Jackie Chan’s Training, Workouts, and Life Lessons

By on July 16, 2019

If it wasn’t for Jackie Chan, then in all likelihood, the Bioneer would not exist today.

Jackie Chan was one of my absolute heroes growing up, and I was in awe of his physicality. I would save pocket money to buy obscure films of his, then spend the entire time fast forwarding to the amazing fight scenes. The way he moved was incredible to me: he was the closest thing to a real-life superhero I’d ever seen.

I was inspired by Jackie Chan (and Shenmue) to start Karate, but what impressed me even more was his parkour-before-parkour. The sense of rhythm in his fight scenes, the creativity in his choreography, and the amazing stunts he performed for real for our entertainment. He moved so fluidly and performed moves so unique they have no name, all tied together in long-sweeping shots that showed his face. In “Jump London,” Sebastian Foucan credited Bruce Lee as the inspiration for parkour. But to me, Jackie Chan deserves the credit. He was doing exactly that, long before it had a name.

Jackie Chan's training and workouts

Some accuse Jackie Chan’s Kung Fu of not being “real” or applicable in a real fight. And that may be true. But that is not to say he couldn’t kick your ass, or that he isn’t a supremely talented athlete. He’s a guy who can kick you in the head OR leap across to another rooftop to get away. Jackie Chan embodies everything this site is all about: he is super functional, ready for anything.

He was the closest thing to a real-life superhero

So what’s his secret? What can we learn from Jackie Chan’s training? How about his work ethic, philosophy, and life story? In this video, I’ll attempt to answer those questions drawing on the work of John Little, the excellent documentary My Stunts, his autobiography, and countless extra features across reams of DVDs.

Jackie Chan’s Peking Opera Training

Jackie Chan was born in 1954 as Chan Kong-Sang. It wasn’t until later, while working as a construction worker, that he got the nickname “Jackie Chan.”

As is now legend, Jackie Chan began his martial arts career at a young age when he was enrolled at the China Drama Academy in 1960 at age six. This was a Peking Opera school run by Yu Jim-yuen. His parents were so poor they offered to sell him as a baby. This was one way they could afford to keep him. Peking opera is a flamboyant and acrobatic stage show that includes martial arts, gymnastics, singing, and elaborate makeup and costumes. It requires extreme precision and performance from its artists, and the China Dram Academy was rigorous in extracting it. When Jackie first signed up for the school, his parents had to sign a waver that permitted the school to discipline him, “even to death.”

Jackie Chan Peking Opera Training

Jackie had been excited to join the academy and had encouraged his parents to make the decision. But pretty soon he realized just what a rigorous and punishing regime he would live through for the next decade and a half. Students slept on the floor and began training at 5am, starting with jogging, painful stretching, kung fu, and head balancing. Rule breaking was met with caning, and pupils weren’t allowed to use the toilet during training, as they were expected to sweat it out. If they needed the toilet, they hadn’t been training hard enough! They sustained themselves on bowls of congee for breakfast – essentially porridge – and soup and tofu for lunch. Flips were learned on the hard floor with no nets or pads. If you were sick or hurt, it was seen as an attempt to get out of training. Yu said “if you can move, you can fly.”

There are a few videos and articles on the web claiming that artists like Jackie Chan don’t do “real kung fu,” or that they aren’t able to fight. Indeed, Peking Opera is a show with no contact and Jackie likely lacks the experience or mindset of an MMA fighter. But that by no means makes him less of a fighter. At this young, impressionable, highly plastic age, Chan was repeating kicks, punches, and forms endlessly to perfection. He was stretching against walls for consecutive hours to be able to perform box and scissor splits with ease. They practiced for more than 12 hours a day. The training actually had a lot in common with the training of Shaolin monks.

