September 06, 2020 11 min read
Bruce Lee is a difficult man to introduce properly, but we’ll give it our best shot.
The hardest working person Chuck Norris has ever seen; the father of mixed martial arts according to Dana White. Part of Time’s list of 100 most influential people of the 20th century. A cultural bridge between the East and the West. Credited with popularizing Asian martial arts in the West to the level where an action movie isn’t an action movie without some martial art-inspired fight scenes.
He was the precursor, teacher, and inspiration for enough famous names to fill a phone book.
He was, by all accounts, a revolutionary figure in combat sports and their relationship to athleticism. And it’s this aspect we want to explore with his workout routine and diet plan.
There are several things that really cemented Lee’s position as one of the greats, but when it comes to combat training and martial arts, there really is a post-Lee and a pre-Lee world.
In order to improve his fighting ability, Lee created Jeet Kune Do, which was meant as an amalgamation of the strengths of various martial arts. A mixed, martial art, if you will. It was founded by Lee in 1967 and described as a “formless” form of Kung Fu, in which there wasn’t a fixed pattern. The name itself comes from the Wing Chun idea of attacking just before your opponent is meant to attack—a concept that really leans into extreme speed.
The philosophy behind this martial art can best be described by the phrases on its emblem: “Using no way as way,” and, “Having no limitations as limitation.”
Lee believed that the martial arts of the time had become too rigid in their ways and that real martial arts were spontaneous and fluid—like water.
But Jeet Kune Do wasn’t the first eclectic mix of martial arts, so what made Lee and his methods stand out? The answer lies in his training.
While it might seem obvious to us living in the contemporary day and age, Lee made the connection between improving his strength and conditioning in order to become better in martial arts. Instead of focusing purely on form like the martial art techniques during his day, he focused on improving all elements of his fitness.
This included muscular endurance, cardiovascular endurance, strength, and flexibility. Lee even introduced classic bodybuilding techniques into his training routine in order to gain muscle mass for his martial arts. However, he also didn’t overdo it to the point where his muscle gain was getting in the way of his flexibility or his speed. It was all about balance.
Furthermore, he included this training philosophy in his idea of Jeet Kune Do. In a book in which he describes his thinking on the subject, he writes.
“Training is one of the most neglected phases of athletics. Too much time is given to the development of skill and too little to the development of the individual for participation.”
So, in his training routines, you can see a clear progression and evolution of the exercises he does. Beginning from strictly martial arts training, over the years he begins including more strength training while still remembering to maintain his flexibility. He would also go on to make his workouts as “full-body” as possible. This was due to athletic thinking at the time which purported that keeping blood circulating throughout the body during a training session was the optimal way to work out.
While Lee was definitely one for experimenting with his training methods, there were several principles that served to provide a foundation for the rest of his fitness.
For example, he always began with a warm-up. He learned this lesson by getting a back injury while doing good mornings without properly warming up beforehand. With the injury plaguing him for years, he made sure to always include a warm-up before his main workouts.
His morning cardio didn’t only provide a good warm-up for the day to come, but it also served as a way for him to work on his endurance. With a boxing background as well, Lee was a fan of the jump rope which he utilized along with going on morning runs.
He would run 4 miles three days per week, which he would do in a Fartlek type method. This means he would increase his speed for short amounts and then go back to a steady-state of running. On the days he wasn’t running, he would skip for at least 30 minutes with around 45 minutes of cycling. Longer cardio sessions such as this have fallen somewhat out of vogue with the rise of HIIT, but it’s still good to utilize them for your training goals.
He also supplemented his endurance with circuit training later on in his career. Not to mention that the increased endurance must’ve helped him tremendously as a martial artist.
Another key takeaway from Lee’s workouts was his focus on abdominal work. The man looked absolutely chiseled all the time, and that 6-pack didn’t just come from nowhere. Many of Lee’s abdominal workouts favored high rep sets, usually going until failure for multiple sets in a row. One of his core workouts looked similar to this:
These principles, along with an insane work ethic, were what guided Lee into the global icon that he became.
Thankfully for us, there are some verified training routines from the man himself. Most of these have been collected by John Little in his collection of Lee’s notes, called “The Art of Expressing the Human Body.”
