Sweating the Details
Written by Denis Faye

(September 5, 2013) 


As Steve points, out, getting the science right when it comes to training montages doesn’t matter all that much, as long as you fire up the audience. But if you’re a stickler for detail, he suggests you check out Dr. Marcus Elliot and his team at P3 Performance Training. “If you wanted to impress somebody in a training scene with all the stuff they’re doing scientifically,” explains Steve, “like with force plate analysis and biomechanical analysis, they’re doing some of the coolest sport science stuff around.” Their Web site also digs relatively deep into this science.  

If you’re looking for dynamic, outside-the-box training, check out your local CrossFit gym. According to Steve, “CrossFit does a lot of stuff that looks cool cinematically because they lift chains and flip over big tires. It’s fun, but it’s not scientific.”  

If you just want to make sure that your training sequences don’t defy the laws of biomechanics (Sorry, Sly), talking to a personal training will probably yield some basic knowledge. If you can’t find someone at your local gym, the American Council on Exercise or the National Academy of Sports Medicine can help you get in touch with a trainer certified by their particular program.  

Finally, you can never go wrong by seeking out, as Steve calls it, “an old school guy,” who knows the activity that you’re writing about like the back of his (or her) leathery, calloused hand. The Internet is filled with athletes past their glory days who are happy to chat about all aspects of their passion – including training. Pick your sport and start reading blogs. You’ll find your own, private Mr. Miyagi before you know it.  

Everyone who’s ever seen a movie even tangentially related to sports knows the following scene. The big game/match/tournament is coming up. Our hero is good –but not good enough. He or she locks himself or herself away and embarks a grueling, non-stop training montage so brutal that it would lay Floyd Mayweather to waste. (Unless, of course, someone makes a Floyd Mayweather movie, in which case actor Floyd Mayweather would be right there in the thick of it.)

Over the course of the montage, our hero’s abilities skyrocket. He or she emerges at the peak of athletic prowess – until the sequel, in which case, the cycle begins anew.

Ever since Rocky punched his first side of beef, this has been the standard Hollywood method when it comes to athletic training – but how accurate is it? To find out, Technically Speaking sat down with fitness professional Steve Edwards. Steve’s lengthy career includes training, coaching, writing, filming, and competing in dozens of athletic pursuits, the most recent being the Yak Attack, a 400km mountain bike race over the Himalayas, peaking at 5416m above sea level. He also provides the science behind the popular P90X and Insanity DVD workout series and is a self-confessed movie geek. (Full disclosure: I’ve known Steve for over 20 years and spent my last two years of college sitting on his couch, watching Evil Dead II and Barfly in a constant loop.)  

Here’s what Steve had to say about the standard Hollywood athletic training trope.

What does Hollywood get right about training sequences?  

They get the motivation angle right. Those are some of the most motivating scenes in film history. From an athlete’s point of view, they’re almost better than real sports.

Let’s take Rocky [Written by Sylvester Stallone]. I bet it doubled the popularity of boxing for a little while, and not just boxing but training for boxing. You’d see people all of a sudden running down the street throwing punches and stuff and wearing Rocky sweatpants and even trying to punch meat. So where they get it right is that they’re super motivating. They make you want to train. And I think that was the idea.

Now what do they get wrong?  

The big one is that they all overtrain. Everybody in the movies completely overtrains for whatever they’re doing. So from Vision Quest [Screenplay by Darryl Ponicsan] to Rocky and probably any sports montage you can think of, the guys are pushing themselves to the point that it’s no longer beneficial.

When I saw Rocky in high school – and I knew all sorts of stuff about training for sports – I went out and overtrained like a maniac. I’d get up in the morning, and I’d eat raw eggs, and I’d go running, and I’d do hours of exercise before practice and then I’d run again at night – or train again. I was a flipping maniac.

In movies, the harder you work the better you get, period. That’s not how training really works. In Rocky IV [Written by Sylvester Stallone], which is supposed to be more of a serious movie, there’s a part where Rocky can barely lift two people in the cart – so what does he do next? He puts a third person in the cart. He ups his weight by another 100 and some odd pounds, which is fantastic. Meanwhile, Drago’s doing all the scientific stuff and taking steroids and Rocky still beats him up. It’s cool and it’s fun, but it’s not very realistic.

It’s interesting because we know so much more about training, yet those clichés remain. I’m thinking of the latest Batman where he’s trapped in that prison, and he’s broken his back, and he fixes it by doing pushups, basically.  

Well, Batman’s a superhero.

But he doesn’t have superpowers.  

He doesn’t have superpowers, but he acts like he has superpowers, and he kind of behaves like he has superpowers.

So he doesn’t count?  

I don’t know if superheroes count because the whole premise of a superhero is you’re doing stuff that’s just ridiculous to begin with. But if you want pushups for a hurt back, Hollywood doesn’t get anything right in that respect. If you want to look at form, they hire actors to play professional athletes all the time and their form is off and it’s terrible.

