How Sylvester Stallone Used Circuit Training To Build A Rambo Physique
Sylvester Stallone is one of the pioneers of HIIT.
Back in the mid-1980’s, Sly was training with methods that didn’t become overly popular until over twenty years later. One of those methods is circuit training.
Although hugely prominent now, it certainly wasn’t the done thing back in 1985…
At least, not the way Sly was doing it…
On one side of the fitness space, we had Arnold Schwarzenegger dominating the silver screen with his sheer mass, and guys around the globe were following the latest bodybuilding training plans in a bid to emulate the Austrian Oak.
And on the other side of the fitness space, we had Jane Fonda pushing out home workout videos which promised to “tone, not bulk.”
Stallone headed in a different direction with his own training. And in doing so, he sculpted one of the best physiques the movie world has seen to date.
Circuit Training Like Stallone
Most people thought he was crazy, but there was a method to the madness.
Instead of the typical “three sets of ten reps” approach, Sly’s workouts bore an uncanny resemblance to some of his Rocky training montages.
He’d pair exercises together into small groups (supersets, trisets, and giant sets), then whizz around the gym at full speed to annihilate his target muscle groups of that day.
What made Sly’s circuit training even more unique is that he wouldn’t skimp on the amount of weight he used. He was searching for muscle failure and progressive overload, and in order to achieve this, he knew he’d need to use a pair of dumbbells that were going to challenge him for the number of reps he had to perform in order to ensure maximum muscle was being built alongside the fat loss benefits he was reaping.
So no pink, fluffy dumbbells here then!
If you saw me take on the Rocky IV arm workout on my YouTube channel, that’s a pretty good example of how he trained every single session.
This style of weight training is known as circuit training, and today I’m going to show you why it’s truly a 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 before, or perhaps followed one of my online training plans, you’ll know that I’m a huge fan of this type of training!
The reason being it’s highly effective at improving fitness, burning fat, and even building muscle; what more could we ask for?!
Sure, you’d build more muscle if you put yourself into a large calorie surplus and followed a bodybuilding routine designed for muscle growth, and you’d improve your fitness to a greater degree if you followed a strict endurance training program designed for, say, a marathon runner.
But circuit training really comes into its own when the end goal is fat loss.
The fact that it also ramps up the effects of hypertrophy (muscle growth) and increases endurance as you strip away body fat, is just a nice bonus.
It’s a well-rounded training protocol which covers all the bases, and that’s precisely what Stallone was attempting to do.
He didn’t want to be the biggest. He knew Arnold had that title nailed down. But he wanted to be the leanest. He wanted to display an athletic, explosive physique on the big screen.
One look at his physique in Rocky IV, Rambo II, or Rambo III, shows he actually went on to do it.
An interesting 1992 study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research compared the effects of circuit training versus standard weight training.
The team of researchers were looking to see the differences in EPOC (excess post-exercise oxygen consumption), to gauge whether circuit training would cause a larger calorie burn. (1)
They concluded that circuit training almost doubled the magnitude of EPOC, and it lasted 25% longer, too!
This result came despite the fact that the circuit training group only exercised for 19 minutes (due to decreased rest between sets), versus the standard weight training group’s 50 minutes.
The reduced rest periods in this study (from 2 minutes down to 30 seconds) presented an interesting question; if shorter rest caused a greater calorie burn, how short should we go to maximize these results?
In 1999, these questions were answered by researchers from Southeastern Louisiana University. (2)
They measured groups of trainees performing circuit training with 20 seconds rest versus 60 seconds rest, to see what impact this would take on the metabolic effect of the workout.
Interestingly, while the 20 second group did notice a higher rate of EPOC, the group with 60 second rest periods benefited from being able to train harder, and therefore the overall calorie burn was offset.
If you read my comprehensive guide to HIIT, this presents a similar idea. It means that circuit training is subjective the the individual, and should be based on their own recovery speeds.
So in order to maximize both performance and fat loss results, you’d experiment to strike the balance between hard training and adequate recovery.
Studies are still ongoing, as we try to unlock all of the potential benefits of circuit training for fat loss.
In 2008, the International Journal of Obesity published the results of a trial which discovered that a group of women shed significantly more fat (and saw improvements in insulin resistance) after performing 15 weeks of circuit training versus a group performing steady state cardio. (3)
Similar findings were reported in 2014, when researchers put a group of obese men through a much shorter (4 week) circuit training program.
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 to circuit training (versus traditional cardio) is that most cardio equipment in public gyms is lower body dominant.
Circuits, on the other hand, can be structured in a way that allows the full body to be trained. We can even incorporate resistance-based exercises into the mix, adding another dimension to the possible rewards because this fires up more type 2 muscle fibers, resulting in more explosive muscle tissue being built across the entire body.
The Rip Down, one of my most popular online training plans, focuses entirely on circuit training for fat loss for these very reasons. It’s a firm favourite among male and female clients due to the facts shown above.
How To Train Like Sylvester Stallone
There are a few rules to creating an effective circuit workout.
As seen in the workout below, from his intense training for Rocky IV, Sylvester Stallone would perform a circuit for each individual muscle group he wanted to train on that day (i.e. one circuit for biceps, one circuit for triceps, etc). His goal was to annihilate the target muscle and cause as much muscle growth as possible, while still focusing on fat loss.
Most people are not going to need this much detail or volume, so if your primary focus is fat loss I recommend taking a full body approach in your workout.
We’d also do well to keep an eye on total workout time (you can train long, or you can train hard!), and your rest between sets should be somewhere between 20-60 seconds depending upon your ability to recover quickly and maintain good performance.
Set up a circuit using this easy example:
- Exercise Selection: Push > Pull > Legs > Abs > Conditioning. So an example circuit to fit these parameters could be DB Bench Press, Bent-over DB Row, DB Goblet Squat, Lying Leg Raise, Mountain Climbers.
- Time: 30 seconds of each exercises with as much weight as you can handle with good technique.
- Duration: 10 rounds of the circuit.
- Recovery time: Start with 1 minute rest at the end of each round. This would give you a total circuit time of 22 minutes. Reduce the rest as your fitness level improves. Go down in 10 second increments and note your response. The aim is to strike the balance between challenging weights, good form, and full recovery.
If you’ve enjoyed reading my article on why Sylvester Stallone used circuit training to prepare for his leanest movie roles, be sure to hop on my email list below for more training tips.
If you’re looking forward to applying circuits to your own gym routine, and need a plan to help you do it, my circuit based program The Rip Down will give you that solid structure to work from. Enjoy!
- 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)