Shaolin Exhibition

Nothing you or I do right now – barring EXTREME measures – will allow us to develop that kind of muscle memory. At the time, Jackie’s martial arts were likely flawless, and his functional fitness would have been out of this world. And Jackie actually thrived in the opera, particularly as a singer. He was selected as one of the Seven Little Fortunes – a group made up of the school’s best performers – and took on the name Yuen Lo, meaning “Little Yuen” as homage to his teacher. Two other members of the Seven Little Fortunes were Chan’s later co-stars Yuen Biao and Sammo Hung.

What’s more, is that Jackie doesn’t hold any grudges. In fact, he is grateful to both the school and its master. He writes “as far as I’m concerned, Charles Chan was the father of Chan Kong-sang, but Yu Jim-yuen was the father of Jackie Chan.” This positivity, gratitude, and work ethic would go on to serve Chan incredibly well in the following years.

Jackie doesn’t hold any grudges

It was common for members of the China Drama Academy to appear in movies and his first role was age eight alongside other little fortunes in the film Big and Little Wong Tin Bar. He would go on to become a stunt performer in a number of martial arts films, including Fist of Fury and Enter the Dragon with Bruce Lee. He was just 17 at the time.

Jackie Chan Martial Arts Movie Training

Jackie Chan Martial Arts Training

Jackie’s first leading roles were directed by Lo Wei, who had previously worked with Bruce Lee. Unfortunately, the somewhat cynical filmmaker saw Jackie mainly as another “Bruceploitation” actor, casting him in “New Fist of Fury.” The film was a failure, partly due to Jackie’s fighting style being a poor match for imitating Bruce’s. It’s an interesting watch though if you want to see what Jackie looks like fighting like Bruce. Though even then, you can see some of Jackie’s more acrobatic style on show.

It wasn’t until Chan was on loan to Seasonal Film Corporation for a two picture deal (yielding Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow and Drunken Master) that Jackie was able to enjoy a little more creative control under the fight direction of the amazing Yuen Woo Ping (The Matrix, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon). Here, you can see the rhythmic fighting Jackie learned from his craft on full show, along with an inventive use of props, and a big injection of comedy. The films were different from anything else at the time, and were hugely successful as a result, cementing Chan as a star.

These films also showcase some truly inventive and torturous training scenes, that possibly harken back to Chan’s time at the academy and showcase his incredible physicality. Highlights include transferring water between buckets while hanging upside down, and doing finger push ups over hot wooden spikes while the Mr Miyagi character rests his legs on his back. I think this inspired my Granddad who had me training in equally inventive (though less monstrous) ways. I loved it.

Jackei Chan Drunken Master Training

In 1983, Jackie teamed up with his old buddies Yuen Biao and Samo Hung for the superhit Project A. Here, Chan’s love for stunts and physical comedy culminate in one of his biggest death-defying stunts to-date: a fall from a clock tower inspired by silent comedian Harold Lloyd and his film Safety Last! As a fusion, audiences had never seen anything like it. If there’s something else we can take from Jackie Chan’s mindset, it’s to be yourself and not follow the crowd.

The next evolution in Jackie’s style came in the form of Police Story. This film spawned Chan’s biggest franchise, and placed him in a more modern, urban setting. This film saw him chase down a bus, smash copious amounts of glass, and launch himself down a giant metal pole in the center of a shopping mall. It’s in this style of film that we see Jackie essentially performing parkour before parkour was a thing.

Jackie reports driving past objects in the world and imagining all the ways he could climb them, jump over them, or fight with them: traceurs today call this “parkour vision.”

The rest, as they say, is history.

Jackie Chan’s Stunt Training

What has always fascinated me about this is just how good Jackie’s stunts are to watch. Yuen Biao is arguably a better acrobat, and more modern stars like Tony Jaa are better at flips and parkour. But it’s Chan’s sense of timing, his flexibility, his direction, and the way he moves – adding tiny flourishes that make everything seem much more elegant – that just defies description. Some of his stunts – such as his ability to leap through tiny gaps – are things I’ve not really seen anyone else replicate. He has the “flow” that traceurs speak of down to a T.

