Bruce Lee’s Workout From Warm Marble: The Lethal Physique of Bruce Lee by John Little (1996)


After much research, and with the help of two bodybuilders who were also his close friends and students in the San Francisco Bay area, Lee devised a three-day-per-week bodybuilding program that he felt fit his strengthening and bodybuilding needs perfectly. According to one of these men, Allen Joe, “James Lee and I introduced Bruce to the basic weight training techniques. We used to train with basic exercises like squats, pullovers and curls for about three sets each. Nothing really spectacular but we were just getting him started.” This program actually served Lee well from 1965 through until 1970 and fit in perfectly with Lee’s own philosophy of getting the maximum results out of the minimum — or most economical — expenditure of energy.

The every-other-day workout allowed for the often neglected aspect of recovery to take place. Lee coordinated his bodybuilding workouts in such a way so as to insure that they fell on days when he wasn’t engaged in either endurance-enhancing or overly strenuous martial art training. The program worked like magic; increasing Lee’s bodyweight from an initial 130 pounds to — at one point — topping out at just over 165 pounds!

According to Glover, however, Lee wasn’t particularly pleased with the added mass; “I noticed that he was bigger after he was weight training. There was a time after he went to California that he went up to 165 pounds. But I think it slowed him down because that was real heavy for Bruce. He looked buff like a bodybuilder. And then, later on I saw him and this was all gone. I mean, one thing that Bruce was [about] was function — and if stuff got in the way, then it had to go. Bruce wanted his weight training to complement what he did in the martial arts. A lot of what Bruce was doing was about being able to maintain arm positions that nobody could violate in a fight. Like, if you take most people who are into bodybuilding or weight training, most of them are interested in simply building up their muscles to a bigger size, particularly the major muscle groups — not much attention is paid to the connective tissues, like ligament and tendon strength. Well, Bruce’s thing was ‘let’s build up the connectors and we won’t worry so much about the size of the muscle.’ Again, Bruce was about function.”

Gearing his training for function, Lee’s bodybuilding routine incorporated the three core tenets of total fitness- stretching for flexibility, weight training for strength and cardiovascular activity for his respiratory system — the original cross-trainer!

Bruce Lee’s “Lethal Physique” Bodybuilding Program
(performed on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays)

Exercise Sets Repetitions
Clean & Press 2 8
Squats 2 12
Pullovers 2 8
Bench Presses 2 6
Good Mornings 2 8
Barbell Curls 2 8

The Breakdown of the Routine:

1.) Clean & Press: Lee would begin this movement by taking a shoulder-width grip on an Olympic barbell. Bending his knees, he would squat down in front of the resistance and, with a quick snap of his arms and a thrust from his legs, clean the barbell to his chest and stand up. After a brief pause, Lee would then thrust the barbell to arms length overhead, pause briefly, and then lower the barbell back to the top of his chest. After another brief pause, he would lower the barbell back to the floor (the starting position). With absolutely no rest, Lee would then initiate his second repetition of the movement and continue to do so until he had completed eight repetitions. After a very brief rest, so as to take full advantage of the cardio-respiratory benefits as well as the strength-building benefits, Lee would perform a second — and final — set.

2.) Squats: This staple of bodybuilding movements was the cornerstone of Bruce Lee’s barbell training. He had dozens of articles that he’d clipped out on the mechanics and benefits of squats and he practiced many variations of this exercise. In his routine, however, he performed the exercise in the standard fashion. Resting a barbell across his shoulders, Lee would place his feet approximately shoulder-width apart. Making sure that he was properly balanced, Lee would slowly ascend to a full squat position. With absolutely zero pause in the bottom position, Lee would then immediately return — using the strength of his hips, glutes, hamstrings, calves and quadriceps — to the starting position, whereupon he would commence rep number two. Lee would perform 12 repetitions in this movement and, after a short breather, return and re-shoulder the barbell for one more set of 12 reps.

3.) Pullovers: Although there exists no physical evidence that Bruce Lee supersetted barbell pullovers with squats, there is reason to believe that this was case — if only for the fact that such was the method advocated in the articles he read. Squats were considered a great “overall” muscle builder, whereas pullovers were simply considered a “rib box expander” or “breathing exercise.” Consequently, the fashion of incorporating pullovers in the late 1960s and early 1970s was as a “finishing” movement for squats. This being the case, Lee would perform the movement in the standard fashion; i.e., by lying down on his back upon a flat bench and taking a shoulder-width grip on a barbell that he would then proceed to press out to full extension above his chest. From this position, Lee would lower the barbell — making sure to keep a slight bend in his elbows so as not to strain the elbow joint — behind his head until it touched the floor ever so slightly and provided a comfortable stretch to his lats. From this fully-extended position, Lee would then slowly reverse the motion through the contraction of his lats, pecs and long-head of the triceps. He would repeat this movement for two sets of eight repetitions.

