In 2008, Robert Downey Jr unleashed Tony Stark – a billionaire playboy and the Marvel comic book superhero Iron Man – on to the big screen. Although he’s now one of the most esteemed actors on the planet, that wasn’t always the case.
After doing time in state county jail for drugs and firearm possession he transformed his life on every level, including physically, and his star has been on the rise ever since.
Before appearing in one of the biggest blockbusters of the year, Captain America: Civil War, TRAIN magazine caught up with the 51-year-old to ask him about the exercise regimen that helped him climb to the top of the Hollywood cash ladder.
Up, down, up
At six years old, most children are busy enjoying their youth by building blanket forts and losing themselves in their burgeoning imagination. But that wasn’t the case with a young Robert Downey Jr, because he was too busy living the high life at the time – literally.
Incredibly, his father, Robert Downey Sr, gave his son his first taste of drugs when he was just six years old, which would set the precedent for the coming decades. In a roller-coaster ride, Downey Jr went from an Oscar-nominated actor for his eponymous role in Chaplin to a junkie jailbird and then back again to a box-office baron.
After being released from California Substance Abuse Treatment Facility and State Prison in 2000, where he was on drugs charges, Downey got his break on hit US TV drama Ally McBeal. As with many of his roles, he was nominated for a number of awards and won a Golden Globe. But his character was written out of the show after he was found to be under the influence of a controlled substance and in possession of cocaine and valium.
It wasn’t until 2003, after a number of stints in rehab, and with help from his friend and fellow actor Mel Gibson, that he managed to kick his drug habit.
Since bouncing back, his career has gone from strength to strength and he has built a legacy of iconic characters on the silver screen, including that of Tony Stark.
When Marvel decided to pit Iron Man against Captain America, played by Chris Evans, in Captain America: Civil War, released early 2016, Downey knew he’d have to put in some extra hours in the gym if he was going to make the action scenes as believable as possible.
The New-Yorker spent years abusing his body with various chemicals but is now completely sober. In fact, the strongest thing you’re likely to find in his Malibu house is a root beer.
But it’s not just a clean diet and hitting the gym that have helped the 51-year-old turn his life around, because he’s also a big fan of Wing Chun – a Chinese form of self-defense – which Downey believes has helped him in his more physical roles, and to find a balance in his life.
“Fight choreography has its own demands, but I’d say my Wing Chun training has been a tremendous help,” says Downey. “Both Wing Chun and fight choreography require control, focus, timing and lots of repetition. You have to be in the moment.
“In my own life I train Wing Chun, and that has been a massive part of my life for over a decade now – that concentration, focus and balance bleeds into my life physically and mentally, and it makes my other training and choreography so much easier.
“Wing Chun very much grounds you and it’s very much about a sense of respect. You need to be locked in with the choreography, and that’s a big part of Wing Chun – being locked in and focused.”
It’s easy to see how the inclusion of Wing Chun has also given him the tools to stay focused and balanced in his personal life. Research in Social and Behavioral Science found that doing martial arts on a regular basis helps boost self-confidence dramatically, which can clearly be seen any time Downey steps on screen.
And it’s his background in martial arts that helped make the famed bare-knuckle boxing scene in Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes look so realistic. Well, that and Downey’s ripped torso. Despite the fact it’s been eight years since Downey first suited up as Iron Man, his physique is still as solid as ever, which is down in no small part to his tough training regimen.
He uses a range of functional exercises and strongman-type movements to be able to take on Captain America, and the much younger Evans.
“My training schedule has evolved over the years, but one thing that has stayed the same is: it is very functional and circuit based,” he explains. “Aside from my Wing Chun, I split my workouts into lower body and upper body, and my circuits feature wheelbarrows through obstacle courses, tire pushes, kettlebells, sledgehammers, sandbag throws, stability moves, suspension moves, BOSU ball moves, bodyweight moves, rope waves and rope pulls. But then I also use weights and weight machines. It’s a mixed bag every session, and I alternate between periods of heavy weight and low reps with lighter weight and high reps, to mix it up and shock my muscles.”
The trick to forging consistent results is to use a routine like this, which really does challenge both body and mind.
Getting in Iron Man-shape forced Downey Jr to hit the gym hard, using different types of training, from functional to isolation splits.
“Every rest period is timed and we make sure we get the most out of each workout,” he explains. “I also often do bench presses with an unstable weight to engage my shoulders and core into stabilizing the body. For that, we use a barbell with kettlebells attached to each end by bands. I love when that comes into play because that’s a mental and physical exercise – you have to be on the ball.”
Research published in the journal Sports Health found instability training can improve balance and stability, while also increasing core activation and improving motor control – all the skills you need to choreograph a fight properly.
But Downey is also smart enough to know that to make real gains, he has to change things up regularly.
“As well as alternating between weights and reps I also like to mix things up as far as tempos are concerned, just to keep it interesting and to really test my muscles. Anything unstable and different will force your muscles to work harder. Also, I do more splits between lower body and upper body than your usual ‘shoulder day’ and ‘back day’ splits.”
Follow Downey’s example and mix things up in your training regimen to forge muscles made of iron.
War of nutrition
If there’s one thing Downey is addicted to these days then it’s clean eating. And it’s his wholesome diet that provides him with the fuel he needs to prop up his grueling gym program.
According to Forbes magazine’s 2015 rich list, he’s the highest paid actor on the planet, which means he can easily afford the personal chef and in-house kitchen staff who prepare his nutritionally-balanced meals, each tailored around the character he’s playing.
“I do generally eat very healthily and balanced, and when I’m playing Tony Stark I eat 30% proteins, 30% fats and 40% carbs,” he says. “I eat every three hours. It’s very balanced.”
And it was that ratio of macronutrients that helped him pack on 20lb of muscle in just five months before once again donning the Iron Man suit to take on Captain America.
In fact, a study, published in the Journal of Applied Physiology, found that subjects who digested at least 20g of protein six times per day, or every three hours, lost body fat and increased lean mass whether they were training or not.
If you want to build a lean-muscled physique to show off on the beach this summer then follow this principle and the women will be attracted to you like iron filings to a magnet.
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