Why The Rocky Series is Perfect Motivation for Training

By on October 31, 2017
rocky yelling

In your face, nature!

There is no film series that is as motivating to as many gym-goers as the Rocky franchise. Of every gym rat I know, there is not a single one who doesn’t love the Rocky movies. The films no doubt inspired countless numbers of us to get into physical training in the first place, and even outside of the gym, the Rocky soundtrack and montage has been synonymous with training to get better at anything.

‘Eye of the tiger’ is part of our cultural lexicon now. ‘Gonna fly now’ plays over every parodies and inspirational videos. Countless sports films have ripped off the Rocky formula, from Karate Kid through to The Warrior. But it’s a formula that has never been bettered. One that works to this day, as seen with the recent success of Creed.

adonis creed

But what is it about these films that make them so motivating and inspirational? Why do we respond to Rocky so much as a character?

We’ve discussed Dragon Ball, now it’s time to dive into the true masterclass in motivation…

The Obvious Reasons

Well first of all, there are some obvious reasons. For instance, it helps that this is a film about a very strong guy getting even stronger. It also doesn’t hurt that the music has a driving beat and roaring guitar, or that the montages found a way to convey long training regimes over a short period of time.

In real life, we need to spend months or years training to see the results. In Rocky films, we can get a glimpse of what that transformation will look like, if we keep putting in the work.

The montage also works because it manages to match the images on the screen with the music so perfectly. Tracks like ‘Training Montage’ by Vince DiCola manage to continuously one-up themselves, while the feats on the screen become more and more impressive. It’s all pay-off, with multiple emotional climaxes in a very short space of time. It’s no surprise that this gets you pumped.

And this is perfectly epitomized in Rocky IV, by which point the film was practically one long music video!

rocky 4 leg raise

Russia… I’m comin’ ta get you!

There’s also a hefty dose of machismo on the screen. Seeing Apollo and Rocky square off as rivals brings out a competitive spirit in all of us and a desire to train harder in order to be better. I love the scene at the end of Rocky III where they set up a private match, simply to decide once and for all who the greater fighter is. That film and its direct sequel in particular are all about the warrior’s code and topics like fighting fair and revenge. Opponents square off in the ring, talk each other down and build up the suspense for the impending fights.

It’s like Dragon Ball Z, but a little less over the top.

Rocky and Stoicism

There’s another way in which the Rocky series is similar to Dragon Ball Z – and that’s the way that both series follow their protagonists across a large portion of their lives. I can’t think of another prominent film series that is so episodic. Bond doesn’t count: there is too little continuity between incarnations. But with Rocky, we encounter him as a washed up bum in his late 20s or early 30s, see him rise to prominence, watch him retire and re-enter the ring and then see him pass his legacy on as his health starts to deteriorate.

sly with sage wisdom

This makes us particularly attached to Rocky and creates even more suspense during his fights.

But there’s another reason that we relate to Rocky so much, and there’s another reason we find his story so inspiring. And that is the simple fact that he is an underdog in almost every fight he’s in. Any time Rocky achieves some semblance of power or authority, that is stripped from him. The formula doesn’t work if Rocky is on top of the world.

The plot even goes to some rather strange lengths to accomplish this. In Rocky III, we learn that he can’t train like the champ to stay on top. He needs to be humiliated, stripped of his mentor and taken back to basics to regain ‘the eye of the tiger’. Just so he can come back again and kick ass.

rocky 3 clubber vs rocky

Take me down a peg, will you?

In Rocky V, Rocky loses all of his fortune thanks to the ill-informed decision to leave the handling of his finances to his mentally slow (generous) brother in law. In Rocky Balboa he’s… old.

Rocky is a hero who thrives against the odds. Who shows that with dedication, determination and a training montage anything is possible.

And so, in the movies, we can interpret the various opponents he faces as mere metaphors for the struggles he’s facing in life. Maybe it’s confidence, pride, fear, nationalism or even cancer. Creed is perhaps the film to make this symbolism most clear.

rocky balboa 2

Take that relentless march of time!

So, if you look more closely at the philosophy of the Rocky series, you can see that in many ways, this is a stoic parable. Stoicism is the ancient Greek school of philosophy that preaches the importance of realism: of recognizing the hardships of life and embracing the reality that bad things happen. Stoics believe that positivity can be destructive and that it is better to prepare for hardship and even to try and thrive when life gets hardest.

And this philosophy is perfectly encapsulated in Rocky’s speech to his son in Rocky Balboa. Here, he says:

“The world ain’t all sunshine and rainbows. It’s a very mean and nasty place… and I don’t care how tough you are, it will beat you to your knees and keep you there permanently, if you left it. You, me or nobody is gonna hit as hard as life. But it ain’t about how hard you hit… it’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward. How much you can take and keep moving forward. That’s how winning is done!”

In other words, life is tough. So, toughen up, deal with it and win anyway!

rocky balboa

Screw you grief!

And when you apply that philosophy to your workouts, it can be incredibly satisfying. No matter what is going on in your life, no matter how tough things get, you can choose to keep fighting. When I go to the gym, I feel like I’m making that choice. When you have the worst day possible and you still find it in your gut to hit the weights, you’re building a kind of determination that is unstoppable. And then you can take on anything.

“In the warrior’s code there’s no surrender, though his body says stop, his spirit cries never!”

Inspired by real life

Whether or not Stallone intended to infuse his story with stoic philosophy is unclear. But certainly the story was inspired by real life struggles and it is definitely a parable for how you can overcome those challenges if you knuckle down.

Stallone’s famous inspiration for the character was Chick Wepner, a boxer who was a relative nobody when he went up against Muhammad Ali in 1975, but who managed to go nearly all fifteen rounds nonetheless. There was a story of a guy who stood up against the odds. And not only that, a guy who could then live proudly with that personal victory and the pride that came from that – it didn’t even matter that he actually lost the fight.

rocky with log

But the other inspiration for Rocky Balboa is undoubtedly Stallone himself. Everyone knows the story by now. Rocky was a struggling actor who had even been forced to sell his dog because he had hit on such hard times. In an interview, he mentioned that he also dabbled with writing and a producer aske to see an example. He presented them with the draft for Rocky and they loved it so much that they started offering him huge amounts of money for the rights. Stallone refused and remained steadfast – the only deal he would accept was one where he got to play the titular character. He even turned down a $300,000 offer (roughly equivalent to a million today) at a time when he had only $103 in his bank account.

Eventually the studio relented but gave the film minimal budget and publicity. It went on to win three academy awards and made its lead role into a megastar. The rest is history.

rocky press

In your face film studios!

And a similar story surrounds the making of Rocky Balboa. This was at a time when Stallone hadn’t been in the public eye for many years. When the Rocky franchise was similarly largely forgotten. And yet Sly wanted one last take on the character that was what led to his incredible career comeback.

And in both these cases, the real life struggles of Stallone would mirror those of his hero on-screen.

Also: this scene

Also: this scene

Like so many people, Stallone does his best work when the chips are down. So what are you going to do the next time life is giving you a hard time?


This is your last warning, gravity

Dum, dum dum dum, dum dum duuuuuum…

About Adam Sinicki

Adam Sinicki, AKA The Bioneer, is a writer, personal trainer, author, entrepreneur, and web developer. I've been writing about health, psychology, and fitness for the past 10+ years and have a fascination with the limits of human performance. When I'm not running my online businesses or training, I love sandwiches, computer games, comics, and hanging out with my family.

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