Airman fit to become Bruce Lee
Emil Lewis stared at his 5’8”, 190-pound, 31-year-old image in the mirror. A familiar face with an unfamiliar body stared back. For the first time in his life, he was overweight and out of shape. Slow, incremental lifestyle choices had caused him to steadily gain weight, culminating in a check-up where a doctor exclaimed that he “had the lungs of a six-year-old.”
It’s a familiar story: First, a sedentary job, then a kind wife, then a bulging stomach with what men prefer to call love handles. It escalates quickly.
Staring in the mirror that day, Lewis decided to do something about it.
Unlike the majority of people who make the same resolution, he stuck with it. Now, seven months later, Lewis boasts the best shape of his life. He’s down 45 pounds and accomplishing feats such as one-handed, two-finger push-ups and kicking his own shoulder.
After an initial four-month regimen of diet and exercise in which he lost 40 pounds, Lewis began a project he calls “Becoming Bruce Lee”: an experiment and challenge to get as close as possible to the martial arts master’s physical fitness within two months.
During that time, Lewis followed Lee’s exercise routines and diet and worked towards accomplishing Lee’s famous physical feats. To understand the extent of this commitment, it is necessary to understand both the normalcy of Lewis and the extremity of Lee.
Emil Lewis is a fairly normal chap. Born and raised in California, he met and married his Korean wife several years after joining the Air Force at age 18. He is not extreme or uncompromising, has an easy laugh, lacks affected airs, and has a mannered demeanor well past his years. During email correspondence he uses the formal “Mr. ____” long after being called by his first name. His day job as a translator in the Air Force has a low fitness requirement and he doesn’t work out at a gym, preferring body weight exercises at home and a nearby school. Unlike most fitness fanatics who seem to use fitness as compensation for other shortcomings, Lewis is easy-going, confident and doesn’t seem to need to show off. During our interview, rather than wearing a tight shirt (the uniform of insecure fitness-types), Lewis opted for a clean, loose-fitting t-shirt. He did, however, wear loose-fitting, well-worn martial arts pants.
Bruce Lee was (and still is) the epitome of Asian male masculinity. He dominated the martial arts industry, both on stage and in the ring. Through a severe regimen of exercise and nutrition, and a philosophy of adaptation, Lee became, indisputably, one of the most influential martial artists of all time.
He was not only skilled technically in martial arts, but believed the martial artists of his time didn’t emphasize physical conditioning enough. He practiced all kinds of fitness including cardiovascular endurance, muscular strength, muscular endurance and flexibility. He could perform such feats as 50 one-armed chin-ups and could extend, with one arm, a 75-pound barbell from his chest, straight out, to a perpendicular position with his body, and hold it for several seconds. When asked who would win in a fight between them, even the omnipotent Chuck Norris once hastily replied: “Bruce of course. Nobody can beat him.”
Lee also focused on “the correct fuel,” avoiding refined flour, dairy, overeating and empty calories. He preferred Chinese food, fruits and vegetables, and took copious amounts of dietary supplements and protein drinks. He once famously said: “It’s not the daily increase but daily decrease. Hack away at the unessential.”
Like a child looking up from the base of Mt. Everest, Lewis could not have chosen a loftier goal. He had no formal martial arts background. Of course, the goal was not to actually become Bruce Lee in two months, but to use him as a muse. Lee was not only a severe fighter, but a teacher and philosopher, and is an ongoing fountain of inspiration. Lewis has long looked up to Lee as a mentor and guide and has studied many of his books and films.
While Lewis isn’t a fighter, he didn’t have to be one to appreciate and envy Lee’s physical prowess.
Lewis’ exercise and nutrition regimen was extreme. He cut out most carbs and meats, and even experimented with a noxious smoothie of steak, peanut butter and milk. Daily, after an hour of stretching, he worked extensively with a punching bag, performing at least 1,000 punches and 200 kicks. He performed weight training several days a week, ran two to four miles a day, and practiced with nunchaku. Just as Bruce Lee advocated an adaptable approach to learning, or “the style of no style,” Lewis both practiced Lee’s exercises and developed his own. Near the end he even started experimenting with gymnastics.
Throughout the project, Lewis faced setbacks.
As with any drastic lifestyle change, friends and family were initially confused and concerned. Lewis normally enjoys a social drink, but throughout the challenge he cut back on socializing to maintain his nutrition and exercise plan. Most often, he simply declined requests to go out. (As stated earlier, however, Lewis is not a completely uncompromising man and broke his diet on one occasion for a visiting friend.) He also suffered from the problem of plateau. In any improvement, progress seems to come in spurts, and the plateaus can be depressing places. Without any direction but the films and books of a 40-years-deceased instructor, Lewis often questioned his techniques and wondered if he were making the correct improvements.
With martial arts having no part in his day job, the concept of going to work in an office and coming home to train for four or more hours a day almost has a “Fight Club” (1999) essence to it. In the film, a discontent office worker forms a fight club to escape from his daily, monotonous, prison-like existence. With this predicament, some people start fight clubs. Some people fight digital dragons. Emil Lewis trains with nunchaku.
Lewis won’t win any martial arts competitions for a while, but that’s not the point.It’s easy to lose sight of goals amidst the day-to-day inertia of a comfortable routine. Lewis got mired in it for a bit, but unlike most, he sprinted (four miles a day) out of it.
What did Lewis accomplish? As he says, he is “by far the most fit I’ve ever been.” Now, he alternates jogging and sprinting miles on his four-mile runs, can easily perform two-finger one-handed push-ups, and has to be careful not to kick himself in the head. As he progressed through the challenge, not only did his skills and fitness increase, but his desire increased as well. After one particularly grueling period that he called Bruce Lee Boot Camp, he stated, “Strangely enough, the result of the boot camp series actually made me want to work out more... I feel greater than ever.” Lewis admits the program is not sustainable in the long run, but he is committed to maintaining a healthy lifestyle with exercise and proper nutrition.
Around midway through the challenge, Lewis found himself at a local sports store, staring at a kung fu uniform. He wondered what place it might have in his modern lifestyle: “Will I be laughed at? Will this help anything? ” His wife wondered why it was so expensive. After some consideration, he bought it, and never regretted it. His wife agreed. When he first tried it on, she told him it looked good. But not only did it look good, it kept Lewis from having to go through two changes of clothes a day, and he said it felt great when he was stretching and exercising. But there was another benefit: “I felt good,” Lewis said when he first put it on, “I felt motivated. I felt like I had a purpose.”
To read more and see home videos about Emil Lewis’s Becoming Bruce Lee challenge, go to becomingbrucelee.com.