Bruce Lee gave so much advice in his relatively short time as a professional martial artist and fitness instructor. Fortunately he left many notes and journals that have now been made into books, so that we know more about his training methods and philosophies.
“Above all, never cheat on any exercise; use the amount of weight that you can handle without undue strain.” – Bruce Lee
Bruce Lee divided his routine into specific martial arts training to enhance his martial arts prowess, i.e. weight training, calisthenics, cardio fitness and stretching. If you combine this Bruce Lee workout with a fitness plan you will get excellent results very quickly.
Each day Bruce Lee would train to improve his physique and his martial ability. However, Bruce Lee also stated that it was important to never train the body so hard on any given day, to the point where the body is too weak on the following days to train more or to fight.
From a martial perspective it is essential to never over-train, as although in the long term intensive training can make the body stronger quicker, in the short term it is not a good martial practice to leave yourself weak to fight.
Here we look at his weight training routines including isometrics, his abdominal workouts, we take a brief look at his cardio routines and stretching. Finally we present a review of The Art of Expressing the Human Body, a fantastic book that provides so many insights into Bruce Lee’s life and training. First we take a look at his training philosophy.
There is little doubt that if you follow in the footsteps of Bruce Lee, training as hard as he did and eating a nutritious and healthy diet, then you will quickly master your own body and never have any weight issues again.
One thing is certain, and that is Bruce Lee knew how to exercise very effectively, to the point that he had zero body fat. Losing weight is easy with a Bruce Lee style workout.
Bruce Lee’s training philosophy
Above all, never cheat on any exercise; use the amount of weight that you can handle without undue strain.” – Bruce Lee
This quote is still valid for all forms of weight training exercise today. Firstly, good form is essential, whether you are lifting weights, stretching, performing bodyweight exercises or practicing martial arts. Bruce Lee obviously had a very good grounding in the importance of good form, as kung-fu, and other martial arts, use “forms” for training and honing fighting techniques.
Good form is essential in martial arts, as it can help to determine the strengths and weaknesses of a student, condition the body to react and move in the correct way, as well as strengthen the muscles, ligaments and joints. Poorly executed form can lead to poorly executed martial application, which can be fatal.
Bruce Lee was interviewed on the Pierre Berton Show in 1971. The interview starts with the the question of Bruce Lee making films in Mandarin, when he can only speak Cantonese. Surprising, in the early Bruce Lee films the voices are dubbed, as the early Bruce Lee films were first shot without sound.
“To me, a motion picture is motion. You gotta keep the dialogue down to a minimum” Bruce Lee, 1971.
Then they discuss the secret of the success of the Big Boss, namely that it broke the mould because the fighting was real. Bruce talks about how martial arts has deep meaning to his life – and that martial arts have shaped all parts of his life.
“Martial Arts include all the combative arts like karate, Judo, Chinese kung-fu, Aikido .. some have become sport, but some not, such as kicking to the groin, jabbing fingers to eyes.” Bruce Lee, 1971.
On being asked if he could break five or six pieces of wood with his hand or foot, Bruce Lee replies,”I’ll probably break my foot.”
Bruce then talks about his theory of the “art of expressing the human body“. Combining instinct and control to have harmony, to prevent either becoming mechanical or wild – unnatural naturalness, or natural unnaturalness.
“Under the sky, under the heaven, there is but one family. It just so happens that people are different” Bruce Lee, 1971.
At the end of the video he talks about how style is meaningless, and that he does not teach style. Everyone has two arms and two legs, so for fighting, style is only restrictive.
In the end of this part Bruce Lee talks about “The Warrior”, and how martial arts are relevant in Westerns, but not the modern world, as now people carry guns.
The importance of maintaining good form when exercising
In the Bruce Lee Workout, form is very important. Poorly executed form not only reduces the effectiveness of an exercise, but it can also cause injury by placing too much pressure in the wrong areas. Also, to cheat on an exercise, is to cheat your own body of obtaining the optimal workout during any given session.
