Tag Archives: Wing Chun

Learning Martial Arts from a Book (or Video)?

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.

Image from thecoolist.com

What A Workout!

Yes, I still like my vague titles, lol. Keeps people curious.

OK, so I had hoped to be back here (and at my other blog) writing again sooner, but things have been busy. There’s alot of little chores with a house this old and a fairly sizable yard. We’re also still sorting and tossing things in an effort to trim back and simplify.

On top of that, I’ve been working HARD at one of my New Year’s resolutions… You know, that one that EVERYBODY makes:

I’m Going to Get In Shape!!!

THIS has been my torture device of choice:

It’s a water based rowing machine. LONG story short, we decided months back that when we moved we were going to get one more exercise machine to go with our stationary bike. I thought long and hard about it, and pushed for a rowing machine because it works so many muscle groups at once.

Picture from Amazon’s store page

It also works your back and shoulders. I even feel it in my forearms. Rowing around on a lake (in an inflatable boat) was how I first got in shape in my younger days, and it’s a habit I still enjoy, so this was a natural choice to me.

I still have yet to get a certain lazy spouse on it however. >_<

For those of you who have been slacking on your fitness… Let me tell yah; you don’t realize how badly you can go downhill before you truly feel it. I knew I was out of shape thanks to my back and neck keeping me sedentary for 8 or so years. I walked, I did things around the house, so I assumed I wasn’t THAT bad off.

The first time I got on the rower, I could only do fifty reps. 😶 NOT good, since the rower pretty much provides the same moderate level of resistance as real rowing.

I’ve busted my butt however, and am determined to NEVER go back to that condition I was in before decompression therapy. In roughly three weeks, I’ve gone from 50 reps to 1000 yesterday. Some of my improvement was probably just the exercise working fatigue poisons and other toxins out of my system. I know I’m feeling mentally and physically better, even if pushing hard leaves me wiped out afterwards. 😀

I’ve also lost 10 pounds and am determined to keep that up also.

The Best Diet Advice I Ever Got:

Was something so simple that most people wouldn’t believe it works; just SLOW DOWN and enjoy your food. Take your time, thoroughly chew it, actually make conversation with people while you eat, etc… The ideas being that first, it takes 15 minutes for your stomach to tell your brain it’s had enough, no matter how much food you scarf down. So yes, closely related to that, it’s also better for your digestive system.

The hidden benefit to it though is that you AND your body will quickly figure out what’s truly good food. I was skeptical on this one and actually tested the idea on a McDonald’s Egg McMuffin one day. I used to love the things. Slowing down and chewing it though… truly giving myself time to sample the flavors… The sausage is REALLY disgusting, and the muffin and cheese aren’t much better.

Some of you may have had similar experiences with other foods. Little Ceasar’s pizza for example; it actually tastes good if it’s hot and you don’t truly take your time. Let it cool off even a little though… Yuck! Even if you eat it quickly.

If you want to read more about the whole concept, there’s a book called “The Slow Down Diet” that goes into more details, but I’ve given you most of the highlights here.

Just make that one simple change in your eating routine and see how much changes in your life.

The Ongoing Neck and Back War:

Speaking of the neck and back… Moving REALLY took a toll on both of them, given how rushed everything was. My worthless ProNex therapy tool broke on me also:

The damned thing tore in half at the narrow center section of the top piece, just from normal use. Talk about cheap! I mean I knew it was foam rubber, but still…

Pronex doesn’t stand by their products either, even if brand new. Needless to say, I’m changing my review to zero stars, wouldn’t recommend. After some meticulous research, I came across an alternative:

Only $50 more than the Pronex, but it’s solid construction, not low grade foam rubber.

It worked so well that we bought the lower back unit made by ComfortTrac also:

With my bad back and the auto accident my other half suffered in the Subaru, this unit has been a godsend for both of us. Chiropractic treatment never did anything long term for my back, but this is helping tremendously.

Neither unit is QUITE as good as full blown professional decompression treatment, BUT with common sense and regular use, they come VERY VERY close, for a good deal less. My previous decompression treatments ran almost $4000, and the moving undid a large portion of that. These two units had a combined cost of roughly $1000 on Amazon. That’s still ALOT of money, but we’re both benefiting from them, and it’s cheaper than professional treatment, and FAR FAR cheaper than surgery.

