In Iron Man, Robert Downey Jr. impressed audiences with a lean, mean, fighting-machine physique. As Tony Stark, an engineering genius with a penchant for women and adventure, the 5 feet 8 inch Downey weighed in at more than 170 pounds, with sinewy arms and rock-hard muscles that came from months of grueling workouts.
After that film, however, Downey switched gears. He dropped 20 pounds to play Sherlock Holmes – a thin, reed-like character with smaller muscles.
So when Downey learned that he would once again be playing Stark in Iron Man 2, the challenge was on.
From Sherlock to Iron Man 2
"We had to do some pretty drastic stuff to get him up near the 170-plus pounds of Iron Man," says Brad Bose, PhD, the exercise physiologist and kinesiologist who sculpted Downey for all three films.
And they had to do it quickly. Downey had only three months to prepare for Iron Man 2 – and a full 20 pounds to regain.
On top of that, Bose says Downey was exhausted from the diet and training he had done for Sherlock Holmes and was bored with traditional workouts.
"As mentally strong as he was, the body was tired," says Bose, who owns Bose Management in Santa Monica, Calif.
"Robert said, ‘If I have to get underneath a bench press or [do] a squat, I'm going to shoot myself. I just don't have the motivation.' So his challenge to me was to make the workouts fun and challenging."
Bose hit the books, researching long-forgotten and exotic training techniques. His goal: Chisel Downey's body into one that fit Iron Man's character – not just get him back into shape.
"The role was a much different person than the typical Marvel superhero, who tends to be an overbuilt, buff kind of guy – the guy who's big and muscular and strapping, and who almost looks like a body builder," Bose says. "The character of Iron Man was a playboy millionaire, a misunderstood scientist, a techno-geek. It didn't fit him to be a big, overly muscular guy."
Downey's Iron Man 2 Diet and Workout
Bose designed a series of one-of-a-kind workouts that honor Bose's mantra of "functional performance" – training that accomplishes specific physical goals and keeps the body working at peak performance.
Here are some of the exotic exercises Downey did, which Bose describes as "Rocky IV meets modern technology."
But first, a word of caution. You shouldn't try these exercises at home. They were developed specifically for Downey and performed under watchful supervision. That's a must, because without expert help, you could easily get hurt.
Bose likens these to weighted juggling pins. "Back in the early 1900s, they were quite popular," he says. "They were the center of a lot of Strongman shows, where guys would use these five- and 10-pound big wooden clubs and swing them around at [high] speeds and do unusual movements. It's really nice for shoulder and arm development, and actually pretty good on the joints, because it's rotational movement."
Bose says meels, which look like oversized Indian clubs, were used in ancient Persia to train horse riders who had to carry big, heavy swords. "I called a couple of experts and learned how to train with them. Some of it's crazy. But it's great for shoulder work," Bose says.
Bose rigged a wheelbarrow and welded it to hold up to 650 pounds. "Then I made an obstacle course with cones and had Robert wield it in figure eight formations through the cones," Bose says. The workout targets the chest, shoulders, and back. "It requires an immense amount of strength and skill," Bose says.
"I filled fire hoses with sand and water – one of each – and got [Downey] to whip them around. He would do almost squats while whipping the fire hoses up and down," Bose says.
Bose filled a sprinter's sled with 50-pound weights and tied it to the end of a heavy, 50-foot rope. "Robert would stand stationary and then pull it to him, drop it, then sprint 50 feet away again. He would pull, run, and pull again," Bose says. The full-body exercise especially targeted the glutes, lats, rhomboids, biceps and triceps, as well as the torso, abs, and core.
Truck Tires and Sledgehammer
Bose bought giant truck tires and had Downey beat the tires with sledgehammer "like you'd beat a drum. Then we'd swing them overhead and pound the tires. That builds shoulder stability," Bose says.
Downey flipped and threw SUV tires like a discus. "Again, this is pretty advanced stuff," Bose says. "It's not like the average person should do this, because it puts a lot of torque on the spine... You get very powerful in your abs."
"We put rubber bands on bamboo bars then attached kettle bells to the rubber bands on the bar," Bose says. "It's like having a snake in your hands that's trying to wiggle its way out of your hands while you're trying to move it up, down, and around."
Bose attached bands to a piece of stationary equipment called the Perfect Storm. Using the bands, Downey did swimming motions -- like breast stroke and back stroke. "It gives the muscles a polished look," Bose says.
Downey also used kettlebells and a War Machine, which is a portable, patented pulley training system that uses body weight as resistance (no relation to the Iron Man 2 character of the same name). "If there was one thing you could have in your brief case, it would be probably a War Machine," Bose says.
Back to Reality
Getting bored with exercise is common, even if you're not training for a movie.
Bose says he highly recommends functional training, to reach peak performance or simply "go to the next level." Otherwise, he says, your body quickly adapts to your workout – even after just one or two days.
Be sure to mix things up, Bose advises. His tips:
- If you typically do a long cardiovascular session, followed by strength training, instead do 10 minutes of cardio between weight sets.
- When strength training, do different exercises in a different order each time.
- Vary your cardio routine every time you work out, and from week to week.
"One of the weak points people make in their cardio training is limiting it to one piece of equipment, like a treadmill or an elliptical that they might have at their home," Bose says.
"They never vary their cardiovascular training. And when you do that, you limit your ability to perform. The misconception is that because I'm on my treadmill, I'm improving my conditioning… You need to challenge your heart with different levels, and you want to switch to something different."