How Dolph Lundgren trained to fight Rocky from Muscle & Fitness magazine.
Sylvester Stallone was in trouble. He had the concept for Rocky IV, Rocky vs the Russians, but what he didn’t have was somebody to play the Russian fighter. He needed a man who would be impressive enough to match and exceed the impact of Rocky’s past opponents: Carl Weathers’ Apollo Creed, wrestler Hulk Hogan and the formidable Mr. T. So Sly resorted to an old time Hollywood ploy – an international talent search.
Enter Dolph Lundgren – former chemical engineer, kick boxing champion, and actor. Dolph was in New York at the time and heard Stallone was casting for Rocky IV. He auditioned, but was immediately turned down. At almost 6′ 6″, he was told he was too tall. “I think they saw about 8,000 people,” Dolph recalls. “They were getting desperate, almost to the point of changing the plot, doing away with the idea of a Russian boxer because they couldn’t find the right person. They needed somebody with a good body who could act, box, and speak with a Russian accent.
Dolph got his picture through to Stallone while in Paris working on a film. Sly called and asked to see him in Los Angeles right away. “I weighed about 215 pounds when I got to L.A.,” Dolph says, “and Sly thought I had a chance for the part if I could gain some muscle weight. So I flew back to New York and began doing some really intense bodybuilding training at John Perretti’s Madison Avenue Muscle. I needed some serious muscle and I needed it in a hurry.
Dolph had about three months to train before his screen test. He learned what he could about the techniques of bodybuilding from such diverse figures as Harold Poole and Lydia Cheng and from reading Muscle & Fitness and Flex. He increased his protein and caloric intake and cut back on cardiovascular activity to try to gain muscle weight as fast as possible.
Most people could not put on 20 or 30 pounds in so short a time, but Dolph was already in supershape and he had been keeping his weight down for years by excessive amounts of endurance exercises. When he eliminated this high-volume exercise, stimulated his muscles with bodybuilding training and increased his food intake, his body seemed to blow up right before his eyes. “I gained a lot of size fast,” he says. “I tried to get as defined as possible. I starved myself for about 10 days, ate high-protein and low carbs. I didn’t really know what I was doing. I never learned how to get muscular with diet and carbs until later. But my metabolism is so fast I was able to rip up anyway.” The time finally arrived. Dolph flew to California for the screen test, along with two other candidates. Dolph had built himself up to be an impressive 248 pounds, but the other two men were more like 260. Huge, but bulky and smooth. “I was so well defined,” he remembers, “that I actually looked much bigger than they did on film. Besides, I could box.”
Dolph was certain at that point that he had the part. And he was right. The next day Stallone called him and gave him the news personally, but gave him no time to relax and celebrate. The start date for the shooting was only five months away and Stallone had ambitious plans for both of them. “I never trained harder in my life than during those five months,” says Dolph. “Sly drove me hard, but he drove himself just as hard. We trained two hours a day at the Santa Monica Bodybuilding Center, and then went to a boxing gym Sly had built a few miles away in Culver city and worked out hours more.”
They were coached in boxing by Richard Giachetti, who had worked with Larry Holmes. They trained as hard as any pro boxer, increasing their time in the ring as the start date for the movie approached. The final days they were sparring for an excruciating four hours a day.
“In the beginning,” Dolph relates, “our first priority was building mass, so we trained heavy in the gym, not too many sets and reps, and kept our boxing to about two hours a day. Later, when we wanted more definition and muscularity, we increased our sparring time. When it was almost time to film Rocky IV, our bodybuilding workouts consisted of only a few heavy sets for each bodypart, but then we went all-out with the boxing.” Dolph was already conditioned for hard workouts, so he took to this new regimen. With his background in karate, he had no difficulty adjusting to the intense boxing training. The only thing he was not prepared for was the complexity of hardcore bodybuilding. “I was taught the finer points of training by Sly and George Pipasik, the owner of the Santa Monica Bodybuilding Center. I learned about the Weider training, techniques such as sets and reps, isolation training, shocking the muscles with techniques like super-sets, forced reps, peak contraction training and negatives – all the stuff I had read about in Muscle & Fitness and Flex but never actually tried.”
While Dolph was no stranger to training, the idea of serious dieting, eating to maximize muscularity and definition, was a new experience indeed. Before this, he had never had to worry about how he looked, only whether or not he would be able to flatten an opponent in one-on-one combat. Now he had to learn from Stallone how to rip up like a bodybuilder. Stallone had learned from bodybuilders like Franco Columbu just how diet can affect the way the body looks. “Sly not only wanted us to move like champion boxers, he wanted us to have the best-looking physiques anyone ever saw in a ring,” explains Lundgren. “And that meant developing muscles that boxers usually don’t develop.” Dolph and Sly trained in the gym on a three-day split – chest and backs/shoulders, arms and legs – six days a week, with ab training twice a day. “Sometimes I would wake up in the middle of the night and do a couple of sets of abs,” explains Dolph, “just so I would look that much better in the gym the next day. That’s how motivated I was by Sly.”
Dolph ripped up to about 240 and was in the best shape of his life. But once Rocky IV started filming, he faced another problem – trying to maintain that level of conditioning 12 hours a day for months at a time. “Bodybuilders usually have to peak for just one or two days,” says Dolph, “but when you are making a movie you have to hold your shape a lot longer. Sometimes you have a scene which includes shots taken weeks or months apart. You can’t look one way in one shot and totally different in another.” Diet was an important aspect of this need to stay in good shape for long periods of time. Stallone arranged to have his own cook on the set and Dolph either ate with him or brought his own food. When they went off on location, Dolph would give a list of special foods he needed to the prop man. The audience at the Los Angeles premiere of Rocky IV gasped when Dolph first appeared on screen without his shirt. And Stallone looked even bigger and more ripped than his memorable Rambo shape.
“Training for the movie has changed my life, ” declares Lundgren. “With Sly’s help, I’ve learned so much about my body and how it responds to training and diet. I’ve developed a whole new standard as to how I will stay in shape for the rest of my life.” Well, the rest is history. Watching Dolph in the ring in Rocky IV, seeing his enormous size, awesome muscularity, incredible speed and power, it’s hard to believe that he was once the sort of teenager who got sand kicked in his face by the neighborhood bully. But until the age of 15, he was actually shorter and smaller than most of his peers and constantly getting beat up by bigger kids. “I never expected to be tall,” he admits, “so I figured I’d better learn to fight. I took up judo first, then karate, and eventually full-contact kick boxing. I discovered I had a kind of killer instinct. Whenever I got hit, I got mad and fought harder. In combat sports, that’s something you either have or you don’t. You don’t really develop it. It’s instinctive.”
By 18, at 6′ 4″ and 180 pounds, Dolph began to rack up an impressive series of full-contact knockouts, most of them achieved by his powerful legs. “I had to start lifting weights as I grew into a heavyweight,” Dolph explains, “because I was so bloody tall and lean it was too easy for little powerpacks to knock me down with one shot. I didn’t really learn about how to build and shape the body, though, until I started training for Rocky IV. Muscles are becoming fashionable these days, especially among actors. The whole idea of being fit and strong is going to get even more popular in the future. But aside from a few stars like Sly, Chuck Norris, Lou Ferrigno, and Arnold Schwarzenegger, there aren’t many actors around who are really that well-built. So I plan to keep doing lots of weight training and get into even more fantastic shape than ever before. But even if I weren’t acting, I’d keep training anyway. There’s something about the pump and the feeling you get after a great workout. It’s fantastic!”