Keep Moving Forward: Lessons From The Rocky Franchise
Rocky Balboa is one my favorite all-time fictional characters.
Outside of the ring, he seemed to be the nicest guy in the world. But when a challenge presented itself, when someone hurt his friends or family, he would unleash hell on his opponents in the ring.
He was everything a 6-year old boy could ever want to be. He was charming, in a goofy, meathead-y way. He was a good man who always did the right thing. He never backed down from a challenge and he always gave it his all.
Aside from the in-ring action and awsomely-80’s soundtrack, there was so much more to Rocky; there was subtext the plot of each movie that was missed by those only looking for a stereotypical 80’s action flick.
To Sylvester Stallone, this movie, the original from 1976, wasn’t supposed to be a mindless popcorn movie. Nor was that how it was received, being nominated for the Academy Aware for Best Picture, but ultimately losing to One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest.
Rocky, 40 Years Ago
Stallone went through hell trying to get the original Rocky made, while being dead broke, living in New York City. He lived in squalor and worked odd jobs during the day, trying to make ends meet, and writing the script at night.
He got turned down by dozens of movie studios. They thought the script was good but wanted a bankable actor in the starring role. Stallone knew that this was the part he was born to play, and he turned down ever offer that didn’t’ let him play the main character.
Things got so bad for him, that he eventually had to sell his dog, Butkus, for $40 outside of a 7/11. Eventually, the script sold, he bought his dog back for $15,000, and they both went on to star in the first movie.
The rest is history.
Rocky, 40 Years Later
That first movie screened in theaters in December of 1976. 40 years later, Rocky Balboa is a piece of Americana. The original movie and its subsequent sequels have been seen by just about everyone.
And if you haven’t seen them, then you’ve at least heard about Rocky Balboa.
The movies have grossed over 1 billion dollars, entertaining millions of fans for four decades and changing the life of a struggling writer/actor from New York City.
The cultural impact of the Balboa character is not lost on Stallone. In previous installments, the lessons were part of the subtext. Starting with Balboa, however, he’s been making sure that the advice he wanted the audience to walk away with is front and center.
Stallone knows he isn’t going to be around forever and I think he’s been doing this because he wants to make sure that he can pass on the lessons he’s learned living on this planet for over 70 years and achieving a level of success he never dreamed of.
He’s seen it all and he’s done it all. And he wants to leave behind a legacy that’s greater than just entertaining people.
With that said, here are the most important things I learned from watching the Rocky movies. I did a longer post, taking an in-depth look at each movie, but this post is a TL;DR version.
Below is what I feel are the most important ideas that can be taken from each movie, followed by a workout inspired by Rocky’s training montages.
Life isn’t always going to give you a happy ending. It’s not always fair. Sometimes you give it your all and you still lose.
There’s no shame in that.
You might have another chance to redeem yourself, but even if you don’t, you’ll walk away without the what-ifs:
“What if I would have trained harder?”
“What if I would have dieted better?”
“What if I would have worked harder?”
Even if you meet your goal, the worst case scenario is that you walk away better than you started. That’s what matters. And you can always try again.
As time goes on, life imposes greater and greater demands on our time. Responsibilities at work continue to expand and relationships take up more time.
But if you have a goal you want to accomplish or something left inside yourself to share with the world, it’s only going to get harder as times goes on. By not pursuing and achieving those things, you’re being unfair to yourself. By letting your goals take over your life, you’re being unfair to everyone else in your life.
In the end, learning how to balance the pursuit of goals, responsibilities, relationships and self-care is the only way to maintain the fruits of our hard work.
Literally, as I was writing this, I came across this video where Joe Rogan says it about as well as it can be said:
“He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.” – Frederich Nietzsche
Regardless if you’re new to training or have been doing it for a few years, you know that motivation comes and goes. There are people who work out sporadically, like whenever the summer draws near or they feel that their clothes don’t fit as well as they used to. Then there are the people who train regularly and do so for years.
There’s one thing that separates one group from the other: knowing “why.”
With every goal, we each have to identify the “why;” we have to know exactly why achieving that goal matters.
The goal itself is usually never the reason.
