Train the Hollywood way

(Image credit: unknown)

The movie workout is a time-honoured tradition. Sometimes it’s a brief shot of a man doing press-ups with no shirt on. Other times it’s a 20-minute montage of flipping tyres, kicking banana trees or throwing obviously fake weights around. But if you get your workout inspiration from films, are they teaching you bad habits? MF asked a selection of experts to give their verdict on some of cinema’s most famous workout scenes.

Con Air

The workout: According to films, the best thing – or indeed the only good thing – about being in prison is the amount of time you get to spend on cell-based self-improvement projects. For Cameron Poe (Nicolas Cage), unjustly imprisoned after shoving a man’s nose into his brain while defending his wife, this includes learning origami, writing to his daughter, growing a ridiculous mullet and building a vest-bursting body with chin-ups and handstand press-ups. 

The verdict: ‘Whether you’re in prison for manslaughter or just hotel-hopping for work, you can use bodyweight training to develop strength, power, endurance and cardio,’ says strength and conditioning coach CJ Swaby. ‘Poe does well to balance pushing and pulling in his routine, but his reps are suspect. He keeps strict control with his pull-ups, which requires a good deal of strength, but he needs to work the muscle through the full range of motion for the most benefit. It’s the same with the handstand press-ups – I appreciate that he hasn’t got bars to allow a full range of motion, but you should at least touch your forehead to the floor. It’s better to cut back the number of reps and focus on the full range of motion.’ 

Rocky IV

The workout: In arguably the greatest training montage of all time, Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) pits no-frills strongman training and good old American grit against the syringe-and-machine-based approach of Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren) and his sinister Cold War-era Soviet scientists. Drago also seems to use one of those punch-gauging machines you sometimes see at fairgrounds. The results? In the words of Drago himself: ‘He is like a piece of iron.’
The verdict: ‘It’s very difficult to fault this montage,’ says trainer Darryl Edwards. ‘Rocky goes back to basics, running across varied terrain, sawing trees, throwing rocks, pulling sleds, carrying logs, chopping trees and sprinting up mountains. He does rotational movement such as chopping wood and doing Russian twists with an ox yoke – that’ll carry over to his haymakers. He exercises in the cold, which studies show can improve endurance performance, and at high altitude, which improves aerobic capacity through increased red blood cell count. He works on compound multi-joint exercises working all muscle groups, unlike Drago.’ In fact, says Roberts, the big Russian’s training is counter-productive. ‘Machines reduce the requirements of the stabiliser muscles to work as they should which limits strength and functional ability.’

The Bourne Supremacy

The workout: Trying to piece together his shattered memories of doing black ops for the CIA, Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) relocates to Goa with his girlfriend. While she pores over cryptic clues, Bourne vents his frustration – and keeps himself in trim – with a high-speed sprint along the picturesque beach.
The verdict: This is a very sensible way for Bourne to train, says Edwards. ‘Most of his work in terms of combat is short-duration and high-intensity. He certainly doesn’t rely on steady-state cardio. In this sort of training the cardiovascular system is pushed to its limits and the body uses all three energy systems: ATP, glycolytic and oxidative. Studies show that it results in a 500% increase in growth hormone release and increases testosterone production, so it’s great for everyone – even if you want to put on muscle.’

I Am Legend

The workout: Being the only man alive in a world full of virus-ridden vampires is a fairly powerful motivational tool, which is probably why Robert Neville (Will Smith) splits his waking hours between researching a cure, sprinting on a treadmill – alongside his dog – and doing loads of pull-ups.
The verdict: ‘Neville is doing behind-the-neck pull-ups here,’ says Edwards. ‘While it’s useful to change the range of motion and the type of pull-ups you do, these can put significant strain on his neck.’ Also, while cardio is important, doing sprint intervals or Fartlek intervals (varying his speed) on the treadmill might be better for developing the sort of fitness needed to suddenly run away from a pack of crazed bloodsuckers.


The workout: After the Channel Six news team try – and fail – to woo new co-anchor Veronica Corningstone (Christina Applegate) via Sex Panther aftershave, old-fashioned misogyny and invitations to parties in their pants, Ron Burgundy (Will Ferrell) decides to give her two tickets to the gun show and see if she likes the goods. The resulting shot of a shirtless, hairy Ferrell doing concentration curls is one of the most iconic in modern cinema. ‘Nine hundred and ninety-eight…’
The verdict: ‘Ron’s range of motion isn’t actually too bad in this scene,’ says personal trainer Scott McGarry. ‘But Veronica isn’t impressed – perhaps she knows that, if he’s really done a thousand curls as he claims, he’s clearly working with a weight that’s far too light for him. He’d be better off working in the eight-to-12 rep range, which is ideal for hypertrophy, or hitting his biceps from different directions with hammer curls.’ Alternatively, he could mount a pull-up bar in his office and do some close-grip chins – a much better bet for muscle-building than endless curls.

Joel Snape

From 2008 to 2018, Joel worked for Men's Fitness, which predated, and then shared a website with, Coach. Though he spent years running the hills of Bath, he’s since ditched his trainers for a succession of Converse high-tops, since they’re better suited to his love of pulling vans, lifting cars, and hefting logs in a succession of strongman competitions.