According to various sources on the internet, a 1996 article in Iron Man Magazine revealed Bruce Lee’s workout. In addition to his cardio and karate workouts, Lee lifted weights three times a week and performed the following routine:
clean and presses 2 x 8
squats 2 x 12
barbell pullovers 2 x 8
bench presses 2 x 6
good mornings 2 x 8
barbell curls 2 x 8
Unfortunately, he injured his back doing good mornings, which nearly ruined his career. Otherwise, his weight training was successful in that it is credited with helping him add 30 pounds of solid muscle to his relatively small frame.
Although Lee is the most famous martial artist ever, it may be that the strongest was a man named Masutatsu Oyama. Therefore, it will be interesting to contrast Lee’s workout with Oyama’s.
The Karate Bull-Fighter
Oyama was one of the first to bring Karate to America and founder of the Kyokushin style of Karate. His 1958 classic “What is Karate?” was one of the first books on the subject written in English, and designed to make the subject accessible to westerners.
Oyama initially became famous with stunts such as bull-fighting Karate-style. Unlike Mexican bull-fighters, he would actually wrestle the bull to the ground and break off one of its horns. (He wasn’t too popular with animal rights activists in Tokyo.)
Oyama’s Strength Training
According to Oyama’s 1958 book, strength and speed are more important than skill for Karate, and speed more important than strength. Also, he said it was very important to practice jumping.
Here are some recommendations he gives in “What is Karate?” (He doesn’t give an exact workout.)
Running – 4km per day
Rope-skipping – 20 minutes per day
Dumbell arm exercise (shoulder press?) – 200 times
Dips – 100 times
Push ups (with hands in fist) – 300 times
Inclined push ups – 100 times
Jumping side kick over 4 foot vaulting horse
Inclined dumbell bench press
Exercises requiring a partner:
Hitting bag with upper elbow and side of elbow – 200 times each
Practicing jumping kick with bag
Exercises for neck (with partner)
Leg exercise (squat with partner on back)
Back and Abdomen exercises with partner
Elsewhere in the book, Oyama said that he would bench press 175 pounds 500 times a day.
Then there are karate-specific exercises such as straw striking and exercises that are specific to board and stone breaking abilities. All this was in addition to practicing forms, sparring, etc.
Comparing Lee and Oyama
Now, what strikes me as the essential difference between Lee’s and Oyama’s workout styles is volume. Lee’s weight training routine is relatively brief, and he avoided lifting on days of heavy martial arts training.
While Lee might do an exercise for 2 sets of 8 reps (which is fairly typical), Oyama would do it for hundreds of reps. Clearly, Oyama’s is a more time-consuming approach that would require a lot of dedication.
If you look at pictures of these men, they have quite different builds. For Lee, his training goal was apparently to add bulk. Before the weight training, he weighed only 135 pounds, and he added 30 pounds of solid muscle.
Oyama, on the other hand, was obviously a stockier fellow, and talks in his book about losing weight during periods of intense training. Judging from pictures of him with other people, I would say that he was probably slightly taller than Lee (who was 5′ 8″). Although Oyama was of average height, he doesn’t look like a small guy when standing next to American professional wrestlers, boxers, and strongmen.
The point is not to compare them as saying one was better than the other. I do wonder what affect their training style had on the way they looked and how much was just genetic.
At any rate, if Oyama struggled to keep his weight down, it sounds like high volume training helped him to achieve that. Lee, on the other hand, seems to have been naturally lean and wanted the weight training to bulk up (probably to look better on camera). Too much volume might be counter-productive to that goal.
So, maybe the lesson in this is that if you want to lose weight while simultaneously getting stronger, it might be worth considering an old-fashioned high volume workout routine, assuming you can make that kind of dedication. On the other hand, if your goal is to look like Bruce Lee… well, all I can say is “good luck”!