10 Best Martial Arts Books for Instructional Reading Reviewed
There is a huge bevy of reasons that someone might be inspired to begin their journey into kung-fu, judo, karate, or some other ancient lineage of martial art. Perhaps they saw Bruce Lee’s Enter the Dragon and decided that they wanted to begin their own journey int Wing Chun. Or perhaps they saw kung-fu practitioner practicing forms in the park, and grew curious. They may even have been inspired by the famous movie “The Karate Kid.” Whether they were inspired through media or through real life, the end result is the same.
These lineages have been inspiring students for thousands of years, and continue to do so to this day. Some traditions have thousand-year lineages, such as kung-fu, the first reference of which was recorded in 206 B.C. Others are more recent additions to the scene, such as judo and Brazilian jiu-jitsu, which were only invented in the late 19th and mid 20th centuries, respectively. All of them have had visionary founders who have sought to bring together a cohesive and powerful set of techniques in a tradition to help its adherents be fierce fighters and adept warriors.
- Book of 5 Rings
- Ancient Classic
- Includes Strategy Section
- Shotokan Karate Bible
- Combination Techniques
- Belt-By-Belt Guide
- The Book of Knowledge
- BJJ World Champion
- Mix of Strikes and Take-downs
All of these traditions have one thing in common: adhering to them with discipline and regularity will not only strengthen your body and boost your self-defense skills, but it will also sharpen your mind and improve your reflexes as well. There is a reason that the masters of these traditions have such an imposing presence. Anyone who stood in the presence of a true master, such as Gichin Funakoshi, knows that their dedication and years of experience has not only strengthened their bodies so that they can break boards with their hands but has given them a wisdom and strategic mind that is oftentimes unparalleled. The desire to emulate these masters is strong.
So, you’ve decided to embark on a journey into the martial arts. How, though, do you begin? Though we live in the information age, the flip side is that though there is more information out there than ever, you can’t quite be sure what or who to trust. At this point, in ancient times, the student would go out and find a teacher to begin their training. However, perhaps you aren’t ready to find a teacher, and just want to learn about the different lineages out there. Or maybe you are already the practitioner of one tradition and want to begin learning another. Whatever your background, written works are an excellent place to start your journey. We’ve assembled the best of the best below to help you find the product that’s perfect for you.
10 Best Martial Arts Books
1. Book of 5 Rings
When you are attempting to learn about ancient traditions such as karate and kungfu, it is natural to want to pick up a written work. However, if you only read modern books, it's likely that you're only getting half the story because these modern works are written by people who have read and contemplated the classics. In order to get the full picture, you need to be willing to read the foundational literature.
Many works in this genre teach you compilations of moves and techniques. However, few teach you the bigger picture of how to analyze scenarios and think long-term over the course of a match and your career on how to defeat your opponents. This work contains ancient wisdom on battle strategy to teach you how to train your mind to strategize and overcome your opponents,
Cost and Value
This product has an extremely low price when compared to the other items that we've included on our list. The fact that this seminal classic is so inexpensive boggles the mind. It has pieces of ancient wisdom that you simply cannot find anywhere else. If you want to know some of the sources where the masters learned their greatness, you've found one right here.
May receive defective product
2. Shotokan Karate Bible
Many written works will teach you movements and techniques in isolation from each other. In the end, it is up to you to figure out how to string them together in the ring. This product, though, eschews this common pitfall by allowing you to follow along with various combination techniques included in its pages.
Many products do not divide information up by belt-level. They tend to throw a lot of information at you at once and trust that you will advance through the volume at an intuitive pace. It's not so intuitive as they would think, though. This work clearly lays out what you need to be able to do to succeed at each belt level.
Cost and Value
This product falls onto the high end of the price range when compared to the other items that we've included on our list. That slightly elevated price gets you quite a lot for your money, though. You learn how to string movements together into combination techniques, all wrapped up in a well-photographed belt-by-belt organizational system.
Only covers one martial art
3. The Book of Knowledge
Sometimes it can be difficult to ascertain the validity and credentials of an author. When you're trying to learn a physical discipline such as karate or jiu-jitsu, it is doubly important to double check the lineage and ability of the teacher. All of the authors of this work are decorated, but none more so than the primary author, Penn, who is a world champion in three separate categories.
Mix of Strikes and Takedowns
This product's pages contain a diverse range of techniques. Too often you'll find yourself stuck in a pigeonhole with only one kind of form, punch, or kick being taught. You will get a good range of techniques in this work, including a great mixture both strikes and takedowns.
Cost and Value
This product is far and away the least expensive item when compared to the other products that we've included on our list here. Don't be fooled by that low price into thinking that this price is low on value. This work truly is "The Book of Knowledge," from three experienced and diverse authors who are able to deliver a range of technique and tricks.