The goal itself isn’t why we want to accomplish the goal. What really matters is how we think accomplishing that goal will make us feel, and where those feelings come from. It’s usually deeper than that and requires a bit of self-reflection.
That’s the fuel that’s going to keep you going on those cold and dark winter morning. That’s what’s going to keep you going on those beautiful summer days when you’d rather be at bar-b-que then at the gym or grinding on your passion projects.
If you don’t know your real “why” you’ll always find an excuse to put off the things you want to do.
In this movie, the “eye of the tiger” is mentioned for the first time. Think of a tiger focused on its prey and you get an instant mental picture of what means to a boxer; it’s extreme focus on the task at hand.
If you want the eye of the tiger, you’re going to have to know your “why.”
It may take some time to find your “why,” but once you know it, you’ll be that much closer to achieving your goals. But if you forget it, it’s only a matter of time before you lose the things you’ve worked so hard for.
Have you always been overweight, afraid to take your shirt off at the beach? Have you always been the “skinny” person who can never find clothes that fit, because the clothes either reveal just how “skinny” you are or they’re too baggy and ill fitting?
If you continue to identify with a state of being, it can become an immutable part of your identity. A reason why many people find it so hard to transform their bodies is because they just don’t think that they’re capable of being something other than how they seem themselves.
The Russians and the Americans of The Cold War-80’s could only see each other as enemies; they began to self-identify as opposing paradigms.
Instead of being limited by the thoughts of who you are, I challenge you to think like the person you want to be.
Would the person you want to be sit in front of the TV while mindlessly eating chips?
Would that person create excuses for skipping the gym?
Would that person blame their failures on their circumstances or other people?
I also believe that this the reason why some people can’t maintain the changes. They suffer cognitive dissonance between who they were and who they’ve become. Creating lasting change requires that you see yourself as the person you’ve become, not the person you were.
You don’t have to continue down the road that brought you here.
Everyone can change.
There isn’t much to say about this movie that wasn’t already covered in an earlier post by Julio. If you’re interested, check it out right here, but here’s an excerpt:
“Fear is a fighter’s best friend. You know, but it ain’t nothing to be ashamed of. See, fear keeps you sharp, it keeps you awake, you know, it makes you want to survive. You know what I mean? But the thing is, you gotta learn how to control it. All right? ‘Cause fear is like this fire, all right? And it’s burning deep inside. Now, if you control it,…..it’s gonna make you hot. But, you see, if this thing here, it controls you, it’s gonna burn you and everything else around you up. That’s right, you know?” – Rocky Balboa
Yup, even the worst of Rocky movies can teach us a valuable lesson.
Fear is a controllable emotion and we are the ones behind the wheel.
Fear is a part of us all. It is a normal, healthy, human emotion to have.
Fear is empowering. It is what challenges us to become better, to become stronger. It is what gets you to the gym, helps you burn fat, push the bar further, increase your sprint time, and reach new personal records.
You probably know what I’m going to say. This piece of Rocky wisdom has gone viral; the most-viewed clip of this speech on YouTube has over 9 million hits. And I’m sure you’ve seen it already.
But one more time won’t hurt.
“To those human beings who are of any concern to me I wish suffering, desolation, sickness, ill-treatment, indignities — I wish that they should not remain unfamiliar with profound self-contempt, the torture of self-mistrust, the wretchedness of the vanquished: I have no pity for them, because I wish them the only thing that can prove today whether one is worth anything or not — that one endures. ” – Friedrich Nietzsche
Life isn’t always easy.
Life isn’t always fair.
But what are you going to do about it?
Sometimes life deals you a crappy hand; you’re faced with challenges you can’t escape. Sometimes you can work hard and get better cards; you can work your way out of some bad situations to create better ones.
Then, there are some things that are just out of your control.
You can either blame someone or something else for not having the things that you want out of life, or you can play the hand that you’ve been dealt with the best of your abilities while trying to find the things that you can change and address those to create better opportunities for yourself.
That’s how winnin’ is done.
“Time beat him. Time takes everybody out; it’s undefeated.”
– Rocky Balboa.
Sooner or later, no matter how great your potential is, and regardless of whether you fulfilled it or not, time is going to catch up to you. Your time on Earth is limited. Make the best of every opportunity that comes your way. When that’s not possible, find ways of creating your own opportunities. Don’t wait around for time to take you out.
