"I am very proud to be called a pig. It stands for
pride, integrity, and guts."
"If you always put a limit on everything you do, physical or anything else, it will spread into your work and into your life. There are no limits. There are only plateaus, and you must not stay there, you must go beyond them." —Bruce Lee
While some might hesitate to consider Bruce Lee's films works of art, there are few who will deny the beauty and grace of his physicality. Standing at 5'7" and weighing 135 pounds at his peak, the renowned martial arts master was a temple of muscle. As Chuck Norris put it, "He had muscles on muscles."
Of course, to reach this point took devotion, perhaps even obsession, which few of us are willing to put forth. That said, there's still plenty to be learned from the man whose short life—he died at 32 of cerebral edema in 1973—has influenced thousands of bodybuilders, action heroes, and martial artists.
The book Bruce Lee: The Art of Expressing the Human Body is a vast amount of material about the master's elite fitness regimen. At its core, Lee's plan consisted of anaerobic work, weight training and isometrics— His preferred form of cardiovascular exercise was running. He combined all this with a clean and natural diet. Among the details, there are some interesting things.
On circuit training
Lee's devotion to what is now known as circuit training, started when he read a series of articles in Ironman magazine by bodybuilder Bob Gajda about The Peripheral Heart Action (PHA) System. The system moves from body group to body group instead of focusing a long time on one particular group. The benefit of this is that blood flow continually flows from muscle group to muscle group, thus increasing muscular endurance and delaying of fatigue. It also works the cardiovascular system. Lee loved the multiple benefits of this technique.
The man had amazing abs, but he had to work hard to get them. His five basic stomach exercises were sit-ups, leg raises, twists, frog kicks, and side bends. He also understood that while you could do crunches until you were blue in the face, it wouldn't matter unless you ate completely clean, avoiding sugar, starches, and excess fats. Yes, there are people to whom a six-pack comes naturally but, according to his journals, Bruce Lee, owner of one of the most amazing six-packs in history, was not one of these people. Before you begin thinking about that extravagant hot-beverage you skipped this morning, just remember that Bruce Lee made the same sort of sacrifices.
While he believed in stretching every day for at least 15 minutes, his regimen was to limber up at every available opportunity. He would do it watching television, reading, even in the sound studio while dubbing his films. While few of us are in the movie business, that does not mean we cannot work a few thigh stretches into our coffee breaks, or work those shoulders and neck while watching the TV.
While he was a man of extremes, Lee understood the importance of moderation in the stretch. Avoid bounce-stretch or stretching too hard, in your daily actions. Overaggressive stretching can actually send a signal to the brain to tighten up the muscle to protect it from damage.
On Asian food
Of the various aspects of fitness, diet was the one Lee studied least. As his wife, Linda Lee Cadwell put it, "He couldn't boil water" and therefore left culinary responsibilities to her. However, he did understand "junk in, junk out." Mealtimes in their household were not much of a focus, more of a time to fuel up.
He also preferred Asian-style cooking because it offered more variety in a meal and a healthier ratio of veggies to protein. Keep in mind that this was over 30 years ago, when American cuisine meant a potato and a hunk of meat, as opposed to an Asian meal, which could consist of shrimp, chicken, veggies and tofu all on the same plate. He felt this variety led to a more complete nutritional profile. While American cuisine has since diversified, the message is the same, keep that variety up. Eating the same thing every day probably means there are vital nutrients that you are skipping.
In addition, no, Bruce Lee was not a saint. From time to time, he would indulge in steak or even McDonald’s; keeping in mind that super-sizing did not exist at the time.
On the opportunities for everyday exercise
In much the same way he stretched whenever possible, Lee felt it important to shove exercise into his day as much as he could. Here are some of the tips he would offer his students:
- Walk whenever possible. Park the car a few blocks from your destination and walk the rest of the way.
- Avoid elevators. Take the stairs whenever possible.
- Practice balance by standing on one foot when putting clothes or shoes on, or just stand on one foot whenever you choose to.
Fitness does not come from 60 minutes a day. It is an entire lifestyle. Whatever workout you are doing now is awesome. However, try to imagine the rest of your life; when can you walk instead of driving? When can you hand-whip instead of using a blender? When can you run around with your kids instead of watching television with them?
The Bruce Lee Protein Shake
Non-instant powdered milk
(which, nowadays, he'd probably replace with whey protein powder)
Water or juice
2 raw eggs, occasionally with shell*
1 Tbsp. wheat germ or wheat germ oil
1 Tbsp. peanut butter
1 Tbsp. brewer's yeast
Lecithin (in granular form)
* Eggs are healthiest when eaten raw but poor-quality commercial eggs carry a risk of salmonella infection. Unfortunately, these are the majority of eggs on the market. The USDA does not recommend eating raw shell eggs that are not cooked or undercooked due to the possibility that salmonella bacteria may be present.