How Sylvester Stallone Has Adapted His Training Over The Years
On his 73rd 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 slap-bang in the middle of an action movie double header; Rambo: Last Blood 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 article, he discusses the various adaptations he has made to his training routine through 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 has 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 at 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 (100kg) 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 for 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 routines 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 exactly what 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 remembered for the first Rocky movie.
It was wonderful.
But talk to any gym rat and they’ll reference his physique during the later films – Rocky III through to Rambo III (1981-1988).
During this time, he embodied the classic 1980’s “action hero”.
Sly’s first radical 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 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 My. 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.
And that, he did.
“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,” says 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:
- Monday A.M. (Chest / Shoulders), Monday P.M. (Arms / Abs)
- Tuesday A.M. (Back), Tuesday P.M. (Legs)
- Wednesday A.M. (Chest / Shoulders), Wednesday P.M. (Abs)
- Thursday A.M. (Arms), Thursday P.M. (Abs)
- Friday A.M. (Legs), Friday P.M. (Back)
- Saturday A.M. (Chest / Shoulders), Saturday P.M. (Abs)
- (Also, 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 or eight 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 6 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 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 spot in the Guinness Book of World Records, but the lifestyle was very unsustainable and led to Sly feeling like a zombie on the 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 4 months of rehearsals tends to wear a person out, and I’d go to the corner between rounds, when I wasn’t directing, and perform 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 that 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 in summer, 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 work hard whenever I have a new Rocky or Rambo movie coming up,” explains Sly.
I was in a constant 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 possibly top the 2.9% body fat he achieved for Rocky III?
Instead, Sly went for a more well-built, muscular physique this time.
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, they trained in Franco’s gym.
And while I’m on the topic of shattering your childhood, the movie wasn’t even shot in Russia; it was filmed 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 be a great champion in the sport.
I mean, he had all the right ingredients.”
Production of Rocky IV didn’t go without its own set of problems, of course…
While filming the now legendary Rocky IV training montage, Sly damaged his heart (!!) performing a set of overhead triceps extensions with a bag of heavy rocks.
The movie was shut down for 2 months in order to prevent a possible heart attack and allow time to heal.
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 his era consisted of what I would all HIRT (high intensity resistance training), where Sly would move from one station to another, performing exercises with minimal rest until he had nothing left in the tank.
Indeed, Stallone was one of the early adopters of what’s now known as HIIT.
Very high volume, minimal rest, these workouts were full-scale wars.
He managed to maintain this lean, muscular shape for 1986’s Cobra and 87’s Over The Top, but 1988’s Rambo III was to be the final film Stallone carried this insane training regimen…
At the time, Arnold Schwarzenegger was enjoying a healthy rivalry with Stallone, and the classic bodybuilding physique was definitely in.
Sly decided to bulk Rambo up, gaining more size than he’d shown in any of his roles to date.
Sly’s bodybuilder-esque physique peaked in Rambo III, and the training program for this movie initially saw him drop down to 155lbs (thanks to that good old StepMill again), before bulking back up to an impressive 200lbs for the movie.
Compare this to the 173lbs displayed in Rocky IV, or the even smaller 163lbs for Rocky III, it’s a phenomenal achievement 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 anymore”, explains Sly.
“I wanted to hit the reset button and go for more size, so I cut right down, stripping away as much body fat as I could, before bulking back up to around 200lbs.
But it was all muscle. For that movie, my body fat was 3.8%.”
It was during the preparation for Rambo III when he found one of his all-time favorite 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 them every single day, and man do they burn!?!”
Adaptation In The 90’s
As he moved into 1990, Sylvester Stallone reached a turning point in his career.
He noticed he could no longer keep dieting the way he had in the past, and change was needed.
Because, after arriving in his mid-40’s, the crazy techniques which had previously worked were now failing…
“I can’t believe the way I used to train!
It took over my entire 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 stopped training in classic bodybuilding hangouts like Gold’s Gym, opting to move his workouts to Gunnar Peterson’s facility in Los Angeles (where he has remained ever since), and boy did it show.
During the early 1990’s, Sly owned a much more powerful shape.
Movies such as Cliffhanger, Demolition Man, Judge Dredd, and the already mentioned The Specialist, showed us a far bigger (yet still impressively ripped) version of Sly compared to the sleek, cat-like figure he cut in the previous decade.