Bruce Lee’s weight training routine evolved during his career. In his early days, his emphasis was on bodybuilding, especially forearm training, and he supplemented his diet with protein drinks. Later on, he started to simplify his training. He realized that rather than the isolation exercises favored by bodybuilders, he needed to perform compound weight training exercises to increase his overall strength and condition. Bruce Lee’s weight reduced after he gave up the bodybuilding routines in favor of more traditional compound and cardio training.
“Since weight training involves repetitions, a great deal of energy must be exerted. Therefore, weight training should be practiced only every other day.” – Bruce Lee
This quote is interesting, as it seems to move away from his traditional approach of not working the body so much that you are weakened. So, although he was moving away from the bodybuilding routines, he was also moving away from pure martial arts. The Bruce Lee Workout should be intensive enough to require adequate recovery days.
Bruce Lee suggested that you should train at most once every other day, or three days per week, with an extra rest day at the weekend. For Bruce Lee, the most important aspect of his new weight training routine was that he could still train his martial arts and practice endurance/cardio training on the other days.
Bruce Lee adopted a cross training methodology, in that he believed fitness training should have three key elements: stretching for flexibility; weight training for strength; and cardiovascular for endurance.
Bruce Lee’s weight training routines
Bruce Lee Clean and Press – 2 sets of 8 reps
The clean and press is a classic weight lifters exercise. Unlike bodybuilding exercises, which work muscles in isolation, Bruce Lee’s weight lifting/power lifting exercises work muscles together, i.e. they are compound movements. Bruce Lee performed clean and presses in a very intensive fashion, that is, without rest between reps. This made the exercise a cardio and endurance exercise as well as a weight training exercise.
In the clean and press a barbell is lifted from the floor, and in one explosive movement the weight is lifted up to rest on the front of the shoulders – this is the clean. Afterwards, the weight is then pressed upwards, and held overhead. It is then lowered to the floor in one movement, and repeated. A good form is essential in the clean and press, it is also important not to attempt to lift too much weight, as injuries to the lower back are common in poorly executed clean and presses.
Bruce Lee Barbell Squat – 2 sets of 12 reps
The squat is one of the most important compound exercises in the Bruce Lee Workout, especially for martial artists. It develops a solid base and core. In the standard squat, which should always be performed in a squat rack for safety, a barbell is placed across the shoulders and a squat is then performed. Bruce Lee advised there should be no pause in the lowest position, instead as soon as your thighs reach a horizontal position, you should rise again to a standing position. The squat works the hips, glutes, hamstrings, calves and quads.
Bruce Lee Barbell Pullovers – 2 sets of 8 reps
The barbell pullover is a weight training exercise that is less common these days. It is the classic rib-box expander. To perform a pullover you should lie on a flat bench, hold a barbell with a shoulder width grip overhead, and then lower it backwards behind your head, keeping the elbows slightly bent. The bar should be held as far back as it is comfortable. Some people can touch the floor behind them with the bar, but this is not recommended without adequate training. Use a light weight to start with, as this is a deceptively difficult movement.
Bruce Lee Bench Press – 2 sets of 6 reps
No weight training session would be complete without a bench press. Many martial artists actually advise against the bench press as it expands the rib cage, which is a weakness in fighting. Bruce Lee taught that a fighter should aim to develop a solid set of ribs, which can take strikes. Performing many bench presses and pullovers can open the ribs too much, so if you plan to fight competitively, do not place too much emphasis on these exercises.
Bruce Lee Good Mornings Exercises – 2 sets of 8 reps
Bruce Lee was a fan of the good morning exercise. The exercise involves holding a barbell across the shoulders and then bend forward, keeping the legs and back straight. This exercise can be very dangerous if you do not warm up and attempt to use too much weight. Really good mornings can be performed with good results with just an empty bar. Bruce Lee damaged his back doing good mornings exercises – he did not damage it in a kung-fu challenge match, as portrayed in the film Dragon!
Bruce Lee Barbell Curls – 2 sets of 8 reps
Curls are the other staple weight training exercise along with bench presses. Everyone seems to want bigger biceps. For martial arts styles that involve grappling, grabbing, pulling and throwing, a good pairs of guns come in very useful. So perform bicep curls in each training session to build up the guns. Bruce Lee Workout aims to increase your pulling power.
