The Key to Bruce Lee’s Athleticism: Core Stability

By on April 27, 2020

“The abdominal and waist region coordinate all parts of the body and act as the center or generator. Therefore, you can promote the ability to control the body’s action and master your will more easily.”

Bruce Lee

What was it about Bruce Lee that made him such a martial arts icon?

Of course, Bruce brought an incredible screen presence and deep philosophy to his craft, but beyond that: what made him so fascinating to watch?

Sure, Bruce was fast, but there have been plenty of superfast martial artists since.

And Bruce was ripped, but again, no moreso than many others who came before him or after.

So, what was it about his physicality that stood out?

And was he really as invincible than many myths and legends would have us believe?

I think I have at least part of the answer. And the clue lies in his amazing one finger push up.

Bruce Lee’s Feats of Athleticism

That one finger push up would be impressive by any standards. But if you watch closely, you’ll notice that it is even more impressive that it looks. Unlike many people performing this move, Bruce does not move his hand to the center of his body. It stays directly beneath the shoulder, while the rest of his body remains perfectly straight and parallel to the ground.

Bruce Lee two finger push ups

What does this show us? It shows us that Bruce has insane core stability. He is able to resist the rotational force to prevent his opposite shoulder dipping even slightly, while also preventing any extension in his spine.

Nevermind the incredible grip strength that this move also requires! Try this move yourself and you’ll see how incredible it is.

Funny thing is that Bruce’s other signature moves also demonstrate amazing core stability. In particular, Bruce’s Dragon Flag is a classic anti-extension move, where the real challenge is engaging the core to prevent the buttocks bending toward the ground.

Bruce Lee

Coincidence?

Now check out Bruce performing the V-Sit. That’s an actual v-sit, not an l-sit, which demonstrates not only impressive strength, but also mobility. This requires compressive strength, which is power in the core to bend that way against the natural resistance.

Bruce Lee v-sit

We see this again when Bruce pancake stretches from standing while warming up to fight Chuck Norris.

Bruce Lee pancake stretch

But what does this have to do with Bruce’s ability to deliver such watchable punches? Everything!

What is Core Stability?

Watch Bruce Lee throw a punch and one thing stands out: his upper torso is rigid like a plank of wood. There is no wobble and no give. This is crucial for delivering truly powerful blows.

As spine specialist Stuart McGill put it:

“Proximal stiffness enhances distal athleticism.”

Stuart McGill

Core stability is a misunderstood concept, but it essentially describes the ability to keep the core rigid and still against resistance. This can be broken down into the following categories:

Anti-flexion: Resisting bending forward. This is important when squatting or deadlifting to prevent rounding of the spine and thus injury.

Anti-extension: Resisting bending backwards. This is what is key to the dragon flag.

Anti-lateral flexion: Resisting bending sideways. If you press a dumbbell over one head for example, you use anti-lateral flexion to prevent topping to one side.

Anti-rotation: Resisting twisting. Key to the one handed push up but also extremely important in grappling.

This is what allows a martial artist to translate the power from their hips, into delivering a powerful punch.

Why Core Stability Was Key to Bruce Lee’s Athleticism (And Yours)

Think about it this way: if I were to hit you with a plank of wood with a nail on the end, that would probably hurt. But if that nail was attached to a something bendy – like a thin branch – it would hurt a lot less. Not only that, but the trajectory of the nail would be slower and less efficient.

To take the rest of the quote from McGill:

“When muscles contract they try to shorten. Consider the specific action here – the arm flexes around the shoulder joint moving the arm from muscle shortening at the distal end. But the same shortening also bends the rib cage towards the arm at the proximal end of the muscle. Thus simply using the pec muscle would not result in a fast nor forceful punch. Now stiffen the proximal end of pec muscle attachment – meaning stiffen the core and ribcage so it can’t move. Now, 100% of pec muscle shortening is directed to action at its distal end producing fast and forceful motion in the arm. In the same way a stiffened core locks down the proximal ends of the hip muscles producing faster leg motion. A loss of core stiffness causes the torso to bend when sprinting, and a loss of speed – some force was robbed that should have been expressed in leg velocity.”

Stuart McGill

This way the rigidity of your core will also result in greater mobility AND flexibility.

Now take another look at Bruce Lee in action.

Bruce Lee Core Training

Makes sense right? And we know that Bruce absolutely prioritized core training: at some points performing his ab routine daily. Bruce also made a point about contracting every muscle in his body during training, improving his mind-muscle connection and power.

Bruce Lee’s Core Workout

We actually know one of Bruce Lee’s ab routines. According to his own notes (as collected in Art of Expressing the Human Body), it looked something like this at least during one point:

  • Waist twist – 4 x 70
  • Sit up twist 4 x 20
  • Leg raises 4 x 20
  • Leaning twist 4 x 50
  • Frog kick 4 x Failure

Circuit x 2

  • Roman chair sit-up
  • Leg raises
  • Side bends

To perform the “waist twist,” you will take a stick across the back of your shoulders and neck and hold it in place. Now lean forward, and then rotate your upper body from side to side. Frog kicks are hanging leg raises, except that your legs are bent and you are focused on bringing your knees up to the chest. I like to use these as part of a mechanical drop set with hanging leg raises.

I have also read reports that Bruce would train the Dragon Flag regularly. Certainly, I believe there is some information missing from this routine!

Core Stability is Key For Everyone

This is NOT just key in martial arts. This is true for all athletic pursuits, and it’s one reason that functional coaches spend a lot of time building stability in their clients.

Many of these exercises involve keeping the core completely stable while performing light unilateral or twisting movements to provide challenge and to serve as a kind of distraction. However, you can simply use calisthenics moves like the one armed push up, LaLanne Push Up, and handstand to develop something similar. Likewise, you can use unilateral and offset exercises, like the suitcase carry and other one-sided suitcase carries.

Bruce Lee Training

Likewise, when performing any movement – from the squat to the humble press up – be mindful of what your core is doing and whether you’re able to keep it rigid during the movement. Don’t let that waist sag or upper back round!

One more thing: think about sitting on a chair with no back. When you sit at an office, your spine is artificially supported for hours on end. This can cause the deep muscles of the core to actually switch off and eventually we lose control over them.

This is also SO important for advanced calisthenics. I’ve found when performing free-standing handstands, core stability is critical to getting the straight line. The MINUTE my spine goes into extension I have two choices: banana handstand or bail. The ability to straighten up again is the difference between success and failure.

Bruce Lee trapping hands

(The handstand also trains shoulder mobility to a crazy degree and is something I think everyone should incorporate into their training).

Closing Thoughts

So what’s the takeaway? Start using those “anti” moves in your own training and you’ll see improvements in every area of your athleticism.

I’ve developed a short core stability workout that I’m posting to Instagram. You can incorporate these moves into your existing workouts, or swap this in as your ab day.

Go and follow me there @thebioneer to check it out yourself.

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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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