"The Lost Interview"
The Lethal Physique of Bruce Lee
by John Little (1996)
"If you're talking about combat - as it is - well then, baby,
you'd better train EVERY part of your body."
- Bruce Lee
There's an anecdote that has endured some 23 years concerning the muscles that adorned the physique of the late martial arts pioneer and philosopher Bruce Lee. It concerns a lady named Ann Clouse, the wife of Robert Clouse, who directed Lee's last film, "Enter the Dragon" for Warner Bros. It seems that she had ventured onto the set and was mesmerized by Lee's incredible physique as he choreographed the fight scenes, stripped to the waist and perspiring under the hot Hong Kong sun. Between takes Ann approached the young superstar and asked if she could "feel his biceps."
"Sure," Lee said, responding to a request he'd received on numerous occasions. He tensed his arms and invited her to check it out.
"My God!" she exclaimed, drawing her hand back instantly. "It's like feeling warm marble!"
It's fascinating that more than two decades after his death in July 1973 from a cerebral edema people are still talking about the physique of Bruce Lee, although it is by no means surprising. Even more fascinating is the fact that almost everyone gets something different out of Bruce Lee.
Martial artists revere his physical dexterity, power, speed and the genius he displayed in bringing science to bear on the world of martial arts. Moviegoers are impressed with the man's animal magnetism and the fact that he single-handedly created a new genre of action film, opening the door for the Stallones and Schwarzeneggers who followed in his footsteps. Philosophers, on the other hand, are impressed with Lee's ability to bridge the philosophical chasm separating East and West and synthesize the best aspects of both cultures.
Even so, there's another pocket of humanity that sees something else in Lee. Bodybuilders young and old know from one quick glance at his physique how much labor went into its creation, and they are very impressed.
Bodybuilding luminaries like Flex Wheeler, Shawn Ray, Rachel McLish, Lou Ferrigno, Lee Haney, Lenda Murray and Dorian Yates - that is to say, the best in the business - all pay homage to the impact Bruce Lee's physique had on their bodybuilding careers. Some of may find this difficult to believe. After all, Lee was only 5'6" and checked in at a weight that fluctuated between 126 and 145 pounds. What could a behemoth like Dorian Yates, for example, see in Lee's physique that would inspire him? The answer, in a word, is quality.
We have seldom seen - shy of a jungle cat - the incredible quality of muscle displayed by the martial arts superstar. Unlike the physiques of many bodybuilders, Lee's muscles were not simply for show. To quote his first student in the United States, Seattle's Jesse Glover, Lee was "above all else concerned with function." Leaping eight feet in the air to kick out a light bulb (as he did in the movie "Marlowe"), landing a punch from three feet away in 5/100 of a second or catching grains of rice that he'd thrown in the air - with chopsticks - were feats Lee trained his body to accomplish. In fact, during his famous "Lost Interview" he referred to his self-actualizing philosophy as "the art of expressing the human body."
Perhaps never before - or since - has such an incredible confluence of physical attributes come together in one human being. He combined lightning-fast reflexes, supreme flexibility, awesome power and feline grace and muscularity in one complete - and very lethal - package. Furthermore, his physique was balanced and symmetrical, and while not everyone admires the massive musculature of our Olympia contenders, everyone admires the total package that was Bruce Lee.
The fact that he influenced so many champion bodybuilders is no small accomplishment when you consider that Lee never entered a physique contest in his life. He wasn't interested in becoming massively muscled. As Ted Wong, one of Lee's closest friends and most dedicated students recalled, "Bruce trained primarily for strength and speed." The physique came almost as a by-product of the training.
Those who met him, from Hollywood producers to his fellow martial artists, said that Lee's muscles carried considerable impact. Taky Kimura, one of his closest friends and the best man at Lee's 1964 wedding, observed that his friend was never loath to remove his shirt and display the results of his labors in the gym, and he often did it just to see the reactions of those around him. "He had the most incredible set of lats I've ever seen," Kimura related, "and his big joke was to pretend that his thumb was an air hose, which he'd then put in his mouth and pretend to inflate his lats with. He looked like a damn cobra!"
Lee's physique remains an ideal simply because it featured what many considered the perfect blend of razor-sharp cuts, awesome muscularity, great shape and onion-skin definition. The muscles that bulged and rippled across it were thick, dense, well-chiseled and above all functional.
