There are a few things that Hollywood just never seems to get right. Telephone etiquette, computer “hacking” and, perhaps chief among the most commonly-defiled actions to grace the silver screen, exercise and weight training.
A montage is a collection of chronologically disjointed — but thematically similar — scenes or sequences spliced together. Montages typically showcase a long series of events quickly as a character prepares for battle, practices a skill, or simply suffers the passage of time.
However, workout montages in movies don’t all have to be fake weights and fangled technique. A good montage accurately depicts the nature of hard training or pushes the plot forward, while a great one does both at once.
Perhaps most importantly, the right workout montage can stir your heart, get you hyped, and remind you why you go to the gym in the first place — even if you aren’t getting ready for the fight of your life or testing the limits of your newfound superpowers.
These are some of the best training montages ever put to film.
- Rocky IV
- Pain & Gain
- G.I. Jane
- The Incredibles
- Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice
- Creed II
- Pumping Iron
Since the first film’s original debut in 1976, the entries in the Rocky franchise have punched far above their own weight. What began as a humble and heartfelt blue-collar boxing movie has evolved into a globally-recognized, six-film and three-spinoff series — all off the (chiseled) back of Sylvester Stallone’s iconic performance as heart-of-gold fighter Rocky Balboa.
Beyond the franchise’s bombastic and charmingly-theatrical fight scenes, the Rocky films are known for their inspiring (and sometimes nakedly patriotic) training montages. None of which hit harder or resonate more deeply than in Rocky IV (1985).
After Balboa’s rival-turned-friend Apollo Creed is killed in the ring by the seemingly-superhuman Russian fighter Ivan Drago, he and Drago prepare for their final clash in the Soviet Union. Their differing methods are juxtaposed over the course of a roughly 10-minute training montage.
Rocky gets his cardio in by trudging through shin-deep snow and bounding across freezing rivers, while Drago runs laps in a darkened Soviet facility. The Russian is seen working through various bodybuilding exercises and hitting what appears to be several 400-pound-plus power cleans, while Balboa pushes a sled out of a snowbank or trains his back by doing pull-ups in a barn.
Rocky IV convincingly argues that you don’t need access to a fancy gym to get in shape. Moreover, showcasing the cold and clinical Russian training style alongside Balboa’s grounded outdoor workouts reinforces the film’s messaging about the merits of American work ethic at the height of the Cold War.
Balboa may have first gotten ripped by bounding up the iconic Philadelphia steps or chasing chickens around his backyard, but none of his other montages come with as much narrative merit and old-fashioned gusto as the one in Rocky IV.
While most movies will pay homage to the weight room with one or maybe even two dedicated scenes, 2013’s Pain & Gain makes muscle mass the centerpiece of its screenplay. Inspired loosely by the real-life crime story of Miami’s Sun Gym gang, the film leans hard into workout montages as a medium for storytelling.
What makes Pain & Gain such a muscle-building bullseye is its portrayal of gym culture. Protagonist Daniel Lugo, played by Mark Wahlberg, spends much of the film’s first act narrating the woes of his life over scenes of stringer-bound bodybuilders in dusty weight rooms and his unremarkable career as a run-of-the-mill personal trainer.
Pain & Gain makes satire of many of the real reasons people become consumed by weight lifting — feelings of inadequacy, insecurity, and a desperate desire to make something more of themselves with their bare hands.
Both Wahlberg and costars Anthony Mackie and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson darkly (but accurately) embody some of the less-illustrious psychology of bodybuilding. Though the plot itself rapidly escalates into the absurd, Pain & Gain scores big by hiring real bodybuilders as extras and ensuring its lead actors look a bit too much like people you’ve probably seen in your own gym.
In 1997, Demi Moore portrayed Lt. Jordan O’Neil in Ridley Scott’s war drama G.I. Jane. In so doing, Moore joined the likes of Sigourney Weaver (Alien) and Linda Hamilton (Terminator) as one of the most committed female action stars of the late-20th century.
Moore’s O’Neil is selected as the first woman to undergo Navy special operations training. Over the course of the film, she’s depicted in several montages running through obstacle courses and succumbing to the grueling physical standards of the armed forces.
However, she adapts, works hard, and begins to excel. Her physical prowess is on display through some solo calisthenics training — blowing through inverted sit-ups and even hitting a few single-arm push-ups to boot.
To prepare for the role, Moore revealed on an episode of the Howard Stern Show that she partook in real Navy S.E.A.L. training operations, including fasted sprints on the beach and took more than her share of tough love from the drill instructor.
Her commitment to authentic preparation paid off in spades and Moore proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that women could be just as — if not more — athletic than any man on the silver screen.
Sometimes, the right workout can help you find your footing in life all over again. In the animated superhero flick The Incredibles (2004), Bob Parr, long divorced from his heroic alias Mr. Incredible, makes physical training a big part of his lifestyle after a period away from the mask and cape.
In the film, the comically top-heavy Parr is depicted as a man who regains his zest for life after a mysterious benefactor enables him to once again partake in heroics following years of quiet retirement. As a result of his newfound commitment to physical prowess, Parr’s home life improves dramatically as well.
Although relatively brief, the Incredibles’ montage more than highlights all the best parts of physical activity. Parr reignites his strength by going through strongman-inspired outdoor workouts. He pushes a freight train down the tracks, bench presses a train car, and hooks industrial storage containers up to some chains to blast his chest with flyes under the setting sun.
