When Rocky Balboa ascended the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, it was more than just a moment of triumph for the downtrodden (and the birth of a million tourist Instagram photos) — it was the moment that cemented the training montage as an integral part of action movies, sports films, and thrillers for the rest of time.
Of course, by their nature, training montages are the antithesis of a well-rounded fitness regimen. After all, they’re all about shortcuts — the hero or heroine emerges ripped and ready for a fight in the amount of time it takes a rock anthem to go from the chorus to the bridge. But does that mean there’s nothing you can take away from a good workout sequence?
We decided to take a look at a healthy mix of the good, the fantastical, and the, frankly, ridiculous to determine if there are some hidden tips lurking within — or whether they’re all best filed under the adage “don’t try this at home.” Who knows? You may pick up more than just an urge to strap on a bandana and run mullet-first into battle.
Batman Begins (2005)
The Set-Up: Orphaned billionaire Bruce Wayne tours the seedy underbelly of the criminal world in preparation to become Gotham City’s avenging dark knight.
The Workout: Wayne’s training is intense… and oddly non-specific. It involves balancing on poles while being whacked with sticks, and sword-fighting on ice.
Is It Working Out? The short answer? No. There’s unfortunately precious little actual fitness advice you can glean from mountain ninjas abusing a slumming rich kid.
“There is literally nothing in this sequence that you should actually incorporate into your workouts,” says BODi’s Executive Director of Fitness and Nutrition Content Trevor Thieme, CSCS. “But there are plenty of figurative lessons here. Incorporate instability into your workouts (e.g., by performing unilateral exercises), be more explosive in your training (e.g., by doing plyometric and power-based moves), and seek the guidance of a master (i.e., personal trainer).”
The Set-Up: Based on the true (ish?) story of martial artist Frank Dux, Bloodsport sees Jean-Claude Van Damme enter an underground martial arts tournament called the Kumite that is essentially a real-life Street Fighter II video game.
The Workout: We are given glimpses of how Dux trained his whole life to become a living weapon — including, it seems, getting roped into a giant, limb-stretching mechanism that looks like a Pilates machine mixed with a crucifixion.
Is It Working Out? Well, stretching is always good, right? “Incorporating stretching into your warm ups and cool downs and mobility training into your workout plan can help you recover faster, reduce your risk of injury, and build functional, real world strength and power,” says Thieme.
“But you can take it too far — like Van Damme does here. It’s important to be able to move your joints through their full ranges of motion, but you don’t want to become overly flexible. Being able to move a joint through a range of motion much beyond what’s normal for it can increase its instability and your risk of injury.”
G.I. Jane (1997)
The Set-Up: Demi Moore stars in a fictional tale of the first woman allowed into what the movie refers to as “U.S. Navy Combined Reconnaissance Team,” and is similar to the training undergone by Navy SEALs. Needless to say, it’s intense and brutal.
Is It Working Out? Yes, it is. As Thieme explains, “There’s a reason why the armed forces have always and will always rely on basic calisthenics to strengthen their troops: It works.” Using your body weight is always an effective way to train.
“Bodyweight exercises aren’t just for beginners — no matter what you’re doing, there’s always a way to make it harder so that you continue to challenge your muscles and grow stronger. Just don’t do push-ups while balancing on the backs of chairs. That’s plain dangerous.”
The Karate Kid (1984)
The Set-Up: Transplanted Jersey kid Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio) is bullied in sunny California, so he turns to karate to help defend himself and develop confidence and strength thanks to a kindly apartment caretaker who also happens to be skilled in martial arts.
The Workout: Mr. Miyagi has an unusual method for training Daniel — from a distance, it looks a lot like yard work and basic home repair. It initially frustrates the kid, until he realizes he’s actually been karate-training all that time.
Is It Working Out? It seems you can kill two birds with one stone — getting a little exercise, and fixing up your place. “Anyone who has ever shoveled snow, raked leaves, painted an entire house, or waxed a line of cars knows that you don’t need a gym to work up a sweat,” says Thieme. “While you shouldn’t tick working out off of your to-do list just because you painted a fence, you can definitely count it toward your overall daily activity goals.”
Rocky IV (1985)
The Set-Up: After being the lovable underdog, finally defeating Apollo Creed, and surviving a movie where he has to fight both Mr. T and Hulk Hogan, Rocky Balboa returns to settle the Cold War with Russia in the ring.
The Workout: The reason why we chose Rocky IV over the other films in the franchise is that it takes Rocky out of the gyms and meat lockers of Philly and forces him to train in a barn in the middle of a harsh, unforgiving Russian winter. He has to use beams and tractors and whatever else he can get his hands on while his opponent, Ivan Drago, works out in a high-tech fitness laboratory.
Is It Working Out? Surprisingly, Rocky’s methods may actually be better than a gym machine. “Pumping iron and pounding the pavement are excellent ways to build muscle and endurance, but they aren’t the only ways,” says Thieme.
“In fact, challenging yourself by running softer terrain (i.e., like snow where every step takes more effort) and lifting ‘odd objects’ (i.e., rocks, logs, etc.) can challenge your body in ways that barbells and dumbbells can’t because of their naturally awkward shapes and distinct lack of conveniently placed textured grips. Just make sure you don’t slack on your form — it’s even more important when exercising in environments and with equipment that wasn’t engineered for it.”
The Set-Up: As a young boy, orphan Adonis Johnson learns his true lineage — that he is the son of legendary heavyweight Apollo Creed. Trying to earn his namesake, he seeks out a retired Rocky Balboa to help him train.