UFC world champion
BJJ world champion
Mix strikes and take-downs
How to devise strategies
Not an ancient lineage
4. The Zen
Sometimes as a student, you're not just looking for a written account of techniques or a how-to guide. Sometimes you want to simply get inside the head of the masters, to learn about their lives and to learn what it takes to achieve greatness. This work is certainly a great way to get inside an expert's perspective and to learn the tale of his life and his journey.
Audio Format Available
Many times, works in this category do not translate well into the audible format, simply because there is a huge amount of pictures and other visual information included. This product, though, is an autobiography and firsthand perspective. This work translates very well into an audible format, and that option is available for download.
Cost and Value
This product is among the least expensive when compared to the other items that we've included on our list. If you're looking for an autobiographical account of exactly what it takes to succeed in this sport, this account will give you an inside view into the life of an accomplished person who studied alongside Bruce Lee. This and the variety of formats available makes this a work that everyone can enjoy.
5. Krav Maga for Beginners
Many written works throw a lot of jargon around and can leave the novice learner confused. These works assume some kind of familiarity with the sport, leaving beginners in the dust. This item is designed to be approachable for beginners so that even the greenest newbie can get a grip on the material and begin their Krav Maga journey.
Many works include details on how to strike, punch, and kick your opponent. However, oftentimes you'll see a clear lack of information on what to do when your opponent attacks you. This work has a great deal of information on how to counter your opponent's attacks to gain the upper hand in the fight.
Cost and Value
This product has a middling cost when compared to the other items we've included in our list. However, it is the only work included that covers Krav Maga; if you're especially interested in this tradition, you simply can't pass up this excellent volume. The authors are also some of the best authorities on the matter in the West.
360 step-by-step photos
6. Bruce Lee's Fighting Method
How did this man achieve such greatness? Surely there must be some secret technique or regimen that helped him to achieve such heights of ability, dexterity, and skill. Lee's very own techniques are detailed in this work, penned by his own hand. He tells you firsthand how to improve and to gain skill, power, and knowledge.
Aside from being a classically trained kung-fu master and knowing traditional forms and techniques, Lee also had experience with the nitty-gritty world of street fighting. Unfortunately, not every fight you find yourself in will be in the ring. It's a dangerous world out there; for these times, Lee has tips to help you in streetfighting as well.
Cost and Value
This product falls into the middle of the price range when compared to the other items we've included in our list. However, no price is too high to gain wisdom straight from the mind of someone who is perhaps the world's greatest kung-fu master. His skills are known the world over, and there is perhaps no greater teacher. Though you can't learn from him in the flesh, reading his words is the next best thing.
Bruce Lee's techniques
Street fighting tips
How to develop body movements
Only covers 50 moves
7. Kodokan Judo
The founder of the sport has included many pre-arranged formal exercises to help you master the foundations of this tradition. These are exercises and techniques that he invented; therefore, there is no one better qualified to teach you about them. In this case, you're getting your knowledge directly from the source.
Two Varities of Practice/strong>
In addition to the formal exercises, this work offers detailed information about how those techniques are combined into two distinct kinds of practice. There is free practice (called randori), and there is the practice of forms (called kata). Both of these are valuable to your development as a fighter, and thus both are detailed extensively.
Cost and Value
This product falls into the middle to high end of the price range when you compare it to the other items we've included in our list. However, if you're looking for information on Judo, this work is too good to pass up on to separate counts. First, it is written by none other than the founder of the sport himself. Second, it is the only text about judo included on this list. Overall, this volume is a winner.
100+ year tradition
Pre-arranged formal exercises
Two variety of exercises
8. The Tao of Jeet Kun Do
This man, as previously stated, is perhaps the most well-known and well-loved fighter of all time. He founded the Jeet Kune Do style, one of the fiercest wushu schools. He began his journey into the world of fighting at 16, after losing fights to area gang members. He began to study Wing Chun under acclaimed master Yip Man. His rise to fame is well-documented from there.
Updated and Expanded
A common issue with the classic works written by masters now dead is that they tend to get out of date as time goes by. It can be difficult for a modern student to truly understand what is being written as the culture shifts over time. Luckily, this edition is updated and expanded, with a new preface and supplemental information to help you understand this great work.
Cost and Value
This product falls into the middle to high end of the price range when it's compared to the other items we've included on our list. However, the value of Bruce Lee's wisdom cannot be overstated. He is writing about the very sport that he founded; there is no better source of information.
Bruce Lee author
Updated and expanded
May receive incorrect product
9. Encyclopedia of Taekwon-Do
This work, among others in its series, contains the entire body of work of General Choi, who was not only the creator of the Ch'ang Hon Taekwon-do system, and who was also the founder of the International Taekwon-Do Federation. When you're trying to learn something, it's best to go straight to the source.
For visual learners, the written word can be a death knell. Oftentimes it is difficult for them to visualize the information that is being presented to them, and to create an accurate mental picture in their heads. This product helps those folks out by providing more than 1600 photographs to help you on your way.
