Book review: The anatomy of martial arts

I’ve been attempting recently to understand more about the biology and physiology of why our martial arts moves work the way they do, and this book by Dr Norman Link and Lily Chou was part of that quest.

Part 1: Overview

Part 1 of the book is a very brief overview of anatomy (one page!), followed by a discussion of the theory of kinetic chains and the physics behind high-energy strikes.

There are also some warnings about mis-use and long-term damage if you do things wrong, which is an important note.

The whole of part 1 is only 7 or 8 pages, and personally I would have put some of the things in the appendix into part 1 and expanded on them – but more on that later.

Part 2: Techniques

Part 2 is where the bulk of the book is spent.

50 of the most common martial arts techniques are each given their own two-page spread. There is a brief explanation of what is happening and a discussion of the importance of speed vs. power vs. accuracy in this particular technique.

Most of the second page is given over to a diagram of the muscles used. Blue is for key static muscles, the ones that you tense for stability but don’t actually use to create movement. Red is for the dynamic muscles.

Example illustration from the book, showing muscle groups used when kicking.

Each page also has a selection of exercises to do in order to improve this move. They’re a mixture of muscle strengthening and stretching exercises, plus a few to improve your balance.

Example exercises to improve your martial arts.

Depending on the specifics of your martial art, some thought is needed to interpret some of the techniques. The punches and blocks in particular seemed very “karate” to me, and some of the kicks were more designed for tournament-style taekwondo rather than practical self defence.

However, there are sections not only on punches and kicks, but also throws, groundwork, rolls and falls, and weapons, so there is something for everyone in this book.

I appreciated the detail put into the illustrations. They’ve used a range of different models – all actual martial artists. In some cases they’ve paid attention also to what the effect of the technique is. Observe, for example, the expression on this man’s face:

Diagram showing the muscles used when kicking to the groin.


In the appendices there are lists of muscles and what they do, arranged both alphabetically and by joint. For myself I could have used this section to be a bit more detailed, perhaps with some diagrams so I didn’t have to go looking for the particular muscles in the main section of the book. I think I would also have put it into Part 1, to flesh out the very light detail there.


Overall, I found this book useful. Part 2 is quite repetitive, so it’s more suited to dipping into when you have questions about a specific move rather than reading cover to cover.

You can pick up a copy of The anatomy of martial arts: an illustrated guide to the muscles used in key kicks, strikes and throws, by Dr Norman Link and Lily Chou, on Amazon or in your favourite book retailer. If you’re going to get one, I would recommend paperback rather than kindle, because the layout is much better.

What’s your recommendation for books on anatomy and physiology? Let us know in the comments.

Published by Nicola Higgins

Nicola Higgins is a 30-something* martial artist, Girlguiding Brownie and Ranger Leader, and actuary. She somehow also finds time to read, fuss her cat, and occasionally spends time with her husband. [* please note that "ten or more" is still something.]

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