Bruce Lee’s ACTUAL Training Routines Analysed and Tested!

By on April 1, 2018

Last time I looked at Bruce Lee’s training in-depth, I examined some of the more unusual and experimental methods he used. Things like “speed training” and “overcoming isometrics.”

But what of his regular routine? We know that Bruce believed in adding resistance training and cardio to his martial arts practice, so what did that actually look like? Was he ahead of his time in this regard too? And what can we learn from his programs?

Bruce Lee’s Earliest Known Weight Training Program

As we research Bruce’s methods, we need to be careful about the sources that we rely on. Fortunately, there are some fairly verifiable reports of Bruce’s training which paint a fairly consistent picture. Much of this comes from John Little’s collection of Bruce’s own notes: The Art of Expressing the Human Body.

An Early Bruce Lee Training Routine

Starting in 1965, we have a very early gym card that Bruce filled out, detailing one of his earlier routines. This was filled out at the Hak Keung Gymnasium in Hong Kong, which he reportedly attended three times a week.

The routine was as follows:

Squat 3 x 10 x 95lb
French Press 4 x 6 x 64lb
Incline Curls 4 x 6 x 35lb
French Press (again) 4 x 6 x 64lb
Con Curl 3 x 10 x 70-80lbs
Two Handed Curl 3 x 8 x 70-80lb
Tricep Stretch 3 x 8
Dumbbell Curl 4 x Failure x 18lb
Reverse Curl 4 x 6 x 64lb
Wrist Curl 4 x Failure x 64lb
Wrist Curl 4 x Failure x 10lb

The “French Press” is a little like a tricep extension sitting on a bench. A con curl is probably shorthand for concentration curl. (It took me too long to figure that out!)

A slightly different version included press-ups. Presumably, that was just for variety.

SuperFunctional Training

It is probably safe to assume this wasn’t the sum total of Bruce Lee’s training. More likely, this would have been part of a “bro split” (which makes sense given the era) and would have made up his “arms day.” With a bit of squatting, because why not I guess!

Explaining Bruce Lee’s Routine

This is a strange routine by all accounts. It looks as though he was curling almost as much as he was squatting and he randomly performs a couple of exercises twice. Presumably, he was training intuitively at the time, rather than following much of a set routine.

I’ve seen comments on my YouTube channel to the effect of “why should I admire someone who squatted so little?” To that, I would suggest that squatting heavy loads is perhaps not as functional as you may have been led to believe. This is an argument for another time: but in terms of explosive kicking and jumping power, loading huge amounts of weight on your back doesn’t have a lot of obvious cross-over.

So, we might be looking at an example of Bruce Lee’s limited max strength. Or this may be evidence of a functional training program ahead of its time!

Bruce Lee’s Forearm and Grip Training

What’s also interesting is that Bruce Lee’s training dedicated SO much time to his forearms and grip – which makes a lot of sense given he was a martial artist. And looking at his forearms, it’s easy to see that it did the job! Check out my recent video on forearm and grip training for more on that.

The tricep stretch is also interesting. Was this an example of weighted stretching??

Bruce Lee’s Full Body Routine

According to Muscle Fitness and the book The Art of Expressing the Human Body, both of which refer directly to Bruce’s Lee’s training routine notes, this regime quickly evolved into the following, far simpler, program.

Clean and Press 2 x 8-12
Barbell Curls 2 x 8-12
Behind-the-Neck Presses 2 x 8-12
Upright Rows 2 x 8-12
Barbell Squats 2 x 12-20
Barbell Row 2 x 8-12
Bench Press 2 x 8-12
Barbell Pullover 2 x 8-12

See also: Bruce Lee Cobra Lats: How to Build Powerful, Functional Lats

Over the next ten years, Bruce refined the program further to result in the following more scaled-back approach:

Clean and Press 2 x 8
Squat 2 x 12
Barbell Pullover 2 x 8
Bench Press 2 x 6
Good Morning 2 x 8
Barbell Curl 2 x 8

He reportedly used this training program three times a week to achieve the physique exhibited in The Big Boss (1971) and Way of the Dragon (1972).

I Tried Bruce Lee’s Training Routine!

I actually tried Bruce Lee’s routine for a couple of weeks because… well I don’t think that requires an explanation.

It’s fairly taxing and definitely good for mobility. It’s interesting to me that Bruce included an isolated bicep move but not triceps.

There’s also an awful lot of lats in there, but this makes sense when you consider the importance of lats for boxing. Here, the lats act as core stabilizers, help to pack and support the shoulders, and improve the speed with which you can withdraw a punch. That latter point is important, as that motion helps drive the follow-up forward via kinetic linking.

And I personally would leave out the good mornings too and maybe stick some deadlifts there instead.

His training evolved into a full-body routine consisting of many more compound movements

What Can We Learn From Bruce Lee’s Training Routine?

So, what can we take from this? The first interesting thing to note is that his training evolved into a full-body routine consisting of many more compound movements.

This meant that each muscle group was being hit three times a week, though with only very moderate intensity. It is also notable for its simplicity and could actually easily pass for quite a modern training program.

Bruce Lee predominantly to two sets of eight reps for most of these exercises. This is enough to trigger some strength benefits, but wouldn’t result in long recovery periods.

This is another important aspect of smart functional training for athletes. if you are a martial artist first-and-foremost, then skill practice should be your number one priority. Your resistance training/conditioning should not impede this practice. That is to say, that if you can’t spar because you’re still recovering from your last workout, then you are working out too hard.

