"Absorb what is useful. Reject what is useless." These legendary words are often attributed to Bruce Lee, and while it's debatable whether they actually originated with him, there's no doubt that they strike at the core of his martial philosophy. His legendary and eclectic fighting style of Jeet Kune Do, "the way of the intercepting fist," focused on crafting his strikes around his opponent's incoming attack, at a moment when anything extraneous would just slow him down with tragic results. As a result, he was as unpredictable as he was entertaining.
Openness and flexibility also defined how Lee approached his physical training. While trainers and his peers wasted their time with territorial squabbles and quests for one-size-fits-all training programs, Lee was receptive to a wide range of traditions. He took what he needed from martial arts, bodybuilding, and other styles of training. He was devoted to his barbell and kettlebells, but also loved his Nautilus-style Marcy Circuit Trainer. He practiced his kicks and punches daily with full intensity, but he also ran, cycled, and jumped rope.
In short, he was an all-around athlete, and the result was a body that Joe Weider once described as the most defined he had ever seen. Over 40 years after Lee's tragic death, people continue to be inspired by his special combination of speed, strength, and flexibility. The simple discovery of a few new photos of him shirtless is still enough to earn a cover story.
Of course, Lee never trained solely for the purpose of looking good. His aim was to develop a functional body, and the appearance was a byproduct of his training. Training, he said, was "the art of expressing the human body." Here's how he did it, and how you can do the same.
Fit to Fight
Lee was an elite athlete, competitor, and teacher as early as the late 1950s, able to accomplish incredible feats of strength like two-finger push-ups for reps and "one-inch" punches that sent his recipients flying. However, he reconsidered all his training methods after an incident in 1964. That year, Lee was challenged to a duel by Wong Jack Man, a disciple of a very traditional branch of Chinese martial arts. The cause of the challenge, according to most accounts, was Bruce's willingness to teach traditional Chinese fighting methods to Caucasians. By this version of the story, if Lee lost, he would agree to close down his flourishing martial arts school.
Lee triumphed over his adversary in short order, maintaining his ability to teach whomever he wished. However, he later said that even though the fight took only 3 minutes and ended with Lee chasing Man around the studio, it took much longer than what it should have taken, and he felt more winded than he should have. Furious at himself, Lee decided to ruthlessly re-examine his training and look for what his wife Linda called "more sophisticated and exhaustive training methods."
In short order, Lee began an intensive program of strength and fitness that continued up until his death in 1973. He constantly changed his workouts, but he also always recorded them. This means that although it is impossible to nail down an exact "Bruce Lee workout," we can piece together his favorite movements and programs. If you want to leave behind a muscular treasure map for future generations-or just for yourself-follow Lee's example and take good notes along the way.
Train Hard to Hit Hard
Any conversation about Lee's training has to begin with his martial arts practice. Having begun his learning from the late grandmaster Yip Man in the Wing Chun style of Kung Fu, Lee kept progressing until he had formed his own method, Jeet Kune Do. Unlike more traditional styles, Jeet Kune Do was not bound to any rigid forms. It was, Lee said, "a style without style," a free flowing manner of fighting that used whatever worked.
Does this mean Lee no longer had any need to prepare meticulously? On the contrary, it meant that he needed to have all his martial tools ready in an instant. As such, he devoted hours every week to his practice. Here is a typical log of the punches and kicks that Lee practiced:
- Jab-Speed Bag, Foam Pad, Top and Bottom Bag
- Cross-Foam Pad, Heavy Bag, Top and Bottom Bag
- Hook-Heavy Bag, Foam Pad, Top and Bottom Bag
- Overhand Cross-Pad, Heavy Bag
- Combinations- Heavy Bag, Top and Bottom Bag
- Platform Speed Bag Workout
- Side Kick
- Hook Kick
- Spin Kick
- Rear and Front Thrust
- Heel Kick
Lee would often say that when you hit a heavy bag, you shouldn't do it passively. Imagine that the bag is your worst enemy, and give it all you have. He also emphasized the importance of never leaving oneself vulnerable to attack, even while practicing. Lee was continuously moving, feinting, and side-stepping while training on the heavy bag to simulate a real fight. He believed a martial artist who didn't take practice time this seriously would never be able to transfer what he learned in the dojo to the streets.
