Contrary to what many people believe, Bruce Lee wasn’t born with the fantastic physique with which he would become identified in later years. In fact Bruce was born quite a sickly child and had a number of physical deficiencies during childhood.
Bruce worked hard to gain physique but it wasn’t merely for the purpose of vanity, he crafted his muscles to serve a number of purposes, speed, power and as protection, almost like human armour. He spent as much as four hours a day in his garage gym, hardly taking a break, as he worked on the purpose built equipment, developed by many of his students to his own specifications.
Although he looks muscular and ripped, Bruce designed his weight-training workouts to avoid large bulky muscles that might hinder his physical performance. For instance, he did not want large biceps that might restrict the movement in his elbows. “You must tuck your elbows in quickly when a blow is directed to your midsection,” he explained. “Some bodybuilders are so bulky that they have no way to defend the solar plexus area with efficiency. They can’t cover the area with their elbows, so when they use another method to protect it, they leave other parts of their body open. Weight training is supposed to help you, not screw you.”
Bruce would often ask people to feel how hard his muscles were because he was so proud of his physique and wanted to show it off. Whilst on the set of ‘Enter the Dragon’ Bruce asked the wife of director Fred Weintraub to feel his muscles, she commented that “they felt like marble, hard and smooth except that they were warm.” Fred himself gave this description of Bruce’s physique, “His body never had an inch of fat; it was pure muscle, like steel.”
Bruce Lee was especially proud of his abdominal muscles and would often allow people to punch him in the stomach just to show how hard they were. When Bruce wore lose clothing it was very difficult to see just how well developed his body was, but when he took off his shirt, he was the envy of many a man, even many successful bodybuilders. “I’ve seen many muscular bodybuilders,” one of his fans said, “but never like Bruce. He is built perfectly, not bulky. He has muscles on top of muscles, yet he moves with the finesse of a ballet dancer. Those men with bulky muscles can’t move like that; they are too tight and clumsy.” Bruce had to work hard to develop his abdominal muscles, “l used to have a big, soft belly,” he explained. “My stomach protruded and I looked terrible for a young guy. I decided to streamline my waist.” From that day on, Bruce took up weight training. He had so much energy that he had to channel it somewhere, so he practised his martial arts everyday for hours and complemented this with his weight training.
To Bruce, training was a full-time job, even whilst watching television, he would be exercising in one way or another. He would do sit-ups very slowly, “You’ll get more benefit by doing them slowly,” he said. “It’s not the number of repetitions, but the way it’s done.” When he wasn’t doing sit-ups, he would be squeezing a rubber ball, lifting weights, performing isometric exercises or as odd as it sounds, simply practising his punching against a single sheet of paper. Once while scouting for a location with James Coburn, for the movie ‘The Silent Flute’, Bruce kept punching the back of the chair in the jeep in which they were travelling or rapping the note book he was carrying with his fist. In the end Coburn could take no more and told Bruce to give it a rest. Coburn recalled that Bruce didn’t know what to do with his self and became restless and agitated, he had to be doing something, anything to keep his body and mind working.
As for diets and supplements, Bruce wasn’t really that particular about what he ate. He used to drink protein drinks everyday, which would be made in a blender with eggs, steak and milk and many vitamins, but other than that he would pretty much eat anything he fancied. He was training his body that much that he could get away with it. Bruce’s favourite cuisnes were Chinese and Japanese and he was especially fond of sliced beef in oyster sauce and loved a cup of hot tea. Although Bruce wasn’t very big, standing at 5-foot-7 and weighing in around 130 – 140lbs, he had a huge appetite. In a restaurant, he always ordered an additional plate of food for himself; one serving was not enough. He also drank litres of water a day, probably because he perspired so much. He would also supplement his food intake with vitamins and minerals, which was an influence he got from a body building magazine.
A couple of months prior to Bruce’s death in 1973 at age 32, he had a full medical examination; the doctor who performed the examination on Bruce told him that he had the body of an eighteen-year-old man.