A couple months back I had an opportunity to meet Emil Lewis and write a piece on him for Groove Magazine. Emil took on a self made challenge to become as much like Bruce Lee as possible within 60 days. Considering Bruce Lee was sexiness personified, this was a lofty goal. I had a really great time and we did a photoshoot on the roof of my apartment in Haebangchon. I never bothered to read the story in the magazine, but I hear Groove highly edits them. Anyway, I’ve posted my original version down below if you’re interested in his story.
Becoming Bruce Lee
Story and photos by Dustin Cole
Emil Lewis stared at his 5’8”, 190lb, 31-year-old image in the mirror. A familiar face with an unfamiliar body stared back. For the first time in his life, Lewis was overweight and out of shape. Slow, incremental lifestyle choices had caused Lewis to steadily gain weight, culminating in a check up where a doctor exclaimed that Lewis “had the lungs of a six year old”. It’s a familiar story. First, a sedentary job, then a kind wife, then the bulging stomach with what men prefer to call love handles. It escalates quickly. Staring in the mirror that day Lewis did something many people do every morning, he decided to do something about it. Unlike the majority however, he stuck with it. Now, seven months after the mirror encounter, Lewis boasts the best shape of his life. He’s down 45lbs and accomplishing feats such as one-handed two-finger push ups and kicking his own shoulder.
After an initial four month diet, losing 40lbs in four months through dieting and exercise, Lewis began a project he calls Becoming Bruce Lee: an experiment and challenge to get as close as possible to Bruce Lee’s physical fitness within two months. During the two months Lewis followed Bruce Lee’s exercise routines, dietary guidelines, and worked towards 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 Bruce 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 31 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 an unnecessarily tight shirt (the uniform of insecure fitness types), Lewis opted for a clean loose-fitted t-shirt. He did however wear iconic, 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, Bruce Lee became, indisputably, one of the most influential martial artists of all time.
Bruce Lee was not only skilled technically in martial arts, but he believed martial artists of his time didn’t emphasize physical conditioning enough. Lee practiced all kinds of fitness including cardiovascular endurance, muscular strength, flexibility, and muscular endurance. He could perform such feats as 50 one-armed chin ups and could extend, with one arm, a 75lb 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 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. Bruce Lee 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, Emil Lewis could not have chosen a loftier goal. Lewis had had no formal martial arts background. But of course the goal was not to actually become Bruce Lee in two months, but to use Bruce Lee 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 Bruce Lee as a mentor and guide and has studied many of Lee’s books and films. While Lewis isn’t a fighter, one doesn’t have to be to appreciate and envy Bruce Lee’s physical prowess.
Lewis’s 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 one hour of stretching, he worked extensively with a punching bag, performing at least 1000 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 Bruce Lee’s exercises and developed his own. Near the end he even started experimenting with gymnastics.
Throughout the project Lewis faced some 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 was forced to cut back on socializing to maintain his nutrition and exercise. 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.
What did he accomplish? As he says, he is “by far the most fit I’ve ever been”. Now Lewis 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 his head. As he progressed through the challenge, not only did his skills and fitness increase, but his desire to 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 is committed to maintaining a healthy lifestyle with exercise and proper nutrition.
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 essence to it. In Fight Club, Edward Norton plays a discontent office worker who forms a fight club to escape from his daily monotonous prison-life. 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.
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 is it so expensive?” After some consideration he bought it, and never regretted it. “You look good”, Lewis’s wife said as he first tried it on. But not only did it look good, It kept Lewis from having to go through two changes of clothes a day, and felt great when stretching and exercising. “I felt good,” said Lewis 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.