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Danny Inosanto, another one of Lee's close friends and the man Lee chose to impart his martial art of jeet kune do (which translates into English as "the way of the intercepting fist") to students at Lee's Los Angeles school from 1967 to '69, added that his friend was only interested in strength that could readily be converted to power. "I remember once Bruce and I were walking along the beach in Santa Monica, out by where the Dungeon used to be [a gym originally owned by famed Muscle Beach denizen Vic Tanny], when all of a sudden this big, huge bodybuilder came out of the Dungeon," Inosanto related. "I said to Bruce, 'Man look at the arms on that guy!' I'll never forget Bruce's reaction. He said, 'Yeah, he's big - but is he powerful? Can he use all that extra muscle efficiently?'"
Power, according to Lee, is demonstrated by an individual's ability to use the strength developed in the gym quickly and efficiently for real-world purposes. His feats of strength are the stuff of legends, from performing one-finger or thumbs-only pushups to supporting a 125-pound barbell at arm's length in front of him with elbows locked for several seconds to sending individuals who outweighed him by as much as 100 pounds flying some 15 feet through the air with one of his famous one-inch punches. The power that he possessed at a bodyweight of 145 pounds was absolutely frightening - not to mention some of his other nifty habits like thrusting his fingers through full cans of Coca-Cola and sending 300-pound heavy bags slapping against the ceiling with a simple side kick.
Strength and its acquisitions were Lee's primary concerns in his weight training, and eventually his weight work evolved to the ultimate limits of intuitive knowledge - what some refer to as instinctive training. According to those who worked out with him from time to time, such as martial arts actor Chuck Norris, Bruce Lee may pound for pound been one of the strongest men in the world.
Lee's Road to Weight Training
Certainly his background in physiology and kinesiology imbued Bruce with the ability to discern a useful exercise from an unproductive one, so he was able to avoid wasting time in his workouts. Lee believed that the student of exercise should aim at nothing less than physical perfection, including great strength, quickness and skill; exuberant health and the beauty of muscular form that distinguishes a physically perfect human being. To Lee the secret of success in bodybuilding lay in the word "progressive," but he also recognized the importance of another word in the vocabulary of physical culture - "persistence."
Lee was nothing of not persistent in his quest to express the full potential of his body. Given the physiological fact that a stronger muscle is a bigger muscle, it was only natural that he would in time come to appreciate the superior health-building benefits of bodybuilding, but it took a violent encounter to bring home the merits of a regular and dedicated approach to progressive-resistance training.
According to his widow, Linda Lee, her husband was preparing to teach a class in San Francisco one evening when the door to his school flew open and in walked a group of Chinese martial artists led by a man who was their best fighter and designated leader. Linda, who was eight months pregnant with the couple's first child, Brandon, recalled that the leader presented Lee with an ornate scroll that issued him an ultimatum in bold Chinese characters: Either he stopped teaching gung fu (the Cantonese version of kung fu) to non-Asian students, or he would have to fight, right then and there with their top man.
Lee disdainfully handed the scroll back to the leader. "I'll teach whomever I choose," he said calmly. "I don't care what color they are." While such non-racist views are generally applauded today, in San Francisco's Chinatown of the mid-1960's teaching Oriental "secrets" to non-Orientals was perceived as the highest form of treason among the martial arts community. Though Lee had many virtues, it is well known among his friends, family and students that suffering fools patiently wasn't one of them. By his words and demeanor Lee effectively threw the gauntlet back at the feet of his would-be challenger.
A fight immediately broke out, and in a matter of seconds Lee had the previously bold and self-righteous kung fu expert running for the nearest exit. After considerable leg work Lee was able to throw the man to the floor and extract a submission from him. He then tossed the entire group off the premises, cursing them in Cantonese. To his shock, however, Lee discovered that he'd expended a tremendous amount of energy in the altercation.
"He was surprised and disappointed at the physical condition he was in," Linda said. Although it took all of three minutes, "he thought that the fight had lasted way too long and that it was his own lack of conditioning that made it such a lengthy set-to. He felt inordinately winded afterward." This fight caused Lee to thoroughly investigate alternative avenues of physical conditioning, and he concluded that he needed to develop considerably more strength - in both his muscular and cardiovascular systems - if he was ever to become the greatest martial artist of all time.
Knowing that the muscle magazines were the only existing source of health and strength-training information, Lee immediately subscribed to all the bodybuilding publications he could find. He ordered courses out of the magazines and tested their claims and theories. He frequented secondhand bookstores, purchasing books on bodybuilding and strength training, including one written by Eugen Sandow titled Strength & How to Obtain It that was originally published in 1897.
Books by Eugen Sandow:
His hunger for knowledge was so great he purchased everything he could get his hands on hot off the press - courses to back-list classics. No price was too high for knowledge, particularly if applying it resulted in increased strength, power and muscularity.