If there’s enough interest, I’ll do a more in-depth review on both. For now, suffice it to say they’re a large part of why I’ve been able to push myself so hard, and will help guarantee I never go back to that broken down state EVER again.

Oh yes… Remember that recurve bow I bought also?

Well, I finally got it out and started shooting also. The weather has provided limited opportunities there, but I finally got out the other day and shot a few flights. This was at about 30 feet of distance BTW. Not too impressive. My first volley was a bit of a mess also, LOL:

I hit the target with all 3 arrows though! I consider that fairly good since it was the first time I’d shot a bow since 1987 or 88. There was no nock point (a little piece of brass wrapped around the string) on the bow string, no sights, and the tab (finger guard) I was using on my drawing hand was incredibly sloppy.

Picture from Amazon’s store page of the exact one I purchased. Somebody sure chews their nails, LOL

I have to replace it with a shooting glove for sure.

BUT, I shot bare bow for the first time in 33 years and out of 50 arrows at between 30 and 35 feet, I only missed the target 3 times. By the last flight of arrows, my accuracy had improved too:

I even put one nearly dead center!

Funny… I was worried that a 40 pound draw weight on the bow might be a hair too much. It’s actually proving to be just about right for me, and is giving my arms a little extra workout also.

I’ve forgotten some of the technique I was taught back in college, but it’s amazing how I could pick up on what I was physically doing wrong with my shots; primarily being too tense, and sometimes not just simply releasing the bow string.

For those who have never shot a bow, the ideal release technique is to just simply let the fingers holding the bow string go limp. It prevents an accidental jerk of the string sideways, which will make your shot go wide. That can happen if you try to force your hand to release the string, or outright jerk your hand away.

ANYWAY… I need some practice for sure, but it wasn’t bad for a first outing. 🙂

I’ve also taken a few preliminary steps towards brushing up on my Kenpo and Wing Chun. That’s a story for another time however. 🙂

Five MAVO Points to anyone who can tell me what that last picture is though… WITHOUT an internet search. 😛

Movie Review: Ip Man 4

How does this stack up to the rest of Donnie Yen’s “Ip Man” movies? Not quite up to par, although it definitely had some real high points if you’re a fan of martial arts movies in general and Wing Chun specifically. Here’s my analysis:

The Plot (minimal spoilers):

This movie is set in 1964. Ip Man receives an invite to come to the United States by his student Bruce Lee. At the same time, Ip Man also learns he has cancer AND wants to find a U.S. school for his son, so that he will have more experience of the world.

Everything coming together the way it does leads Ip Man to San Francisco where he almost immediately finds himself in the middle of the feud between Bruce Lee and the Chinese Benevolence Association in Chinatown AND the prejudiced treatment of the Chinese there by “whiteys”.

As with the three previous installments, Ip Man overcomes all with strength of fists and strength of character. 🙂

Historical Fiction:

Where this movie deviates from the previous trilogy though is it’s complete fiction. The others were more or less accurate portrayals of Ip Man’s life, even if a little exaggerated for dramatic effect. Maybe more than a little depending upon the source. 😉

Ip Man, to the best of my knowledge, never traveled to the United States. Nor did he get involved in any way in Bruce’s infamous feuds with the West Coast martial arts community as he fought to establish his school.

The movie seems to also think that San Francisco and not San Diego was the home of the Marine Corp Recruit Depot. Oops 🙂

If you overlook these facts and just take it as a story instead of documentary, the movie is fairly good.

Side Note – Bruce Lee’s Feuds:

If you’ve never seen a Bruce Lee biopic, you may not be familiar with this situation. When Bruce tried to open his martial arts school, he got pushback from the San Francisco martial arts community (which, by extension included most of the SF Bay Area). The established custom was that you sought permission from the leaders, you kept your school under control so as to avoid run ins with the law, and you only taught your fellow Chinese.

Hong Kong, where Bruce came from, still had dojo challenges (occasionally) to prove a style was superior or at least deserved it’s spot among the community. So, Bruce wasn’t shy about pointing out the shortcomings of other schools while he was doing demonstrations. His boasting and willingness to teach non-Chinese rubbed the Chinese Benevolence Association the wrong way, and led to several challenges. Luckily for Bruce, he could walk the walk, not just talk the talk. 🙂 He eventually won the right to teach who he wanted.

