Building Bruce Part 1 – A Modern Training Program Inspired by Bruce Lee

By on November 27, 2019

Bruce Lee is one of the most respected icons among martial artists, strength athletes, and beyond. During his lifetime, Bruce’s unparalleled commitment to his training made him a true specimen of an athlete and fighter.

Modern Bruce Lee training

Thus, over the course of many articles and videos on this site, I have explored the methods he used to train. We’ve looked at his weightlifting regime, and we’ve discussed his use of cardio and overcoming isometrics. Those have been some of the most popular posts on this site by far, and so in celebration of this 100,000 milestone (and Bruce’s birthday, which is today!), I thought it made sense to return to the subject once again.

In this post, I want to do something a little different and tie all of this together into a single, modern, and accomplishable routine that anyone can follow. How would Bruce Lee train today? Bruce was extremely ahead of his time, but with today’s knowledge, how might he train differently?

How would Bruce Lee train today?

And if you don’t have as much time as Bruce to dedicate to your training, what’s the best you can do using a few hours a week?

This is a modern, achievable training program for getting a body like Bruce. A program inspired by Bruce Lee, for the rest of us.

Note: This Bruce Lee inspired program will be shared over the course of two separate posts. In this one, you’ll learn how to use resistance training and cardio to look and move like Lee. In part two, Grant will be sharing tips on bag drills and conditioning.

Bruce Lee Training

The Components

So, here is what we know: Bruce Lee did a LOT of heavy bag work, and during this he would divide his training based on types of strike, much like a bodybuilding split. He had days where he would practice kicks and days where he would practice punches.

Bruce Lee MMA

On top of this, Lee followed a weightlifting program that consisted primarily of compound lifts. These were relatively light and targeted the entire body for each workout. I’ve covered these in full in previous posts. The weights he used weren’t extremely heavy, and he also added in some accessory movements like curls and good mornings. We’ll see why this was a good strategy later on.

An example workout looks like so:

  • Clean and press – 4 sets of 6 reps
  • Squat – 4 sets of 6 reps
  • Good morning – 4 sets of 6 reps
  • Bench press – 4 sets of 5 reps
  • Curls – 4 sets of 6 reps

On top of this, it is suggested that Bruce would train his abs and core every single day. A sample abs routine looks like this:

  • Side bends – 5 sets to failure
  • Leg raises – 5 sets to failure
  • Sit ups – 5 sets to failure

Bruce is also reported to have experimented with a range of alternative training methods – not dissimilar from the kinds of things I like to discuss here. He used overcoming isometrics to develop max strength, as well as things like electromyostimulation (EMS), speed training, and more out there stuff. This is all discussed in the book The Art of Expressing the Human Body, collected from his notes.

Bruce experimented with a range of alternative training methods

At certain points during his career, Bruce Lee was known to run every single day. At other times, he is reported to have run four miles, three times a week. This was performed in a Fartlek-manner, meaning that he would alternate between different speeds.

Finally, Bruce Lee trained flexibility, and you can see his impressive free range of movement in a number of his films.

Modernizing Bruce’s Training

Bruce Lee's cross trainer

So, what’s the problem with all this?

If we know everything that Bruce Lee did as part of his training, then why don’t we just start doing the same things ourselves?

Simple though some of this might look, consider now how many aspects there are to this training.

  • Running 3-7 days per week
  • Ab training every day
  • Full body compound training 3 times per week
  • Heavy bag work/martial arts training 6 times per week
  • Flexibility training somewhere
  • Overcoming isometrics/grip training somewhere

This is far beyond what most of us can easily and intuitively fit into our own training.

The other issue is that we don’t have a single resource that tells us how to incorporate all these different facets into a single program. And I feel that if Bruce Lee had access to some of the training tools and knowledge we do today, he might have done things a little differently.

Bruce Lee performing overcoming isometrics in the squat rack!

Thankfully, using today’s modern approaches to training, we can make a little more sense of this and we can devise something more achievable for the average Joe. Without dedicating your entire life to training, you aren’t likely to get quite to Bruce Lee’s standards, but we can certainly head in that direction in a smart and methodical manner!

Strength Training

For strength training, I am going to schedule three full-body routines. One of these will consist of lifting somewhat heavy using compound movements, one will involve training with calisthenics, and the last will be comprised of accessory movements devised to develop a more well-rounded physique.