For example?  

My track coach in high school used to talk about The Jericho Mile [Teleplay by Patrick J. Nolan and Michael Mann] with Peter Strauss, remember that guy? It’s a pretty good movie, actually, but he has terrible running form. He’s all tight and his fists are clenched. And again, I’m sure the director was like, “Look less relaxed,” because if you look at a real runner, they look really relaxed. But in film people don’t want to look relaxed. In film, everyone has these faces of death on when they’re doing hard stuff. Even I’ve done it because I’ve been climbing, say, for a video shoot and they’re like, “No, no, look like it’s harder, so flex your muscles and grimace.”

So why do real athletes look relaxed?  

Because if you’re tense, if your muscles are tense, then you inhibit quick reactions in your body. If it’s a reaction sport you want to be relaxed so you can react to whatever’s going to happen. If it’s a muscular engagement sport, rock climbing, boxing, sprinting, or weight lifting, you want to save all your energy for the muscles that are going to be used, so everything else should be as relaxed as possible. That said, you don’t want to take it too far and look like Steven Seagal, whose arms flap around so he runs like Little Red Riding Hood running from the Big Bad Wolf.

Say that to his face.  

I just might. I could probably outrun him.

What are some of your favorite training montages?  

The best training movie ever is Vision Quest. It gets a lot right – it gets things wrong too but not so wrong, kind of retro wrong. When they’re wrong, it’s actually wrong in the way a coach might have done back then. The practices in Vision Quest look like real practices. The guy goes out, and he runs in a rubber suit. That’s what guys used to do for wrestling, and they might still do it, I don’t know. And he looked really good on the mat.

There are so many great training scenes in that movie. The best one maybe is the one where he’s warming up before his big match, and then he comes bursting out. And it also has the best training line of any movie, when his boss is going to take a night off work to watch him wrestle, and he’s like, “What did you do that for? You get docked a night’s pay just for a lousy six minutes.” And the boss goes “It’s not the six minutes, it’s what happens in those six minutes.” He epitomizes everything that sports and training and all that shit we do is about.

That’s great.  

Some of the other really good training movies are super cheesy. But that’s okay because you’ll forgive a little bit of bad form for the right emotional response. That’s what most athletes look for in those films – motivation. American Flyers [Written by Steve Tesich] actually has good training scenes in it but they’re super silly, like when they race horses on their bikes.

Breaking Away [also Written by Steve Tesich] is another cycling movie with one of the best training scenes, when he has to go to work for his dad at the car wash, so he puts his bike on the rollers in the car wash, and he’s training for racing in the rain. That’s one of the raddest training scenes. It’s really short but cyclists still talk about how cool it is because everybody’s impressed by it.

It’s not so much the realism but just the inspiration.  

That’s true, because no one would ever do that. It doesn’t even make sense in the movie except for it’s rad. Somebody thought it up and just put it in there. Now I want to try it.

What would you like to see in a movie with a training montage that you’ve never seen before?  

That’s a pretty good question, and it’s kind of hard because some movies do a pretty good job. I’m always impressed when they get things right.

I guess I’d like to see a climbing movie, and this is more about actually the sport than the training. But I’d like to see a climbing movie that didn’t make climbers out to be just cretins. I’d like to see a climbing movie that actually treated climbing as a proper endeavor and not just some macho ridiculousness. If you go through climbing movies it’s like a festival for Mystery Science Theater 3000. They could make a whole film festival off of it. They’re so bad.

But what about a training sequence you’d like to see?  

Maybe they go too big too quick. Remember In God’s Hands [Written by Zalman King and Matt George], the surfing movie? They’re training and training and training and then they go have a guy try something that doesn’t make any sense. He rides a huge wave without working up to it. He doesn’t go out on a small day or start when the break’s little to get used to the break. He goes out when it’s massive, as big as it’s going to get. It doesn’t make sense.

I think Patrick Swayze would disagree with you, my friend.  

Well, Patrick Swayze in Point Break [Screenplay by W. Peter Iliff] paddles out knowing he’s going to die. That’s different. They overdo that all the time. Side Out [Written by David Thoreau], the volleyball movie was a really funny one. They’re practicing and practicing and decide to enter a tournament, so they enter the biggest professional tournament there is, when you can play any number of tournaments to get used to playing together.

The problem is Hollywood thinks a lot of stuff is boring so they’re always looking for this crazy effect. But there’s cool stuff that athletes do that wouldn’t be boring. I mean it’s the same problem with movies in every subject.

This comes back to what you originally said about training dialed up to 11. The reason that they go into the big event right off the bat and the reason it looks like they’re overtraining is that Hollywood doesn’t want to show rest days and down time and it doesn’t want to show people working their way up through amateur circuits and stuff. It wants to get right to the good part.  

I understand it but there are editing techniques where you can actually show that they’re doing that and you can make the movie believable. You don’t have to walk down to the beach and play the best volleyball players in the world. You can take on a couple of other people first.