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Robert Downey Jr.: "He Was Skinny"

How the 150-pound star of Sherlock Holmes trained up (and down) to become Hollywood's top action hero.

Robert Downey Jr. hadn’t played an action hero before 2008’s Iron Man, and while he wasn’t out of shape, he didn’t have the heroic build needed to portray Tony Stark. “He was skinny,” says Brad Bose, Ph.D., Downey’s personal trainer. “He weighed about 150 pounds, but he was big into Wing Chun, which kept him in shape.”

Kung Fu Fighting

Robert Downey Jr. incorporates Wing Chun into his everyday life—including his films.

“Robert's focus is night and day from when we first began,” says LA Wing Chun
Academy founder Eric Oram, who has been training Robert Downey Jr. since 2003. “This shotgun mind of his channeled it into a single point of focus and turned it into a laser,” he adds, regarding the concept-based Chinese martial art and form of self-defense that utilizes both striking and grappling while specializing in close-range combat. “The training demands it. During an exchange, if your brain is anywhere else, I’m gonna get ya. If the mind strays, gotcha. Stop to pat yourself on the back? Thinking about your taxes? Gotcha.”

Made famous by Bruce Lee, Wing Chun is having a moment, thanks to the amazing fight choreography in Sherlock and Iron Man. “Film fight choreography has its own demands,” Oram says. “It’s focus, control, timing, and lots of repetition. It’s remembering where you are every step of the way in telling a story and yet playing it as if it’s happening for the first time live. There’s an art to that, and Robert works very, very hard in that process. I’ve fight doubled him for minor stuff , like pick-up shots, but Robert does all his own stuff when it comes to fights. When the camera’s on him, it’s really him doing it.”

To prepare Downey for his role, Bose prescribed a periodization program, alternating periods of heavy weight/low reps with lighter weight/high reps. Downey trained at least four days every week, with sessions lasting anywhere from 40 to 90 minutes. Bose varied the length of every training session to keep the actor on his toes. “He couldn’t say, ‘OK, I know I can conserve a little energy because we’re two exercises from the end,’” Bose says. “He never knew what was coming, so he had to work hard all the time.”

Bose also placed the prospective Iron Man on a strict, clean, calorie-dense diet. “He ate every three hours,” he says. “We kept him on a 30/30/40 split: 30% protein, 30% fat, and 40% carbohydrates. He was taking in more than 5,000 calories a day for nine months. If you don’t eat that much, your body won’t accept the weight.”

Stylistically, Bose wanted to build Downey into a character who looked capable of going toe-to-toe with fighter jets and terrorists. “Our goal was to get him as big as we could, but we also wanted to make sure he had some kind of six-pack,” Bose says. “We really focused on the old-school heavy lifting. Military presses, dips, and bench presses. Keep him ripped but maintain the muscle mass.” The muscle Downey built wasn’t just for show either. By the end of his training and 25 pounds of lean muscle later, he’d doubled his bench press, and nearly tripled his shoulder press.

So what did he do after reaching this peak? He promptly dropped the mass and went back to 153 pounds to film Sherlock Holmes.

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