Superman 1.71: The Workout

“When it comes to muscles and body,” asks a random internet user on the social question-and-answer forum Quora, “Reeve’s Superman looks nothing like Cavill’s. Why didn’t Reeve train for the part?”

That question was posed in February 2017, during the production of Henry Cavill’s third Superman film, Justice League, and while the question is insulting to Reeve, you can forgive the inquisitor getting caught up in the propaganda. By that time, Cavill and his workout routines had been featured in supermarket workout-porn mags at least four times — Men’s Health in 2011, Muscle & Fitness in 2013, and Men’s Fitness in 2015 and 2016 — in an ongoing series of public-service bulletins keeping America updated on the current status of his big-ass arms.

It’s basic Hollywood practice these days, to arrange for the latest superhero to show off his well-sculptured body for the examination and approval of the grocery shopping public. Just in 2020, there were Men’s Health covers for Sebastian Stan, Henry Cavill (again), Kumail Nanjiani and Jason Momoa, plus the superhero-adjacent Yahya Abdul-Mateen, explaining how they developed the ridiculously inflated upper-body superiority that movie audiences have come to expect.

And it’s true that Christopher Reeve’s Superman body is like a first draft, compared to the lavishly-trained muscle-mountains of today. But Reeve’s transformation from stringbean to superhunk sparked just as much interest in 1977, and formed a core part of the Superman: The Movie mythology.

Any discussion of how Christopher Reeve was cast for the film begins with Richard Donner thinking that he was too skinny for the part. This is a picture of what he looked like at the time he was cast, onstage in the Circle Repertory Company’s production of Corinne Jaecker’s My Life.

And looking at him from this angle, yeah, I can see what they’re talking about. He doesn’t look bad, obviously — I’d feel incredibly blessed, to look as good as that — but I have to agree that he wouldn’t quite fill out a supersuit.

So once he was cast, in February 1977, he immediately went into training. They didn’t have celebrity workout magazines like Men’s Health at the time, but descriptions of Reeve’s fitness routine were a crucial element in the film’s pre-release marketing.

For example, the Los Angeles Times ran a feature article in July 1977 on the filming of Superman: The Movie, and it began with four paragraphs on the care and feeding of Christopher Reeve:

Christopher Reeve already had two lunches, one hot and one cold, and downed the second of his four-a-day multivitamin drinks. Now it was teatime and he was attacking a large plate of cakes with undisguised enthusiasm.

“It’s not greed,” he said, apologetically. “It’s just that if I miss a meal I lose weight — and that would be a disaster.”

Twenty-four years old and 6 foot 4, Christopher Reeve normally weighs in at 188 pounds. Which wasn’t nearly good enough for his role as Superman in the $25 million or more epic now being filmed at Pinewood Studios outside London. Whatever else Superman is, spindly he is not. So Reeve was led to the trough and the gym, and after several months of eating four large meals a day and putting in hours of exercise at the Grosvenor House sports club and pool, he built himself up to a very respectable 212 pounds.

And they were able to take out the false muscles from the blue body-stocking, emblazoned in red and gold with an S, which he wears on his world-saving missions.

So clearly, the producers thought it was crucial that the press got the full story on Reeve’s diet. If the star of your movie is sitting down for an interview with the LA Times, you don’t put a large plate of cakes in front of him by accident. Reeve’s “undisguised enthusiasm” for his teatime treats may have been genuine, but the cakes were there in order to communicate an important point, namely “spindly he is not.”

This was a full year before the movie was scheduled to come out, and producers Alexander and Ilya Salkind were working full-time on assuring their investors that the movie was worth all of the millions that the Salkinds were still asking for/redistributing from other people’s bank accounts. Their pitch was that this movie was going to be bigger than anyone had ever seen before, and they had three pieces of evidence: Marlon Brando’s salary was the highest anyone had ever been paid for anything, Richard Donner had brilliant people working full-time on the flying effects, and Christopher Reeve was eating four meals a day, not counting snacks and protein drinks.

