Bruce Lee managed to achieve the pinnacle of human performance. Bruce had a physique that impressed even bodybuilders for its incredible definition but went well beyond simple aesthetics. When commenting on two large-looking individuals coming out of a bar, Bruce mused ‘but can they use that muscle’?
Bruce really could use his muscle and was quite possibly one of the most powerful men alive at the time pound for pound. What I’m interested in is how he obtained that power – and the book titled "The Art of Expressing the Human Body" contains some clues to that. This is a collection of Bruce’s notes, as well as recollections from colleagues and friends that paints a detailed picture of his training. And it shows a man who was well ahead of his time – a Da Vinci of physical prowess.
That’s the first thing that strikes you about Bruce when reading this book; his dedication and passion to his training. The sheer amount of training he did was phenomenal and almost superhuman. Bruce obviously lived to train and was constantly either pushing his body, or experimenting with new ways to stimulate muscle growth and strength. Bruce wasn’t just following a training regime, he was forging his own path and he was right on the cutting edge.
Bruce Lee was a philosopher and his body was an extension of his will and his beliefs. If you never want to struggle with motivation again, you need to find your training philosophy. Of course Bruce also had a single goal: to become a better fighter. This is what would inform all of his training methods and it’s how he crafted a body built for sheer power.
And what was fighting to Bruce Lee? It was about expression. Bruce Lee wanted to remove the ‘classical mess’ of different fighting styles and hone his physicality so that his body could become a pure extension of his will.
The prevalent belief among martial artists during the 60s and 70s was that muscle was ‘bulky’ and could slow you down. But on reading a book titled "The Application of Measurement to Health and Physical Education" Bruce found that the precise opposite was true. By building more strength, you could not only increase striking power but also explosive speed.
Interestingly, one way that Bruce would do this was by training with velocity. Instead of progressing by adding more weight, he would instead seek to reduce the total time it took him to complete a weights session.
This makes a lot of sense for developing power as it increases the amount of force that the muscles need to exert. As far as the body is concerned, there is no difference between acceleration and resistance – they require force and power from the twitch muscle fibers just the same.
Another interesting technique Bruce Lee used in his training was static contraction. This simply means that the muscle is contracting while remaining static, as is the case with isometric training.
Bruce used both types of isometric training: yielding and overcoming. Yielding isometrics are isometrics as we know them: holding a weight or a pose until the muscles eventually give out. Overcoming isometrics are more interesting though: this involves pushing or pulling against a completely immovable force. For example, you might try to curl a barbell that is chained to the floor – something that Bruce Lee actually did.
Again, the muscles don’t care whether they are lifting a heavy weight. All they care is the force that is required of them. And when you use overcoming isometrics, you are demanding 100% maximum force from your muscles – just as though you were performing a one rep max.
What makes this especially fascinating, is that it is challenging the body to try and recruit the maximum amount of muscle fiber. While it’s less likely to create microtears (and ‘muscle damage’), it will nevertheless improve the mind-muscle connection thereby teaching you to make more efficient use of the muscle you do have.
Bruce Lee’s use of overcoming isometrics combined with his speed training go a long way to explaining how he managed to achieve such incredible speed and power while keeping his bulk relatively low. Bruce Lee actually weighed just 135lbs!
As well as using static contraction in isometrics, Bruce Lee made a point to contract his muscles following other exercises. After lifting a weight or performing a bodyweight exercise, Bruce would contract his entire body. This once again helped him to further his mind-muscle connection and to be more aware of the muscles throughout his entire body during training.
This tension and awareness is what enabled Bruce to perform his ‘two-finger push-up’. If you try this yourself, you’ll find it is much easier when you tense your entire body and thereby remove any ‘energy leaks’ that might come from your mid-section sagging or left arm wobbling.
Bodybuilders use a similar technique by using bodybuilding poses immediately following lifts. Bruce Lee simply takes the concept a step further by engaging his entire body.
Bruce Lee trained using these methods, as well as more general exercises – largely focussing on compound movements for compound, functional strength (though he did use some isolation exercises, such as curls for instance). On top of this, he also believed in training his abs every single day, as well as training his forearms every day. Strength athletes and martial artists alike will both recognize the importance of building strong forearms for overall functional power. Training the core meanwhile was important to Bruce not only for aesthetics but also because he knew that all real power was generated through the legs and core first. One of Bruce Lee’s most well recognized moves was the awesome-looking ‘Dragon Flag’.
Bruce Lee combined these strength training techniques with a huge amount of cardiovascular exercise. Not only did he use a lot of martial arts training – focussing on different types of strike on different days – but he was also an early adopter of interval training methods, as well as a big advocate of steady state cardio.
Bruce Lee pointed out that a fighter needed to not only be able to punch and kick hard but also to maintain this output for long periods of time. Thus Bruce Lee ran large distances most days, sometimes even adding loads to his back or using tempo runs to increase his anaerobic threshold.
If ever you needed proof that steady-state cardio is still worthwhile, look no further than Bruce Lee!