Below we have one of the earliest examples of a workout that Lee had done in a Hong Kong gym he reportedly visited three times a week. This was written on a gym card in 1965:
This is, of course, only a snapshot most likely of everything he was doing. And one can see the informal nature of his training sessions with the repetition of the French press, for example.
What is unique with his workout routine when compared to routines we’ve looked at in the past, is that it has the actual weights he was using. And when comparing the squat to his other lifts, it’s most likely that he was using it as a warm-up of sorts.
Furthermore, the overload of arm exercises really speaks to his forearm and grip strength. An aspect which is important to train up, but even more important for a martial arts master such as himself.
But while he was a big proponent of strength and conditioning, he still didn’t forget about his fitness roots—those of martial arts.
Along with his weightlifting, he also included a number of practice sessions with which to keep his form sharp and his fighting fresh. These would be done several times a week.
Wooden dummy training:
His later lifting routine would go on to feature other movements and techniques, even borrowing from Olympic lifts such as the clean and press. These served as the backbone to the later Bruce Lee workout regime:
And continuing in the spirit of always changing how he works out and with what methods, Lee further refined the above into a solid foundation which he did at least 3 times a week. That final workout session looked like this:
Bruce Lee worked out a lot.
We’ve already brought up how Chuck Norris said he was the hardest worker he’d ever seen—making workout out “fanatical.” His wife echoed the same sentiments, often saying that he would workout basically all day, sometimes 7 days a week.
What we do know of his workout sessions was that they were usually spread out over 3 hours each day; from a run in the morning and continuing into the late evening. Below is one such example of a weekly Lee routine:
Monday, January 1, 1968:
Tuesday, January 2, 1968:
Wednesday, January 3, 1968
Thursday, January 4, 1968:
Friday, January 5, 1968:
Saturday, January 6, 1968:
Sunday, January 7, 1968:
With a physique as ripped as his, there’s no way that Lee didn’t pay close attention to his diet. But not only did he have to keep his body fat percentage low, he also had to fuel himself enough to keep up with his rigorous training regime.
We know that Lee preferred Chinese food due to the variety, and his favorite dish the Chinese dish of beef with oyster sauce. He also experimented with adding organ meats into his diet throughout his training. This is a terrific source of vitamins and minerals—not to mention a great source of protein.
You’ve probably already guessed that Lee stayed away from refined carbs and sweets. But the keyword here is “refined.”
Lee was definitely not into the ketogenic diet, but he made sure that the carbs he ate were of high quality. Things such as rice and carb-rich vegetables made up large portions of his meals. He was also a sucker for Italian food, including spaghetti.
When it came to his eating routine, he would eat more smaller meals a day rather than 3 large ones. Sticking to this kind of routine can improve insulin levels in the body; and if you have issues with overeating, this is a great way to stay full throughout the day.
The man was also a big green tea drinker, which comes with its own host of benefits. Not only does it have antioxidant properties, but it can potentially lower cholesterol levels, reduce the risk of stroke, and reduce blood pressure.
Lee was also someone who believed in taking supplements. While they’ve come a very, very long way since the 70s, the supplements that he took included:
And lastly, he definitely didn’t shy away from cheat meals.
It goes without saying that Bruce Lee is an international icon, recognized in almost all parts of the globe. A fact which makes it that much more surprising that the first public monument to Bruce Lee wasn’t placed in Hong Kong or Los Angeles; the two places where he spent the majority of his time. The first statue was unveiled in the city of Mostar, in Bosnia & Herzegovina.
In a city (and region) with a turbulent past of ethnic division and war, Lee was seen as a neutral symbol of unity, with the ability to bridge gaps between disparate populations. And even when it comes to physical fitness, that’s the lesson we should all be taking from the man.
Most likely, Lee would have never wanted anyone to follow the routine that we’ve outlined above.
He would’ve wanted you to change it—to modernize it without overcomplicating it. His entire philosophy was based on an amalgamation of different techniques and methods; adopting the best parts while chucking out the rest. And up to his death, he was experimenting in order to elevate his fitness to even higher levels.
He made the expression of the human body into an art-form, and if you want to follow in his footsteps, don’t just train like he did...think like he did.