Such was his confidence that he now understood his body better, he even allowed himself to get out of shape for a role!
That role was CopLand, the 1998 crime drama where Sly had a pivotal role opposite Robert De Niro.
“I totally get it, by the way!”, laugh Sly.
“I understand why people like junk food. For CopLand I ate tons of donuts, sweets, cakes, pizza… 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 than I like the taste of junk food.
When I’m in great shape, I feel terrific.”
He spent a year shedding the unwanted poundage after the movie was released, and re-emerged with a freakishly muscular shape for the 2000 remake of Get Carter, alongside the also huge Mickey Rourke.
Into The 2000’s
As we rolled into the 2000’s, the negative effects of all those extreme training pans began to take their toll.
Old injuries returned to haunt Stallone, and he began drafting in new exercises to replace those which he could no longer perform effectively.
For example, it was the late 1990’s when he stopped performing sit-ups.
That’s right, Rocky hasn’t done a sit-up since late 1997!
After continually experiencing lower back issues, Sly replaced that exercise with crunches on a stability ball.
General wear and tear had caught up with Sly, and he combating this by focusing more on performing compound exercises with lighter weights, rather than the stack of isolation work of the past.
He was getting in and out of the gym in less time than ever before, but it was a frustrating battle.
And despite still being in decent shape, he was covering up on screen (Driven, D-Tox).
This time represented a re-building phase for Stallone, both in terms of his fitness and his career, which had also stalled.
Thankfully, he didn’t quit.
In 2006, Sly returned to his beloved Rocky franchise once more…
But this time, he describes the training 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 inflammation in areas I didn’t even know existed.
Every day was an Advil day!
In all 5 previous Rocky movies at that time, I doubt I had this many injuries across them all combined!
They were serious, too. During Rocky Balboa I actually broke my foot. I had a bulging disc in my neck. I also shredded my calf muscle… the list goes on.”
Much like the original Rocky movie, the story of Rocky Balboa mirrored where Stallone was at in his own life.
The constant references to being “too old” and the media calling Rocky “a Balboa-saurus” cut close to the bone.
His goal was to show Rocky as an aging fighter; in shape, bit out of condition.
“I wanted to make Rocky look like a guy who still takes care of himself, but obviously isn’t in his prime.
Once again, just like Rocky III, the building of my physique runs parallel to the theme of the movie itself; it’s about change, and adaptation.
But this time it’s not an opponent. It’s me.
I had so much anger, to not be able to do what I used to, and so much frustration at being written off. You’re seeing real emotion.”
The heart of the movie made it a smash hit, and propelled Sly back into the limelight.
His self-belief restored, Sly set about his next project with much bigger plans in mind.
This was perhaps my favorite version of of Stallone, because, at 62 years of age, he still had the desire to take his physique from the vision board to the big screen, and it was quite monstrous in its final form…
“Two years after Rocky Balboa, I’d decided to bring Rambo back for a new adventure, and I decided to do something I’d always wanted to do with the character.
You see, I always liked the idea of Rambo having a strong, lumberjack-esque physique, to get across the type of life he would have been leading at that point in time the movie takes place.
Like big and broad, but not the lean, bodybuilder shape I went for in those earlier films.
Despite not being very tall, I was able to create a very powerful looking physique for that movie. I’m very proud of it.
A tip for you guys out there reading who, perhaps like me, don’t have the height advantage but want to create that more powerful-looking shape – train your traps and forearms, and train them super hard. That’s something I did for the Rambo IV, and also for The Expendables shortly after.”
Just something I’ve learned over the years… it creates the illusion of being much, much bigger.”
Bigger, Badder, Better.
If nobody could have predicted the unexpected success of both Rocky Balboa and Rambo, they had no idea what was coming in 2010…
Sly decided to assemble to bring the biggest action movie stars together in one movie, something which had never been done before, for the first movie in The Expendables franchise.
With so many big names in one place, it led to some bruised egos in the weights room. After all, nobody wanted to to look out of place alongside their peers…
To Stallone, of course, this meant one thing:
Time to get shredded.
Co-star Jason Statham recalls, “I walked into the gym on day one, and I saw Sylvester was already there. I remember thinking to myself, ‘I’d better get my act together!’, because the guy was training like a machine!”