Another crucial part of the story that I’m amazed the LA Times didn’t bite on was that they’d hired British bodybuilding champion David Prowse to train Reeve, and hoist him up to Superman standards.

According to legend, Prowse was hoping to be cast as Superman himself, and the job of training Reeve has been widely described as a consolation prize. I don’t think that’s how casting actually works on movies — directors don’t usually award runners-up with a job backstage — but it gives the story a little emotional hook that people like to hear and repeat.

Another publicity-friendly hook was that Prowse was the man inside the Darth Vader suit in Star Wars, which I’m sure the Salkinds were very excited about. Ilya liked anything that was connected to success, and he made sure that everybody knew that one of the stars of the biggest blockbuster of the ’70s was now working on Superman.

Then they brought in a film crew to ogle Reeve during one of his workouts, resulting in a loving two-minute scene in the Making of Superman TV special.

“I wore a big, bulky blue sweater,” he says, shirtlessly, “because I thought, oh my god, I’ve got to look stronger, you know? I knew I was skinny, I’d been sitting around, hadn’t been exercising — I mean, I get out and play tennis and stuff — but I don’t in any way do body stuff. So I got the biggest Shetland sweater I could find, up in my attic, and went to this audition with it, and sat there, y’know, trying to look bigger.”

Then we get into the documentary evidence of his routine.

“The point is that when I started I was a stringbean, and Superman’s not a stringbean, so…”

“Already from the start I eat four times a day, I’m on a high meat diet, protein diet, vitamin pills, nothing like steroids or anything like that.”

“But I mean, I get to eat as much of anything that I want, and it’s great, you know? The thing is that on this part particularly, you have to start from the outside and work in. You can do all the interior work you want to do, and it’s still not going to get you to Superman if you don’t have the physical strength to go with it.”

“The thing that happens is that the stronger I get — you know, I’m still not all that strong, but I’m getting there — the stronger I get, the more it helps my mental attitude towards the part.”

And it helps our mental attitude, as well; I, for one, appreciate it enormously. You have no idea how this whole subject perks up my outlook. Reeve definitely fills out the uniform, and when he tells a lovestruck Lois that he’s made out of 225 pounds of supermeat, we believe him.

He wasn’t quite that big in real life, but he was big enough. The generally accepted figure is from that LA Times interview in July ’77 — going from 188 to 212 pounds, a gain of 24 pounds of muscle mass.

David Prowse quoted those numbers in his 2005 autobiography Straight From the Force’s Mouth, but his recollection drifted a bit after that. Larry Tye interviewed Prowse for the 2012 book Superman: The High-Flying History of America’s Most Enduring Hero, and Prowse rounded the total up to “more than 30 pounds”, and increased Reeve’s daily protein shake intake from four cans a day to six.

Then in a 2017 interview with the Hollywood Reporter, Prowse claimed that he bulked Reeve up from 170 pounds to 212, which would be a gain of 42 pounds in six weeks. Unfortunately, Prowse is no longer with us; if he’d lived another few years, who knows how big Reeve would have gotten?

The odd thing — and this will seem increasingly quaint, as we work through this history — is that we don’t actually see much of his body in the movie. The only glimpse we get of Reeve out of uniform is the honeymoon shot in Superman II, showing Clark and Lois snuggling in bed, which lasts for 12 seconds and you don’t see that much. He doesn’t even wear a T-shirt in this movie; maintaining the difference between Superman and his secret identity means that he goes from suit-and-tie to full superhero regalia, with no in-between steps.

All of those meals and workouts were just intended to fill out the suit, and give him enough strength to hang around in flying rigs all day. Beyond that, the male gaze of the gay males had to move on to find other sources of entertainment, which we did, and that’s why Henry Cavill exists.

