Bruce Lee’s Unique Isometric Training Routine Explained (Overcoming Isometrics)

By on October 21, 2021

The authenticity of Bruce Lee’s martial arts is occasionally called into question. Was it all for show? Or would he have been effective in a competitive setting? Just how many of his reported feats were actually real? Could he really punch his little finger through a can of Cola, or lift 40kg in front of him with his arm straight?

Bruce Lee MMA

Of course, it’s impossible to know for sure. But there is no denying that he was extremely athletic. The fact that Bruce could perform a V-sit with no gymnastics background is extremely impressive (Grant can do the same thing, but he’s Grant). The two fingered push up is an amazing demonstration of not only finger strength, but also a solid core. Bruce could easily get into a pancake stretch, and his punches and kicks were sharp, powerfully, and impossibly fast. Bruce moved in an incredible way, which is why we still talk about him today.

See also: Testing Bruce Lee’s Training: His Precise Workouts Analysed

The question as to whether Bruce would win a fighter against X MMA fighter is a moot point. Bruce wasn’t an MMA fighter! The question should be what Bruce would be like as an MMA fighter: with all the specific training and experience that would entail. Because I think he certainly had the physicality.

Where did that physicality come from? How can we emulate it?

Could Bruce’s old overcoming isometrics routine hold the answer?

Bruce and Overcoming Isometrics

Those who have been watching this channel for a while will already have an idea of what I’m talking about here.

Overcoming isometrics are a form of exercise that involves pushing or pulling against an immovable object. This is a static contraction, in that the muscle is contracted but not shortening or lengthening. Unlike a yielding isometric, however, where you hold a weight in one place against gravity; an overcoming isometric allows you to exert 100% effort.

Overcoming Isometric Bar Bend

An example of a yielding isometric would be to hold a dumbbell at 90 degrees until you fatigue and lower the weight. An example of an overcoming isometric would be to chain that dumbbell to the floor and try as hard as you possible can to curl it. This is something Bruce Lee actually did, by the way!

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

These two methods have very different effects on the body.

Thanks to the copious notes that Bruce Lee kept about his training, lovingly collected and presented by the prolific John Little, we know that Bruce was very interested in overcoming isometrics and experimented with them regularly.

Bruce Lee Isometrics
Bruce performing an overcoming isometric “Rise on Toes”

Bruce Lee’s Isometric Routine

Eventually, according to the book Bruce Lee: The Art of Expressing the Human Body (page 216), Bruce refined his isometrics program to eight simple exercises.

Those eight were:

  • Press lockout (bar three inches below lockout position in an overhead press)
  • Press start (bar by chin at the start of an overhead press)
  • Rise on toes (bar on shoulders at the top of a squat, effectively calf raising)
  • Pull (bar six inches below hip, pulling while calf raising)
  • Parallel squat (squatting from the point where thighs are parallel to the floor)
  • Shoulder shrug (shrugging the bar from hand height)
  • Dead-weight lift (a deadlift from two inches below the knee)
  • Quarter squat (squatting from a quart of the way up)

Bruce would hold each of these positions for 6-12 seconds. While there is no indication of sets or reps, a good starting point might be three sets of one repetition.

Bruce Lee's Overcoming Isometrics Routine

Also unclear, is just how often Bruce used this routine. Three days a week would, however, be a good starting point. We can be fairly sure this is what Bruce would have recommended, for reasons we’ll get to later on. I advise resting for 30-120 seconds between repetitions, depending on how your body feels.

The Benefits of Overcoming Isometrics

So, what are the benefits of an overcoming isometric? And why might Bruce Lee have been so interested in them?

Well, overcoming isometric exercises are actually extremely beneficial for building maximum strength. This is because they effectively act like performing a one-rep maximum, in many ways. Unlike a one rep max, an overcoming isometric exercise won’t require you to bear a lot of weight on your shoulders and brace your core. It won’t build bone density in the same way and the lack of true mechanical tension will reduce muscle building in some ways. And due to the lack of movement, it won’t create as much muscle damage, meaning you’ll experience less hypertrophy.

Nature Shoulder Press

But the real power of overcoming isometrics is in their ability to build raw power. This allows you to train your ability to exert maximum effort – to call upon it as needed and to engage more motor units.

In one study, it was found that there were considerably higher levels of muscle activation during overcoming isometric contractions verses maximal concentric muscle actions (study).