Unsurprisingly, his self-confidence skyrockets. His waistline slims down. He’s more romantic with his wife at home, and more invested in his children. Even if you can’t lift buildings or single-handedly dismantle giant robots, Parr’s training sequence in The Incredibles serves as an effective reminder that exercise works for everyone — superhuman or otherwise.
Batman has no superpowers (unless you count exorbitant wealth, which Ben Affleck’s Bruce Wayne absolutely does) — a fact Gotham’s caped crusader is coldly reminded of in 2016’s Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice when he first confronts the Man of Steel.
After their first suited-up encounter in which Henry Cavill’s Superman effortlessly crushes the Batmobile at lightning speed, Batman returns to his dwelling to lick his wounds. Frustrated, he turns to two very different solutions — technology and his personal weight room.
As dark orchestral music booms throughout the scene, Wayne is depicted as a man possessed by purpose. He pushes a sled packed to the brim with plates, bangs out reps of weighted pull-ups, and shrugs off what appears to be a six-plate back squat (plus some added chains) among other feats.
It’s not inspiring in the traditional, feel-good sense, but Batman v. Superman’s montage earns props for its realism. The gym is grimy, the lifting looks authentic (for the most part), and most importantly, Affleck’s Bruce Wayne is in superhuman shape and isn’t afraid to show it.
The two (and soon to be three) films of the Creed series are all about heart — an idea the films pound into submission through montages like Adonis Creed’s desert-set workout scene in Creed II (2018).
After failing to defeat Viktor Drago and nearly losing his life in the process, Michael B. Jordan’s Adonis Creed ventures deep into the desert with Rocky Balboa to train for their inevitable rematch.
The montage plays out like a microcosm of the film itself — Adonis is tested, fails, but rises again. In the blistering heat and lacking the luxuries of a modern gym, the fighter makes a lot out of a little.
He gets his cardio by sprinting down a barren highway, strengthens his neck with a harness, vomits over the course of a crushing medicine ball core workout, and refines his conditioning by swinging a hammer into the dirt. The scene builds and builds towards goosebump-inducing levels of hype before crashing into its finale, in which Adonis realizes he can achieve anything if he’s willing to work hard enough for it.
You’d have a hard time arguing against 1998’s Mulan as one of Disney’s strongest golden-era animated entries. Much of that credit is due to the strength and unshakable catchiness of the musical numbers in the film like “I’ll Make a Man Out of You” — which just so happens to be a kick-ass training montage as well.
In a desperate attempt to fend off the invading Huns, countryside conscripts are put through a preparatory training regime over the course of the song. Fa Mulan, who impersonated a man to join the war as a means of sparing her ailing father from the draft, struggles with the physical pace set by her instructor.
Mulan stumbles and collapses during a loaded carry workout through the mountains. She lacks the balance and stability to dodge rocks thrown by her fellow trainees. She’s even dismissed in the night by Shang, the regiment’s unreasonably-jacked commander.
But as the music swells, Mulan uses her cleverness — alongside heaps of lat strength and a tight grip — to climb a large pole and retrieve an arrow that none of the other trainees could reach through brute force.
“I’ll Make a Man Out of You” culminates in a triumphant series of sequences showing that Mulan, even when burdened by the gender norms of her society, can rise to the occasion and master any physical challenge. The montage mixes creative outdoor workouts with an inspiring message suitable for children and adults alike.
Far from leaping over tall buildings or shooting ocular lasers, David Dunn, the empowered protagonist of M. Night Shyamalan’s Unbreakable (2000) portrays a more sobering and restrained superhero.
Early on in the film, Dunn — played by Bruce Willis — is exercising his chest in his basement while his son Joseph watches on. Unbeknownst to Dunn, Joseph loads some extra weight onto his father’s barbell. After successfully pressing the weight, Dunn sits up in shock.
What follows is a montage of the father-son duo testing Dunn’s inexplicable strength. After using up all the weights at their disposal to press 270 pounds, they fix several cans of paint to the bar as well.
Dunn tests and retests his 1-rep max on the bench press with subdued astonishment before remarking that 350 pounds — the heaviest they could go with what was available — is far more than he’s ever done before.
Unbreakable effectively uses a quiet workout scene to drive home one of its main themes: that heroism is about how you perceive yourself. Joseph sees his father as a larger-than-life hero throughout the film, a view that is all but confirmed as Dunn rests quietly between sets. It is through each rep on the bench that Dunn begins to believe it about himself.
It would be a crime to not punctuate any list of the best workout montages on film without at least acknowledging the forerunner of fitness on the big screen — 1977’s dramatized bodybuilding documentary Pumping Iron. Filmed largely throughout the period leading up to and around the 1975 Mr. Olympia competition, Pumping Iron distills bodybuilding down to its bare essentials.
Beyond capturing Arnold Schwarzenegger in his debatable prime, the film also introduces Lou Ferrigno, Franco Columbu, Ed Corney, and many other faces that would fit comfortably on the Mount Rushmore of Bodybuilding to a wider audience.
Moreover, Pumping Iron puts the training itself at the forefront. There’s little artistry or implication to its scenery — what you see is what you get. Real physique athletes lifting real weights during their workouts, with all the sweat and skin-tearing pumps that come with the territory.
For recreational bodybuilding enthusiasts, Pumping Iron is essential reading. For those not privy to the inner workings and ostentatiousness of muscle culture, it was (and remains) an eye-opening, critically-acclaimed docudrama. Many of the montages on this very list may not exist at all if not for Pumping Iron first breaking the ground decades prior.
Featured Image: @creedmovie on Instagram