This is yet more evidence that Bruce Lee actually knew what he was doing, and was ahead of his contemporaries when it came to functional training.

However, this may come as a bit of a surprise for those that assumed Bruce would aim for a more power-oriented training program.

Bruce Lee’s Circuit Training for Enter the Dragon

Many have noted the sudden improvement in Bruce Lee’s physique going into Enter the Dragon. Not that he was a slouch before!

And apparently, this evolution was at least partly due to his investment in the “Marcy Circuit Trainer” in 1972. This was basically a cable machine as is popular in gyms today that would allow Bruce to perform everything from bench press, to curls, to tricep extensions etc. all from a single station.

What’s more, is that this is once again a HIGHLY popular tool when it comes to functional training. After all, cable machines force you to brace your core against resistance in an upright position. You aren’t lying on the ground pushing heavy weights above you: you’re pushing from an unstable position just as you would in real life!

Peripheral Heart Action Training

This acquisition coincided with Bruce’s discovery of PHA training or Peripheral Heart Action. According to The Art of Expressing the Human Body, Bruce discovered this training method by reading Ironman magazine, which reportedly was one of his favorites at the time.

The idea behind PHA is to keep the blood circulating around the body rather than allowing it to pool in a single muscle or group of muscles. In other words, this style of training advocates the use of full-body circuits over isolating single muscles or even performing sets and reps of a single exercise.

The idea behind PHA is to keep the blood circulating around the body

The result is something that looks a lot like a modern metabolic conditioning (metcon) routine. Bruce had several programs designed around this philosophy, but the most well-known is his cross-training routine using the Marcy Circuit Trainer.

This consisted of:

Pull Up – 30 seconds
Seated Leg Press – 30 seconds
Bilateral Alternative Hip/Knee Extensions – 30 seconds
Shoulder Press – 30 seconds
Standing Calf Raise (Using Shoulder Press) – 30 seconds (with varying foot positions)
Alternating Cable Curl – 30 seconds
Standing Unilateral Arm Adduction – 30 seconds
Bench Press – 30 seconds
Regular Deadlift – 30 seconds
Kneeling Pull Down Behind Neck – 30 seconds
Triceps Push Down – 30 seconds
Sprint – 1.5 minutes
Standing Wrist Roller – 1 minute
Neck Flexion/Extension – 1 minute

He used a setting that would allow him to reach failure around 8-12 reps. He would perform as many reps as he could until failure or until the 30 seconds were up. This is what CrossFit athletes refer to today as “AMRAP.”

There was no rest in-between.

The movements alternate between upper and lower body, which makes sense if the aim is to encourage as much blood flow as possible. This would then be combined with a more traditional weight-lifting regime.

Cardiovascular and Martial Arts Training

Bruce Lee’s training also incorporated large amounts of cardio.

Bruce Lee ran three days a week for a lot of his career, typically travelling four miles using a “fartlek” approach (meaning that he would alternate his pace, just like modern HIIT training).

Bruce also skipped a lot. Some reports state he skipped on the other three days, meaning he would have been doing cardio six days a week. That’s on top of his resistance training.

Others suggest he only did three days of cardio. In most likelihood he did both routines at different points in his training.

Bruce Lee’s Core Training Routine

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

It has also been widely reported that Bruce trained his abs and core every single day. According to Breaking Muscle, a site I really like, Bruce performed:

  • 5 x Sets of Side Bends
  • 5 x Sets of Leg Raises
  • 5 x Sets of Sit-ups

Each to failure.

Bruce Lee’s focus on a powerful core was absolutely fundamental to his performance. As he put it:

“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

Again, this view is widely shared among functional coaches today. As the “Back Mechanic” Stuart McGill puts it: “proximal stiffness enhances distal athleticism.”

Without a rigid torso, you can’t properly transfer power from your muscles without wasting energy. This is CRUCIAL if you want to mimic Bruce’s performance.

Bruce Lee’s Martial Arts Training

All this came secondary to Bruce Lee’s martial arts training.

Bruce would split up his training days to focus on lower body strikes and upper body strikes, respectively. He also did a lot of shadow boxing and had this to say on the matter:

“Shadowboxing is a good agility exercise as well as a method for building up speed. Keep your mind on the job! Imagine that your worst enemy, if you happen to have one, is there in front of you and go out to give him all you’ve got!”

Use your imagination to the up-most, try to anticipate the moves your phantom rival will endeavor to put across and work yourself up into a real fighting frame of mind.”

Closing Thoughts

It’s important to keep in mind that all of this is speculation. While a lot of reports suggest that Bruce trained using programs at least similar to these, we can’t know for certain. A lot of this is based on his own notes, and I know that I’ve written plenty of training programs that I never actually followed!

Finally, keep in mind that on top of all of this, Bruce was constantly experimenting. I’ve covered his use of overcoming isometrics, of “speed training” and of a range of other techniques. He tried out various different pieces of training equipment, even having some custom-built for him.

Bruce was constantly experimenting… His training was far more than the sum of its parts.

Linda reports that Bruce Lee would sit in front of the television doing wrist curls. The point is that while Bruce had a fairly conventional full-body routine, it was likely his sheer dedication, inventiveness and commitment that led to his ripped and powerful physique.

Bruce’s training was far more than the sum of its parts.

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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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