Within culture there are iconic figures. There are those who do things that imprint them forever in history. They are real people who achieve iconic status. Then there are those fictional characters that make such an impact on culture that they too assume the same iconic status just as if they were real.
Upon the eve of the 40th anniversary of one of cinemas most iconic characters ever we will look at the fictional underdog that became a cultural icon. Rocky Balboa.
In 1975 a struggling actor and writer witnessed an event that would change his life. It would remove him from utter poverty and create an icon of American culture. If that was not enough, it would also bring about a fitness icon that would inspire for decades to come.
The event was a boxing match held March 24th 1975 at the Richfield Coliseum in Ohio.
A fighter who was considered to never have a chance by the name of Chuck Wepner towed the line with who many consider the greatest to ever stand in a square ring. That opponent was the legendary Muhammad Ali. Wepner stunned the world by going the distance with Ali only being knocked down in the final minute of the fifteenth. There was also a much debated knockdown of Ali by Wepner.
Now that struggling actor I mentioned before was a young Sylvester Stallone. After witnessing the Ali-Wepner fight on TV he became inspired. Sly, as his friends call him, went into a three and a half day caffeine filled writing exile. What came out of that exile was what would become an icon, ROCKY.
Now pardon the pun, but unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past four decades you have seen or at the very least heard of Rocky. The inspirational story of a down and out fighter who not only gets the chance of his life to face the world heavyweight champ, but to last the distance. Stallone himself admits that his conditioning for the film was far from where it should have been. This was all the more apparent when matched with Carl Weathers who even before the film, showcased a conditioned body that looked like it came from Mt. Olympus.
Cue Bill Conti’s Gonna Fy Now.
Forget all the fitness videos and shows that have ever existed. Rocky training montages are some of the best fitness training sessions ever put to film. So, grab a glass of raw eggs and let’s examine these masterful montages of fitness fury.
A hard living boxer gets the chance of a lifetime. With the help of his grizzled old trainer Mickey, he shocks the world. Rocky features some great old school techniques.
- Rocky downs a cocktail of raw eggs then goes for an early morning run in a freezing Philadelphia. His path takes him through a scrap yard while punching with bricks in his hands.
- He tenderizes a frozen side of beef with a fury of combinations.
- He does alternating one arm pushups in the ring.
- A trainer at the gym slams a medicine ball into his abdomen.
- And what montage wouldn’t be complete without running up the steps of Philadelphia’s Art Museum, now known as Rocky steps.
ROCKY II 1979
When his feat is called a fluke by Creed, Rocky much to the dismay of his wife enters the ring again. This time he contends with a bad eye and Mickey’s insistence that he learns to fight right handed to confuse Creed.
*In reality the right-handed stance was a last-minute addition as Stallone suffered an injury during training and utilized this plot device to compensate for it.
- Rocky beats scarp metal with a sledge hammer (a surprisingly great strength & cardio workout).
- He does one handed pull-ups on a jungle gym.
- Handing off a medicine ball behind the back to the same guy who slammed it into his stomach.
- Lateral raises with what look to be 30 pound dumbbells, likely heavier.
- Hopping through the park with a six foot log across his shoulders
- Sits ups as that same guy slaps his stomach. Man, this guy loves midsection abuse.
- Working a heavy bag with his dominant arm tied to his torso to strengthen his support arm
- Chasing and catching a chicken
- And more Rocky steps, followed by half of Philadelphia’s youth population.
ROCKY III 1982
Rocky now in the grips of fame learns to live it up and in essence loses his gritty edge. After a fiasco PR infused training regimen to prepare for a fight, Mickey dies as Rocky falls by the hands of a street brawler who is raw strength personified (check out Mr. T’s conditioning). His old foe Apollo Creed brings him to Los Angeles to “train old”. (Get back that gritty underdog edge)
- Gone are the steps, now replaced by running on a California beach. As if walking on sand wasn’t hard enough.
- Hours of intricate footwork and balance training in a cave like gym.
- Swimming laps in a pool (with a name like Rock)
- Working a speed bag and double ended bag at the speed of light
It should be noted that Rocky III shows Sly so lean and ripped it’s safe to say a glass of water has more fat in it than he did at this time. While the path to this condition wasn’t healthy, it’s hard to deny the results. Personally, I feel his best conditioning came three years later.
ROCKY IV 1985
Apollo Creed (how I love that name) dies in the ring at the hands of a genetically gifted and scientifically enhanced soviet powerhouse, Ivan Drago. Rocky eyes Drago with such a cold look that Drago should have dropped dead from fear right on the spot.
If you thought Mickey’s training was old school, or Apollo took Rocky through the ringer, you’ve seen nothing. Apollo’s trainer Duke (the late great Tony Burton) takes over to train Rocky. The following workouts would surly built immense brute strength.
