It’s almost a prerequisite nowadays for an actor to shed fat and pack on slabs of muscle in order to become everything from superheroes to Jedi to whatever flesh-and-blood action figure Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson is playing this month. But these Hollywood physique transformations aren’t a recent phenomenon.
While musclemen have always appeared in movies, they typically involved bodybuilders who became actors with their bulk already built. It wasn’t until the late 1970s and early 1980s that the reverse began to take hold as trained actors began transforming their physiques using bodybuilding principles.
Some may credit Arnold Schwarzenegger for leading the charge in this regard, but he was already a bodybuilder when he first got into movies. No, if you want to pinpoint the man who truly popularized this trend, look no further than Schwarzenegger’s fellow Planet Hollywood batterymate, Sylvester Stallone.
From 1976, when the first Rocky movie premiered, through 1988, when the original rambo series came to a close, Stallone was the poster child for physique transformations, thanks to some extreme dieting and a dedicated workout routine devised by a former Mr. Olympia winner. In the process, he helped redefine the Hollywood action hero and still serves as the model for the genre today.
Sylvester Stallone was far from the first muscled-up physique on screen. Eugen Sandow, the man many credit as the first modern bodybuilder, appeared in a series of short silent films by Thomas Edison in the 1890s. Likewise, physical culture historians David Chapman and John Fair recently published an entire book on the subject called Muscles in the Movieswhich makes it clear that both Hollywood and European cinema have long used muscular men — and, at times, women — in early action/adventure films.
There is a distinction that is needed here, however. As Chapman and Fair make clear, these muscle-bound heroes were either involved in sports in some capacity or were early bodybuilders and strength athletes beforehand. Take Annette Kellerman, a professional swimmer from the 1910s and 1920s, who many view as the first athletic woman movie star.
We also have Steve Reeves, whose Hercules movies of the 1950s and 1960s were among the first instances of a bodybuilder as the main focus of a movie. Reg Park, another leading bodybuilder of the 1950s and 1960s, likewise appeared as Hercules in a number of films in the 1960s.
Stallone also wasn’t the first individual to employ weight training in preparing for a role. Legendary fitness trainer, Vince Gironda, was known as the “Trainer to the Stars” during the 1970s and 1980s for his success in helping countless actors get lean and healthy for roles.
Oftentimes, however, these “transformations” were more for weight loss than muscle gain, and there weren’t many bodybuilding programs to be found on their itinerary. Stallone, however, was a trailblazer as one of the first high-profile actors — as opposed to an athlete or bodybuilder — to dramatically bulk up for a role in a way that rivaled a true-blue physique competitor.
Success didn’t come easily for Stallone. Early in his career, he typically only landed bit parts as a generic tough guy in movies like Woody Allen’s bananas (1971) and What’s Up, Doc? (1972) before landing a larger role in the low-budget The Lords of Flatbush from 1974. Still, it wasn’t enough to bring him to the A list.
Then, as the legend goes, he wrote the original screenplay for Rocky in 1975 following the Muhammad Ali vs. Chuck Wepner boxing match, which saw a very unfancied Wepner go 15 rounds in an impressive loss to the heavyweight champ.
Bringing the screenplay from studio to studio, the struggling Stallone insisted on being the lead, despite the resistance from executives. Eventually, a home was found for Rocky at United Artists, and it became a breakout success, winning Oscars and smashing box office records. Rocky was followed by Rocky II (1979), Rocky III (1982), Rocky IV (1985), and Rocky V (1990) before being rebooted and reimagined in the 2010s.
Stallone dabbled in weightlifting well before Rocky, but he doubled down on training for his first outing as the iconic pugilist. This only improved for Rocky II, when he showed up on screen far more muscular and leaner than before. Turns out, that was but a precursor to what he achieved in Rocky III and Rocky IV.
In these installments, the actor sported paper-thin skin, with rippling muscles coiled in pulsating veins running throughout his arms and chest. Glazed in sweat, Stallone’s struggles — whether mid-match or during an iconic training montage — were relatable to the burgeoning bodybuilding culture of the 1980s.
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As the late bodybuilding historian Peter McGough explained, Stallone’s physique transformations in these movies were so impactful because the actor trained himself believably on camera. The character seemed to transform physically as the series progressed, mirroring Stallone’s own training tweaks and improvements over the years.
