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Editor’s note: This article was originally published in 2013.
Born: November 27, 1940
Died: July 20, 1973
Founder of Jeet Kune Do
Movie star, martial arts innovator, philosopher, cultural icon—Bruce Lee was all of these and more. A singularly complex man, Lee holds our attention in his vicelike grip just as strongly today as he did back in 1973, the year most Americans were formally introduced to him as the star of Enter the Dragon and also the year he tragically died at the age of 32.
In an era where MMA has supplanted boxing as the most popular combat sport, it’s hard to remember a time when the martial arts were strictly segregated. Yet Lee’s desire to break with tradition has influenced a generation and opened the door for the kind of fighting we see on our TV and movie screens today, as well as in the martial arts schools in our neighborhoods.
His eclectic approach to his art set him apart from others. He understood that creativity could be attained only through freedom of the mind and only when applied without restrictions. To say Lee simply “created” a new form or “style” of fighting with his vaunted Jeet Kune Do is to barely scratch the surface of his unique combination of creativeness and concept.
To fully appreciate Lee’s impact, we must consider it in the context of his time. In the early 1960s martial arts were beginning to flourish in the Western world and they were totally institutionalized within the boundaries of schools that began to appear. Lee, having studied various kung fu systems upon arriving in the States in 1959, soon realized there was more to pugilism than the “Chinese” style of fighting. His counterparts in Hong Kong, like himself, had seen only similar systems of martial arts, as well as the training methods used to strengthen and condition their bodies, which had been passed down through generations. Lee, on the other hand, had been thrust into a world in which Western boxing and wrestling reigned supreme. It proved to be an awakening for the 18-year-old.
In those days, a martial artist stuck to a rigid set of exercises—ones that had been passed down over the years. Lee, however, soon began to realize that the traditional martial arts he’d grown up learning were not the only ones available to him. It was then that he decided that any protocol he found that could enhance his body and overall skill set should be integrated into his training.
Having broken away from the confines of tradition, Lee not only adopted Western styles of training, he also took nutritional and training cues from the bodybuilding community, even becoming a subscriber to Muscle & Fitness’ forebear, Muscle Builder, and purchasing a Weider barbell kit. By examining the various nutritional supplements used by bodybuilders and studying their routines, Lee was able to adapt and shape his body to complement his own personal martial art.
His voracious appetite to learn new ways to condition and build his body while improving his fighting skills soon verged on obsession. The more he learned, the more he sought knowledge. Over time he would amass an enormous library of books covering everything from martial arts to fitness to nutrition, and even philosophy. He studied isometric and later plyometric training, in an effort to stimulate fast-twitch muscle fiber growth. He had close friend George Lee (no relation) redesign and build resistance equipment to help him isolate particular movements and develop specific techniques. Keep in mind that this was at a time when martial artists were discouraged from deviating even the slightest bit from age-old traditions. Lee’s open embrace of creative freedom resulted in numerous challenges from his peers to do battle, all of which Lee accepted—and won.
Of course, for Lee, the physical was only half of the equation. He also made it a point to strengthen his mind. Lee reasoned that the most dangerous adversary one could face was a “mad man” intent on biting off your nose. Such a person, he believed, could only be beaten with swift, economic movements directed at vulnerable targets, and that such movements could only result from a well-conditioned body and mind. He spoke about a relaxed mentality in combat, describing it as a sleeplike state—one in which eye, brain, and muscle coordination work in harmony at breakneck speed to intercept an attack. He would name his new martial art form Jeet Kune Do, which translates to “the way of the intercepting fist”. Yet even after first formulating Jeet Kune Do, Lee continued to evolve as a martial artist, with progress coming almost monthly. The Bruce Lee of 1970 was an entirely different person from the one of 1960.
Although Lee was certainly acclaimed as a martial artist and film star during his later years, in hindsight it’s easy to see just how impressive his feats were. While he didn’t create martial arts or film, he did help develop the platform for an entire genre of action movies and the modern day mixed martial artist. No longer are competitors bound to a single discipline, or even a single way of expressing that discipline. Thanks to Lee’s profound influence, there are schools of teaching that specifically mix various martial art forms together, pulling the most effective elements of each, to create superior martial artists.
Lee himself trained a wide cross-section of people from movie stars to martial arts champions, tailoring the training to each person, yet grounding all of his teaching in a consistent philosophy. Two of his more notable students were Steve McQueen and James Coburn. He called McQueen a “tough son of a gun,” while he saw Coburn as “a peace-loving man”. With his unique ability to get inside the mind of the person he was teaching, Lee was able to give each man the tools that worked best for him. Likewise, he could take a top martial artist and develop his strengths while discarding unwanted baggage his student never knew he was carrying.
Lee once wrote, “Simplicity is the last step of art and the beginning of nature.” He believed in hacking away at the unessentials to find the essential, and would apply the practice to everything, be it a kick, a punch, or even lifting a weight, telling his students to make the natural unnatural and the unnatural natural. Weight training itself was subject to this philosophy, with Lee paring down conventional routines to reveal a spare but brutally effective routine that would not just turn his muscles to “warm marble” (as Ann Clouse, wife of Enter the Dragon director Robert Clouse called them) but impart him with an optimal blend of strength, power, agility, and speed.
Today, 40 years after his breakout film, Enter the Dragon, put him on everyone’s radar, 40 years after it cemented his icon status, and 40 years after his untimely death at just 32, Lee’s presence can be felt as strongly as ever. In fact, it can be argued that it’s felt more strongly today than ever, with MMA techniques displayed on the big screen by big stars like Matt Damon, Jason Statham, and Daniel Craig, and the unprecedented rise to prominence of the UFC.
Yet for all the flying kicks and lightning-fast punches, the words of wisdom, and razor-sharp abs, it’s Lee himself who has left the most lasting impact on the world. By harnessing his own inner strength, freeing his mind, and then sharing his enlightenment with the world, Lee has transcended being just man. He’s the stuff of legend. And, as is the case with all legends, his power to motivate, inspire, and instruct will only grow with each year.
This is a very basic, but very sound, program Lee followed three times a week for years. Because so much of his training time was devoted to martial arts, he had to be efficient with his weight training, and this routine is about as efficient as they come.
Lee used the following program three times a week for 44 days in 1965, in an effort to build up his arms. It worked, as he added ¾ inch to his upper arms and more than ½ inch on his forearms. Keep in mind that Lee kept rest between sets to an absolute minimum, which isn’t a surprise, since he was the personification of energy in motion.