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From “Caveman” to “Iron Man”: How Robert Downey, Jr. Got in Superhero Shape

Posted Jun 01 2010 3:00am
By Ian Robinson 06/01/2010

Who Ever Heard of Burning Cancer Out of Your Body?

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Forget about conventional cardio and gym workouts. A different type of routine can really deliver results. If you want proof, just check out Robert Downey, Jr. in Iron Man 2.

Downey was fresh off the set of Sherlock Holmes. He needed to build 20 pounds of muscle for his next role in three months. He turned to his long-time trainer, Brad Bose, for help.

“He was tired of the current regime and challenged me to make it fun,” Bose told THB.

The heat was on: spindly detective to “Iron Man” in just three months.

Rethink, Rebuild

Downey weighed in at 151 pounds on the set of Sherlock Holmes. He’d worked with Bose to shed body weight to play the thin, cerebral detective. But when the film wrapped, the two knew he’d have to build sinewy muscle to play a Marvel superhero. And they only had 12 weeks to do it.

“I have worked with Robert (Downey Jr.) for five-plus years,” said Bose. “I have his body well balanced and know what the limits are with him.”

And he knew that no matter how strong and focused Downey was, he was tired of conventional techniques. He had just come off punishing routines for Iron Man and Sherlock Holmes. So, it was no surprise when Downey told Bose he couldn’t face any more bench presses and squats. Bose knew it was time to go back-to-basics and come up with something “primal.”

Going Primal

Bose has a PhD in Physiology, an M.S. in Kinesiology and another M.S. in Performance Enhancement. He runs a holistic wellness company in Santa Monica, CA. If anyone can find a new routine that really works, it’s him.

“We actually do ‘primal’ training but use scientific principles,” said Bose. To create a new "Iron Man,” Bose came up with a unique series of workouts. They focused on a “functional performance” program. The program used real-life ranges of intense motion to build lean muscle mass.

Downey’s Diet

According to Bose, Downey’s success was due to a “good balance between stretch, strength, and martial arts.”

However, diet also played a crucial part. The Iron Man star ate a high-protein diet of 2,500 to 3,200 calories a day.

“Diet was very, very important,” said Bose. “We had professional chefs and very detailed advice and monitoring from several sources about diet and nutrition.”

The “Iron Man” Challenge

Downey’s diet was the easy part. The rest was gonna be hard. To get in superhero shape, Downey “trained no less than four days a week, one-to-three hours a day.”

“He really rebuilt a lot of what he had for Iron Man 1,” said Bose, who also trained the star for that movie. “We rebuilt from 151 pounds to about 171 pounds without putting on fat.”

An enormous feat for anyone: but with time, commitment, and science it can be done. But the pair didn’t have any time. Instead, they just had commitment and science.

“(Downey) is committed and not afraid to work hard,” explained Bose. “He almost never questions what I ask of him and has a strong competitive nature. I had a good subject to work with.”

Trainer and star worked on fitness levels while preparing for the film.

“We worked throughout the film,” said Bose. “It probably took three months to bring his weight back up without bringing back too much body fat. In six weeks after stopping Sherlock he was 80 percent there.”

So what did the workout look like? What equipment did “Iron Man” suit up with? What were his back-to-basics routines?

“They were so varied; kettle bells, Indian clubs, the War Machine…” said Bose. “It was all just a different way of doing things all together.”

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The “Iron Man” Workout

Here’s the stuff you really want to know: exactly what those “Iron Man” routines included.

  • War Machines: No – not the character in Iron Man 2…The War Machine is a portable pulley training system that uses body weight as resistance. An all-in-one workout device that can literally be taken anywhere and performed wherever you like: even in the park.

  • Kettle bells: A cannon ball with a handle! Kettle bells are now common in the U.S., beating out traditional dumbbells. Kettle bells allow for swing movements not possible with dumbbells. That movement uses more muscle groups and yields better results in less time.

  • Sledgehammers: Downey beat truck tires with a sledgehammer, swinging from the side and overhead. The sledgehammers ranged in weight from four pounds up to 20 pounds. The sledgehammer workout targets the back and shoulders.

  • Indian Clubs: Indian clubs were a popular exercise in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Club swinging was introduced as an exercise in England by soldiers stationed in India in the 1800s. The clubs range in size and weight. They are swung in patterns of movement. The exercise focuses on shoulders and arms. It’s also gentle on joints because of its rotational movement.

  • Wheelbarrows: Bose created a custom-built wheelbarrow so that it could carry 650 pounds. Downey Jr. pushed it around a figure-eight-formation obstacle course. It’s a killer compound exercise which targets chest, shoulders and back.

  • Sleds: This full-body exercise required Downey to pull, run, and pull again. A sprinter’s sled was filled with 50-pound weights. That sled was tied to the end of a 50-foot rope. Like something out of Rocky IV, Downey would pull the sled to him, drop it, and sprint 50 feet away from it. Then he’d turn and pull it back to him… and run 50-feet away again… This routine targets almost everything: arms, torso, abs, core, and legs.

  • Fire Hoses: Bose filled two fire hoses: one with sand; the other with water. Then Downey would do semi squats while dragging and whipping the hoses up and down. This exercise builds shoulders and chest.

  • Bamboo Bars: Bose loaded up bamboo bars with rubber bands; then he attached kettle bells to the rubber bands. The experiment created a bouncy, hard-to-stabilize barbell.

So that’s how “Iron Man” shaped up. Looking back on the unique program, what were Downey’s favorite routines?

“I think the bamboo bar was a big hit!” said Bose with a smile. “The tire pounding with sledges was also a great stress relief [and a] beautiful shoulder builder.”

According to Bose, the same secrets of success apply to you. It’s not about running more miles, or stacking up ever-greater weight. It’s about knowing how to challenge your body.

“It’s important to work smarter, not harder,” said Bose. “Intensity is everything.”

Shape Up Like a Superhero

If you want to become a superhero, you don’t need to do hours of aerobic or cardio exercise four days a week.
The key to fat loss and muscle gain is short duration, high intensity exercises.

Don’t spend your summer doing pointless hours of cardio when all you really need is 10 to 20 minutes a day to lose weight, get lean, and build muscle.

Here how to make those 10 to 20 minutes really count:

  • Hit the treadmill at high intensity for one minute. Then slow down to an easy pace to allow rest and recovery. Repeat this pattern five times.

You can apply this to any cardio option: stationary bike, elliptical machine, or even try jumping rope. Mix it up each day with a different option.

Looking to build strength and muscle? Squats are a great option for getting the heart pumping. Try these variations:

  • Traditional Squats: Keep your feet shoulder-width apart and squat down as low as possible. Bring your arms forward, parallel to the floor. Return to a standing position. Repeat.

  • Squat Thrusts: Begin standing with feet together. Squat down so that your hands are on the floor next to your feet. “Jump” your feet back into a push-up position. Then “jump” your feet back between your hands and stand up. Repeat.

The most important principle to remember: use short periods of exertion and follow up with recovery time. Just focus on getting your heart rate up and giving it time to come back down.

Stick to this formula and you’ll become your own lean, fit “iron (wo)man” in just 20 minutes a day.

To your health,


Ian Robinson, Managing Editor, Total Health Breakthroughs

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