How do you take what Bruce Lee was—a perfectly efficient combination of power and athleticism— and improve upon it? We take off the rose-coloured glasses and imagine how much different Bruce Lee’s training would be today—and dare to imagine that he could have been even greater.
How do you improve on perfection? It’s a question whose answer would seem self-evident, a rhetorical query designed to deter the hubris of anyone who would needlessly try to fix something that isn’t broken.
It’s easy to understand why so many people consider Bruce Lee perfect. Although he left us prematurely more than 40 years ago, there are few people today not familiar with the martial arts icon. Through his movies martial arts innovations—he developed Jeet Kune Do and his physique, Lee’s legacy has continued to positively affect and inspire people around the world since his passing in 1973 at the age of 32.
In short: Lee is a legend, and I understand no one wants to see a legend change. But I want to make the argument that Lee would train quite differently today. Before I developed my system, Training for Warriors (TFW), I was certified in Jeet Kune Do and studied Lee’s training methods extensively. I am convinced that as a result of the combination of current training methods and his progressive philosophy, he would have been even better today.
Training methods, like technology, have come a long way since 1973. For a quick example, in ’73, IBM developed one of the first personal computer prototypes called the SCAMP. It was revolutionary then, but the phone in your pocket today possesses about a million times the SCAMP’s processing power. In ’73, the undefeated Miami Dolphins won the Super Bowl, but if today’s Dolphins are training anything like Don Shula’s team, it might explain the franchise’s struggles.
These examples are offered to prove that over the past 40 years, science and technology have improved exponentially. Don’t you think the consummate student, Bruce Lee, would do the same if he were at his peak today? I do. But in order to do this, he would need to take a long hard look at every aspect of what he did in and out of the gym and then rebuild a program from the ground up. In the following pages, we will do just that.
BRUCE LEE’S NEW TRAINING PROGRAM
Bruce Lee learned through combat that he needed to improve both his strength and conditioning to be a more effective martial artist. Although he used basic concepts like weights for strength, jogging for endurance, and stretching for flexibility, these methods have come a long way since the 1960s and ’70s. Today, Lee would not seek “best,” but he would continue to seek “better.”
Similar to what Lee used, the Training for Warriors system also uses a four-day physical training week. This schedule allows fighters (and weekend warriors) to build strength and cardiovascular endurance while still leaving time for both recovery and martial arts training. In order to accomplish this, the following workouts should be finished in a little over an hour or less.
If Lee were training today, the TFW methods would be perfectly tailored to match his need for strength, conditioning, and recovery. You have to remember Lee was constantly training for martial arts in addition to his physical training. In accordance with the philosophy of his martial art, Jeet Kune Do (also referred to as the “style of no style”), Lee would surely be involved in more of the martial arts that make up MMA, adopting what works best for today’s champs. This would require more time spent on martial arts training in addition to work in the weight room. As a result, you will notice that martial arts are kept separate from his TFW training routine.
The following overview of his new training routine will explain Lee’s past program and how and why it was upgraded.
This is one area in which training philosophy has greatly improved over the past five decades. Warming up properly can improve performance and decrease the chance of injury. Lee actually suffered a back injury—which plagued him for years—from performing barbell good mornings after not adequately warming up. Here, we replace his archaic stretch routine with foam rolling, elastic-band work, and a routine of dynamic movements to prepare the muscles, increase heart rate, and stimulate the central nervous system. A full warmup can by found in the TFW text.
Lee was one of the first martial artists to advocate weight training. This broke with the prevailing wisdom of his day that strength training would make you heavy and slow. However, in place of his total-body routines, I’ve changed the emphasis to one upper- and one lower-body day. Weights used are heavier, and sets and overall volume increase from his two sets of eight to develop more size and strength. Some basic bodybuilding moves he used are upgraded to a more productive fight-specific version. Single-leg lifts are added to improve stability and kicking power.
In Lee’s day, roadwork and a jump rope were the gold standards in cardiovascular training for combat. Although this can still be a way to challenge the body and help a fighter clear his mind, the repetitive pounding can break an athlete down. In its place, I’ve used sprints and metabolic circuits designed to increase endurance, maintain strength, and burn fat. These workouts take less time and allow for greater recovery. These circuits also utilize a number of tools that were greatly underutilized in Lee’s day, like heavy ropes, an agility ladder, a sandbag, and a slam ball.
Lee was a big fan of abdominal work, but in his day, most abdominal exercises like situps and crunches were done for extremely high reps. Lee could often be found banging out hundreds of reps of abdominal work. These reps cost time, and presently there are more effective ways to develop core strength. To increase productivity and recovery, the thousands of body-weight reps Lee performed are replaced with more heavily loaded exercises that require both stability and rotation, helping transfer even more power to punches and kicks.
NUTRITION AND RECOVERY
Lee took vitamins and ate clean in order to achieve his legendary physique. Yes, he had great muscle definition, but he also had a body weight that fluctuated between 125 and 145 pounds on a 5’7″ frame; the increase in information about nutrition, supplementation, and recovery would have helped him to pack on more muscle and size today. Lee, the student that he was, would surely have stayed on the cutting edge of this information and taken advantage of the improvements. If he had been able to add supps like creatine and hydrolyzed whey protein to his diet and use current recovery methods, Lee could’ve been even sharper.