When speaking of someone’s place in history, the term iconic is often thrown about by tongues too quick to confer praise, too slight to articulate significance. The designation, once reserved for those whose impact on the world around them seemed too great for measure, has been systematically watered down by decades of inane and sensationalistic entertainment journalism, wasted on those whose legacy is as fleeting as sweeps week. This term, however, could be no more aptly applied to anyone in the last half-century than Bruce Lee (1940 to 1973).

With his blinding speed and signature brand of combat, Jeet Kune Do, Lee almost single-handedly redefined the fight film genre and propelled martial arts into the worldwide cinematic mainstream. But in a time before fitness was in vogue—before the masses had heard of Arnold Schwarzenegger and gym memberships were de rigueur—Lee was able to parlay his fighting skills and physique into becoming the world’s first true action star.

In fact, it was Lee’s 5’7″, 135-pound physique—lean, muscular and sickly striated—that was perhaps his most underrated contribution to the generations that have followed him. His relentless and sometimes obsessive dedication to developing greater strength, speed and power gave rise to a breed of athlete more keenly aware of the body’s muscular potential, more insistent on finding new ways to exceed it.

Lee’s physique was a marvel ahead of its time—the quintessential build coming to life on the big screen with fury and force, his signature, catlike scream accentuating his flexed, quaking musculature at the vanquishing of each foe. The world of bodybuilding has seen plenty of amazing physiques since his death, but it’s Lee’s well-muscled and balanced frame that has become the criterion by which so many others are measured—the conditioning standard to which even today’s physique competitors aspire.

Perhaps the greatest accolade that can be afforded Bruce Lee is that today, nearly 35 years after his untimely death, his status as an icon hasn’t diminished—it has grown. Without question, Lee is still the most recognizable and esteemed martial artist the world has ever known. He’s revered above all others, much the way Arnold is in the world of bodybuilding. Surprisingly, Lee achieved his place in the world of fitness by happenstance, merely practicing in the gym what he preached in martial arts: “Use only that which works, and take it from any place you can find it.” Here’s how the fire of fitness was breathed into the Dragon.


Bruce Lee used many traditional exercises to build his otherworldly physique. These two routines represent a small peek into the way resistance training transformed him into a finely tuned fighting machine.

OVERALL STRENGTH: This bodybuilder-type routine was responsible for a slew of remarkable improvements to Lee’s physique. Try this program three times per week, allowing at least one day of rest between workouts, to build your own bag-breaking power.

  Exercise		        Sets    Reps
Clean and Press 2 8–12
Barbell Curl 2 8–12
Behind-the-Neck Press 2 8–12
Upright Row 2 8–12
Barbell Squat 2 12–20
Barbell Row 2 8–12
Barbell Bench Press 2 8–12
Barbell Pullover 2 8–12

The April issue of M&F, on newsstands now, features more of the routines and diet secrets that helped etch Bruce Lee’s physique. Also included in this story is an interview with some of the top figures in the UFC, all of whom have different takes on how Lee would have fared in the Octagon if he were in his prime today.