Change the Routine and Exercises to Suit Your Needs
With any weight training, it is important not to get into a rigid routine. After a while of training, you will hit a plateau and training will no longer produce the same gains, if any, that it once did when you were weaker and less fit. For this reason, it is essential to add new exercises. So, train with dumbbells instead of barbells at times, change the weight and number of repetitions etc. to give the body a new challenge and a new spurt of growth.
Bruce Lee’s isometric training workouts
Bruce Lee adopted many different exercise workouts during his short but intensive martial arts career. Although he became famous for his well chiseled muscles, which were once compared to warm marble, he also used many exercises derived from more traditional kung-fu training, which involve holding a weight steady for a period of time. Possibly the most famous kung-fu isometric exercise is the horse stance, which is simply a squat that you hold. Sounds easy, try it.
Bruce Lee’s Isometric Training Workout
Bruce Lee used to perform a simple routine using 8 different isometric exercises. Each exercise is performed just once. The aim is to work to maximum effort in each exercise for 6-12 seconds.
To perform these exercises you need a power cage or a similar weight training bench with a bar that is too heavy to move. If you have enough weights you can put them all on a bar so that it is too heavy for you to lift. This can actually aid your training, as rather than knowing it is impossible to move the bar, you can tell yourself that if you push harder, you may move it!
- Press Lockout. Set a bar in a power cage at about 3 inches below your lockout position for a shoulder/military press. Grasp the bar as you would normally for a press, and then push the bar upwards as hard as possibly for 6 to 12 seconds.
- Press Start. This is the second position for the press. Start with the bar at chin height, just above the lowest position on your usual military press. Exert maximum force for 6 to 12 seconds.
- Rise on toes. Set the bar in a position just above your shoulders where you can touch it enough to apply pressure when on tip toes. Then position yourself under the bar, rise on toes, and push the bar as hard as possible for 6 to 12 seconds.
- Pull. The bar is set in a similar position to where you start an upright row, just below waist level. Stand in front of the bar and with a shoulder width grip, pull it upwards as hard as possible while also rising on your toes for 6 to 12 seconds.
- Parallel Squat. Set the bar at the lower position of a barbell squat at the point where your thighs are parallel to the floor. Position yourself in the usual squat position and then try to lift the bar as you would in a squat. Push as hard as you can for 6 to 12 seconds.
- Shoulder shrug. Position the bar in the power cage at the start of the shoulder shrug position, so that you can grab the bar but with the shoulders down. Then with all your effort attempt to perform a shoulder shrug.
- Deadlift. The isometric deadlift is performed with the bar about 2 inches below your knees. Then perform the usual deadlift with your feet set shoulder width apart, hips down and back flat, pushing as hard as possible with the legs and pulling up for 6 to 12 seconds.
- Quarter squat. The second squat position. Set the bar about 4 inches below your standing position in a barbell squat. Position yourself, and then push upwards on the bar as hard as possible for 6 to 12 seconds.
See weight training exercises for descriptions and guides on performing these.
As you can see, in principal the exercises are easy. All are performed for 6-12 seconds. Remember that you are aiming to work to failure still, in that you will be putting so much effort into pushing or pulling the isometric bar that by the time your reach 10 seconds your muscles should be screaming in pain.
To perform these isometric exercises well you need to first really learn the moving versions, as form is very important and unless you have performed squats and deadlifts before, you may position yourself incorrectly resulting in a muscular injury. Bruce Lee always emphasized good form over brute force.
If you perform these exercises with maximum effort then one set of these exercises may be enough for you. Do not underestimate how much work the muscles are doing in not moving an object. Your body will be attempting to get all of your muscles to work together to move the stationary bar.
Isometric exercises should not replace other weight training exercises. Remember also that diet and nutrition are vital to strength and muscle development. What makes this type of training so different is that you only have your body and willpower to listen to. Nothing moves, you just push and sweat! If Bruce Lee said it worked for him, then there is a good chance that it will work for you too.
