“If you always put a limit on everything you do, physical or anything else, it will spread into your work and into your life. There are no limits. There are only plateaus, and you must not stay there, you must go beyond them.” —Bruce Lee

While some might hesitate to consider Bruce Lee’s films works of art, there are few who will deny the beauty and grace of his physicality. Standing at 5’7" and weighing 135 pounds at his peak, the renowned martial arts master was a temple of muscle. As Chuck Norris put it, "He had muscles on muscles."

Of course, to reach this point took devotion, perhaps even obsession, which few of us are willing to put forth. That said, there’s still plenty to be learned from the man whose short life—he died at 32 of cerebral edema in 1973—has influenced thousands of bodybuilders, action heroes, and martial artists.

In the book Bruce Lee: The Art of Expressing the Human Body, author John Little parsed through a vast amount of material on or about Lee to come up with a concise interpretation of the master’s fitness regimen. At its core, Lee’s plan consisted of anaerobic work—weight training and isometrics—balanced with aerobic work. Given Turbo Jam® had yet to be invented, his preferred form of cardio was running. He combined all this with a clean diet. No surprises there. However, when you look into the details, you’ll find some interesting things.

On circuit training
Tony YogaLee’s devotion to what would eventually be known as circuit training started when he read a series of articles in Ironman magazine by bodybuilder Bob Gajda about The Peripheral Heart Action (PHA) System. Like Tony Horton does in his Power 90® routines, the system moves from body group to body group instead of focusing a long time on one particular group. The benefit of this is that blood flow continually flows from muscle group to muscle group, thus increasing muscular endurance and delaying fatigue. It also works the cardiovascular system. Lee loved the multiple benefits of this technique.

On Lee’s abdominals
AbsThe man had amazing abs, but he had to work hard to get them. His five basic stomach exercises were sit-ups, leg raises, twists, frog kicks, and side bends. He also understood that while you could do crunches until you were blue in the face, it wouldn’t matter unless you ate completely clean, avoiding sugar, starches, and excess fats. Yes, there are people to whom a six-pack comes naturally but, according to his journals, Bruce Lee, owner of one of the most amazing six-packs in history, was not one of these people. So next time you’re pushing through Slim & 6-Pack, thinking about that grandé mocha latte you skipped this morning, just remember that Bruce Lee made the same sort of sacrifices.

On stretching
StretchWhile he believed in stretching every day for at least 15 minutes, his regimen was basically to limber up at every available opportunity. He’d do it watching television, reading, even in the sound studio while dubbing his films. While few of us are in the movie business, that doesn’t mean we can’t work a few thigh stretches into our coffee breaks, or work those shoulders and neck while watching American Idol.

While he was a man of extremes, Lee understood the importance of moderation in the stretch. Never bounce-stretch or stretch too hard because overaggressive stretching can actually send a signal to the brain to tighten up the muscle to protect it from damage.

On Asian food
Of the various aspects of fitness, diet was the one Lee studied least. As his wife, Linda Lee Cadwell put it, “He couldn’t boil water” and therefore left culinary responsibilities to her. He did, however, understand “junk in, junk out.” Mealtimes in their household weren’t much of a focus—more of a time to fuel up.

Asian CuisineHe also preferred Asian-style cooking because it offered more variety in a meal and a healthier ratio of veggies to protein. Keep in mind that this was over 30 years ago, when American cuisine meant a potato and a hunk of meat, as opposed to an Asian meal which could consist of shrimp, chicken, veggies and tofu all on the same plate. He felt this variety led to a more complete nutritional profile. While American cuisine has since diversified, the message is the same, keep that variety up. Eating the same thing every day probably means there are vital nutrients that you’re skipping.

And no, Bruce Lee wasn’t a saint. From time to time, he’d indulge in steak or even McDonald’s, keeping in mind that super-sizing did not exist at the time.

On opportunities for everyday exercise
FlamingoIn much the same way he stretched whenever possible, Lee felt it important to shove exercise into his day as much as he could. Here are some of the tips he’d offer his students:

  • Walk whenever possible. Park the car a few blocks from your destination and walk the rest of the way.
  • No elevators. Take the stairs whenever possible.
  • Practice balance by standing on one foot when putting clothes or shoes on—or just stand on one foot whenever you choose to.

Fitness doesn’t come from 60 minutes a day. It’s a lifestyle thing. Whatever workout you’re doing now is great, but take a look at the rest of your life—when can you walk instead of driving? When can you hand-whip instead of using a blender? When can you run around with your kids instead of watching television with them? Bruce’s son Brandon was no slouch himself. His dad clearly had a huge influence on him.

Bruce Lee accomplished an amazing amount in his short life. Even if you follow his path, odds are you won’t accomplish as much as he did. On the same note, you probably won’t win the Tour de France even if you train like Lance Armstrong and you don’t stand much of a chance winning the California governorship, even if you lift weights like Arnie.

But then again, maybe a defeatist attitude like that is just the kind of “limit” Bruce Lee was talking about.

BONUS! The Bruce Lee Protein Shake

According to John Little, up to two times a day, Lee would make a drink consisting of several of the ingredients listed below. Unfortunately, he left no instructions for his magic elixir. We can tell you this much, however—he did use a blender.

Non-instant powdered milk (which, nowadays, he’d probably replace with whey protein powder)
Water or juice
Ice cubes
2 raw eggs, occasionally with shell*
1 Tbsp. wheat germ or wheat germ oil
1 Tbsp. peanut butter
1 banana
1 Tbsp. brewer’s yeast
Lecithin (in granular form)