To your nervous system, maximum effort is maximum effort. If you try and move something that is your one rep max or above (which this is), then you will attempt to recruit the maximum number of motor units possible via the strongest nerve impulses and rate coding. As you repeatedly attempt this, you reinforce the neural pathways that allow you to send those impulses, thus increasing strength without necessarily altering the size or shape of the muscle. Some coaches will even program this as part of a “myelination phase.” Myelination being the process of insulating the axons that connect neurons within these motor patterns.

See also: How to Use Isometrics for Massive Strength Gains

And because these are compound lifts that Bruce Lee used, he would also be training the correct pattern of tension throughout the entire body. This will have trained Bruce Lee to contract all his muscles together, in unison, to become an extremely rigid with no energy leaks. This is exactly how Bruce appears to move.

Overcoming Isometrics vs Regular Lifts

And remember: when you perform a one rep max during a regular exercise, you only exert maximum effort for a small portion of the strength curve. The entire lift likely only lasts a couple of seconds. Thus, by using overcoming isometrics, you can spend far more time under maximum exertion.

Overcoming Deadlift

Another study found that this type of training could actually decrease the coactivation of antagonistic muscles by an impressive 20% during knee extensions! This relaxation effect can improve not only strength, but also mobility and it’s a core component of delivering powerful blows as a martial artist (study).

It has even been suggested that this process teaches the body that it is “safe” to exert this much force, helping to deactivate safety mechanisms that might kick in in response to excessive signals from the golgi-tendon organ. This is less scientific but it makes sense!

See also: Tendon Training for Injury Prevention and Explosive Power

Bruce’s Other Isometric Training Routines

When it comes to Bruce Lee’s training, there’s a tendency for a lot of articles to regurgitate the same information as gospel, rather than go to the source. John found this short routine in Bruce’s training diaries, but it’s only one of many.

In fact, directly beneath this routine is another that details how Bruce would use an old-fashioned bull worker in order to perform additional isometric exercises. Bruce has a long list of exercises for this body part, including everything from chest compressions, to kneeling exercises, and “behind buttock compression.”

Heavy Bag Training

Isometrics also turn up in many other places throughout. Many other programs will randomly include lines like “Isometric training – outward pressure.”

It’s also interesting to read an isometric routine Bruce wrote for his students. This looked like so:

  • Low pull
  • Middle pull
  • High pull
  • Chin level press
  • Middle press
  • Curl
  • Reverse curl
  • Chest squeeze
  • Abdominal tensing
  • Middle squat

This has the curious annotation “isometric power training – to build up basic requirements.” It’s interesting because it’s very similar to his own isometric routine with a few additions and omissions. It’s interesting he ditched the high calf pressing movements – perhaps he figured the high pull made the high push redundant.

Overcoming Punch

The chest squeeze is a popular option for strength training and makes sense here. It’s surprising to see a reverse curl, though!

See also: Train Like Goku and Vegeta – Strength Training for Martial Arts

In the same document, he also included the following “isometric functional power training – for more forceful application.” This looks like so:

  • Upward/outward
  • Punch penetration – low, middle, high
  • Straight kick – low, middle, high
  • Side kick – low, middle, high

Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to find any more information about this. We can hazard a guess at how you might train strikes and kicks in an isometric fashion. It’s not clear if these are overcoming isometrics, however. Although I’m not sure what the purpose of a yielding punch would be…

Talking to the Kung Fu Genius Podcast, John Little also said that Bruce would often practice pushing a punch out against a pad on the wall, which was a fairly common practice for Wing Chun practitioners.

Assessing Bruce’s Program

Regarding the student programs, Bruce recommends that the first program be trained on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. The power training routine is for Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays. This is how we can ascertain that Bruce would likely use his own routine three days a week. This is also encouraged generally, as overcoming isometrics are neurologically intensive: just like max lifts. Although, I would argue that you can train this way more often but should listen to your body.

One of the big limitations of overcoming isometrics, is that the strength gains only tend to affect around 30 degrees of the full range of motion. Because the muscle isn’t moving, you only increase strength at that point, and 15 degrees either side.

Bruce Lee fights

The solution is simple: you train at multiple, positions depending on the muscle group in question. For the biceps, you might want to train at the bottom, middle, and top of the curl, for example.

