John “Roper” Saxon and the Kettlebell

When I was a kid, a merchant marine friend of my parents gave me a treasured gift, a calendar with scenes from Enter the Dragon. The envy of all of my friends, the calendar stayed on the wall above my desk for years after its expiration. I could never have imagined that decades later I would become friends with Bruce Lee’s co-star.

Bruce Lee and John Saxon in Enter the Dragon.
Bruce Lee and John Saxon in Enter the Dragon.

John Saxon, Bruce Lee, and the Full Circle

John Saxon walked into a bodyweight strength seminar I was teaching at a martial arts school owned by another legend and friend of Bruce Lee—Dan Inosanto. John had been serious about iron since his teens and we quickly hit it off. We started meeting and training on the beach in Santa Monica. Several months of Enter the Kettlebell ladders later, seventy-two-year-old Saxon was strictly pressing a seventy-pounder.

In a most unexpected manner, it all came full circle:

  • Bruce Lee showed John Saxon the kettlebell swing the very first day they met. (An explosive swing with a kime, what today we call the “hardstyle swing.”)
  • A decade later, Bruce Lee’s lethal grace is partly to blame for getting me bitten by the iron bug.
  • Two more decades go by, and I teach kettlebells to “Roper.”

Fast-forward a few more years. Several weeks ago, John generously invited me and my wife to the special fortieth anniversary screening of Enter the Dragon. We got to hear great stories from a panel of people who had made the classic film, as well as Bruce Lee’s daughter. John mentioned Bruce and kettlebells. Bob Wall reminisced about fight scenes. Then the lights went out and the iconic film lit up bigger than life.

I have watched Enter the Dragon a great many times over the years. Different episodes caught my attention when I was a boy, a young man, a man. This time it was this statement:

“Sparta, Rome, the knights of Europe, the samurai… worshipped strength, because it is strength that makes all other values possible. Nothing survives without it. Who knows what delicate wonders have died out of the world, for want of the strength to survive.”

Aren’t you tired of being a “delicate wonder”?

The “Roper” Ladder Workout

Getting strong is not easy—but it is simple. “Ladder” your way up the way “Roper” did:

  1. Pick up a moderate size kettlebell and press it once.
  2. Park, relax a moment, repeat on the other side.
  3. Rest for a few minutes and press the bell twice left, twice right.
  4. Then three, four, and five. The set of five will make you work but it should not be a killer.
  5. Then start over at one.

The secret to success with Russian ladders is starting easy, building up to hard, and starting over easy again (as opposed to pyramiding). A miniature periodization cycle compressed into a single workout. It does not seem that hard in the beginning, but it creeps up on you, especially if you make it to 50 or so total reps.

Russian coaches and scientists are uncompromising—a high volume of quality lifts is the ticket to steady long-term strength gains. It may not be the most exciting approach, but it is nearly foolproof. The Enter the Kettlebell “Rite of Passage” never fails—it is the “delicate wonders” who quit.

Pavel Tsatsouline
Pavel Tsatsouline is the CEO of StrongFirst, Inc.

16 thoughts on “John “Roper” Saxon and the Kettlebell

  • Wow Pavel what a extraordinary experience to go with John Saxon to the 40th anniversary of Enter the Dragon. That would have been a dream come true for me . Good article too Chief. Take me with you to the 50th 😉

  • Hello Pavel,

    Thank you for all your work ! I’ve been following it for several years now, and it is a constant source of learning.

    But there has been also a kind of quandary that I am confronted with, and although I’m not sure it is the proper place to ask you about it, the martial art memory you summon feels kind of right.

    I practice Sistiema (Riabko/Vassiliev style). As you know (I’m simplifying), they emphasise muscle relaxation above all, tension being the main enemy. You emphasise muscle tension. They start every movement by a breath (mostly exhaling). You recommend, if I’m not mistaken, breath holding while performing a difficult physical task.

    Both methods have proven their effectiveness (I think, you’ve already been punched by Riabko and know what I’m referring to), and I guess that both methods have similar sources. And yet, I’m still struggling to make them coexist.

    What would be you’re advice ?

    Thank you very much and all the best.


  • Pavel, that is simply amazing. BTW a neat little side note, in the massive fight scene where Bruce finds out what they are really up to on the island one of the guys he beats the crap out of is none other than… Jackie Chan 🙂 The guy he really smacks the crap out of with the bo staff is jackie. Jackie said he played the hit up for days so Bruce would come talk to him.

  • Possibly the greatest article ever written, My Dad and I would watch Enter the Dragon together when I was 5 years old in Lithuania back when it was the Soviet Union. I remember exactly the scene your talking about!

  • Pavel, so awesome to read your articles and this story is amazing!!!

    The History of John, Bruce coupled with their prowess in martial arts is awe inspiring.

    Today, ironically, all my wrestlers did clean & press ladders coupled with pull up ladders

    Then handstand ladders coupled with Goblet SQ ladders

    Awesome, Awesome, Awesome workout!!!

    Thank You, Pavel!!

  • Great post, Chief. As a girl I remember watching Bruce Lee double and triple features at the local theater with my brothers and being just as awestruck as the boys. Of course we would all pretend to be Ninja’s on the walk home and I believe my older brother even made his own nunchucks. As for ROP, I’ve never been stronger than when on this program. Simple, but not easy.

  • I remember reading about Bruce using Kettlebells in John Little’s “The art of expressing the human body”.
    Amazing blog post, thank you very much Pavel!

  • Got my first kettlebell last week, and man oh man, is this an AWESOME post!
    More of what I need! 🙂

  • Absolutely brilliant. Thank you Pavel. Great timing for me as I’m on week 2 of the ROP. I need to watch this movie again.

  • pavel bruce lee was very strong and very fast but but no one know he study with late ed parker the founder of american kenpo in U.S. once again thank you pavel !

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