In reality, the celebrity workout is not that interesting of a story: people who lift weights and follow strict diet regimes get stronger and more muscular, especially if they’ve got a strong motivation, like starring in an upcoming superhero movie. The basic protocol is pretty well understood, and there’s no particular reason why we should be specifically interested in the Henry Cavill workout, the Chris Hemsworth workout or the Jason Momoa workout, depending on who’s got a movie release coming up.

But when we go to a superhero movie, we want to believe that there’s actually something special about this person. By training his body beyond the peak of perfection, the lead actor has traveled the Hero’s Journey — guided by a wise sage who’s helped him to tap into his potential for greatness, he’s passed through a supernatural threshold into a land of discovery, and returned to us with magical gifts and rock-hard abs. His powers may be fictional, but his biceps are real, and that is all we require. He is larger than life, and we believe.

How does Lois Lane take control
of the balcony scene?
1.72: The Color of Underwear

Movie list

— Danny Horn

15 thoughts on “Superman 1.71: The Workout

  1. Oh, NOW you believe in the Hero’s Journey!
    Chris Reeve looks perfectly fine, in that he looks both perfect and fine. The modern bulging bicep look seems very artificial and disproportionate to me, though I guess I’m in the minority.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. I agree–proportion is one of the many things that have been lost in the modern superhero film, in all senses of the word.

      Superman: The Movie is BIG but not colossal, not deformed in its bulges and enormity. Reeve’s physique is beautifully balanced, and the fact that he’s so symmetrical, not ripped with giant veins sticking up from every flexed deltoid, means it’s easier to believe in the extraterrestrial aspects of the movie. When somebody as swole as Hugh Jackman or Chris Helmsworth picks up a car you go, well, yeah. But when Reeve’s Superman does, it’s special.

      Liked by 4 people

    2. The modern look is indeed artificial- if you look at photos of bodybuilders from years gone by, none of them have it until the steroid era. The human body simply does not take that shape except through massive pharmaceutical intervention. The picture of David Prowse above illustrates that point- the people who think Christopher Reeve didn’t “train for the part” of Superman would no doubt be astonished that Prowse was a champion bodybuilder.

      There’s also a question of why the Kryptonian body looks like that. Of course, this is an in-universe question- so far as the audience is concerned, feats of strength imply big muscles. But if he spends all his time under the earth’s yellow sun, Supey won’t get any opportunity to build muscle mass.

      That leaves the storytellers with two main options. The first is to say that Kryptonian bodies, despite their superficial similarity to human ones, don’t actually build muscle by repeated strain. Some commentators, including the distinguished Brian Cronin, favor this explanation, but it seems to be a real narrative dead-end. Not that you couldn’t come up with a story that hinges on the specifics of Kryptonian anatomy, but it seems like such a story would have to get pretty deep in technical detail before it could get Supey and his friends into a suspenseful situation.

      The other possibility is that he has a workout room which simulates red-sun conditions. That may not be a hugely exciting idea on the face of it, but the shenanigans that go in in the Fortress of Solitude during the second movie show that you can introduce it, not only without bogging down in a lot of more or less scientific jargon, but as a twist ending to an action scene.

      Liked by 3 people

      1. Yeah, Thor is a “god” and that can justify his mythical appearance. Captain America is a super soldier. When Superman debuted, he was literally the man of tomorrow (coming from a race of “super beings”). But yes, the “gets powers under a yellow sun” thing doesn’t track with his huge physique, especially compared to, say, Supergirl who usually looks like a normal young woman (though obviously physically fit, she’s not Wonder Woman).

        Liked by 3 people

      2. Of course, no possible degree of muscular development could account for his abilities. I think I mentioned Morrison and Quitely’s ll-Star Superman in response to one of the other posts; in that one Supey is something of a shape-shifter, who is a suety slob as Clark Kent and a chiseled muscle man in his heroic form. So maybe things aren’t so different in-universe than they are for us- maybe his shape is determined by his audience either way.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. There’s a cute scene in the 90s Lois and Clark series where Lois is looking in Clark’s fridge and sees nothing but junk food and then sees the half naked Clark, just out of the bathroom. Clearly flustered, Lois then angrily demands “You eat like an 8 year old. How do you look like Mr Hardbody?”

