The fitness/training montage is an ever-evolving, useful way for filmmakers to quickly convey our hero building strength, skill and stamina in preparation to go toe-to-toe with his/her enemies. These scenes have the potential to be the most memorable part of any given film, and the execution decides whether you’ll find it inspiring, epic, hilariously bad or all of the above. Regardless, it’s hard not to come away with some level of enjoyment from a movie fitness montage, whether that feeling of amusement is ironic or not. Here’s tour through the history of the fitness montages in film that includes some of the best, worst and most cringeworthy of all time. NEXT: The montage that started it all >>
(1976) The best, quintessential training montage was this mid-70s gem featuring Sylvester Stallone in his debut role as boxer Rocky Balboa, the underdog with a big heart and an incomprehensible mumble. This montage shows Rocky as he prepares for his bout with undefeated heavyweight champion Apollo Creed with “Gonna Fly Now,” the perfect—albeit a little corny—training song. Appropriately, Rocky begins his jog in a rundown rail yard, then ends up at the top of the steps in front of the Philadelphia Art Museum. It’s a great way to portray his rags-to-riches story, as he gets into his absolute prime condition in preparation for the fight that could pull him up out of the depths of boxing obscurity. Not only did this montage make the steps of the Art Museum as much of a tourist attraction as the museum itself, it can be credited with spawning the cliché fitness/sports montage era of the 1980s, in which the Rocky franchise itself was one of the worst offenders. NEXT: Are you talkin’ to me? >>
A young Robert De Niro stars as taxi driver Travis Bickle in what several critics will always point to as being the best film Martin Scorcese ever directed. Constantly driving around the city during his job, Bickle, a Vietnam veteran, becomes increasingly disgusted with the filthiness of New York City—its drug dealers, pimps, prostitutes, criminals, and corrupt politicians and wealthy businessmen. Vowing to do something about it as a vigilante, Bickle starts working out intensely in his apartment, obtaining a lean, muscular physique and taking target practice to prepare himself to rid the city of some of its sketchiest characters, but, of course, finding time to catch a porno in the local theater. The training montage is brief and to the point—perhaps some ‘80s movies could have followed the lead of Taxi Driver instead of constantly imitating Rocky. NEXT: Ending the Cold War >>
On that note, came the era of many fitness sequences that look painfully campy such as The Karate Kid and Teen Wolf. Rocky IV was no exception, distinguishing itself as possibly the most over the top training montage of all time, even more so than, well, Over the Top, the trucker arm wrestling movie also starring Sylvester Stallone. Rocky IV features the training montage that never ends—you may foolishly think it’s about to finish after a mere three and half minutes but no—a simple wipe effect and a song change reignite the exercising and it ends up clocking in at nearly eight painful minutes. The juxtaposition of Rocky to the clearly evil Russian boxer Ivan Drago portrays Americans as the obvious good guys of the Cold War. It’s also pretty clear that Rocky has a hard time finding a gym in the frozen tundra of Russia—doing local fitness-related activities like pulling a sleigh, chopping wood and getting chased by a car to get in shape, as opposed to Drago, who has an amazing training facility equipped with futuristic training machines, a huge team of scientists, a bunch of screens with random numbers on them and a lot of threatening red lighting. Oh, and steroids, because he cheats. This remains the only montage to have won a war for the U.S., as the Cold War ended shortly afterward. Don’t let anyone convince you otherwise. NEXT: I will unscrew your head and sh*t down your neck >>
Full Metal Jacket
(1987) Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket is often heralded as one of the best half-war movies of all time, leaving out the second half, when they’re actually at war in Vietnam. The second half just can’t measure up to the characters’ harrowing experiences training for the Marines. This essentially makes a strong portion of the movie qualify as one giant training montage. Watching Sgt. Hartman’s method of breaking down privates, then building them into thoughtless, strong, intense fighters is one of the memorable things that ever happened to film. NEXT: Nobody crosses Chuck Norris and lives >>
Hero and the Terror
This doesn’t adhere to all the montage traditions of the ‘80s, but it’s still one of the funniest fitness clips you’ll see from the time, starring none other than Chuck Norris. Norris stars as cop Danny O’Brien, who was nicknamed “Hero” after catching a serial killer dubbed “The Terror.” However, after The Terror escapes and starts killing again, O’Brien knows he needs to prepare. And no, his preparation doesn’t involve savvier police techniques—it’s all about bulking up and getting big. Trying to get big enough to beat up a serial killer with your bare hands has to be the best motivation possible to get ripped. NEXT: This girl will kick your ass >>
Mulan served as proof that the fitness montage can work amazingly well in movies for kids, although this montage and song should also be enjoyed by anyone dedicated to getting in shape, too. Like most great fitness montages, it’s a bit over the top and features some memorable music—in fact, we’d venture to say that it has the best lyrics of any serious fitness/sports montage song. Overall, a very strong montage—never mind the film’s historical inaccuracies. NEXT: It’s about to get wet and hot >>
Wet Hot American Summer
One of the best fitness montage parodies comes from cult comedy classic Wet Hot American Summer. Down in the dumps, Coop (Michael Showalter) is taught “The New Way” by the summer camp’s bizarre cafeteria cook, Gene (Christopher Meloni). The montage features appropriately cheesy music as Coop struggles to dance, run, explore the woods and grab a bean from Gene’s hand. After working hard for part of an afternoon, Coop seems to have achieved the abstract concept of “The New Way,” quickly improving in every aspect of training. The lack of increased muscle definition coinciding with the lack of a clear reason for training nicely satirizes the tired concept of the ‘80s-style montage. NEXT: America, F-yeah! >>
Team America: World Police
The training montage in Team America takes the Wet Hot American Summer montage parody a step further. Trey Parker and Matt Stone are always more than ready to point out things that are cliché, and this scene is their evident denouncement of 30 years of interchangeable fitness/sports montages. Backed by the brilliant track, “We’re Gonna Need a Montage,” our hero Gary Johnston prepares to storm Kim Jong-il’s palace by lifting weights, sitting in a gyroscope and shaving. NEXT: Superhero training >>
As we all look forward to The Dark Knight Rises later this year, it’s probably a good time to take a look back at the training montage that started it all in Batman Begins. Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) learns most of his bat skills from Henri Ducard (Liam Neeson), the man at the helm of Ra’s Al Ghul, a group dedicated to eradicating civilizations that have grown too corrupt. What makes this montage particularly strong is the realization that Wayne’s ideology differs from Ducard, who believes taking a completely merciless attitude toward criminals is the only way to deter others from committing crimes. Either way, he’s indebted to Ducard for training him to be Batman and we’re indebted to this movie for one of the coolest fight scenes ever made after he caps off his training. NEXT: Christian Bale isn’t looking quite so buff >>
(2010) Christian Bale makes another appearance in The Fighter, this time as a drug-addicted lowlife. But this isn’t about his transformation. The film is based in part of the boxing career of “Irish” Micky Ward in the mid-1980s—a real-life inspiring boxing story that occurred while so many fictional ones were going up on the big screen. This scene is a more realistic portrayal of what tough training looks like—getting up and out the door earlier than you’d like to, working hard to recover from lingering injuries and struggling to continue to get fitter and stronger. Training scenes like this and in other films like Million Dollar Baby show us that the pure fitness montage isn’t dead, but has only evolved to become more down-to-earth and realistic in comparison to the ridiculousness of montages in action and sports movies throughout the 1980s. Perhaps that’s sad in a way, but overall, it’s probably a good thing.
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