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Book review: Martial Mechanics by Phillip Starr

May 25, 2009

Book cover imageOK, this is slightly off the theme of “thoughts from the Martial Way”, but I’ve been doing some reading to try to fill in some background on Kali, and I thought it might be helpful to somebody if I did some reviews of the books I’ve been using. There will be more reviews to follow this one, and trust me, they won’t all be as positive as this!

The book is Martial Mechanics by Phillip Starr. I just stumbled across this book in Borders – it wasn’t at all what I was looking for, but it was so fascinating that I had to pick it up. I read the whole book through in two days (it’s not a long book – 189 pages – but I don’t normally spend that much time reading in a day), and I think that every martial artist owes it to themselves to own this book. Phillip Starr, feel free to quote me on that. 🙂

Before I get into any details, a disclaimer – in my experience, there are two types of people in the martial arts. There are the people who want to break things down and analyze them – these are the folks who are trying different foot angles to see which one aligns the hips properly for the kick they’re practicing. Then there are the folks who just want an intuitive understanding of their movements – these are the guys who do ten thousand repetitions before they feel like they can start practicing it “right”. Phillip Starr is clearly in the former camp, and the book is written for those people. The latter group of people will probably find this book overly-analytical and prescriptive (sample: “The rear foot is then brought forward and the adductors contract again to reload your stance.”)

Phillip Starr is a practitioner of Chinese internal arts (baixingquan, taijiquan, xinyiquan, baguazhang), and it shows in the book. It reads like an overview of every physical aspect of martial arts, which is effectively what it is – there’s no possible way that he could cover any topic in depth in a book of this size. Nevertheless, Starr’s writing is so clear and effective, you feel like you understand what he’s talking about even when it’s obvious that you’d need years of practice in order to actually do the movements properly.

The book starts out by covering the principles of movement, from a physics-based perspective. I think Starr’s physics are simplistic (for example, F=ma when applied to a punch describes the force applied to the striking arm by your muscles, not the force that the punch applies to its target), but he gets the point across. He then covers the types of impact (focused, piercing, snap-back, and smashing) more clearly than I’ve ever seen this topic discussed before, and the principles of power generation.

With the fundamentals out of the way, Starr goes into strikes, footwork, breathing, body structure, stances, blocks, and even combinations and timing. Sounds like a lot, doesn’t it? Well, it is – each topic gets fairly brief coverage, which nonetheless leaves you feeling like he captured the essence of it, and left out only “details” (though there’s a couple of lifetimes of work left as an exercise for the reader).

Starr’s writing style is approachable and enjoyable, his images are effective, and the production values of the book are excellent. Unfortunately (for me), he doesn’t discuss weapons at all, but since the book is talking about body mechanics, everything translates directly to weapons styles once it’s understood.

Barring possibly Five Rings, this is the best book I’ve come across on what the martial arts are really about. I’m going to require my students to read it, and I strongly recommend that anyone who has the least interest in moving properly go out and buy a copy immediately.

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