        Liked by 3 people

  2. Maybe Superman doesn’t need to get ripped for everyday derring-do, but what about the earth-shaking feats, like moving planets and fighting semi-divine enemies? He could got to Jupiter and bench-press some asteroids.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Debating how Superman got swole (in universe) reminds me (affectionately) of the opening of the 1st _Big Bang Theory_ Christmas episode:

    Sheldon: Your argument is lacking in all scientific merit. It is well established Superman cleans his uniform by flying into Earth’s yellow sun, which incinerates any contaminate matter and leaves the invulnerable Kryptonian fabric unharmed and daisy fresh.

    Howard: What if he gets something Kryptonian on it?

    Sheldon: Like what?

    Howard: I don’t know. Kryptonian mustard.

    Sheldon: I think we can safely assume that all Kryptonian condiments were destroyed when the planet Krypton exploded.

    Raj: Or it turned into mustard Kryptonite, the only way to destroy a rogue Kryptonian hotdog threatening Earth.

    Leonard: Raj, please, let’s stay serious here. Superman’s body is Kryptonian, therefore his sweat is Kryptonian.

    Howard: Yeah, what about Kryptonian pit stains?

    Sheldon: Superman doesn’t sweat on Earth.

    Howard: Okay, he’s invited for dinner in the Bottle City of Kandor. He miniaturizes himself, enters the city where he loses his superpowers. Now, before dinner, his host says, “who’s up for a little Kryptonian tetherball?” Superman says “sure,” works up a sweat, comes back to Earth, his uniform now stained with indestructible Kryptonian perspiration.

    Raj: Booya.

    Sheldon: Superman would have taken his uniform to a Kandorian dry cleaner before he left the Bottle.

    Raj: “Kandorian dry cl…” I give up, you can’t have a rational argument with this man.

    Liked by 3 people

  4. Superman in the comic books starts out as a big guy, and develops into a huge mass of muscles. Forgive the ignorance of a Johnny-come-lately, but when did that change occur? By the late 1970s Superman was such a pile of brawn that it seemed impossible that he could hide behind his Clark Kent persona. A blue suit and nerd glasses couldn’t conceal that kind of a body.
    I liked the way Christopher Reeve’s Superman was muscular but not overdeveloped; it was more believable that he could blend into humanity as Clark Kent.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. There are times in the comics from the 70s and 80s that he doesn’t even try to conceal his body as Clark Kent. I have been re-reading some of those old issues, and there is one in which Clark appears on a TV show wearing a skintight Superman costume, and there is at least one story (I forget which issue at the moment) in which Clark is shown swimming, with no shirt on, while Lois & Steve Lombard are around. Those issues struck me as a little bit odd, because no one looks at him and thinks “wow, Clark sure looks pretty fit to be such a weakling.” They just kind of ignore it.

      Later in the 80s, after John Byrne takes over the writing duties and revamps Superman completely, there is an issue in which Lois comments on Clark having a nice physique, and he keeps a weight bench and some weights in his apartment to help explain how Clark Kent has the same size body as Superman. After Lois makes a remark about the weights being awfully light, Clark realizes (in a thought bubble…I miss those) that he should have bought some heavier weights, but being Superman he didn’t realize how light they would be for a human.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Steroids are a controlled substance in the U.S., and also against the rules of practically every sport and competition. But when it comes to Hollywood actors needing maximum muscle for their superhero part, who’s to say what they’re injecting or ingesting to get that way? Hugh Jackman built so much muscle for his role as Wolverine that you could see every muscle and sinew in his body. Last I heard, he was able to deadlift 400 pounds; he’s in his forties, and he didn’t have that kind of muscle throughout his younger years. Do you really think he looks like this from doing some lifts, eating big meals and drinking protein shakes?


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