Bruce Lee’s abdominal workouts
Bruce Lee’s abdominal muscles were quite exceptional. They were very well defined, well developed, and very solid. Lee’s waist was very thin, with almost no fat at all. Bruce Lee followed some simple rules to ensure that his abs stayed in great shape. The main rules are:
- Diet is the most important thing when building abs. Learn how to eat in order to build muscle and keep off fat. A high protein and low carb approach is a great way to build muscle and lose fat.
- Losing fat is the second key. If you have a layer of fat over your abs you will never see them no matter how good they are.
- Work your abs like any other muscle. Add weight constantly so you don’t stagnate.
“Bruce Lee taught that abdominal exercises never reduce the waist“
Bruce Lee abdominal training tips
Bruce Lee himself often used to comment on how he trained his abs. In doing so he helped other people build their own. Bruce learnt how to build abs from champion bodybuilders, and spent many years perfecting the art of abdominal development. He believed that the abs were vital to provide balance and strength in the body.
“The abdominal and waist region coordinate all parts of the body and act as the center of generator. Therefore, you can promote the ability to control the body’s action and master your will more easily.” Bruce Lee.
One of the best tips that he offered, which has been tried and tested many times over the years, is that you should always curl your body up as if rolling up a newspaper when doing a crunch.
Do not sit up and down like a see-saw, but curl your upper body up starting with your head, then neck, then chest. Keep your abdominals engaged (tensed) and your attention focused on them at all times. Do not simply go through the motions.
Lee concentrated on five exercises for stomach and abdominal development. He found that these were the best exercises to help build and maintain perfect six-pack abs. He would also only perform 1-3 different exercises on any one day, and very rarely perform all five in the same session nor on the same day.
Bruce Lee’s five favorite abdominal exercises:
- Waist twists – 4 sets of 90 repetitions
- Sit-up twists – 4 sets of 20 repetitions
- Leg raises – 4 sets of 20 repetitions
- Leaning twists – 4 sets of 50 repetitions
- Frog kicks – 4 sets of 50 repetitions
Also Bruce also performed these core exercises:
- Roman chair sit-up
- Leg raises (excellent for the lower abs)
- Side bends
It is important to work fast while concentrating on good form. When you can no longer perform any more full repetitions, continue with smaller movements, such as abdominal crunches, which give improved muscle development and definition.
Bruce Lee was also a firm believer in static concentrations, which involve tightening the stomach muscles for short bursts and then relaxing.
Most importantly, Bruce Lee taught that abdominal exercises never reduce the waist, i.e. there is no reduction in belly fat. For this, diet and nutrition is key.
Bruce Lee further developed this routine, adding additional sets of sit-ups, side bends, leg raises, “flags,” twists and back bends to his abdominal workout regimen.
The “flag” exercise was a complex movement that Lee devised for working the abdominals harder. While lying on a bench, he would grasp attached uprights with both hands and raise himself, supported only by his shoulders. Then, with his knees locked straight and his lower back raised off the bench, he would perform leg raises.
Bruce Lee’s Success with abdominal training
In addition to what we have learned from Bruce Lee, there have been many other tried and tested methods of exercising and bodybuilding. Here is a summary of the concepts required for developing excellent abs:
Bruce Lee preformed both cardio and weight training (high and low intensity) every single day. In doing this he lost a lot of muscle, but mainly he burned off fat. This was the main reason that his abs looked so good. There was barely a shred of fat covering them.
Bruce ate a good diet and a lot of protein. He was an advocate of eating a post workout protein shake and used to experiment with lots of different ingredients. Recent research has proved that post workout shakes drunk within 30 minutes of exercise provide maximum benefit.
Lee firmly believed that proper nutrition was essential for developing the perfect set of abs. What you eat determines the thickness and density of the outer tissue covering the abdominal muscles. Once the belly fat has been worked off through a calorie controlled diet combined with aerobic and endurance fitness training, the abs are then relatively easy to maintain through a good healthy diet and regular abdominal exercising.
He did a lot of martial arts and was especially adept at kicking. Lots of the muscles used to power a kick come from the core region and as such he worked his abs out in different ways.
