How Sylvester Stallone Has Adapted His Training Over The Years
On his 72nd birthday, much like any other day, Sylvester Stallone hit the gym.
Actually, allow me to rephrase that.
He didn’t just hit the gym. He demolished it.
One of the biggest action stars of all time, Sly is renowned for his impeccable physique. Even throughout his 60’s, he took on roles which required him to be in great shape all year round.
At the moment, Sly is back in training for the action movie double-header of Rambo V and The Expendables 4, and he’s taking no prisoners in the weights room as he sets about unveiling yet another muscular masterpiece on the big screen.
In this comprehensive piece of content, he discusses the various adaptations he has made to his training routine though the years.
Stallone’s Unparalleled Drive
Those infamous Rocky training montages could have been based on Sly’s real-life preparation for each role.
“I have never seen any man work as hard as this guy to get in shape for a movie role,” recalled Richard Crenna, who famously played Col. Trautman opposite Stallone in the Rambo series.
“He would train in the morning before we arrived to work, do long shoots with the crew, go for runs along the beach while the rest of the cast were taking a time out, and often go back to the gym again after dark.”
Stallone’s drive and determination are unparalleled.
- This is the same guy who filmed the Rocky II fight scene after accidentally dropping a 220lb weight on himself in the gym.
- The same man who damaged his heart pulling a bag of rocks during the Rocky IV training montage.
- The same guy who broke his neck filming a fight scene in The Expendables.
- The same man who hit the hanging meat in Rocky so frantically, he flattened out his knuckles – get him to make a fist today, and you can still see the damage!
After reading about how he has transformed his workout routine as he grew older, you’ll also get the chance to take on some of Sly’s craziest workouts, each from different stages of his career.
The only thing they have in common is that none of them are easy.
So prepare for a bumpy ride, as we discuss what exactly Sly puts himself through in the gym. If you had respect for the man before, prepare to take it to a whole new level…
The First Transformation
From an academic standpoint, Sly will always be remember for the original Rocky.
But talk to any gym rat and they’ll reference his physique during a different era – Rocky III through to Rambo III (1981 – 1988).
During this time, he embodied the classic 1980’s “action hero”.
Sly’s first radical physical transformation took place between Rocky II and Rocky III.
Back then, he trained with bodybuilding legend Franco Columbo.
The sport of bodybuilding was gaining popularity at the time, and Stallone was a keen fan. With Columbo’s help, he shed the strong-but-stocky look of the early Rocky movies for a bronzed, bodybuilding-style appearance which he carried forward for the rest of his 80’s prime.
“Man, back in those days I would do literally anything and everything to burn more fat,” recalls Sly.
“I wanted to get as lean as possible. I’d would go for long morning cardio which usually consisted of jogging or swimming, then do about 18 rounds of sparring in the ring for Rocky, then I’d hit the gym for about two hours.
And this is all while I was writing, directing and starring in a movie. Yeah, I didn’t sleep too much!”
That’s because Sly was on a mission to create the best physique the movie screen had ever seen circa 1981.
His only problem? The massive Arnold Schwarzenegger, looming large in the background as he set out on his own Hollywood journey…
While action stars today can rustle themselves into shape without having to be concerned about competing against a seven-time Mr. Olympia champion, Sly did not have such luxuries.
He knew that if he was going to be able to stand out and carry forward the momentum of his early movies, he’d need to work his a** off in the weights room.
“I drew up a plan to help Sylvester strip away as much fat as possible, and he achieved some fantastic results from our short time together. You can see those results on display in the movie”, recalls Columbo.
“He is an achiever. He never sits back and waits for things to happen. He’s the one out there making them happen!”
During this time, they used a classic bodybuilding two-a-day split routine, which consisted of:
(Also, please bear in mind the mind-boggling additional cardio work he was doing alongside this.)
“Training was never a problem. Sly was very competitive and easy for me to motivate.
I was still competing, and was stronger than him on most lifts, but not by very much! So if I tried to lift a heavy weight ten times, he would then step up and try to get at least seven reps with the same weight. Then I’d go for fifteen reps, and he’d force himself to reach at least ten.
Training was a lot of fun!
I knew that, by constantly leading the way and adding more reps and more weight, he would naturally do the same. By the end of our training, he was curling 70lb dumbbells!”
Sly confirmed he added about 10lbs to his frame during the six weeks he trained with Franco for Rocky III, and those results were well documented in the final movie.
“You should have seen how strong he got while we trained together,” adds Franco. “He gained about 10lbs, but his waist was very small at around 29 inches. When we started our training, he had a 44 inch chest and 16 1/2 inch arms. Six weeks later and his chest measured 50 inches with 18 inch arms.
Most of the time we trained instinctively, dropping exercises which we felt were no longer working and pushing harder on those that were.