The compound lifting day will look like this:

Warm Up

  • Overcoming Isometric Bench Press 3 x 6 seconds x 3 joint angles OR Overcoming Isometric Bar Bend 3 x 6 seconds x 3 joint angles
  • Overcoming Isometric Squat 3 x 6 seconds x 3 joint angles OR Overcoming Isometric Wall Push 3 x 6 seconds x 3 joint angles
  • Overcoming Isometric Lat Pull Down 3 x 6 seconds x 3 joint angles OR Overcoming Isometrics Rope Tear 3 x 6 seconds x 3 joint angles
  • Squat Press 3 x 8-10 x 70%1RM
  • Bench Press 3 x 8-10 x 70%1RM
  • Squat 3 x 6-8 x 75%1RM
  • Bent Over Row 3 x 8-10 x 70% 1RM
  • Trap Bar Farmers’ Walks 2 x 1 minute AMRAP
  • 10 Minutes Kettlebell Swings (1 minute on, 30 second rest, start with 25kg)

So, what’s going on here? Well, to start with, we have our overcoming isometric moves. That means setting up a weight so it won’t move, and then attempting to pull, push, or squat it using maximum force and exploding into it. This trains the muscle fibre recruitment and is one of the best tricks used by old-time strongmen and Bruce Lee himself. As far as your body is concerned, you’re trying to move more than your one rep max, and this forces adaptations to make you stronger.

Bruce Lee strength training

Use three angles for each movement, and hold each repetition for six seconds. You’ll only need a 20 second rest between each “set.” For more on why you set it up like this, check out my dedicated posts on isometrics.

Then we move onto the bulk of the workout, which is using a number of compound lifts at 70%1RM. The moves I’ve selected here are truer to Bruce’s original training than were had I stuck to deadlift, squat, and bench press. Meanwhile, the slightly lighter weight allows us to train for explosiveness rather than max strength and size.

When training these movements, the aim is to accelerate as much as possible during the concentric phase. This is the “compensatory acceleration” or “dynamic effort method” that we discussed in the previous post on strength training. It is also the perfect analogue for Bruce’s own speed lifting technique.

In short, when you try and move as quickly as possible through the movement, you train your explosiveness and starting strength through neural adaptations and type 2x muscle fiber recruitment. This develops that all important “rate of force development.”

Bruce Lee style training

You practice generating force quickly which alters your rate coding. The result has obvious benefits for martial artist. Not only can you punch faster and harder, but when grappling it will be the athlete capable of generating the most power, the most quickly, who can throw the opponent off-balance. 70% of our one rep max allows us to use that explosive intent but is still heavy enough for strength gains over time.

Bruce Lee was known to use “speed training” where he would try and complete workouts as quickly as possible, and this is likely why. Remember, he was all about those moments of truly explosive power and that’s what we’re looking to train here.

Bruce Lee was known to use “speed training” where he would try and complete workouts as quickly as possible

We’re ending with some kettlebell swings which nicely develop the posterior chain further (great after those squats) and offers an awesome form of resistance cardio HIIT.

The calisthenics day will look like this:

  • Planche Progression Holds 2 x 1 minute OR V-Sit Progression Holds 2 x 1 minute
  • Front Lever Progression Holds 2 x 1 minute
  • Rope Climbs 3 x 1 minute AMRAP
  • Explosive Pull Ups 2 x 10-15 (or Weighted)
  • Chin Ups 2 x 10 (or Weighted)
  • Bodyweight Row/Inverted Push Up 3 x 10
  • Hanging Leg Raises to Hanging Frog Kicks 2 x 20
  • Handstand Push Ups 2 x 6 (Assisted if necessary)
  • (Gymnastic Ring) Dips 3 x 10-15 (or Weighted)
  • Clapping Push Ups 2 x 10
  • Pistol Squats 3 x 10

3 Rounds:

  • Press Ups AMRAP 1 minute
  • 30 second rest
    Pull Ups AMRAP 1 minute
  • 30 second rest
    Jump Squats AMRAP 1 minute
    30 second rest

I absolutely think that if Bruce had been around today, he would have been hopping on the gymnastic strength training train. Heck, he probably would have been the one to get it trending! This type of strength covers everything that Bruce was interested in: building true core stability, mobility, and functional power.

Bruce Lee v-sit calisthenics
Bruce Lee’s V-Sit, would he ever have managed manna?

I also fully believe that calisthenics offers the best option for someone who wants a physique like Bruce Lee’s, without necessarily trained exactly like him. Working with your own bodyweight will help to develop lean, hard muscle, while at the same time developing the kind of relative strength that Bruce excelled at.

You are training to be able to keep your entire body rigid, and to develop the kind of invincible core that will ensure you can take blows to the stomach, deliver more powerful blows, and not get knocked over.

Bruce Lee Dragon Flag
Bruce’s Dragon Flag requires similar rigidity and strength in the transverse abdominis

For the first portion of this workout, you’ll be practicing holding planche and front lever progressions for up to a minute, twice for each movement. So if you can’t do planche for a minute yet, then you’ll hold the crow pose for as much of a minute as possible. Likewise, you can use a hang or a tuck lever. Once you can hold each for a minute, you can increase the difficulty by using a tuck planche or full planche, for example.