If you want to learn more about how Jackie films and directs a fight, I highly recommend the video from Every Frame a Painting. This goes into detail about the way Jackie will first help the viewer get a sense of space. And the way he will cut between shots while actually moving a few frames back to emphasize impact and let the viewer keep up. He does also use speed up his shots ever-so-slightly.

I love his fight scenes as well for showcasing how martial arts can be complemented by athleticism, and functional strength.

Jackie CHan Stunt Training

As an action hero, Jackie’s training of course evolved. He and Samo both acquired black belts in Hapkido following their graduation from Peking Opera, giving his later fight scenes a slightly more direct and modern feel.

At one point, Jackie’s training involved daily 45 minute runs, but that stopped when he injured his ankle on the set of Rumble in the Bronx. Following that, he switched to less rigorous cardio using a Stairmaster. He combined this with weight training. During an interview with John Little, he reports that he would life around 100kg for 20-30 rapid reps. He says that he “doesn’t use heavy weights.” What the heck?

Whether or not this is accurate, Chan reports that he and his fellow stuntmen – the famous Jackie Chan Stunt Team – don’t like to get too muscular as they want to remain light and agile. He also incorporates high volume martial arts practice against a bag – still repping out large volumes of kicks and punches. He says his natral musculature comes from his rigorous training as a child.

He combined this training with light gymnastics training, such as handstand presses and headstands. He says:

“Gymnastics is very good for strength, and when you do things like flips and hanging upside-down, it also helps you with your coordination.” 

But Jackie also believes that he gets most of the conditioning he needs from his job – where he practices choreography, films take-after-take of fight scenes, and throws himself onto the ground over-and-over again. He is still doing this at the ripe age of 65! He and his stunt team have actually created a huge repertoire of break falls and flips which they can then refer to like their own “alphabet.” Successful break falling and landing is a big part of his longevity. Interestingly, he says it’s harder to be a stunt person playing a bad-guy, because that tends to involve landing on your face and falling off of things a whole lot more!

Another tip? Accidents happen when you “half” do a stunt. You rarely get hurt if you commit 100%, or if you don’t do it at all. But hesitate and you’re done for!

I also recommend incorporating more gymnastic moves into your training. I’ve extolled the virtues of handstands and planche in the past, but I also recommend adding in some of the tumbling aspects. In my Nightwing video, I explained just how good things like flips are for your core, and the benefits for proprioception are obvious. Start by simply including reps of cartwheels in your training. You’ll improve over time and this will have countless knock-on effects.

Jackie Chan’s Entrepreneurship

Jackie continues doing all of this to this day. While he frequently threatens that his days of action comedy are over, it’s usually only a matter of time until he’s leaping off of something again. Something else he has in common with many other legends featured in this series is an absolute passion and fanaticism for what he does. Along with his discipline and authority, he has a readily apparent zest for life.

He speaks 8 languages. His brain works at 100 miles an hour, and when he’s not writing, filming, singing, directing, or acting, he’s inventing (yep, he has several creations he plans to patent), doing charity, and managing countless businesses. Interviewers and co-stars report how he freely gives away gifts to everyone he meets, and shows slideshows of his extensive philanthropy (before he is asked). He has huge obscure collections, and owns actual secret bases filled with James-Bond-style hidden rooms. He’s like a big kid! His latest book is even called Never Grow Up!

Jackie CHan Entrepreneur

His creativity is even on show in the gadgets he creates to enhance his fight scenes. From padded shoes to wires that pull the legs out from under you. Like Bruce Lee mixed with Tony Stark.

This is also why I think Jackie Chan’s use of the roller suite in Chinese Zodiac is such a perfect fit for him. Yep, that’s a suit created and worn by a French inventor that covers your body in wheels so that you can glide around and shoot down mountains. That, fyi, is also a film for which he also holds the world record as the most job roles in any production, including “catering coordinator.” Wheels on meals indeed!

There is truly no one like Jackie Chan.

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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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