Strength Basics

Getting stronger, fitter, and healthier by sticking to the basics. It's not rocket science, it's doing the simple stuff the right way. Strength-Basics updates every Monday, plus extra posts during the week.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Book Review: The Art of Expressing the Human Body

I won't lie; this is one of my favorite books. Before I get into the review, I'd like to tell you something about this book and how it changed my life.

Back in 1999, I'd had some experience doing resistance training. But not much, and not consistently enough to make much of a difference. I'd train for some short-term goal, with no plan designed to get there, and stop training after I'd reach the goal or just change goals. You know, "Lose weight for Summer" or "get in shape and impress so-and-so."

Then, I got a copy of The Art of Expressing the Human Body. It looked interesting, as I'd lifted before and I had been training some form of martial arts since I was 12 or so. I loved Bruce Lee, of course, and I thought the "Bruce Lee Library" book series seemed pretty cool. Once I got this book, I read it cover-to-cover, not wanting to put it down for silly stuff like eating or work. I was mesmerized.

I grabbed the routine Bruce Lee was listed as doing once at a Hong Kong gym, went to a sporting good store and bought a couple of 20-pound hex dumbbells, and set to work. I was sore and barely could walk the next day, but I was happy. I'd decided that I was no longer working out without a goal or until I reached some point. I was working out to be a better martial artist, and I vowed that I'd work out from then on - until the day I die.

That was 10 years ago, and I'm still going strong. My only breaks have been planned rests or injury recovery. I managed to fit lifting into recovery, too, so I'd bounce back faster. This book was that influential on me. So, consider this a statement of biases up front.

by Little, John
Published 1998
256 pages

The Art of Expressing the Human Body is book four in the "Bruce Lee Library" series, a 7-volume book series compiling and publishing Bruce's notes, letters, and other written materials. They were compiled by John Little with cooperation of Linda Lee Cadwell, Bruce Lee's widow.

It's worth noting that John Little generally writes about bodybuilding and is a proponent of HIT - high intensity training. I think this influenced the layout and approach to Bruce's Training. There are no less than 7 chapters that are body part specialization programs, or which look at Bruce's choices of exercises that would focus on those body parts. They all come with a "routine" too, in that they have suggested reps and sets. But based on Bruce's own routines later, it's not so clear if he did them or not. Are they routines Bruce did or are they suggestions in case you want to bring up a lagging chest or abs? That's more of a bodybuilder approach than a martial artist's approach. The author, John Little, also manages to sneak in a reference to his own "Power Factor Training" series, too, although that's something that long post-dates Bruce's early death and so seems very much off-topic.

There is a lot of basic descriptions in the book of how to do the stretches, lifts, and other exercises in the book. It's generally good information, although a little simplified in some cases (the clean and press takes a paragraph to describe, but a lot more to coach), and often repeated in each section. But it's information you'll need if you are not an experienced lifter, and so it's well included.

Bruce Lee was never satisfied with his training or his physique. Because of this, he tried almost everything - and the book hits each of them in turn. Flexibility training. Isometric exercises. Full-body lifting. Circuit training - both PHAPeripheral Heart Action and a more muscle hypertrophy machine based routine. Calisthenics. Pure martial arts practice. Jogging (Bruce Lee loved running). Each of them gets a chapter. So do the body part specializations mentioned above.

The most interesting aspects of the book are those that focus on how Bruce Lee organized his training. These are interspersed everywhere throughout the book, often filled out with technical descriptions of how to perform the exercises described. Chapter 22 consists of typed-up excerpts from Bruce Lee's day-timers for 1968, where he'd written all of his exercises. Bruce, like every one else should, logged all of his workouts! The next chapter is a compendium of his workouts, based again on his own logged workouts. Chapter 3 is quite similar - it's a 7-page look at one workout that Bruce did, based on a workout card he'd filled out at a Hong Kong gym. This is the workout I mentioned copying above in my intro.

For all of its flaws, the book is a good read. It's utterly fascinating to watch how Bruce Lee progressed through his workouts. It's cool to see what he handed out to his students, too - no custom workouts for them, just a set of basics to get them started.

It's painfully ironic that near the end of his life he was primarily doing a machine-based weight circuit, which is so counter to where martial arts conditioning has gone. But it's worth remembering that Bruce was an experimenter, with his body as the test subject. He tried everything and discarded that which didn't help him. So it's likely that had he lived longer, he'd have move on to still different routines and approaches, ever seeking that which would help him the most.

Content: 4 out of 5. The bodybuilder/body part focus detracts from the book a bit, and the routines and such are out of date. You wouldn't want to use this as your workout manual . . . but it's chock full of good information about Bruce Lee's training.
Presentation: 5 out of 5. The organization makes it a bit lacking, but the easy-to-read text and awesome pictures and Bruce's own writings make up for that. It's an attractive book.

Overall: I highly recommend this book for a martial artist or a Bruce Lee fan. It's a great look at the steady progression of his training, how he experimented and changed his routine, and how he developed. It's also entertaining and inspirational. This is a man who won a fight and decided to get in better shape instead of complacently sitting on his success. However, you don't want this to be your only guide to lifting weights and getting in shape. You'd do well to pass over the routines and look for better information elsewhere. But take the motivation with you to that other program.


  1. "ou'd do well to pass over the routines and look for better information elsewhere" Would you care to clarify that point a bit? I own this book but I wish to augment it with the latest science

    1. Sure. The routines in the book - both the ones suggested by John Little and the ones Bruce Lee did - are really geared more towards bodybuilding than athletics. They aren't always complete, either - they're more geared towards a chest workout, say, or a legs workout, than a complete program.

      If you're a beginner, I'd take a look at this post:

      There is a discussion of some very good, complete training routines.

      Otherwise, I'd just say some of the ideas in there - PHA training, say, or isometrics - haven't been proven to be as effective as Bruce Lee clearly expected them to be. Or at least not on their own.

      Hope that helps.


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