This is where Bruce’s routine is actually really elegant. Rather than taking specific exercises and training at three points throughout it, it appears that he has looked at the entire body as one unit and is instead training at different positions from top to bottom, pulling and pushing as appropriate: starting with overhead pressing and calf raising, all the way down to deep squatting and deadlifting. I really like this “one muscle” approach, and again, it goes to show the amount of thought and ingenuity in Bruce’s training.

A Few Changes, If I May

That said, I would personally make a few minor changes. One criticism I have of this routine is that it omits any rotational strength. If you include the punches as well, though, you can remedy this issue while also potentially increasing speed and power in your punches. This also takes care of the lack of vertical push. If you throw in a vertical pull, this could also help you rapidly pull back your punches – though this requires more set-up.

Rotational Isometrics

Get into stance, put a cushion up against the wall, and try and drive as much power as possible through the fist into the wall, rotating the hips and shoulders and pushing through the back foot, as well as sending the punch out via the pecs and triceps. Step back a pace, then repeat the movement from that distance.

I think I would also include something like a bar bend. Overcoming isometrics are a fantastic option for training grip strength (you can also try squeezing tennis balls or cans) which can feed into increased strength in all other movements and lifts.

Using the Program At Home

The ideal way to perform Bruce’s program is with a power rack. Simply take the weight off and use the pins to lock it in place (if your rack allows this), or pile more weight than you can lift.

Overcoming Bruce Lee Style

Failing this, you can also use a doorway for some of these movements, or a set of railings outside.

But perhaps the most convenient option is to get an iso trainer. My recommendation is the excellent Iso-Flo from Bullworker.

Iso-Flo Bruce Lee

This system is a pair of handles connected by tough, adjustable fabric. Simply alter the length, step on the handles, and then push or pull through your hands. I recommend wearing shoes to prevent them from digging into your feet.

This is the easiest and most convenient way to start this kind of training. And the cool thing is that we know Bruce Lee also used Bullworker products back in the day!

Follow this link to get an Iso-Flo and use the discount code “bioneerstrong” for 10% off. I’ll also get a small commission, so you’ll be helping out the site!

You could even use towels with knots tied in them at the desired positions for grip. Heck: you could reserve a number of towels with knots in different places, each for a different lift!

The Bullworker Bow Classic
Bullworker Bow Classic

That said, this does introduce a stability challenge that otherwise wouldn’t be there and you need to take extra care to line things up correctly. If you’re putting maximum effort into a squat, you need to be sure the weight is over the middle of the foot and your joints are stacked.

You can hurt yourself if you get this wrong. So, film yourself and watch it back. Start lighter, and don’t attempt this if you have no experience lifting heavy weights.

How to Program Overcoming Isometrics

When I’ve discussed overcoming isometrics in previous videos, I’ve often been asked how you might program and use them. Hopefully, this post has provided some answers:

  • Train three times per week
  • Hit every area you want to train from three different positions
  • Use 3 x 1 sets and reps
  • Rest for 60-120 seconds between sets
  • Train multiple joint angles

If you want to use overcoming isometrics in a different way, there are many more applications. For example, overcoming isometrics are popularly used as a form of contrast training. By using overcoming isometrics, you can tap into the post activation potentiation effect AND the post activation performance enhancement effect. See my post/video on priming the brain to understand the difference.

Using Iso-Flo

In short: performing overcoming isometrics can allow you to engage more power immediately afterward and this can be applied to your training with impressive effect.

More Uses for Overcoming Isometrics

Benching

Overcoming isometrics are also regularly used for sticking points in lifts. If you find yourself often getting stuck at the bottom of a squat, for example, you can use overcoming isometrics at this point to build maximum power here specifically. This makes a lot of sense: you clearly have the muscles there (they’re the same ones you use at the top of the squat!) but you need to learn to contract them properly.

See also: Advanced Isometric Training: Ballistic and Quasi Isometrics

And surprisingly, you can also use overcoming isometrics for more explosive movements. Ballistic overcoming isometrics involve exploding into the movement and this is a strategy that can be used, for example, by an arm wrestler. Imagine waiting for your cue and then exerting maximum force immediately when the competition begins.

Bruce Lees Isometrics

Isometrics can also be used as rehab – as they let you create force in the muscle without stressing the joint.

Finally, I also like overcoming isometrics as a way to train yourself to breathe through tension. It’s natural to want to hold your breath, which immediately limits the amount of time you can maintain performance. Breathing through any kind of isometric can help you overcome this natural urge.

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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