His leaner, more athletic shape was built using a full body approach to training, where Sly focused intensely on the muscles which would be seen on screen (especially forearms, just like Rambo), rather than trying to nail absolutely everything and winding up injured.
Stallone was looking better in his mid-60’s than he did a decade before!
Sly was able to maintain this physique throughout the rest of the 2010’s, looking lean alongside Arnold Schwarzenegger in Escape Plan and even daring to go shirtless in Bullet To The Head.
Stallone was back to his best.
His continued love for training rubbed off on many of his action movie buddies, too.
Jean-Claude Van Damme achieved particularly ripped shape for his role in The Expendables 2, and Dolph Lundgren undergoing somewhat of a career resurrection thanks to his appearances in this franchise and his return as Ivan Drago in Creed II.
Sly’s modern day training routine is a far cry from his 1980’s approach, with a much more balanced diet, too.
The sessions for the likes of Rocky IV, on the the other hand, would have seen Sly choosing 4-5 exercises for one body part then slamming them together into mini-circuits and obliterating the target muscles one by one.
Nowadays, he’ll focus on bigger exercises in order to work as many muscles as possible simultaneously.
Of course, this will limit how much muscle he can build, but will provide him a level of conditioning most guys half his age don’t have.
He’s not necessarily training harder, but he’s training smarter.
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’re an actor in a movie, the general consensus is that you must be using steroids.
But when quizzed about steroids over the years, Sly has always remained very tight-lipped.
“In 1987, when I started 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, or anger, that would come with steroids. All steroids really do is make you a big, cumbersome, ape-like goon.”
Of course, with sports science being as advanced as it is now, we know there is no amino acid which is as powerful as the one Sly described.
In 2008, he was arrested in Australia for possession of human growth hormone.
HGH usage was really exploding on the underground bodybuilding scene at the back end of the 1980’s and early 1990’s, so this could have been what Sly was referring to.
Many of the popular WWE wrestlers of the time (The Ultimate Warrior, British Bulldog) reported trying it out.
Upon the incident in 2008, Sly defended his usage of HGH and rebuffed any claims (correctly, I might add) that he simply used drugs 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 superhero.
He also stated that he uses it to combat the aforementioned wear and tear all those years of hard training have take on his joints, due to HGH’s recuperative enhancing abilities.
“HGH is nothing,” states Sly.
“Anyone who calls that 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 every trick in the book to shed that last pound of body fat in preparation for a big 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 that training. But if I know I’m not going to be working out, 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 and I’m also training, I’ll fill my tank up. But if I don’t need the fuel, then I won’t have it. I’ll let it run on half empty.”
The system Sly refers to here is carb cycling.
It’s a good way to get lean, and stay lean. It’s a system many of my clients have used for solid results.
But here’s the real takeaway from this…
In an age where everyone counts everything, and obsesses over minutia, isn’t it refreshing to hear that Sly diets somewhat instinctively, not obsessing over every little thing?
“These days, I’m a big believer in just staying healthy, and you can have 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.
Most of my approach to nutrition has changed over the years, but one thing I’ve always done, is I like to eat a lot of easily digestible protein like chicken and fish, and steer clear of the stuff which I know is going to be harder for my guy to handle.
Red meat is an easy example to give you.
I have avoided eating red meat for so long now, it’s been about 20 years since my diet included it in any more than very small amounts.
That being said, I make sure I stop by a McDonald’s about once a month and enjoy a burger. It might sound strange, but I do that because my line of work sometimes has me caught in a situation where I don’t 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 with my diet I remember eating some hot dogs, just regular hot dogs, and experiencing incredibly painful stomach cramps because I just wasn’t used to digesting that type of food at all!
So that’s my workaround, and it seems to do the trick.”
Everything in moderation, folks. Take it from Rocky himself.
So there you have it!
A comprehensive round-up of the workouts and diets (some crazier than others) Sly has used throughout his career to get in shape for his biggest roles.
I hope you enjoyed today’s guide. If you have pals who’d enjoy the read, be sure to give it a share.
And next time you hit a plateau with your training, remember, somewhere out there, is a 70 year old Stallone pressing a dumbbell bigger than your face.