The Tao of the Iron
by Ryan Zielonka
I was six years old when a Saturday-morning showing of Enter the Dragon on TNT corrupted my adolescent mind. Seeing my first Bruce Lee film was like watching a comic book come to life. It fueled an infatuation with martial arts, and my parents’ home soon became a massive, never-ending fight scene in which my brother and I broke pretty much everything in a deadly vortex of Hi-C fueled combat. (Yes, I admit it: We were workout-nutrition pioneers.)
Although Lee weighed all of 135 pounds in his Dragon heyday, he influenced some of the biggest men in bodybuilding, including Lou Ferrigno, Dorian Yates (who was a martial artist before taking up bodybuilding), Flex Wheeler, Shawn Ray, Lee Haney, and even The Oak himself. All found inspiration in Bruce Lee’s physique, and it’s worth noting that the aforementioned competitors had the most symmetrical and aesthetically pleasing shapes relative to their contemporaries.
In a book called Bruce Lee: The Art of Expressing the Human Body, Arnold Schwarzenegger offers this observation: “Bruce Lee had a very — I mean a very — defined physique. He had very little body fat. I mean, he had one of the lowest-body fat counts of any athlete around.”
Dorian Yates, six-time Mr. Olympia winner, was also suitably impressed. “He could spread his scapulas and then tense every muscle in his body, he had an incredible physique.”
And remember, this praise was being leveled upon a man whose primary focus was strength, speed, and endurance. Looking good was just an added bonus.
In this article we’ll take a look at Lee’s influences and the inspirations that informed his subsequent philosophies. He was one of the first to promote metabolic training and one of the first to adopt a routine based on intensity rather than volume. Lee introduced his students to dynamic mobility and basic periodization, and most importantly, inspired a generation of athletes worldwide with his unparalleled work ethic and boundless charisma.
Evolution of a Lifter
If there’s one Bruce Lee quote you can expect the average musclehead to know, it’s probably this one: “Absorb what is useful, reject what is useless.” It’s used so often in strength-training articles that, rumor has it, a TMUSCLE editor called a moratorium on all Bruce Lee quotes.
So it’s interesting to learn that it’s not even Lee’s original quote; he lifted the phrase from the writings of Jiddu Krishnamurti, a philosopher and mentor to Deepak Chopra. Here’s what Krishnamurti said: “Research your own experiences for the truth, absorb what is useful, reject what is useless, add what is specifically your own.”
Regardless of its origin, the statement remains the fundamental underpinning of Lee’s fighting system, Jeet Kune Do, which is often said to be the world’s first “mixed” martial art. His stylistic fusion grew out of a disappointment with traditional martial arts’ effectiveness in real-world combat situations. JKD wasn’t just about kicks and punches either — it formed a base for non-technique training. When Lee found himself winded and weak after a fight, he realized his exclusive focus on martial arts training wasn’t enough. This was a turning point for him, and it began to show in his physique soon after.
Lee reviewed the literature on athletic performance, and found a study of swimmers from the early 1950s. The swim coaches at Yale recognized that the resistance water provided to their athletes was minimal. They needed to incorporate resistance training to improve performance in competition. Lee saw a parallel between the training forms and drills used in martial arts and the experience of the Yale swimmers. A martial artist could improve his technique by performing kicks and punches through the air, but he couldn’t improve his performance. For that, he needed more strength and power behind his strikes.
Progressive overload, using basic compound lifts, mattered more than anything else. Without more weight on the bar, he knew he wasn’t growing.
But he didn’t come by that revelation right away. He first played around with higher-volume routines, including heavy specialization in arm training.
Here’s an example of one of Lee’s workouts from 1965, taken from The Art of Expressing the Human Body:
|Reverse wrist curl||4||max|
Why such a crappy routine? First, there’s the fact he was new to strength training. So, like the 13-year-old working out in his basement with his older brother’s weights, he did every arm exercise he could think of.
Second, his martial-arts background differed from his onscreen style. Lee trained in Wing Chun Kung Fu, a form that emphasizes trapping and counter-punching, often referred to as “Chinese boxing.” If you’d never studied physiology, you’d assume that arm strength was the key to generating more force in those movements.
But he soon abandoned that approach, in favor of workouts like this:
|Clean and press||2||8|
* Lee suffered a severe back injury doing good mornings, the result of using too much weight with too little warm-up.
By the time his movie career took off, in the early ’70s, he had settled into a three-days-a-week, total-body routine with minimal accessory work. Only one workout included max-effort training. The other two used lighter weights with more rest.
Pre-Modern Metabolic Training
Lee would eventually run into difficulties managing the demands of the entertainment industry with his true passions — training and martial arts. It would be an understatement to say he was obsessed with his physique. When time and equipment were limited, he maintained his condition with one of the first popular forms of metabolic training: peripheral heart action, or PHA.
PHA was developed by Dr. Arthur Steinhaus and brought to the attention of the muscle world in the 1960s by Bob Gajda, a bodybuilder who won Mr. America and Mr. Universe titles in 1966 and helped train Sergio Olivia for his competitions. PHA, by design, circumvents localized muscle pumps in the body. Dr. Steinhaus’ goal was to keep blood circulating throughout the whole body during a training session, avoiding excess accumulation in specific muscle groups. In practice, that means working the smaller muscles closest to the heart before the larger muscles farthest from it.
Lee alternated upper- and lower-body movements in a circuit style, without taking any movement to failure. Typically, he used five or six circuits of five or six exercises, keeping his reps in the upper end of the hypertrophy range — usually 12 to 20 — but with timed sets instead of fixed rep counts. The notes in his training diaries, recorded by author John Little, show that Lee varied his routines quite a bit. Some days appear to focus on mobility, speed, and agility, while others veer closer to what we’d recognize as metabolic training for conditioning and body composition.
Absorbing What Is Useful …
What lessons can we draw from Lee’s journey under the bar?
First, consider his evolution as a lifter, from a newbie focus on high-volume arm training to an almost HIT-like concentration on basic strength and power exercises, using low volume and a rep range conducive to hypertrophy. It didn’t take him long to figure out the difference between a bunch of exercises and an actual workout program.
Second, consider how he harnessed the metabolic power of strength training, which helped keep his body fantastically lean, without ever sacrificing speed, agility, or stamina.
Third, be adaptable. It’ll take time for you to find the routine that works best for you. Even if you’re one of the lucky ones who enjoys great success right off the bat, we all know nothing works forever. Your body changes, your goals change, and your career and family situations change. At the height of his career in TV and movies, Lee couldn’t get in the gym and train six days a week. So he had to maintain an Enter the Dragon physique with a Family Guy training schedule.
Fourth, keep in mind that the goal of bodybuilding is to build the best possible physique for you. How many 135-pound guys earned the admiration of giants like Arnold and Dorian? Lee could’ve juiced up and gotten a lot bigger (there have been assertions, never confirmed, that he experimented with low-dose Dianabol), but it wouldn’t have been the right physique for his frame, and you wouldn’t be reading about him three and a half decades after he died.
Fifth, stay open-minded about training. Lee was a lifelong student, and experimented relentlessly in his workouts. In fact, that was the guiding principle of Jeet Kune Do, Lee’s contribution to the martial arts. He believed JKD should be a method of analysis, a way to determine the most effective fighting style for an individual. “I hope to free my comrades from bondage to styles, patterns, and doctrines,” he told Black Belt magazine.
It brings us back to that famous quote Lee borrowed from Jiddu Krishnamurti: “Absorb what is useful, reject what is useless, add what is specifically your own.”
It may be the last time you see it in TMUSCLE, but it’s worth remembering.
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