Cost and Value
This product is easily the most expensive item when compared to the other products we've included in our list. However, on the flip side, it is also probably the most comprehensive. Its extensive coverage of Taekwon-do drives up the price. As they say, quality comes with cost.
Covers 3 schools
Complete works of General Choi
10. Living the Martial Way
In order to understand where we're going, we have to understand where we come from. The same is true with these traditions. In order to truly move forward in your practice, you have to understand the history and foundational teachings upon which that practice is based. This volume provides an excellent groundwork for learning those lessons.
How to Establish a Regimen
One of the most important parts of training is follow-through. You need to be able to train regularly and with discipline. Without discipline, you'll never advance as a fighter. However, it can be difficult to establish a routine and stick to it. This tome provides advice on how to do just that.
Cost and Value
This product falls into the middle of the price range when compared to the other items we've included on our list. It has many great attributes that can help the aspiring fighter get to the heart of the tradition. Though light on technique, it is heavy on philosophy and history. If you want a deeper understanding of the lineage, this is an excellent work to pick up.
Martial arts history
Establishing a regimen
People have all sorts of reasons for getting interested in martial arts. Maybe they’ve seen something in media or pop culture that has piqued their interest. Maybe they have someone in their life that they have witness firsthand blossom under the tutelage of a kung-fu instructor. Or maybe they’re just tired of feeling powerless and want to emulate their UFC heroes and learn how to defend themselves in the ring. Whatever the reason, the written word is a great place to start the journey. It allos you to get into the heads of the masters, and to learn ancient secrets you may not have an opportunity to access otherwise.
Criteria for Evaluating the Best Martial Arts Books
- Masters and Teachers: Generally, when people are trusted to teach others, that is a mark that their base of knowledge is strong enough to be able to pass it on to students. Masters and teachers who have successfully taught students the tenants of their lineage are a good source of information.
- Lineage Founders: When you’re looking to get information, you want to get as close to the source as possible. This is possible with the enduring nature of the written word when you can read the words, advise, and treatises of lineage founders who have since died and passed on.
- Belt rankings: There are different belt ranking systems in the different traditions and lineages of the world. However, you generally don’t want to pick up a work that has been written by anyone who has anything less than a black belt. If they have less than a black belt it is an indicator that they are inexperienced and haven’t taught others.
- Country of origin: There are different geographic origins for the different schools, and this has had a distinct impact on their development. For example, Krav Maga was developed by the Israeli military, and has an emphasis on power and brutality, whereas karate and kung-fu are grounded in Buddhism and contain a balance between strength and grace.
- Origin: There are two different schools of tradition. There are those who have come onto the scene more recently in the past hundred to hundred and fifty years, and then there are the traditions that those more recent systems were founded upon. The most ancient lineages go back thousands of years and have hundreds of teachers and thousands of techniques.
- Paperback: Paperback refers to a book with a paper cover, that is generally made of cardstock. It is easily bent and water damaged but is the least expensive form of physical volume.
- Hardback: Hardback refers to a written work that has a cardboard cover that is stiff and durable. It is more long-lasting, but also tends to be more expensive, and heavier to carry around.
- eBook: This is a digital format that can be transferred between multiple devices, such as a smartphone, eReader, tablet, and computer. It is versatile and weighs nothing, but may not be a great option if you don’t like staring at a screen.
- Audiobook: This is a digital format that you listen to via headphones or a speaker. It is great for those who are audible learners or like to listen while doing other things. However, pictures don’t translate well into this format.
Frequently Asked Questions
Q: Is this author trustworthy?
A: Before you pick up a book, hopefully, you’ve done some groundwork to figure out if you can trust them. This could be as simple as reading the dust jacket to see the author bio, or as complicated as doing an internet search to get their background and history. You’ll want to be on the lookout for specialized information such as who they trained under, what tradition they were trained in, and if they have won any championships or received any other notable accolades.
Q: Can I just learn everything I need from the book?
A: Books are a great starting point. However, they are just that, a starting point. You can use them to get the lay of the land before diving fully into a lineage or tradition. But in order to reach any level of proficiency, you will need to find a teacher sooner or later. Preferably sooner.
Q: What are the different kinds of books?
A: There are a few different kinds of books out there. There are books on philosophy that provide the background information of a tradition but do not give much information about technique. There are autobiographies and biographies that tell the stories of the lives of the masters. Finally, there are instructional books that are heavy on facts and light on anecdotes. These will give you information on different techniques and forms.
Q: What format should I buy?
A: The answer to this will depend largely upon what, how, and when you like to read. If you are a person that likes to be able to take their tome with them wherever they go without having to haul a physical book around, then a digital version might be best for you. An audiobook may also be in order. However, for instructional tomes, you’ll often want to spring for the physical edition, as pictures and illustrations do not translate well to audio or eBooks.
Q: What do I do if my book arrives damaged?
A: You will want to contact the vendor immediately and alert them to the problem. Most are happy to help you get the damaged item returned and replaced.