Generation Iron Arnold Schwarzenegger Commando

Action stars weren’t always ripped.

Pumping Iron was a phenomenon when it first hit screens in 1977. The film documented the epic battle between Arnold Schwarzenegger and Lou Ferrigno, the reigning Olympia champ against the blue collar challenger. When you look at the current landscape, there’s no way to escape the influence that bodybuilding has had on the film industry. If you wish to be a leading man in Hollywood then you better get in the gym and do work. The days of hiring a moderately athletic talent as the lead role of a spy thriller is a thing of the past. Now it’s all about ripped physique, convincing and authentic athleticism coupled with great acting ability. No one can afford to be a one trick pony these days.

Take a look at the Hollywood superstar actors of old. Cary Grant, Al Pacino, or Marlon Brando. They didn’t power through bodybuilding workouts or pump up at the gym. Sure, they were fit – but not that fit. Not at the same level we’ve come to expect from our Hollywood superstars. Even if you forget action movies – the new expectation is that our leading men be shredded, lean, and shirtless at some point.

Massive Changes Come to Hollywood

This all started to change because of one thing: bodybuilding. Athletes like Arnold Schwarzenegger, Lou Ferrigno, and Steve Reeves led the push towards a different kind of Hollywood. One that we would never return from again.

When Schwarzenegger and Ferrigno pursued acting careers after bodybuilding it became very apparent to observers that a new era was starting in film. The era of the physically superior action hero. Ferrigno’s Hulk was nothing short of incredible. His sheer size and ability to be both fearsome and vulnerable open eyes to all the possibilities. A larger than life action hero with engaging acting skills. Arnold’s turn in The Terminator made him into a star and a household name. The physicality he brought to the role made for some compelling story telling. At that time no one had ever seen an actor in such tremendous and intimidating shape. It’s what put the movie in first place and left a lasting impression even today. Follow that up with movies like Conan the Barbarian, Commando, Predator, and – well – the list goes on and on. Suddenly there was a new type of hero. The massive beyond belief hero.

Action stars like Sylvester Stallone and Jean-Claude Van Damme were not immune to the fitness bug either. Both men were in athletic shape in their respective film debuts, but neither was at the level of what they attained in the eighties and nineties. Stallone’s Rocky Balboa was athletic in the first two films, but Stallone eventually ditched an average physique for a shredded one in Rocky III. He carried this ripped physique with him to Rambo, Cliffhanger, and a slew of other films. Van Damme also sported a leaner physique with his first debut. By the time he was doing Bloodsport he had packed on muscle and become quite striated.

Modern Day Action & the Superhero

Today, blockbuster superheroes rule the box office. If you go to a superhero movie you want to watch people who you believe can live up to the hype. People don’t go to the theaters to see a scrawny Superman or a less than believable Batman. The current culture wants nothing less than to see actual super humans in action. Anything less is a slap in the face. The other day we spoke on celebrities having to follow strict training regimens in order to prepare for their roles. It’s no coincidence and they have bodybuilding superstars like Schwarzenegger and Ferrigno to thank for that. The training programs they follow are no different than what professional bodybuilders out themselves through, although they may not lift as heavy. Bottom line is, you want to get the part you’ve got to look the part and it just so happens that the look most filmmakers are looking for is much like a bodybuilder.

Only one other question remains. If we’ve already hit superhero levels of expectations from our stars – what’s next? Where could we possibly go after literal super humans? With Marvel and DC scheduling their movies well into 2020 – we won’t have to worry about that anytime soon.


What movies do you think were inspired by the aesthetics of bodybuilding. Let us know in the comments below or follow us on Facebook and Twitter and sound off.

Managing editor of Generation Iron, Jonathan Salmon is a writer, martial arts instructor, and geek culture enthusiast. He has been writing about bodybuilding, combat sports, and strength sports for over 8 years. Check out his YouTube, Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, and Sound Cloud for in-depth MMA analysis.