Icons are forever, and few figures are as iconic as the legendary Bruce Lee. In only 32 years he’d had on this world, he’d managed to sear a gigantic mark on popular culture—and our hearts. As he once said:
“To spend time is to pass it in a specified manner. To waste time is to expend it thoughtlessly or carelessly. We all have time to either spend or waste and it is our decision what to do with it. But once passed, it is gone forever.”
And man, did he ever make us of his time! Bruce’s pursuit of perfection is said to have been endless; he would constantly experiment, evaluate, and reevaluate what he had been doing by that point. If something didn’t work, he’d discard it. If it did work… he’d tinker with it anyway.
And one of his most famous decisions was to almost entirely do away with weight training—one of his former staples, and focus almost entirely on calisthenics and compound exercise. Given that those are what we’re all about, we thought we’d walk you through a Bruce Lee-inspired course!
Just keep one thing in mind: even Bruce had rest days. During training days you can go all-out, but the day after, let yourself recover. And always, ALWAYS warm up beforehand. It is a lesson Lee learned the hard way.
Bruce Lee’s Upper Body Workout—or How the Dragon got His Wings
Bruce’s passion for pushups is well-documented, and chances are you’d seen his insane two-finger push-up. Admittedly, there was a lot more to it than upper body strength (Lee would tighten his whole body to prevent power from “seeping out” beforehand), but there’s no denying that the man worked out his arms like mad.
Like with everything else he did, Bruce kept changing up his routine (if that word can even be applied here), but the essence of his upper body calisthenics consisted of:
- Push-up variants (classic, diamond, wide grip, etc.)
- Pull-ups (strict and wide grip)
“Well that’s not much,” I can hear you say, and you’re right. Lee was all about volume. Nearly everything he did, he did until failure. So an example upper body routine would be:
- Classic push-ups: 3 to 5 sets, all until failure
- Wide grip push-ups: 3 to 5 sets, until failure
- Diamond push-ups: 3 to 5 sets, until failure
Pause for a minute between sets, or you will have a bad time.
Even while doing mostly calisthenics, he would sometimes branch out into weight training for variety, then go right back to bodyweight exercise. For instance, chin-ups => bicep curls => chin-ups. This is just one way of keeping things varied and interesting.
So keep experimenting, and if you don’t feel the burn, add in more volume!
Bruce Lee’s Leg and Core Workout—Leap Toward the Heavens
Think of the one inch punch. With no real room for swing, where does the power come from? The legs and core, of course! Bruce did not allow for any weakness; the body had to function like a well-oiled machine.
Lee sprinted at least thrice a week, and he did it by alternating between pacing himself and a full sprint (supposedly 90 seconds full speed)—the way HIIT practitioners do today. On the days he didn’t sprint, he would skip rope. Combine this with bodyweight squats and lunges, all performed in sets until failure, and you get a limitless wellspring of energy and power.
As far as core exercises go, many say that Bruce would do crunches even in his off days—at least until his back injury, so we don’t recommend such frequency. But crunches are an excellent move, and—combined with leg raises, would cover most of your core-related bases. So a Bruce Lee leg and core workout session would look something like:
- 20 minutes of alternating between sprints and manageable pace
- Bodyweight squats: 3 to 5 sets, until failure
- Lunges: 3 to 5 sets, until failure
- Crunches: 3 to 5 sets, until failure
- Leg raises: 3 to 5 sets, until failure
Don’t feel like sprinting, or maybe it rains outside? Skip rope!
Speed Training—Fully Harnessing the Body’s Power
Lee would oftentimes do what he called speed training. This was a way of activating twitch muscle fibers, which play a major role in quick motion. Today, these tend to go somewhat neglected.
Not so for Bruce. What he would do is perform his regular exercises, but as fast as possible. This is obviously not something you should just plunge into, but with a thorough warm-up and a good degree of strength, it can be a great way of making those deprived muscles work overtime.
Just don’t fully bench slow repetitions. They may not give you much speed, but they are crucial for strength gains, without which you won’t be going anywhere.
Isometric Training—the Dragon’s Best Kept Secret
Isometric training comes down to holding a position that requires muscle contraction. Think of the L-sit or V-sit, for instance. Both are excellent exercises, but require a tremendous time investment once you start getting better (Bruce is said to have been able to hold a V-sit for thirty staggering minutes!).
One way of circumventing this issue is by going one step further. Instead of yielding isometric (the previously mentioned held positions), you go for overcoming isometric, which is where you push or pull against an immovable object. For instance, pushing against a brick wall, or trying to pull an extremely heavy weight via a chain.
So what you do is find your immovable object (whatever it may be), and go it, 100% power, for 10 seconds. Rest for 30 to 45 seconds, then repeat. Start with three sets. Do this at the start of your workout, never at the end, or you won’t have the juice to make it work.
What is great about this is that not only does it take less time, but also forces you into utilizing 100% of your muscle fibers. Anything you have ready, this way of training will activate. Long-term, you will notice and incredible rise in overall strength, speed, and even endurance.
Conclusion: Impose Form on what is Formless
You’ve probably noticed that these approaches are lacking in structure. This is intentional, but is not a denial of structure in any way. For Bruce Lee, everything was a matter of function, and in order to learn what functions for you, you would need to do as he did, and experiment.
His training was greater than the sum of its parts. Yours should be as well.
Chris is an experienced Calisthenics practitioner focused on isometric exercises and street workout. He founded thehybridathlete.com in 2017, which was subsequently acquired by theyhybridathlete.com
He is based in Portland and has been working out using solely his own body weight and bars for the past 6 years.