- Rocky runs through near knee-high snow in subzero temperatures.
- He pulls an overturned horse and cart out of a snow bank
- He saws and chops wood in the same subzero cold.
- He loads a sled with large rocks, then bear crawls through snow, tied to the sled with Paulie sitting in it.
- He walks through knee high snow with a log across his shoulders. Possibly Rocky II’s log.
- Hanging sit-ups from a barn hayloft ledge
- Doing a deadlift power clean with a cart holding Adrian, Paulie and Tony. Estimated weight 600 pounds not including horse cart.
- And the best and most brutal, the dragon flag. If you don’t know this involves having nothing but your shoulders and upper back on a surface while your lower half is in the air. You lower your body just low enough to have a few inches clearance to the surface, hold then raise. This is possibly the most brutal ab workout ever and makes sit ups look like sitting.
And just to prove that age is irrelevant while the above link shows Stallone doing this in 1985, here he is still doing it in 2011.
ROCKY V 1990
Having lost everything in a bad business deal, Rocky returns to the inner city and trains a young prospect. While Rocky has no worthy training routines in here, especially compared to the masterpiece that was Rocky IV’s montage, he does have a brutal street fight.
I’ll just take a moment to factor in how his past as a street brawler and his years of training allowed him to floor a raged opponent at least fifteen years his junior with substantial size on him.
And what was more inspirational than Mickey’s ghost yelling “Get up you son of a bitch”
ROCKY BALBOA 2006
After a computerized fight (in the vein of the Ali/Marciano Super Fight) suggests Rocky could beat the current champion, Rocky is pulled out of retirement to prove he still has it. While Rocky is suggested to be in his 50’s it should be noted that Sly was in fact sixty at the time of production.
- Rocky returns to the streets, including the outdoor market to run.
- Old school bodybuilding staples like the bench press, squat and deadlift
- Lateral raises with heavy chains
- Alternating pushups on a medicine ball
- Kettlebell snatches
- Beating truck tires with a sledgehammer
- Lifting a keg overhead and slamming it to the floor
- Walking while throwing hooks with dumbbells
- A clean and jerk with what looks like 270
- A return to tenderizing beef
- And the finale on the famous Rocky steps.
So to conclude Rocky has given us forty years’ worth of the most intense, brutal and inspirational training sessions ever. What is unique about theses sessions is a lot of the exercises are meant to built a diverse brute strength. Let’s examine the diversity in a few
- Rocky III– Running in sand and swimming were new to Rocky. Despite years of training these new methods would challenge different muscles and build endurance. Changing his routing allowed him to build speed. While Clubber Lang’s training was more old school bodybuilding and boxing, Rocky’s increased endurance defeated the stronger brawler.
- Rocky IV– The training in this movie is great. You see how each exercise Rocky does translates to the more orthodox training of Drago. However, Rocky’s approach allows him to utilize different and even neglected muscles. He is able to access wider range of motions and build strength. In reality this was a brilliant approach as Rocky had to be able to wear down a much stronger opponent.
- Rocky Balboa– It is stressed in the film that Rocky’s age and wear and tear is no match for a conditioned athlete in his prime. The training he goes through is not to build speed or overcome the youth of Dixon. These were strictly power building exercises.
If you or anyone has ever watched a Rocky film and not punched the air at least once you’re lying. The Rocky franchise has spawned a long line of fitness fanatics and inspired the generation of muscled up tough guys. It’s a safe bet that any professional fighter first laced up a set of gloves because he saw a Rocky film.
Rocky teaches us that no matter where we come from we can triumph. We don’t need a fancy health club to get fit. The training montages are real, raw, and a challenge to anyone watching.
Sylvester Stallone has long been an inspiration to me. He showed me the world of fitness and is the reason I started working out. It was my love of these movies and being a fan of Sly that inspired me to lose over 50 pounds. One of the best moments of my life was being on set during production of Rocky Balboa. I personally witnessed the energy and determination of Sly (age 60 at the time). Here he was running between a camera and the ring going over scenes and choreographing punches. In a twelve-hour day, he didn’t rest.
To witness Rocky, an American icon in the ring doing what he does best was an amazing experience. And furthermore, watching the man who decades earlier sat in that tiny room writing away giving his creation a sendoff with pride and glory.
Besides the Rocky films Sylvester Stallone has showcased impressive conditioning in other films such as the Rambo franchise, and most recently in The Expendables where he showed a physique that put guys thirty and forty years his junior to shame.
A big goal of mine is to one day thank Sylvester Stallone for getting me into fitness and to hopefully get the chance to join him in the gym.