The Workout: Since Creed looks to strip away some of the cartoon-y aspects of the later Rocky movies, the workout here is suitably gritty and realistic. A mix of sparring, weight training, and cardio that, on the surface, seems like something you could try at home if you’re up for it.
Is It Working Out? Oh yeah. As Thieme explains, “This is another example of the power of bodyweight training. Pumping iron is convenient and expands your training options, but all you really need to get ripped is your bodyweight. The training in this sequence also follows a program that’s typical for boxers and beneficial for everyone, incorporating both cardio and strength workouts.”
No Retreat, No Surrender (1985)
The Set-Up: “Hey, what if you just remade the Karate Kid but made it super, super weird?” Forced to relocate to Seattle from California after Russian thugs beat up his dad and trash his dad’s karate dojo, a young kid named Jason is visited by Bruce Lee’s ghost and decides to train to get revenge.
The Workout: Words fail. Jason throws himself into his workout with gusto, doing a mix of one-armed push-ups, some sort of strange pelvic thrust plank (while balancing an ice cream-eating friend on his abdomen), and upside down… pull-ups? That also involve slamming yourself repeatedly against a wooden board? It’s fascinating to watch, anyway.
Is It Working Out? This one almost broke Thieme. “This training montage is ridiculous,” he says. “The goal of working out is to strengthen your body and reduce your risk of injury, and the best way to do that is to perform exercises that promote functional, real-world strength.
“Training like [Jason] will result in the opposite, increasing your risk of injury while building the kind of strength that doesn’t translate to everyday life. I mean, how often are you going to find yourself dangling from a basketball rim or suspended between monkey bars and a bench with someone sitting on your stomach eating an ice cream bar?”
American Psycho (2000)
The Set-Up: Based on the acclaimed and controversial novel, American Psycho follows an image-obsessed investment banking executive who may or may not also be a serial killer.
The Workout: Because Patrick Bateman (played by Christian Bale) is supposed to be the walking embodiment of ’80s self-obsession, his morning routine involves intense workouts (and thorough skin care) focused almost entirely on making sure he looks good no matter what.
Is It Working Out? Yes and no. The cardio is good, but the rest is disposable. “His form during crunches made me cringe,” says Thieme. “If you take anything away from this montage, it’s to start jumping rope. It’s one of the best cardio exercises you can add to your existing training plan, and you’ll understand why after the first 30 seconds of doing it.”
The Set-Up: A Rolling Stone reporter is sent to health clubs to dig in to this incredible new phenomenon known as “aerobics.” Yes, it’s an entire movie based on the mystery of aerobics. Between that and the fact that John Travolta’s character writes for a print publication, this may as well be Jurassic Park to anyone under 40.
The Workout: It’s, well, aerobics. Half-dancing, half-cardio, utilizing up-tempo beats and a steady, high-energy pace involving stretching, jumping, and other heart-pumping moves.
Is It Working Out? In a primitive form, yes. “Aerobics helped a lot of people become more active in the 1980s, but we’ve come a long way since then,” says Thieme.
“Instead of taking your cues from Jamie Lee Curtis, log onto the BODi app and do one of our live or on-demand cardio classes. You’ll get a better workout and enjoy faster results than if you were to dust off your mom’s VCR and pop in one of Jane Fonda’s workout tapes.”
I Am Legend (2007)
The Set-Up: Following a plague that has wiped out seemingly all of humanity, a lone man (Will Smith) wanders a decimated New York City in search of a cure while trying to survive.
The Workout: When your schedule is wide open, you may as well start every day with pull-ups and some time on the treadmill — especially if there’s a chance you’ll be running for your life from post-apocalyptic zombies.
Is It Working Out? Will has the right idea, using what he has instead of a ton of gym equipment, but adjustments must be made. As Thieme suggests, “He should start by ditching the behind-the-neck pull-up. He’s just asking for impingement and rotator cuff issues with that one.
“But I think one of the messages here is that you don’t need a ton of equipment to get in great shape. All you need is your bodyweight to build muscle and strength. And if there’s any doubt in your mind about that, look at a gymnast. Pound for pound, they’re among the strongest athletes in the world, and all they do is bodyweight training.”
The Set-Up: A woman (Jennifer Lopez) in an abusive relationship moves, changes her identity, and essentially goes into hiding with her young daughter. When the husband tracks them both down, she begins to train in order to defend herself.
The Workout: The focus here is more on combat than fitness, with reflex conditioning and an emphasis on speed and quick movement.
Is It Working Out? It depends on your intentions. “There aren’t really any fitness benefits to playing ‘paddy cake’ like they do in the movie, but it can help you increase reaction time, which has benefits for fighting,” say Thieme.
The Best of Times (1986)
The Set-Up: A small-time banker named Jack (Robin Williams) in a depressed town still can’t get over a pass he dropped in high school that cost his team an important football game. Hit hard with a mid-life crisis, he seeks out his former star quarterback, Reno Hightower (Kurt Russell), and launches a hare-brained scheme to replay the game.
The Workout: Jack’s “team” is made-up of guys now in their 40s, who are cramming to get in shape despite not really keeping fitness as a priority since high school graduation. Cue a lot of running, a lot of ill-fitting sweatsuits, and even an attempt at organized aerobics.
Is It Working Out? You’re not going to believe this, but this isn’t entirely a joke to write off, according to Thieme. “Running can be great exercise, especially for someone looking to shed fat and build endurance,” he says.
“1980s aerobics is fine for beginners as well, if that’s something that interests you. It’s not the quick fix they’re looking for in the movie, and it will not prepare you for the gridiron, but the basic strategy in this movie is a good one for someone just beginning their fitness journey or getting back to it after a long hiatus — start easy, build a foundation, and increase the intensity of your workouts gradually.”