Here’s the thing with Sly, though, the more results he saw, the harder he trained.”
If you’re wondering why there are workouts dedicated entirely to abs, it’s because every time they trained abs they’d make sure to hit a 1000 rep circuit consisting of:
- lying leg raises
- ab crunches
- side leg raises
- dumbbell side bends
“I would sometimes say let’s add three more sets, for a joke, but Sly would just immediately agree and do them!”
Of course, it wasn’t all good news.
During his preparation for Rocky III, Stallone dropped his body fat percentage to a potentially dangerous 2.9%.
This earned him a place in the Guinness Book of World Records, but the lifestyle was very unsustainable and led to Sly feeling like a zombie on set.
“During that period, I only ate very small portions of oatmeal cookies made with brown rice, a couple of scoops of tuna fish, and about 25 cups of coffee per day,” recalls Stallone.
“I may have looked pretty good on the outside, but inside it was a very dangerous thing to do. But I wanted that movie to be about change, how people have to adapt to different challenges, because if they don’t they will be conquered.
Getting smashed by the super strong Mr. T for four months of rehearsals tends to wear a person out, and I’d go to the corner between rounds, when I wasn’t directing, and do handstands to try to get some blood back to my head so I could carry on with the complicated fight choreography.
It’s funny, I never knew this picture existed!”
His Greatest Physique..?
1985 was a massively successful year for Sylvester Stallone.
He hit cinemas with the huge double-whammy of Rambo: First Blood Part II and the Christmas release of Rocky IV.
Believe it or not, the latter was still the highest grossing sports movie of all time until as recently as 2010!
Many believe the physique he achieved in 1985 to be the finest displayed in any action movie ever made, and it’s no coincidence…
“I always worked harder whenever I had a new Rocky or Rambo movie coming up,” explains Sly.
“I was in a war with myself. My physique had to top the last one. I remember I used to have a machine which would have steps, like an escalator (today known as a StepMill), and I would pile 50lbs of weights onto my back and just climb those endless stairs!”
But how could he top the 2.9% body fat he achieved for Rocky III?
Instead, Sly went for a more well-built, muscular physique this time around.
However, that doesn’t mean his diet wasn’t insane again…
“I was so unhealthy. I even went through a period where all I ate was burnt toast! Burnt toast!!
I looked great for a little while, and it’s probably my best physique in Rocky IV, but what you didn’t see on camera is that I was quite literally running my body into the ground, and you can’t live like that.
These days I have learned how to look after myself and keep on top of my nutrition without all the crazy stuff I used to do, and that’s definitely the approach I’d advise other people to take. Above all else, be healthy.”
While training for Rocky IV, Dolph Lundgren joined Sly as he returned to Franco Columbo for assistance in carving the super-ripped physique which eventually made the final cut of the movie.
(No, unfortunately he didn’t actually train in a barn like the movie. And while I’m on the topic of shattering your childhood, the movie wasn’t even shot in Russia, it was shot in Wyoming, Canada.)
“Sly told me he wanted to be in even better shape for that sequel, than the 2.9% body fat we achieved for the previous one!”, Columbo explained.
“If he had seriously wanted to become a bodybuilder I’m convinced he had the capacity to have been a great champion in the sport.
I mean, he had all the right ingredients.”
The production of the movie didn’t go off without a hitch, of course.
While filming the now legendary Rocky IV training montage, Sly damaged his heart performing overhead triceps extensions with a bag of heavy rocks. Production of the movie was shut down for almost two months in order to prevent a possible heart attack.
It was during this time (late 1984 and early 1985) that Sly began to adapt his training style, spicing up his bodybuilding routine with newer methods like high intensity interval training and circuit training.
Many of the workouts from this era consist of what I call HIRT (high intensity resistance training), where Sly would move from one station to another, performing weighted exercises with minimal rest until he had nothing left in the tank.
Indeed, Stallone was one of the early pioneers of what is known today as HIIT.
He managed to maintain this look for 1986’s Cobra, but 1988’s Rambo III was the final movie where Stallone carried this insane training regimen.
Arnold Schwarzenegger was now enjoying a healthy rivalry with Stallone, and the classic bodybuilding physique was definitely in. Stallone decided to bulk Rambo up, carrying more size than he’d displayed in any of his roles to date.
Sly’s bodybuilder-esque physique peaked in Rambo III, and the training program for this movie saw him drop down to 155lbs (thanks to piling 40-50lbs on his back and climbing those endless stairs of the StepMill again) before bulking back up to an impressive 200lbs for the movie.
Compare this to the 173lbs frame he displayed in Rocky IV, or the slight 163lbs he weighed back in Rocky III, and it’s undoubtedly impressive how he managed to retain his leanness given the fact he’d gained almost 30lbs for this role.