During his lifetime Bruce Lee amassed a tremendous library, including tomes on philosophy, martial arts and some 140 publications that dealt extensively with physical fitness, bodybuilding, kinesiology and weightlifting. "Bruce used to come into his school in Chinatown with an armful of articles from the muscle magazines," recalled Inosanto. "He'd say, 'Look at this. These bodybuilders all say they do this in order to increase their strength - it's a common denominator running through all of their writings.' He'd look for consistency in things like that and would compare and eliminate the data he felt was superfluous."
After much research and with the help of two of his closer friends and students in the Bay area Lee devised a three days per week bodybuilding program that he thought fit his needs perfectly. According to Alan Joe, "James Lee and I introduced Bruce to the basic weight-training techniques. We used to train with basic exercises like squats, pullovers and curls for about three sets each. Nothing really spectacular, but we were just getting him started." This program served Lee well from 1965 until 1970 and fit in with his philosophy of getting the maximum results out of the minimum - or most economical - expenditure of energy.
The every-other-day schedule he used allowed for the often neglected aspect of recovery. Lee coordinated his bodybuilding workouts so they fell on days when he wasn't engaged in either endurance-enhancing or overly strenuous martial arts training. The program worked like magic, increasing his bodyweight from 135 pounds to at one point just over 165.
Lee geared his training for function rather than sheer muscle size, however, and he incorporated the three core tenets of total fitness into his bodybuilding routine: stretching for flexibility, weight training for strength, and cardiovascular activity for his respiratory system. In other words, he was the original cross-trainer.
Here's the weight routine he put together and performed on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays.
Clean & Press - 2 x 8 reps
Squat - 2 x 12
Barbell Pullover - 2 x 8
Bench Press - 2 x6
Good Morning - 2 x 8
Barbell Curl - 2 x 8
He was a huge influence on me. I had posters of him all over by bedroom walls. I watched all of his movies I don't know how many times each and even studied karate for a couple of years when I was about 14. I like a lot of things about Bruce Lee; he was far superior to anybody else in his field. Also, it may sound kind of funny now when you consider the size of the people I compete against, but I really admired his physique. He had great definition and superb abdominals. I really admired his absolute dedication to his training. He used to do that thing where he spread his scapula and then tensed every muscle in his body. He had an incredible physique!
- Dorian Yates
Going Beyond Routine
According to Inosanto, Bruce Lee didn't just train with the above-listed exercises, but he also incorporated weight training into his martial arts workouts. "Bruce always shadow-boxed with small weights in his hands, and he did a drill in which he punched for 12 series in a row, 100 punches per series, using a pyramid system of one, two, three, five, seven, and 10 pound weights - and then he reversed the pyramid and went 10, seven, five, three, two, one, and finally zero weight. He had me do this drill with him and man, what a burn you got in your delts and arms!"
It didn't stop there, however. When Lee wasn't training with weights in his martial arts workouts or during one of his whole-body weight training sessions he could be found curling a dumbbell that he kept in the office of his house.
"He was always using that dumbbell," Linda Lee recalled. "Bruce had the unique ability to do several things at once. It wasn't at all unusual for me to find him watching a boxing match on TV while simultaneously performing a full side split, all the while holding a book he was reading in one hand and a dumbbell he was curling in the other."
By far the most impressive of Lee's bodyparts were his abdominal muscles, which he trained daily. "Bruce always felt that if your stomach wasn't developed you had no business getting in the ring," Wong said. Linda Lee added that her husband "was fanatical about ab training. He was always doing situps, crunches, roman chair movements, leg raises and V-ups."
Chuck Norris has gone on record recalling the time he went to visit Lee and saw his friend bouncing young Brandon on his abdomen while simultaneously performing dumbbell flyes for his pecs and doing leg raises for his abs - all while lying on the floor watching television.
Forearms of Steel
In order to improve his gripping and punching power, Lee became an avid devotee of forearm and grip training. While many champion bodybuilders shy away from direct forearm work, Lee made it a point to train his every day. "He was a forearm fanatic," Linda Lee said, laughing. "If ever any bodybuilder - such as Bill Pearl - came out with a forearm course, Bruce would have to get it." Lee even commissioned an old friend of his from San Francisco, George Lee (no relation), to build his several gripping machines to which Bruce added plates for additional resistance.
Although Lee is no longer with us, his teachings live on. His enduring impact is nothing short of incredible, and that's certainly true in the realm of exercise science. Lee epitomized the athletic ideals of diligence, hard work, bearing up under adversity and refusing to short-change either yourself or your potential.
Man's life, even though he lives it not long, is long enough if he lives it right.