it leaves them exposed.
There’s a nearly fatal flaw in the technique as 99% of current Kenpo schools teach it though, and it’s visible right in the first 30 seconds. Did you spot it? Don’t feel bad. 🙂
The flaw is that the instructor just throws his arm across the opponent’s hands and steps back to “trap” and extend the arms. In reality, it’s not that hard to just release the lapels and pull away. Kenpo, as it was taught to Ed Parker, was a style that included grappling techniques as well as stand up fighting. It even used to be called Kenpo Juijitsu.
Fixing the technique is fairly easy. First, do NOT just loop your arm over in a big circle to pin the attacker’s hands. It telegraphs big time and an alert opponent will let go to avoid being trapped, and maybe counter with a punch. Keeping your movement small and tight, and similar to a wing chun fook sau (hooking parry) technique is much cleaner.
Second, and most importantly, if you want to keep the opponent pinned and controlled, once you make the grab, roll your pinning hand and forearm downward. This will buckle the wrists and keep them trapped. It will also cause the opponent to move forward at the waist, so that step back and upward strike to the elbows becomes important to avoid a potential headbutt.
So you can learn alot more from a video than a book, BUT sometimes things are left out due to the the viewer’s knowledge level, honest oversight on the instructor’s part, OR because the instructor themself forgot the detail. There are 12 videos on YouTube detailing this technique. I haven’t watched the others, but I’d bet at least 11 of them don’t detail rolling the grab into a sort of double wrist lock.
Even with that said, I still think videos are a better option overall than books just because you can see the entire action, stop it, slow motion it, etc…
I plan on dissecting at least a few other Kenpo videos in the future to show what viewers are missing out in terms of the small details. As for books, do I still think they have value? Judge for yourself:
And that’s only my physical books. 🙂 I’ve learned quite a bit from them but primarily because I keep an open mind and keep digging.
A final note for you authors out there also.
Those books and videos can be a great tool for helping to write a realistic fight scene. I can tell you first hand that nothing thrills somebody with even a basic martial arts background than reading a story where the author actually understands the difference between Tai Chi and Tae Know Do in execution.