How Sylvester Stallone Used Circuit Training To Build A Rambo Physique
Sylvester Stallone is one of the pioneers of HIIT.
Sly was training back in the 80’s with methods that didn’t become overly popular until the 2000’s, and one of those methods is circuit training.
Although hugely prominent now, it certainly wasn’t the done thing back in the mid-1980’s.
At least, not the way Sly was doing it.
On one hand we had Arnold Schwarzenegger dominating the big screen with his sheer size, and guys around the world were following the latest bodybuilding plans in muscle building magazines hoping for the the same results.
And on the other, we had the likes of Jane Fonda pushing out home workout DVD’s which promised “to tone, not bulk”.
Stallone headed in a different direction.
And, in doing so, he sculpted one of the best physiques the movie world has ever seen.
Instead of the typical bodybuilding-style “three sets of 10-15 reps” approach, Sly’s workouts bore an uncanny resemblance to some of his infamous Rocky training montages.
He’d pair exercises together into supersets, trisets and giant sets, and whizz around the gym at full speed to destroy the target muscle groups of the day.
But he wouldn’t go light or use pink, fluffy dumbbells. He’d push his body to it’s limits, still applying the progressive overload principle to his training to ensure maximum muscle was being built alongside the fat loss benefits he was reaping.
If you saw me take on the Rocky IV arm workout, that’s a pretty good example of how he trained every session.
This style of training is known as circuit training, and today I’d like to show you why it’s a truly great method for fat loss…
Circuit Training For Fat Loss
Circuit training adds a new tool to your arsenal of workout principles.
If you’ve worked with me in the gym, or followed one of my online training programs, you’ll know that I’m a big fan of circuit training!
The reason being it’s effective at improving fitness, burning fat and building muscle – what more could we possibly want?!
Sure, you’d build more muscle if you put yourself into a calorie surplus and followed a bodybuilding routine designed specifically for muscle growth. And you’d improve your fitness to a greater degree if you followed an endurance training program for, say, marathon runners…
But circuit training allows you to focus on fat loss while still ramping up the effects of hypertrophy and endurance to a great enough degree to reap solid results as you strip away body fat.
If fat loss is your primary goal, this is a wonderful protocol to apply.
That’s precisely what Stallone was trying to do.
He didn’t want to be “the biggest”. Arnold had that role nailed down tight. He wanted to be the leanest.
He wanted to display an athletic, explosive physique on the big screen, and one look at Rocky IV or Rambo II shows he actually did it.
An interesting 1992 study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research compared the effects of circuit training vs standard weight training. (1)
The team of researchers were looking to see the differences in EPOC (excess post-exercise oxygen consumption).
They found that the group performing circuit training almost doubled the magnitute of the EPOC calorie burn, and it lasted 25% longer, too.
This result came despite the fact that the circuit training group exercised for only 19 minutes (due to decreased rest between sets from 2 minutes to 30 seconds), versus the standard weight training group’s 50 minutes.
The rest periods taken here threw up an interesting question – if shorter rest resulted in a greater calorie burn, how short should we go?
Then, in 1999, researchers from Southeastern Louisiana University tested this theory. (2)
They measured the impact of circuit training with 20 seconds rest versus 60 seconds rest, to see what impact it would have on the metabolic effect of a workout.
They found that while the 20 second group did notice a higher rate of EPOC, the other trainees benefited from being able to train harder, and therefore overall calorie burn was offset.
If you read my comprehensive article on HIIT, this presents a similar ideology.
It means that circuit training is subjective to the individual, based upon their own recovery speeds.
So in order to maximize fat loss results, you’d experiment to strike the balance between hard training and adequate recovery!
Studies are still ongoing, as we try to unearth more discoveries to unlock the full benefits of circuit training for fat loss.
In 2008, the International Journal of Obesity published a trial which discovered that a group of women performing 15 weeks of circuit training shed significantly more fat (and saw improvements in insulin resistance) versus a group performing steady state cardio. (3)
Similar findings were reported in 2014, when researchers looked at the effects of a 4 week circuit training workout plan on obese men.
They primarily dropped body fat and improved insulin resistance, alongside secondary benefits of a smaller increase in lean muscle tissue and a decrease in resting heart rate. (4)
The American Council on Exercise believes another advantage circuit training has versus traditional cardio is that most cardio equipment (in public gyms, at least) is lower body dominant.
Circuits, on the other hand, allow the full body to be trained and the possibility of including resistance-based exercises adds another dimension to it’s potential rewards because this fires up more type 2 muscle fibers, resulting in more explosive, defined lean muscle tissue being built throughout the entire body.
My downloadable workout plan, The Rip Down, focuses entirely on circuit training for fat loss for these very reasons, and it’s a firm favourite among my male and female clients due to the facts you see above.
How To Start Training Like Stallone
There are a few “rules” to an effective circuit.
As seen in this workout, Stallone would perform a circuit for each individual muscle group (i.e. a biceps circuit, a triceps circuit, a forearm circuit, etc) to annihilate one part of the body and cause as much muscle growth as possible while still focusing on fat loss.
Most people are not going to need that much volume, so if your primary goal is fat loss it’d make sense to take a full body approach with your circuits instead.
We’d also do well to keep an eye on total workout time (you can train long, or you can train hard!), and rest between rounds to maximize performance.
Try this example circuit setup…
- Exercise Selection: Push / Pull / Legs / Abs / Conditioning (so an example circuit could include DB Bench Press, Bent-over DB Row, DB Goblet Squat, Lying Leg Raise, Mountain Climber).
- Time: 30 seconds of each exercise with as much weight as you can handle with good technique. Move through them back to back.
- Duration: 10 rounds.
- Recovery: Start with 1 minute rest at the end of a circuit. With 30 seconds on each exercise, you’d be looking at a total workout time of 22 minutes here. If you can recover quicker than that, lower it by 10 seconds and monitor your response. Keep doing this as necessary. The aim is to strike the balance between heavy weights, good form, and full recovery.
If you’ve enjoyed my article on why Sylvester Stallone used circuit training to prepare for his leanest movie roles, and if you’re looking forward to applying it to your own training to see the resulting fat loss it brings, drop a like/share on this article!
You’ll probably also like this comprehensive review of how Sly adapted his training for different movie roles.
Yours in training,
- Emmett, M., et al. Effects of Standard Set and Circuit Weight Training on Excess Post-exercise Oxygen Consumption. J Strength Cond Res. (1992)
- Haltom, R. W., et al. Circuit weight training and its effects on excess postexercise oxygen consumption. Med Sci Sports Exerc. (1999)
- Trapp, E. G., et al. The effects of high-intensity intermittent exercise training on fat loss and fasting insulin levels of young women. Int J Obes. (2008)
- Miller, B. M., et al. The Effect of a Short-Term High-Intensity Circuit Training Program on Work Capacity, Body Composition, and Blood Profiles in Sedentary Obese Men: A Pilot Study. Biomed Res Int. (2014)