The next portion will be a rather explosive full body routine. Once you can perform each movement for the full number of reps, add some extra weight with a weighted vest or similar.

Plyometrics starting strength

The last part of this workout is a small circuit completed for speed, consisting of pull ups, press ups, and jump squats. This will make you explosive, fast, and enduring – teaching you to develop that kind of power for long periods of time. It’s also fantastic metabolic conditioning. Maintain a stable core during the press ups, and go for max effort to beat your numbers each week.

The accessory day will look like this:

  • Cable Punches 2 x 8 x 75%1RM
  • Shrugs 2 x 4-6 x 80%1RM
  • Face Pulls 2 x 10 x 60%1RM
  • One Arm Overhead Press 3 x 10 x 70%1RM
  • Dumbbell Curls 3 x 10 to Failure
    • Wrist Curls Supinated 2 x 10
    • Wrist Curls Pronated 2 x 10
  • Spider-Man Crawls 2 x 1 minute AMRAP
    • Finger Push Ups 2 x 20
    • Knuckle Push Ups 2 x 20
  • Pike Pulses 2 x 15
  • Downward Dog Push Ups 2 x 10
  • Dragon Flag 2 x 10
  • Calf Raises 3 x 5 x 80%1RM
  • Battle Ropes HIIT 10 minutes (1 minute on, 30 seconds rest)

The cable punches and single arm press will help to develop core strength and torque – an overlooked aspect of strength training in many programs. This is also perfect for adding power to punches. We’re also targeting things like wrist strength, finger strength, and knuckle conditioning, while making sure no muscle groups are being overlooked.

The final cardio finisher is using battle ropes, which I think Bruce would probably have liked a lot. These are ideal resistance cardio, letting you burn fat and improve endurance, all without cannibalizing muscle.

Cardio

Bruce’s experimentation with concepts like Fartlek paint him as clearly ahead of his time. This is a form of high intensity interval training (HIIT) that would allow him to increase his aerobic capacity, mitochondrial density, VO2 max, and fat burning, all in less time than typical steady state cardio. It follows that we’re going to include something similar into our own regime, which will fuel short bursts of high intensity, anaerobic activity.

Bruce Lee trapping hands
Of course Bruce’s martial arts training also provided huge aerobic benefit. More on that in part two!

Bruce would also experiment with running with resistance, and pushing his anaerobic threshold using tempo runs. I recommend that you attempt a threshold run once every two-to-four months. This is a run that you perform while attempting to cover the most distance possible in a given amount of time (normally about 30 minutes). This isn’t sprinting, but it isn’t jogging – it’s just going all out as best you can with an eye to continuous exertion for 30 minutes. This will help you to improve the top speed you can run at without burning out.

Bruce Lee cardiovascular LISS

But what’s also notable is that Bruce Lee practiced large amounts of low intensity, steady state cardio (LISS). That is to say, that he would go for long jogs at roughly 70% MHR. This is important for any fighter intending on going more than one round, or to paraphrase Bruce himself: “if you don’t have a good cardiovascular system, you need to look into a more peaceful activity as your hobby.”

Indeed, adaptations occur at this intensity that you can’t accomplish with HIIT training alone. For example, LISS will increase the size of the left ventricle of the heart, increasing stroke volume and lowering resting heart rate. That’s why we’re going to include 1-2 LISS runs per week, depending on what you can manage.

Martial Arts Conditioning… Coming Soon!

The martial arts conditioning aspect of this program will be landing next week when Grant shares his knowledge in part 2… stay tuned! Then I’ll also be talking about diet, mobility, rest, and more.

Bruce Lee Life Of

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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.

3 Comments

  1. Joseph Snider says:

    Love this. I’m going to have to give this a try.

  2. Angel D. Gomez says:

    Hey Adam! This is amazing freaking work! Would love to hear what this looks like in a weekly schedule with the martial arts conditioning Grant talked about in part 2 (i.e. Martial Arts conditioning on Monday, Strength Day 1 on Tuesday, MA Conditioning Wednesday, Strength Day 2 on Thursday, etc…) “A putting it all together” of sorts.

    I know Steven Low (author of Overcoming Gravity) says Strength training should be done the day after the skill work for any particular sport and that the following day should be a rest day, but would love to hear your opinion.

    Cheers!

    • Why thank you! I would second that: the skills training should always take precedent if that’s the priority (which it certainly was for Bruce). You don’t want to be going into that training fatigued. That said though, the reverse is also true and if you’re just a casual martial artist who primarily wants to be fitter and stronger, there’s no harm switching things around.

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