From the Archives : Bruce Lee's Back Injury

What really happened?

Bruce LeeFor as long as I can remember I've been a Bruce Lee fan. Looking around here I can see piles of books, magazines, films and assorted paraphernalia relating to the man himself. I can't get enough of the stuff.

This piece was one of the first major articles I wrote for this site. After three years of training there are surprisingly few changes I've made to my routine as a result of the injury. In fact, the only changes I'd suggest are :

Bruce Lee's back injury

Any time I'm out of action - even for a day or two - I find myself watching Bruce Lee films. Probably as it heightens the difference between my own situation and the near-perfect physical control he was well known for.

Following an email I received the other day I grew a little curious as to the nature of the back injury he sustained during his weight training. Watching any of the work he did following 'recovery' (he suffered chronic back pain for the remainder or his life) it's hard to believe he injured himself at all.

Here's what seems to have happened :

On Aug 13, 1970 Lee was performing Good Mornings with 60kg / 135lb - his bodyweight at the time - and was completing his first set of 8 (he usually did 2 sets) without sufficiently warming up when he heard a loud popping sound, and dropped the weighted bar. For several days he tried heat treatments and massage, until the steadily increasing pain forced him to seek medical advice.

He had severely damaged a 4th sacral nerve (diagram of spinal nerve locations), and it was unlikely that he would ever be able to kick again; in fact walking unaided was in doubt. He was forced to rest, and for the next six months he spent most of his time either lying or sitting up reading from his extensive library. During this time he also designed a bed which would afford him greater comfort in his injured state.

Eventually he resumed teaching and training, not because he was fully healed, but simply as he felt he had given himself enough time and was unable to refrain from his active life any longer. He would suffer chronic back pain for the remainder of his life, and began taking marijuana as this helped numb the pain. In his films from this point on he used a stunt double for somersaults (seen in both Fist of Fury and Enter the Dragon).

Thoughts on this :

Reading about this injury actually makes me want to incorporate more low back work into my own training routine, and certainly doesn't dissuade me from using Good Mornings to their fullest extent. As with any exercise, Good Mornings are only dangerous if performed incorrectly (which may be due to tiredness or a brief loss of concentration, as much as poor technique); although there is a little more at stake than with other exercises such as a Barbell Curl.

NB : I am well aware that he is not performing Good Mornings in the above photograph.

Further reading

Warm Marble: The lethal physique of Bruce Lee
John Little

A thoroughly researched and well-written article which provides an insight into Lee's weight training career, a subject often overlooked in Bruce Lee biographies.

The Equipment Manager
George Lee

George Lee (no relation) was a good friend and student of Bruce, and being a machinist by trade was often asked by Bruce to build custom training items which Bruce himself had designed. These included both weight training and martial arts training equipment.

EXRX (Exercise Prescription) : Barbell Good Morning

Correct technique for this exercise, and the muscles involved.

Bruce Lee: Fighting Spirit
Bruce Thomas

This is an excellent biography of Bruce Lee, and certainly one of the more thorough of the many available. A great place to start if you're looking to find out more about the man than the legend.

Bruce Lee - A Warrior's Journey

This documentary is most often bundled with the Enter the Dragon DVD, and is far more accurate - if less complete - than many other documentaries covering the life and film career of Bruce Lee.

The Art of Expressing the Human Body

Another book which makes excellent reading is The Art of Expressing the Human Body. I picked this up a couple of years ago, and was amazed that such a high quality work was not already sitting on my shelf. Essential reading for anyone interested in Bruce Lee's weight training workouts.

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Scott Andrew Bird

Scott Andrew Bird is a writer, photographer and a guy who just loves this stuff. He's been at home in front of a computer for more years than he cares to remember (OK, 35) and is now making amends for years of many mistakes noted in the De-constructing Computer Guy articles (part 2) on T-Nation.

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Bruce Lee's Back Injury.

What really happened?

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