Fighting Fit: Jeet Kune Do Ideals of Overall Fitness

by David Quigley

He was a shooting star – brilliant, breathtaking, rare, and gone too soon.  But in his 32 years, Bruce Lee practiced what he preached, reaching a near-perfect physical and mental state few can even fathom.  Obviously this took him his entire life to reach; there are ways that we can learn from Bruce’s lessons and mishaps so that we can reach our own self-perfection.

Bruce Lee’s life reads like mythology.  There are magnificent stories within his overall story that made him into the legend he has become.  The same can be said about fitness; there are lessons within the overall model (we call these lessons “attributes”).  But one must start with the overall story – the overall attribute – before one can break things down and focus on the small stories.  I am going to call the overall attribute “the Jeet Kune Do fitness ideal”; that is, what makes a JKD practitioner fighting fit overall

I think to set this in context, we need a story from Bruce Lee’s life and I can think of no better one than the catalyst for Bruce Lee’s split with traditional Wing Chun Gung Fu and the beginnings of Jeet Kune Do.  The year is 1964 and the place is Oakland.  Bruce Lee is in trouble for teaching non-Chinese gung fu, so he is challenged to a fight with Wong Jak Man, supposedly one of San Francisco’s gung fu champions of the time.  The fight begins, Bruce hits Wong, and Wong begins to run around the room with Bruce in hot pursuit.  Eventually Bruce catches him, jumps on him and hits him a few times, and forces him to conceded defeat.  What was the problem here?  There were two main ones, actually.  First, Bruce could not apply his techniques adequately to end the fight in any acceptable amount of time, thus the beginnings of his search for better ways (JKD).  Second, and most important for this entry, Bruce was exhausted from chasing Wong around the room.  It suddenly became very obvious that he needed to improve his fitness level, and fast.

From that point onward, Bruce upped his conditioning routines and the results can be readily seen in any of his movies (notice, too, that his physique improves from one movie to the next, until you see his ultimate physical perfection in Enter the Dragon).  Bruce was meticulous in recording his routines, so we are lucky to have many of them still.  One will notice while looking through them, though, that his routines evolved over time.  The being said, he always had a few exercises he stuck with until his death in 1973, the main one being running (usually with his dog, Bobo).  Bruce ran not just for conditioning, but for mental clarity, which was needed more and more as he approached the end of his life.  The point here is three-fold: 1. Jeet Kune Do has a focus on conditioning, 2. conditioning is important for both mental clarity and fighting ability, and 3. the forms of conditioning evolved over time.

Fast forward to today and my personal routines, in and out of class, for my overall attribute-building.  I always begin class with conditioning routines, usually involving rounds of running with interval exercises mixed in (I will cover this more in a later entry).  Personally, I have turned to plyometrics (jump training) for my fitness needs and the results have been astounding.  I combine these exercises into intervals, so I may do a set of 3-5 plyometric exercises for 4-5 minutes, take a 30-45 second break, and repeat.  I have found this has not only drastically improved my conditioning attributes, but it has also improved my overall physique.  That is not to say I don’t run.  I still run 3-5 miles (more than that is excessive, in my opinion) once or twice a week if I can.  I combine this with bag work and calisthenics and I am currently in the best shape of my life.  I can train longer and harder, spar more effectively, and perform techniques with more ease than ever before.  Bruce Lee was onto something, but there is no surprise there.

To sum up, overall conditioning is very important in Jeet Kune Do.  It should be key in every martial art and to martial artist.  Too often martial artists rely on nothing but their training to carry them through, but Bruce Lee found out the hard way that sometimes pure training isn’t enough.  We have to supplement and constantly improve and evolve.  That is one of the core essences of Jeet Kune Do.  Stay fit and fight longer.

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