The Fight Scenes:

The key element to any martial arts move, right? The fight scenes here were almost on par with the earlier movies in the series, as well as other quality releases from China nowadays. Donnie Yen has always been sensational though, even in Rogue One.

There were a few technical flaws that only another martial artists would pick up though. The biggest one being that the Marine drill instructor and his sidekick who did combat training for the recruits were supposedly Karate people.

Japanese karate is always the enemy in Kung-Fu films, LOL.

Commentary aside, while they did Shotokan or Okinawan Karate style linear hand strikes and blocks, there were quite a few high flying Tae Kwon Do or Wu Shu style kicks and some Shuai Chiao (Chinese Grappling) techniques executed to look more like street fighting.

As far as the Wing Chun displayed… Most of it looked flawless. The only alarm that went off for me was Donnie Yen throwing a series of 50 or more chain punches in two different scenes. This, BTW, is a chain punch:

My own Sifu in Atlanta said that unless the person is completely out of it, you only throw short chains of 3. And if they’re out of it, you don’t need to keep fighting. 50 or more chain punches in a row is a show of amazing conditioning, but practical in a fight? I don’t know…

And for those wondering, YES, there was one Bruce Lee fight. He got a dojo challenge from a WHITE karate master. US Soldiers had been studying Japanese martial arts since the end of World War 2, so it’s POSSIBLE, but… I know first hand that even in the late 1980s if you tried to open a traditional Asian style dojo in the SF Bay Area, instructors from other traditional schools would show up and politely insist that you verify your training lineage if you wanted to stay open.

I digress though. Bruce naturally kicked the guy’s butt. The actor playing Bruce did Jeet Kune Do pretty well also. He’s believable as Bruce Lee. The scene itself looked like a recreation of some of the best fight moments from Bruce’s actual movies, right down to a few of the lines. When the big Karate guy kicked a roll down door and dented it, Bruce replied “Nice, but I’ll hit back”; an obvious spin on Bruce Lee’s famous “Boards Don’t Hit Back” line.

It all works though, in a fun and ever so slightly cheesy way. Bruce was otherwise more of a side note in the film. Probably a good thing so as not to take away from the title character of Ip Man.

If I had one real criticism of the fight scenes, it would be the way the two bad guy Marines plow through all of Chinatown’s other masters so as to make the inevitable fights with Ip Man more dramatic. Even the Tai Chi master head of the CBA is no match for the Drill Instructor, despite holding his own in a match against Ip Man earlier in the film.


It definitely shows that the film was made in China. Donnie Yen and the Producer were even protested in Hong Kong for being too Pro-Beijing when the movie was released. The white characters are largely racist almost to the point of being cliche. Oddly enough the some of the Chinese characters are also, but it’s excused in the writing as a natural defensive reaction to their treatment.

A great example here is when Ip Man first meets with the Chinese Benevolence Association after arriving. He was seeking a letter of recommendation from them so that his son could attend school there as a foreign national.

The CBA says he will need to do a favor for them first. His student (Bruce) has been teaching white people and Ip Man would need to get him to stop. When Ip Man asked them what was wrong with promoting Chinese culture by teaching others, he was told that white people were unappreciative animals who would only turn on their benefactors. Zero exaggeration.

Racism was a real thing at that time (still is), even in a liberal area like San Francisco. The wars in Korea and Vietnam, where China helped the opposing side, didn’t help either. My main objection here is NOT that it’s shown, it’s HOW it was shown. Americans in general and the US Marines in particular are portrayed as rabid racists while the Chinese racism was a completely understandable bias.

Does it ruin the movie? No, but it does take away from what is otherwise a very good film, even if it is pure fiction. I think it sadly reflects how the GOVERNMENT (not the people) of China views the West also.

Overall Impression:

Again, if you can set aside the undercurrent of Chinese nationalism and racism, AND the fact that the movie is pure fiction, this is a pretty good movie. The acting is strong across the board, the story is decent, and the fight scenes are very well done overall. I’d give it 4 out of 5 stars strictly as entertainment.