“When I was coming up to make Rambo III, I didn’t really like the way I looked any more.
I cut right down before bulking back up to around 200lbs, but it was all muscle. In that movie, my body fat was down to 3.8%.”
It was during training for this role, where he found one of his all-time favourite abs exercises – the broomstick twist!
“That’s the exercise which gave me my Rambo III abs!”, he recalls.
“That simple move right there. I would do those every single day, and man do they burn!?!”
Adaptation In The 90’s
As he moved into 1990, Stallone noticed he could no longer keep dieting the way he had in the past.
He’d arrived in his mid-40’s, and what once worked was no longer effective nor sustainable.
Thankfully, this turned out to be a great decision.
“I can’t believe the way I used to train! It took over my life!
I honestly wouldn’t advise anybody to train the way I did, certainly not long-term.
Back in the 1990’s, I began to train what I consider to be more effectively. I really got my science and nutrition nailed down. I was in the gym less, but growing more.
The massive physique you see in The Specialist, for example, was achieved while lifting weights only three times per week.”
Sly had shifted his training from classic bodybuilding hangouts to Gunnar Peterson’s facility in Los Angeles (where he has remained ever since), and boy did it show.
During the 1990’s, Sly owned a much more powerful physique. Movies such as Cliffhanger (above), Judge Dredd, Demolition Man, and the already mentioned The Specialist, showed a far bigger (yet still impressively ripped) Sly versus the sleek, cat-light figure we saw the previous decade.
Such was his confidence that he now understood his body, that Sly even allowed himself to get out of shape for a part, piling on 40lbs for a pivotal role alongside Robert De Niro in acclaimed drama Cop Land.
“I totally get it, by the way,” laughs Sly.
“I understand why people like junk food. For Cop Land I ate tons of donuts, sweets, cakes, pizzas, you name it, I took a bite out of it! I think I took a bite out of everything in Hollywood!
It was fun, but I don’t think I could live like that all the time.
I like the feeling of being in great shape more thank I like junk food. When I’m in shape, I feel terrific.”
He quickly shed the unwanted weight afterwards, and displayed a freakishly massive physique in the 2000 remake of Get Carter, alongside the also freakishly massive Mickey Rourke.
But as we rolled through the 2000’s, the negative side effects of all those extreme training plans began to take their toll.
General wear and tear meant he had to focus more on compound exercises, rather than tons of isolation work, which meant he was getting in and out of the gym in far less time than he used to.
Old injuries returned to haunt Sly, and he drafted in new exercises to replace those which he could no longer perform effectively.
For example, it was in the late 90’s that he stopped performing sit-ups.
That’s right, Rocky hasn’t done a sit-up since 1997!
Sly replaced the move with crunches on a Swiss ball, after traditional sit-ups led to recurring lower back problems.
In 2006, Sly returned to his beloved Rocky franchise once more.
But this time around, he describes the training regimen as one of the hardest he’s ever endured for different reasons…
“My joints were worn down. The training for this movie was so injury-prone, even for me, and I’d get inflammations in areas I didn’t even know existed.
Every day was an Advil day. In all five previous Rocky movies, I doubt I had this many injuries combined!
During prep for Rocky Balboa, I broke my foot, I had a bulging disc in my neck, I shredded a calf muscle…. the list goes on.”
In this film he wanted to show an aging, in shape but out of condition boxer.
“I wanted Rocky to look like a guy who still looks after himself, but isn’t in his prime.
Once again, the idea with the physique runs alongside the idea of the movie itself.
It represents adaptation, change, struggle.
It would have looked silly if Rocky was in the ring in far better shape than the guy he’s fighting, when the other guy is meant to be a great champion and Rocky is a so-called Balboa-saurus! So that’s the look I went for there.”
“But with Rambo, two years later, I got to do something I had always wanted to do.
See, I always really liked the idea of Rambo having a strong, lumberjack-esque build, to get across the type of life I believe he would have been leading at the point of the movie taking place.
Like big and broad, but not the lean, bodybuilder physique I went for in those earlier movies.
Despite not being very tall, I was able to create a very powerful-looking physique for that movie.
A tip for you guys out there who perhaps, like me, don’t have the height advantage but want to create a powerful-looking shape – train your traps and forearms. That’s something I did for Rambo IV and also for The Expendables.
Just something I’ve learned over the years, it creates the illusion of being much, much bigger.”
This was perhaps my favourite version of Stallone because, at 62 years old, he still had the desire to take his physique from the vision board to the big screen, and it was quite monstrous in it’s final form.
Bigger, Badder, Better
Nobody could have predicted what happened in 2010, when Stallone put together the greatest action ensemble cast ever assembled for the first movie in The Expendables franchise.