“[I]n nooks all over the earth sit men who are waiting, scarcely knowing in what way they are waiting, much less that they are waiting in vain. Occasionally the call that awakens– that accident which gives the “permission to act — comes too late, when the best youth and strength for action has already been used up by sitting still; and many have found to their horror when they ‘leaped up’ that their limbs had gone to sleep and their spirit had become to heavy. ‘It is too late,’ they said to themselves, having lost their faith in themselves and henceforth forever useless.”
– Friedrich Nietzsche
“You’re going eat lightning and you’re going to crap thunder!”
Alright, you made it this far.
And I don’t know about you, but even reading about Rocky makes me want to workout.
Well, we got something special for you. My boy, the Fitness Italian Stallion, Dominick Ponzio of ponzioperformance.com hooked us up with a workout inspired by Rocky’s training montages. Many of the movements are similar to what he did in his training, but only using body weight.
Naturally, this workout is going to be tough (it is inspired by Rocky’s grueling workouts, after all).
Dom also included some easier variations of some of the exercises, so it can work just as well no matter what your fitness level is.
Load up “Eye of The Tiger” on your workout playlist and let’s get started.
Isometric Push-up x 20s
Side Plank x 20s/side
Entry Level Dead Bug x 6/side
Pulsed Hip Flexor Mobilization x 6/side
Isometric Squat x 20s
Bodyweight Circuit 1
Rest 15 sec between each exercise, 30 to 45 sec after 1d, repeat twice more.
1a) Jump Squats: 3 x 8
1b) Clap Push-up: 3 x 8
If too hard, do this: Incline Plyo Push-up: 3 x 8
1c) Skater Lunge: 3 x 5/side
If too hard, do this: Lateral Jumps: 3 x 5/side
1d) Body Weight Axe Chop: 3 x 5/side
Rest: 30-45 sec
Bodyweight Circuit 2
Move from one exercise right to the next, resting 30-45 sec after 2d, repeat twice more.
2a) Prisoner Squat: 3 x 15
2b) Decline Push-up: 3 x 12-15
If too hard, do this: 3sec. Eccentric Push-up: 3 x 12-15
2c) Bulgarian Split Squat: 3 x 10/side
If too hard, do this: Split Squat: 3 x 10/side
2d) Bent Knee Dragon Flag: 3 x6-10 (do the variation shown at the 1:30-sec. mark)
If too hard, do this: Reverse Crunch: 3 x10
Rest: 30-45 sec
Bodyweight Circuit 3
Move from one exercise right to the next, resting 30 sec after 3f, repeat twice more.
3a) Mountain Climbers: 3 x 20s
3b) Shoulder Tap Push-ups: 3 x 20
3c) Jab-Cross Sit-up: 3 x 20s
3d) Reverse Burpee: 3x20s
3e) Push-up Plank w/ Reach: 3 x 20s
3f) Rocking Plank: 3 x 20s
Rest: 30 sec
Workout – Boxing Drills/Jump Rope Work
-3 Rounds: 20s per combo/drill, no rest in between. Rest 30 sec at the end of the round, repeat twice more.
1-6-3-2 (Jab-Right Upper Cut-Left Hook-Cross)
1-3-6-3 (Jab-Left Hook-Right Upper Cut-Left Hook)
Footwork Drill: Forward, Backward, Left, Right
Rest: 30 sec
Putting All Together
To me, the Rocky franchise of movies was more than just mindless entertainment.
It’s inspirational; every time that music hit or those fight scenes came up I still get excited to do something physical no matter how many times I’ve seen these movies.
It’s aspirational; Rocky was a loser, a guy full of unfulfilled potential. He was the archetypal “everyman.” What separated him from everyone else was his heart; he gave every challenge his all and never gave up no matter how tough things got. Anyone could have been Rocky Balboa with the right attitude.
Sylvester Stallone and his fictional counterpart, Rocky Balboa, gave us four decades of entertainment and wisdom to build our bodies and our soul.
And if I never get to meet you in person, this is my way of saying “thank you” for being a role model to me, and an inspiration to millions.
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