The world's most famous six-pack has inspired legions of fans to train their cores. Now, the best fighters carry on the chiseled legacy of Bruce Lee...
"I used to have a big, soft belly," Lee once said, unknowingly providing the most effective snapshots in before-and-after history.
"I looked terrible for a young guy. I decided to streamline my waist." Lee's training notes made specific mention of waist twists (four sets of 90 reps), sit-up twists (four sets of 20), leg raises (another four sets of 20), leaning twists (four sets of 50) and frog kicks (again, four sets of 50).
LeBell, a two-time national judo champion in the 1950s and no slouch in the athletic department himself, recalls that Lee didn't do many crunches and instead preferred hanging leg raises with ankle weights. "He got into an L position [and kept his legs straight] all the way up to the face," he says. "He'd spread his legs, move them in a circular motion and then bring them down again."
LeBell would watch Lee warm up with alternating low, medium and high kicks on the heavy bag for 10 minutes; this ensured that every part of his midsection was ripped to the bone. "He had a muscle right above the thigh and below the belly button on both sides. It was like a rope."
Lee's lower-rep weight routines and strategy - he even performed circuit-style training set to music - began to steer martial arts conditioning away from the thousands of sit-ups performed by kata-wielding practitioners who were more interested in technique and tradition than explosive performance.
By the 1970s, sit-ups, which target the hip flexors more than the abdominal wall, had largely given way to crunches, partly because they were endorsed by physicians as being less stressful on the lower back. Simultaneously, the emerging sport of kickboxing, with its combatants slamming massively muscled shins into their opponents, demanded more grueling core routines.
In the 1980s, amid a wave of shop-at-home contraptions that promised to tone browniefed bellies in only minutes a day, fighters in the Gracies' emerging style of jiu-jitsu needed abs that could not only absorb strikes but also contract and maintain position on the mat without fatiguing.
"Sit-ups, crunches, core work for abs... none of it means [a fighter's] abs are going to do what they need to do," explains Matt Hume, a world-class mixed martial arts trainer at AMC Pankration near Seattle. "They need to be able to take blows and body shots, hold a crunched position while someone tries to pass your guard and keep you extended for long periods."
Soon the abs were being put to the ultimate test: live combat with few limitations, a transition marked by the coaxial mayhem that began with 1993's first Ultimate Fighting Championship. "If your opponent is good at throwing a body shot and you can't take a shot, you're in trouble," Hume says. "If he's good at passing guard and you can't sustain guard recovery because your abs aren't strong enough, you're in trouble."
For the rest of our story on Bruce Lee pick up the April issue of M&F, on newsstands now.