4.) Bench Presses: Bruce Lee was able to develop an incredible chest musculature. His upper pecs were particularly impressive, bunching and splitting into thousands of fibrous bands. And, as far as his personal training records indicate, the only direct barbell movement he performed to develop his chest was the good old fashioned bench press. Lying down upon a flat bench, and again taking a shoulder-width grip on an Olympic barbell, Lee would press the weight off the support pins to arms length above his chest. From this locked-out position, Lee would then lower the barbell to his chest and, exhaling, press it back up to the fully-locked out (or starting) position. He would repeat this movement for six repetitions and then, after a brief respite, return to the bench for one more set of six reps.

5.) Good Mornings: A word of caution about this exercise. Lee performed this movement to strengthen his lower back. However, one day in early 1970 he loaded up the bar with 135 pounds (his bodyweight at the time) and — without a warm up — proceeded to knock off eight repetitions. On his last rep he felt a “pop” and found out later that he had damaged the fourth sacral nerve of his lower back. The result was the Lee had to endure incredible back pain for the remainder of his life. This is not to say that the movement is without merit, just make sure that you perform an adequate warm-up prior to employing, it. Placing a barbell across his shoulders, Lee would place his feet three inches apart (Lee would later confide to Dan Inosanto “You really don’t need any weight but the empty bar on your shoulders Dan — it’s more of a limbering movement”) and bend over from the waist keeping his hands on the barbell at all times. Lee would bend over until his back was at a 90 degree angle to his hips and then return to the upright position. Lee performed two sets of eight repetitions of this movement.

6.) Barbell Curls: Bruce Lee performed barbell curls not only in his garage gym on Roscomare Avenue in Bel Air, but also in his studio office in Hong Kong. They were a staple or “core” movement in his weight training routine and were also responsible for building a very impressive pair of biceps on Lee — not to mention incredible pulling power, which he used to such good effect in all of his sparring sessions! To perform this movement properly, Lee would take a comfortable shoulder-width grip on the barbell with his palms facing forwards. Keeping a slight bend in his knees for stabilization purposes, Lee would then contract his biceps and curl the barbell up to a point level with his upper pecs. Pausing briefly in this fully-contracted position, Lee would then slowly lower the barbell back to the starting position. Two sets of eight repetitions of this movement would typically wrap up Lee’s bodybuilding routine.

Going Beyond “Routine”

According to Inosanto, Lee didn’t just train with the above listed exercises. He would also incorporate weight training into his martial art workouts. “Bruce would always shadow box with small weights in his hands and he’d do a drill in which he’d punch for 12 series in a row, 100 punches per series, using a pyramid system of 1,2,3,5,7 and 10-pound weights — and then he’d reverse the pyramid and go 10, 7, 5, 3, 2, 1 and finally “zero” weight. He had me do this drill with him and — Man! — what a burn you’d get in your delts and arms!”

It didn’t stop there however. When Lee wasn’t training with weights in his martial art workouts or during one of his three designated whole-body training sessions, he could be found curling a dumbbell in the office in his house. “He was always using that dumbbell,” recalls Linda in looking back on her husband’s training habits. “Bruce had the unique ability to be able to several things at once. It wasn’t all unusual for me to find him watching a boxing match on TV, simultaneously performing a full side splits, while reading a book in one hand and pumping a dumbbell in the other.”

Incredible Abs

By far the most impressive of all of Lee’s bodyparts was his abdominal muscles, which he trained daily. “Bruce always felt that if your stomach wasn’t developed, then you had no business sparring,” recalls Wong. “He was a fanatic about abdominal training,” concurs Linda, “he was always doing sit-ups, crunches, Roman Chair movements, Leg Raises and V-ups.” Chuck Norris has gone on record recalling the time that he went to visit the Lee family and seeing Bruce lying on the living room floor bouncing his son Brandon on his abdomen while simultaneously performing dumbbell flyes for his pecs and leg raises for his abs – and watching television to boot!

Forearms of Steel

In order to improve his gripping and punching power, Lee became an avid devotee of forearm training, While many champion bodybuilders shy away from direct forearm training, Lee made it a point to train his forearms daily. “He was a forearm fanatic,” laughs Linda in retrospect. “If ever any bodybuilder — such as Bill Pearl — came out with a forearm course, Bruce would have to get it.” Bruce even commissioned an old friend of his from San Francisco, George Lee (no relation) to build him several “Gripping machines” to which Lee would add weight for additional resistance. “He used to send me all of these designs for exercise equipment,” recalls George Lee, “and I’d build them according to his specs. However, I wasn’t altogether foolish,” he says with a laugh, “I knew that if Bruce was going to use it, it must be effective, so I’d build one to send to him and another for me to use at home!”

Allen Joe recalls that Lee had a favorite dumbbell exercise that he used to train his forearms with constantly: “Bruce was always working on his forearms. He’d pick up a weight and go to the edge of the sofa and start doing wrist curls while he was watching TV. Then he’d do his abdominal work — and then he’d return to his forearm training. The dumbbell curl he liked best was a Zottman curl, where you would curl the weight up one side of your body and then you twist it and bring it down on the other side. He’d do that all the time!”