He was constantly changing his abs routine, which meant that his abs never become too efficient at performing the same exercise. Overall this all helped him to achieve a very complete development.
Bruce Lee’s final advice is to exercise abs daily, and that with patience and perseverance, results will be seen in time. This advice goes against what many athletes and bodybuilders advise. Today people suggest that you treat your abdominals as any other muscle and ensure that it is rested for at least 2 days after exercising.
Beyond Bruce Lee Fitness Training
This was by no means Bruce Lee’s only workout and weight training routine, but it formed the foundation, the core, of his strength training later in his career. If you want to start to train like Bruce Lee then perform the Bruce Lee Workout at least once per week.
In loving memory of Bruce Lee: the little dragon
Bruce Lee’s stretching routines
For Bruce Lee stretching was a vital component of his daily fitness routine. The same rule really applies to all forms of exercise, from martial arts to track and field, weight lifting to gymnastics, plus sports from cricket to NFL. The benefits of stretching are numerous and can aid you for years to come.
Stretching helps to prevent injury while training and competing and also increase range of motion, which can increase the work and benefit of exercising. For many martial artists stretching is just about kicking higher, but really stretching plays a more important role than just that.
Routine pre-workout stretches
According to Herb Jackson, one of his training partners, stretching was the only set routine that he performed before a workout. His workouts were often varied and spontaneous, but the stretching was specific and regimented. He also was famous for stretching almost constantly while working on set. People have commented that he would be reviewing some footage and rather than sit, would stand with one leg up on a chair to help keep himself loose for the next scenes.
To view one of Bruce Lee’s stretching routines, watch his film Way of the Dragon. In the final act, before fighting Chuck Norris on the Roman Coliseum, he performs one of his pre-fighting warm up and stretches. Unlike many other action movies, what Bruce displayed on film was true to his methods.
Bruce Lee shares his reasons to stretch
- Stretch for improved health and fitness. Strong and supply joints are essential to being healthy and fit.
- Reduce injury. A greater range of motion means that you are less likely to put the weakest points under too much strain when working out or competing.
- Stretching is a good way to warm up and prepare the muscles for the task ahead
- Stretching after a workout can reduce muscle soreness and quicken recovery
- Being more flexible makes you a better athlete
- A good stretch routine should be a pleasure to perform, and is a great way to start or finish the day
Ideally you should stretch for 10 to 15 minutes before your main workout, but after warming up. As part of a stand alone fitness regime, you should aim to stretch 4 times per week to help strengthen and tone the body. Pilates and yoga can be considered advanced forms of stretching for this purpose.
When stretching, you should apply constant gentle pressure that increases over time. Do not bounce. Always relax into the stretch. When doing seated forward stretches look forwards, not down, to avoid hunching the back.
Bruce Lee’s favorite stretches
These stretches are performed as a warm up by most martial arts clubs today. These were also Bruce’s standard stretches (photos coming soon!):
- Seated Hamstring Stretch – stretches the rear thigh muscle
- Hurdlers Stretch – stretches the hamstrings and groin
- Seated Groin Stretch – opens the hips and stretches the groin and inner thighs
- Standing Hip Stretch – stretches the hip and buttocks
- Lunging Stretch – stretches the hips, buttocks and front thighs
- Thigh Stretch – stretches the large muscles on the front of the thighs
- Calf Stretch – stretches the back of the lower legs
- Lower Back Stretch – vital stretch to warm up the lower back before exercising.
- Side Stretch – stretches the muscles along the core
In addition to stretching muscles, it is also wise to “limber up” before exercising. This involves loosening the muscles with small gentle exercises. Typically the neck, shoulder, wrists, knees and ankles are limbered up and gentle stretched. This helps to get the blood flowing and warm the tendons.
References and Resources:
- The Art of Expressing the Human Body (see our book review)
- “Warm Marble – The Lethal Physique of Bruce Lee” by John Little”
- “From Icon to Lifestyle, the Marketing of Bruce Lee” A New York Times piece on Bruce Lee.