Robert De Niro's Jailhouse Training

A behind the bars look at how Robert De Niro got jacked up to play a hardened criminal.

PRISON TRAINING
If the lack of a gym membership forces you to train like you’re in the Big House, this is the routine for you. No weights required—just a pull-up bar and a bad attitude.
Perform the workout as a circuit, dropping two reps from each exercise every time around. Start with 10 reps for your first circuit, then eight the second, six the third, and so on. Continue down to zero reps. If you want to make it harder, drop only one rep after each set, so you’d do 10, nine, eight, etc.
•PULL-UP
•PUSH UP
•JUMP SQUAT
•HAND STAND HOLD

Kick your legs over your head and balance against a wall. Hold for a few seconds less than you possibly can.
•HANGING LEG RAISE
Hang from a pull-up bar. Raise your legs overhead.
•BENCH DIP

Widely considered the greatest actor of his generation, Robert De Niro is renowned for his drive and his method acting approach to roles—trying to imitate the life of his character in order to portray him more realistically. While he stopped short of spending 14 years in a maximum security prison for his role as Max Cady in Cape Fear (which premiered 20 years ago this month), he did sentence himself to some time in the gym to get a jail-hardened body.

De Niro worked with Dan Harvey, his trainer for more than 30 years, to prepare for the role. “I wanted to increase his muscle mass and bring down his body fat,” says Harvey. The two locked themselves in the weight room two to three hours a day, six days a week, for six months before shooting began. De Niro followed a simple three-day split (chest, back, legs) and a low-carb diet, ending every session with at least 45 minutes of cardio.

Harvey initially had to push De Niro through the lifts, but the actor soon learned to love the weight room. “It got to a point when we were about halfway through shooting that it just took on a life of its own. He went after it,” Harvey says. “He’d say, ‘Don’t touch the bar, let’s go heavy!’ He was inspired.” At 48, De Niro was warming up with 50 pull-ups and 150 lunges, and carried single-digit body fat percentage.

And after all the hard work, De Niro took his shirtless scenes as seriously as any competitive bodybuilder. “We’d lean out and take our water down,” explains Harvey. “He was sipping cold seltzer water and spitting it out before shoots.” The hard work paid off. De Niro earned an Academy Award nomination for all those months of sweat.

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