Bruce Lee’s Functional Approach to Strength Training Was Truly Ahead of His Time

By on November 9, 2020

Opinions on Bruce Lee tend to fall into one of two extreme camps. Either, Bruce Lee was the greatest fighter and athlete who ever lived, or he was just an actor and a fraud.

The truth, as always, is likely much more nuanced. Bruce was a flawed human being and was prone to theatricality. But there is also no doubt in my mind that he was an incredible athlete AND a trailblazer in the realm of functional training and human performance.

Bruce Lee strength training

Looking at his precise training routines only confirms this.

Why Didn’t Bruce Lee Lift More?

One of the questions I’ve had a lot on my channel regarding Bruce Lee’s training, is why his numbers in the gym were so small.

See also: What is Functional Training? Training for Athletes and for Life

If Bruce truly was an incredible athlete, why then was his squat recorded as just 95lbs on his gym card? This alone has been used as evidence for a lot of people that Bruce Lee was mostly hype. But that is seriously missing the point.

There is no doubt in my mind that he was an incredible athlete AND a trailblazer in the realm of functional training.

Here’s something that functional coaches are beginning to understand more and more: piling huge amounts of weight onto a barbell has no real benefit for a top athlete. The squat and bench press do not translate perfectly to any movement an athlete needs to perform. And they certainly don’t need to perform that movement with so much weight on their backs.

Performing a near-max squat every week is hugely neurologically taxing.

And more to the point, performing a near-max squat every week is hugely neurologically taxing – not to mention a huge stimulus for muscle damage. In other words, this becomes detrimental to the athlete’s skill training. If a martial artist is still recovering from the squats they did last week, they won’t be able to perform optimally in the ring. As skill training is ultimately more important, this becomes counter-productive.

Bruce Lee Squat

The only reason for a sports coach to try and get their athletes to squat and bench huge numbers is for bragging rights. This is about ego and not what is best for the athlete.

So yes, Bruce’s 95lb squats make perfect sense.

And he realised this about 50 years before everyone else!

Bruce Lee’s Accommodating Resistance

This is especially true when we consider that Bruce also used what he referred to as speed training. He would attempt to complete sets as quickly as possible. This is what Louie Simmons refers to as “accommodating resistance.”

Bruce’s 95lb squats make perfect sense.

In other words, if you try and perform a movement with as much power as possible, this will “make up” for the missing extra weight. This develops explosiveness and rate of force production, which a predominantly-striking martial artist needs more than pure max strength.

Again: ahead of his time.

Bruce Lee’s Core

We talked about this in the past, so I’m not going to go into detail on it here. But another thing that stands out when looking at Bruce Lee’s training, is his inclusion of so many core stability exercises. In particular, we see him performing the legendary anti-extension movement: the Dragon Flag. Then there were those two-finger pushups, which are perfect anti-rotational movements.

Bruce Lee Core Training Dragon Flag

Likewise, Bruce Lee used the Macy Circuit Trainer in order to train standing up using cables. Again, this was very early on before this was a common practice. Cable training is now a firm favorite among athletic coaches, as it allows the athlete to train while standing up and fighting resistance from the correct angle.

Bruce Lee's cross trainer

Core stability is absolutely critical for athletic performance, as has been promoted by the likes of Stuart McGill. In order to punch and kick explosively, you need a stiff and rigid core. Otherwise, energy will be lost as the core flexes and bends.

See also: The Key to Bruce Lee’s Athleticism: Core Stability

I also suspect that Bruce used this kind of training to support his recovery from that infamous back injury.

Bruce Lee’s Lats and Grip Strength

Bruce also trained his lats to a large extent, likely because he understood their role in snapping the arm back, supporting the core, and generating torque and momentum for kinetic linking.

Again, I have already gone into this in detail, so I won’t talk in depth about Bruce Lee’s lats now!

Bruce Lee forearm grip training

Similarly, Bruce knew to train his gripping strength. He did this via a LOT of wrist curls and similar movements. And of course: finger push ups! Grip strength is essential for martial artists but also correlates with general health and even life expectancy!

Takeaways and Lessons

This is just scratching the iceberg when it comes to the smart ways that Bruce Lee trained. His approach to running was the “Fartlek” method, which alternated speed as a form of interval training. He appreciated the importance of endurance for fighters. He also used overcoming isometrics and electromyostimulation to improve fiber recruitment and overall neural efficiency.

A lot of this stuff still isn’t mainstream.

Was Bruce Lee’s training perfect? Of course not. There’s still a lot of stuff on his gym cards that doesn’t make much sense. But rather than assume that’s a sign of a guy who doesn’t know what he’s doing, I’m now far more inclined to assume it’s that way for a reason.

Bruce Lee recognized the ideal role of his strength training as a way to support his martial arts training rather than to distract from it.

And that’s a great takeaway. Too often, we judge the way others train based on our understanding, and we assume that they don’t know what they’re doing. This only points to ignorance, and it’s that kind of closed-mindedness that can prevent us from improving our own performance. If Bruce Lee is only squatting 95lbs, maybe let’s not instantly assume he was just super weak?

We could also extend the same courtesy to strangers on the internet or in our gym.

Train Like Bruce Lee

Keep an open mind, and understand the importance of adapting training for your own physiology and goals.

Bruce Lee recognized the ideal role of his strength training as a way to support his martial arts training rather than to distract from it. He recognized how to build explosive power versus max strength. He knew that that strength was of little use without the core stability to support it.

Bruce Lee was willing to experiment and continuously push himself forward. And perhaps that’s the most interesting part of all of this. Bruce Lee was like a DaVinci of fitness. He recognized that there are aspects of human performance as-yet unexplored.

Bruce Lee functional training

Maybe it’s time to try something new in your training?

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About Adam Sinicki

Adam Sinicki, AKA The Bioneer, is a writer, personal trainer, author, entrepreneur, and web developer. I've been writing about health, psychology, and fitness for the past 10+ years and have a fascination with the limits of human performance. When I'm not running my online businesses or training, I love sandwiches, computer games, comics, and hanging out with my family.

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