It quickly became “the ultimate action movie”, and a project hosting so many big action stars naturally led to some bruised egos in the weights room.
After all, nobody wanted to look out of place alongside their peers.
To Sly, of course, this meant one thing:
Time to get shredded.
Co-star Jason Statham recalls, “I remember walking into the gym on day one and seeing Sylvester, and thinking to myself, ‘I’d better get my act together here…’, the guy is like a machine.”
Sly was able to maintain this leaner shape throughout most of the 2010’s, for movies such as Bullet to the Head and Escape Plan.
His continued love for training also rubbed off kindly on some of his old action hero buddies, with Jean-Claude Van Damme achieving particularly ripped shape for his role in The Expendables 2, and Dolph Lundgren undergoing a career resurrection thanks to his role in the franchise and also returning as Ivan Drago for Creed II.
Sly’s modern day training routine is a far cry from his 1980’s approach, with a much more balanced style of training on display.
He’ll focus on bigger exercises in order to work as many muscle groups as possible simultaneously, whereas his sessions for the likes of Rocky IV would see him design circuits with the intention of splitting muscle groups into tiny segments then absolutely obliterating them.
Stallone And Steroids
It’s inevitable that we must discuss steroids when talking about Sylvester Stallone’s physique.
Or any other Hollywood actor, for that matter.
If you are an actor in Hollywood, the general consensus is you must be using steroids.
But when quizzed over the years, Sly has always remained tight-lipped regarding drugs.
“In 1987, when I was in training for Rambo III, I used to take an amino acid that’s nearly as strong as anabolic steroids.
It’s about 15x more powerful than the typical amino acid, but gave none of the raw edge, the anger, that comes with steroids. All steroids do is make you a big, cumbersome, ape-like goon.”
However, in 2008 Sly was arrested in Australia for possession of human growth hormone.
Sly defended his usage of HGH, rebuffing claims (correctly, I might add) that he simply used growth hormone to build his Rambo physique. Sly pointed out that it takes years of hard effort to strip your body fat levels down to action hero levels, not a simple dose of HGH – otherwise everyone would be a super hero.
He also stated that he uses it to combat the wear and tear all those years of hard training have taken on his joints, due to HGH’s recuperative enhancing abilities.
“HGH is nothing.
Anyone who calls it a steroid is grossly misinformed. Testosterone, to me, is so important for a sense of well-being when you get older. Everyone over 40 years old would be wise to investigate it because, mark my words, in ten years it will be over the counter.”
Sly On Diet And Junk Food
Sly puts a new spin on the phrase “extreme diet”.
He’s used almost every trick in the book to shed that last pound of body fat in preparation for a movie role, and although he’s put an end to the extreme diets now, he still has some great stories to tell…
“I think of my body as a sports car”, explains Sly.
“I’ll fill it with ‘fuel’ for the job it needs to do. If I know I’m going to be working out then I’ll prepare myself with the right nutrition to enhance my training, but if I know I’m not going to be exercising that day then I usually cut my intended calories in half for that day.
This way, I can remain on target even if I have a week where I’m only able to hit the gym, say, twice.
If it’s a particularly busy day and I’m also working out, I’ll fill my tank up. But if I don’t need it then I won’t have it. I’ll let it run on half empty.”
“These days, I’m a big believer in just staying healthy, and you can do anything in moderation.
I wouldn’t have been able to carry on doing what I do, at the level I still do it, if I had kept using my old ways.
One thing I’ve always done, however, is that I do like to eat a lot of easily digestible protein (chicken, fish, etc), and steer myself clear of the stuff which I know is going to be hard for my gut to handle.
Red meat, for instance.
I have avoided eating red meat for so long now, it’s been about 20 years since my diet last included it in any more than very small amounts.
That being said, I like to make sure I stop by McDonald’s about once every ten days and enjoy a burger.
I do that because my line of work means I’m sometimes caught in a situation where I do not have any food prepared and I don’t want to eat some red meat and get stomach convulsions!
At one time, I was so strict I remember eating some simple hot dogs, and experiencing incredibly painful stomach cramps because I just wasn’t used to digesting that type of food at all! So I force myself to do that every so often, and it seems to do the trick.”
Everything in moderation, folks, as per Rocky himself.
So there you have it, a comprehensive roundup of the workouts and diets (some crazier than others) Sly has used throughout his career to get in shape for some of his biggest roles.
I hope you enjoyed today’s article. If you have friends who might be interested to hear how Sylvester Stallone has adapted his training over the years, share this on social media. Plus, you’ll look cool as f**k for dropping all this knowledge.
And whenever you get complacent with your training, always remember that somewhere out there is a 70 year old Stallone pressing a dumbbell bigger than your face!