“So like us, he was a [work in progress],” McGough wrote. “We also identified with his goals of meeting physical targets through hard work and dedication.”
on to rambo
In between the Rocky installments, Stallone’s rambo franchise was also gaining steam. Though the actor was clearly muscular in 1982’s First Bloodhe took it to another level in 1985’s First Blood: Part II and 1988’s Rambo III. His physique had reached comic book proportions by this point, with a chiseled chest, wide shoulders, and one of the most legendary backs in movie history.
During the media promotion for both franchises, Stallone’s body was a constant talking point in the press. Interviews with the actor and his trainers popped up in newspapers and magazines at the time, going into detail on how often he hit the gym and how much plain grilled chicken it took to turn him into a muscle-up icon.
Though this type of stuff is commonplace now, his diet and training program got as much attention as the movies themselves.
How Did Sylvester Stallone Train for Rocky and rambo?
Throughout the Rocky franchise, Stallone’s prep was a mixture of legitimate boxing training, cardio, and bodybuilding — but things were a little more humble in the beginning. Around the release of the first movie in 1976, The New York Times detailed a fairly stripped-down training plan when compared to later installments:
“The 5-foot-10-inch, 175-pound actor, who had never had any formal boxing instruction, went into training six hours a day for five months before Rocky began filming. He got up at dawn to run five miles on the beach, shadow-boxed around the apartment, and worked out at a gym, where he punched the punching bag, did pushups, and had a medicine ball thrown into his stomach.”
After the movie became a hit, Stallone’s career started to take shape — literally. He began training with bodybuilder Rudy Hermosillo, who won the 1978 Teen Mr. America. Then he got in touch with the 1976 Mr. Olympia winner, Franco Columbu, to bring his physique to the same level as the best in the bodybuilding world.
As retold by the Sun Sentinel in 1985, Stallone went to Columbu first as a client (Columbu was a chiropractor) and then as a training partner in the lead-up to the Rocky sequels and Rambo II. The work was grueling — Columbu trained the actor for two hours a day, seven days a week. He even went through Stallone’s fridge and tossed any foods that would hinder his progress.
“[Rocky and Rambo are] two different people,” Columbu told the Sun Sentinel. “For Rocky, [Stallone] wanted a lot of stuff in the shoulders and forearms so that when the camera came in [the muscles] really look big.”
For rambo, on the other hand, the goal was simple: “Stallone wanted that working, wiry look. He wanted to look muscular, tight, like a jungle man. We did a lot of stomach work.”
Concrete workout plans from Stallone’s Rocky days are hard to come by, but Columbu did offer insight into how the pair trained for Rambo II. Here is an example of their arm day:
* Note: Though the set count isn’t available, each set typically involves 10 reps.
Conditioning, Conditioning, Conditioning
One big difference between Rocky Balboa and John Rambo is the level of conditioning required. Size was the name of the game for Rambo, and Columbu even said the film’s producers specifically cited the physiques in Muscle & Fitness magazine as the template they were going for.
The “secret sauce” for Stallone’s Rocky transformation, on the other hand, lay in the excessive cardio and caloric restriction he employed to portray a prizefighter. The actor later revealed that his body fat got so low that he says he struggled massively with exhaustion throughout filming.
In a 2017 Instagram post, Stallone wrote about the grueling diet: “During the period, I only ate very small portions of oatmeal cookies made with brown rice and up to 25 cups of coffee a day with honey and a couple of scoops of tuna fish .”
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Rocky III was arguably Stallone at his leanest, with the actor claiming that he weighed 168 pounds and had 2.8% body fat during filming. Compare that with his rambo role, which Columbu estimated was around 195 to 197 pounds.
“I may have looked pretty good on the outside [during Rocky III] but inside it was [a] very dangerous thing to do,” Stallone wrote.
Rocky IV saw a combination of leanness and muscularity, though there is little indication that Stallone changed his preparation for this movie, save for more calories.
Though Stallone rarely reached the physical extremes of Rocky and rambo after the ’80s, he continued to bring an action-hero physique to screens throughout his career, influencing generations of stars afterward. Just look at how Henry Cavill trained with bodybuilder Dave Rienzi to play Superman. Or how actors like Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale bulked up to obscene heights to play Wolverine and Batman, respectively, before shrinking back down to their civilian size once they hung up the tights.
While Schwarzenegger was far more influential in bringing the general public to bodybuilding, Stallone arguably set the mold for later non-bodybuilders to radically change their physiques for big-budget action roles. Though the Rocky and rambo series spawned multiple sequels and raked in hundreds of millions of dollars, their real legacies might rest in the muscular physiques found in countless blockbusters today.
Featured image: @rockymovie and @legend_sylvesterstallone on Instagram