The Way of the Barbell
Even before his fight with Wong Jack Man, Lee knew that no martial artist could be their best without proper strength development. However, his experience in that duel, combined with his entry into television and film acting, led Lee to launch a devoted relationship with the iron.
At first, Lee did reverse curls all day to develop his forearms. Once he saw how beneficial weight training was, he began on a more well-rounded weight training program. These were two alternating routines he employed to build his amazing levels of strength:
Alternate workouts A and B each Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday
In his ability to program for both full-body functional strength and muscle development, Lee was far ahead of his times. A voracious reader, he backed up every choice he made with research and tracked its effectiveness to make sure it was working. Along the way, he transformed himself from a skinny 100-pound guy into a 130-pound warrior who could hit like a truck.
Conditioning Meets Meditation
Endurance training wasn't an afterthought to Lee. He knew his strength training was limited without an equal focus on stamina, and he used several modalities to achieve his supreme levels of cardio conditioning.
Running: For Lee, running was a form of meditation in addition to conditioning. It was the time for him to be alone with his thoughts. He started most Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays with a run of several miles. His favorite distance was around 4 miles, which he would run in around 20-25 minutes, changing tempo throughout. After a stretch of easy, even strides, he would sprint for a short distance, and then return to easier running—similar to today's interval training protocols. He would also shuffle his feet while running.
Rope Skipping: Jumping rope not only helped Lee maintain his stamina and leg muscles, but also helped him stay light on his feet. He would usually do this on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday for around 30 minutes.
Cycling: On Tuesdays, Thursday, and Saturdays, Lee would follow up his rope jumping with a session of stationary cycling, further developing his stamina and exhausting his legs. He often rode at high speeds for 45 minutes on his Exercycle.
The Famous Lee Core
For Lee, as for other elite martial artists, ab training was about more than just looking good. It was about developing a shield that would be able to withstand any punch. To hammer this home, Lee would often have someone drop a medicine ball on his stomach while he would lie on the ground to further toughen his gut.
However, conventional abs exercises like situps, leg raises, side bends were also an integral part of his ab training routine. Here's a sample of one of the types of workouts he would subject himself to on a daily basis:
Feeding The Dragon
No hard-training athlete jumps from 100 to 130 pounds without nutrition playing a huge part. Like many of us, Lee had a fondness for protein-rich drinks, blending his own weight-gain shakes with powdered milk and supplements like ginseng, royal jelly, and massive doses of vitamins.
He was highly particular about his diet, never consuming foods that he suspected could harm his body or impair his performance. He put coffee on his banned list, favoring tea instead. However, Lee enjoyed his Chinese food unapologetically. In his view, Chinese food placed sufficient emphasis on carbohydrates from vegetables and rice, unlike western foods, which he felt leaned too heavily on proteins and fats. He saw carbs as essential for a person with high levels of physical activity like him, spreading them across 4-5 meals a day.
Bruce Lee Inspired Training
Somewhere between his kicks, weights, and cardio, you probably realized that Lee's training style isn't for everyone. He devoted hours every day to physical activity —after all, it was a crucial part of his livelihood. The rest of us may not be able to match his type of high-volume physicality, but we can still take influence from his visionary approach to fitness. Here are two scaled down Bruce Lee-inspired training programs that could be made to fit with just about any busy schedule.
Weights: Same as day 1
Fighting practice: 25 minutes of mixing kicks and punches thrown on the heavy bag
Running: Same as Day 1
Abs circuit: Same as Day 1
Can't spare an hour three times a week? Consider making some changes in your life. And until you do, consider this program, which takes the same movements and spreads them across six workouts of about 30 minutes apiece.
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- Lee, Bruce. Bruce Lee's Fighting Method, Vol. 2: Basic Training. Black Belt Communications, 1977.
- Lee, Bruce, and John Little. The Art of Expressing the Human Body, Tuttle Publishing, 1998.
- Lee, Bruce, and John Little. Jeet Kune Do: Bruce Lee's Commentaries on the Martial Way, Tuttle Publishing, 1997.
- Thomas, Bruce. Bruce Lee: Fighting Spirit. Blue Snake Books, 1994.