In all the Bruce Lee biographies that have been written, one theme stands out: He was ahead of his time in terms of both martial arts and physical training.
The list of professional athletes, media icons and everyday martial artists who have been inspired by his teachings is impressive — for good reason. When Lee moved, he embodied the perfect combination of efficiency, effectiveness and aesthetics. What made all that possible was his approach to physical development and health sustainment. With respect to that, a couple of aspects have always stood out.
First up is Bruce Lee’s scientific approach to martial arts training, which is well-documented in Tao of Jeet Kune Do, his comprehensive treatise on the art of fighting. By combining teachings from the East and the West, he laid the groundwork for a martial arts curriculum that addresses all aspects of the pursuit, including the spiritual/philosophical foundation, warm-up routine, psychology, and offense and defense.
Bruce Lee could do this because he was an academic at heart. He researched, analyzed, synthesized and documented his thought processes and findings. And he applied physics to his theories before he made them his conclusions. By being scientific, he was able to arrive at indisputable conclusions about what worked and what didn’t.
Because of the growing popularity of the martial arts, more people are studying the arts’ effect on health, as well as the potential for injury. Their research is being conducted in the fields of sport science, physiology, medicine, nutrition and rehabilitation, among others. Once again, Bruce Lee was on the cutting edge. Why do I say this? Because his work is an important part of the academic lineage of the martial arts and because his ideas continue to be studied, discussed and, occasionally, refined.
In all that he did, Bruce Lee paid close attention to proper training and injury prevention. He knew that despite his incredible physique and physical abilities, he had to train consistently and properly to avoid injuries that might necessitate a break from training. Couple that with his hectic filmmaking schedule, and you’ll understand how much time management was required for him to maintain his skills at the highest level.
Example: Sports-medicine professionals always emphasize injury prevention. In the martial arts, practitioners are at great risk while landing after a jumping technique. Bruce Lee was well aware of such dangers.
In Tao of Jeet Kune Do (order here on Amazon), he articulates the importance of and strategies for minimizing injury. Specifically, he outlines warm-ups designed to “increase tissue elasticity, which lessens the liability to injury.” He also notes that different warm-ups are required for different activities and that routines need to be modified according to the practitioner’s age.
Another example of Bruce Lee’s forward-thinking methodologies comes from his weight-training advice: He implored martial artists to lift only an amount of weight they can handle without undue strain. This concept of training without exceeding one’s physiologic threshold is ideal in martial arts practice.
If you’re laid up because you lifted too much or used improper form, you’re unable to work on skill development. Even worse, the injury could become chronic or permanent, forever impairing your ability to improve in your art.
As stated in the introduction, Bruce Lee was ahead of his time. He put forth a comprehensive martial arts curriculum that incorporates awareness of one’s health and injury prevention. As I reflect on him, I continue to be impressed by his vast knowledge of and many contributions to the martial arts, which he viewed as both an art and a science.
To borrow a concept from politics: There’s hard power, there’s soft power and then there’s smart power, which combines the other two. By following Bruce Lee’s teachings, we can more efficiently develop smart power.
(“Bruce Lee” is a registered trademark of Bruce Lee Enterprises LLC. The Bruce Lee name, image and likeness are intellectual property of Bruce Lee Enterprises LLC.)
Robert Wang, M.D., is a board-certified orthopedic surgeon and a diplomat of the American Board of Orthopedic Surgery.