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Be Like Water


Bruce Lee’s Strength Training

Bruce Lee’s physique and his dedication to strength training has long been documented.  In fact when he traveled, he had his training equipment shipped to him so he could train on location. (3)

Bruce built his legendary strength (holding a 100lb barbell at arms length for several seconds, thumb push-ups, 1″ power punch, just to name of few) and power with a combination of martial arts, isometrics, weight training, calisthenics, cardio fitness and stretching, hand grippers and  hill running.  (1) He knew that if he engaged in a variety of modalities it would give him the most “functional” strength.  It would not be gained by just weight training alone.


“If you’re talking about combat — as it is — well then, baby you’d better train every part of your body!” — Bruce Lee (from the video, Bruce Lee: The Lost Interview)

He trained every day in some form or the other.

But, he also knew the importance of periodizing intensity.  He knew you couldn’t go day in and day out with a high intensity for your workouts.

“Since weight training involves repetitions, a great deal of energy must be exerted. Therefore, weight training should be practiced only every other day.” – Bruce Lee

Training as “the art of expressing the human body.” – Bruce Lee

It is an ongoing process that must be monitored and assessed everyday.

This is of great importance when discussing strength training for fitness enthusiasts and athletic preparation.

Be Like Water


“Be Like Water” Bruce was famous for saying when talking about fighting and moving when facing an opponent.

“Empty your mind, be formless. Shapeless, like water.”

For the application of strength training, I could liken this statement to two things.

  1. Flow or mobility – as we have talked about previously, flow and mobility is essential for long term health, feeling and moving better AND getting the most out of your workouts
  2. Real-time adjustments in your workout dependent upon your current state of recovery

For the purposes of this article, we will “be like water” in how we approach and execute our workout.

The Shit Workout

We’ve all had them.  You walk in, the weights feel heavy, we never get warmed up and we just go through the motions to finish the workout.  I hate these workouts, you hate these workouts and they pretty much suck.

Let’s break down the actual workout, here is an example:

Bench Press, 4×15

DB Clean and Press, 3×12

Pull-ups, 4×8

Face Pulls, 3×20


So, you start with the first set of bench press and it is just a grinder.  Each rep feels bad.  Shoulders aren’t feeling great, your lower back is tightening up from bracing and you can’t find the bar path you want.

In a normal workout, you’ll just go to the second set of 15 reps and repeat.


Because it is written down on your sheet.  You have to do it to “complete” the workout.

Let me offer an alternative.

That is the old way of doing things.

Auto-regulation and You

You hit a wall and smash into it right?  Or do you absorb the impact and “flow” around it?  Auto-regulation means making “real-time” adjustments in your workout to make each one the most productive it can be.

Like we talked about, each time you go into the gym you must account for the sleep you got the last couple of nights, how intense your last workout was, how your nutrition has been and just basically how you are feeling right now.

You can’t just go into the gym and hit 4 sets of 15 just because that is what you wrote down.  It doesn’t have to be that way and it can’t be that way.

So how does it work?

Let’s say you go into the gym and hit your warm-up and your first set feels horrible.  Think about what the goal of the workout is?  Upper body and strength or lower body conditioning or whatever…  Try to reach that goal a different way OR try to set yourself up to reach your goals for the next workout.

Step away from that exercise and / or workout and find an alternative.

If you were hitting bench press, switch to ring push-ups…

If you were hitting high rep squats, switch to sled dragging…

If you were hitting 85% + of 1RM, switch to 50-70% of 1RM and increase the reps slightly…

Advanced Techniques

If you were hitting high reps of any exercises, lower the reps for each exercise and add in mobility or foam rolling BETWEEN EXERCISES.

Get away from straight sets of one particular exercise and add in a variety of DIFFERENT modalities per set.

Regardless of the techniques you use, the purpose of this article is to show you that 4×15 does not mean 4×15.

Adjust, adapt and improve.

Jim Smith, CSCS

movarrowDownload your FREE advanced auto-regulation ebook HERE

movarrowLeave a comment and let me know how you like the ebook!!!



3.  Frost and Wong.  The Power of the Dragon, Aug. 2002.


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6 Responses to “Be Like Water”

  1. Bill Jones Says:

    I like this. Course it could be because I haven’t followed any “rules” for the past 2 years. “Goals” change…Love the site! Thanks for the info!!

  2. Adam L Says:

    Thanks for the ebook. It has some good tips and workouts in there. I never thought to foam roll or SMR between sets might try that one out today.

  3. Mike T Nelson Says:

    Hi there Smitty!

    I LOVE the idea of autoregulation and it is sooooo key. No question!

    The trick is to know WHEN to do WHAT. Without some form of testing, only advanced trainers (at best) can figure out which direction to go in and when.

    While perception can help, many times it will not lead you in the correct direction. I know we all have had days it was very hard to get to the gym, warmups were slow, but it turned into one of the best sessions ever.

    If you test, you can literally get a PR every session in the gym. Sure, their will be a few days when you are spent, but they will be extremely rare.

    Doing joint mobility drills between sets is key too. I am not as much of a fan of SMR since many people do it in pain and pain is bad for performance (in general).

    Rock on
    Mike T Nelson PhD(c)

  4. tnthudson Says:

    Good stuff, a little twist on AMD, I like it.
    I foam roll now before treadmill workouts (especially if I’ve done squats recently), it helps VERY much.
    Thanks again

  5. Guy Says:

    Thanks man, good stuff as always.

  6. Diesel Crew – Muscle Building, Athletic Development, Strength Training, Grip Strength » Blog Archive » Preparing for Max Effort Attempts Says:

    […] Set 4:  225lbs x 3-6 (this one is the turning point, if they set feels really good, hit 6 reps, if you still need more prep, only hit for 3 reps, auto-regulation) […]

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