When I was a kid, an old guy told me only the strong survive. That’s somethin’ you gotta believe, man. —Steve McQueen
Part of what made Steve McQueen so compelling, both as a private individual and as a movie star, was his kinetic, almost feral quality. He both developed and discharged this animalistic, coiled-up, ready-for-action energy by regularly working out.
As biographer Marshall Terrill notes in Steve McQueen: In His Own Words, the King of Cool religiously exercised for two hours every day for almost his entire adult life.
Just as it’s interesting to take a peek at the books famous men kept in their personal libraries, it’s interesting to take a look at the personal workout routines of famous men as well. Not so much to garner specific suggestions for one’s own exercise regimen, but for the sake of general inspiration and the desire to learn more about a particular individual’s life.
So I recently called Marshall up to see if in writing his numerous biographies of Steve McQueen, he had come across details about what the actor did for his workouts. Here’s what Marshall shared with me.
Why Steve McQueen Exercised So Religiously
Based on his decades-long exploration of McQueen’s life, Marshall thinks McQueen likely started exercising regularly in the 1950s, when he was a young actor in New York City. McQueen understood his body was a tool for his profession — that he wasn’t just selling his ability to act, but also an image. He recognized that an audience wanted to see a fit, good-looking guy when they took in a flick. As he mused, “If they see John Milquetoast up there on the screen, John Public says, ‘goodbye.’”
As Marshall noted: “That interpretation basically means if you have a flabby body or if you don’t look like you’re in shape, the public is not gonna be loyal to you. So I always thought that was really smart and bright and perceptive of him. And he’s absolutely right, because if you look at movie stars who have retained their value and rock stars who retain their value, it’s all because they stay in shape.”
So for McQueen, exercise was part of the job requirements for being an actor. Before a movie started shooting, he’d seek to get in “fighting shape” for the film, basically putting himself through a training camp, like a boxer getting ready for a championship bout.
“McQueen would have a tendency to gain 15 to 20 pounds when he wasn’t doing a movie,” Marshall said. “Before a film, he’d exercise and diet to lose twenty pounds. Throughout his life he averaged between 165 and 170 pounds.”
Besides the pressure to stay in shape for movies, Marshall also thinks exercise provided a much needed outlet for the King of Cool: “There are people that you know of that are just restless, and [working out] also helped curb [McQueen’s] restlessness. McQueen used to say, ‘[Auto] racing helps keep my equilibrium.’ I think it was the same with working out too.”
The Steve McQueen Workout
We don’t know specifics about Steve McQueen’s workout routines. He didn’t keep any logs of his training and we don’t know if he had specific programming that he followed in order to reach certain fitness goals.
What we do know is that, as previously mentioned, his workouts lasted about two hours, and that he did them daily, seven days a week, even while filming a movie. McQueen would do his workouts first thing in the morning, right after he had his morning tea or coffee.
During his workouts, McQueen would engage in a mixture of boxing, weightlifting, and jumping rope. In the late 1960s, he began adding martial arts into his workout regimen. According to Marshall, McQueen wasn’t a fan of cardio. He’d often trade motorcycle racing for running, but he would jog — reluctantly — if it was necessary to get in shape for a film.
When McQueen was a young starving actor in the 1950s, he took up boxing. But after an early walloping, he abandoned the idea of becoming a contender: “After getting knocked flat on my duff, I gave it a quick pass.” Despite not boxing competitively, McQueen continued incorporating boxing into his workouts throughout his life, as can be seen in a 1963 Life magazine article.
During McQueen’s upstart days in NYC, he started weightlifting by hoisting a bus stop sign that he had stolen off the street. He continued lifting in subsequent decades (eventually getting actual equipment as his income increased), even though it was unusual at the time. “The thing that people need to keep in mind is that weightlifting wasn’t really a thing back in the 1950s and 1960s,” Marshall explained. “People thought weightlifters were kind of weird, so in a lot of ways McQueen was ahead of his time when it came to fitness.”
According to Marshall, McQueen had a home gym and also used a gymnasium that was available at Paramount studios. He stuck to basic weightlifting movements with barbells and dumbbells: shoulder press, bench press, curls. I couldn’t find any pictures of him squatting or deadlifting; perhaps the King of Cool skipped leg day.
“If you recall way back in the old days, in your PE class, there were ropes that were extended all the way to the top of the roof, and you would climb up and down that thing and get a heck of a workout using your own bodyweight to pull you up. McQueen did that, too,” Marshall recounted.
“Bruce Lee was McQueen’s first martial arts instructor,” Marshall said. “But McQueen said the problem with Bruce was he’d contract him for an hour, and Bruce would spend 55 minutes talking. Bruce loved to talk. McQueen would only get five minutes of an actual workout.”
“When Lee became a movie star, McQueen then shifted to Chuck Norris. But then Chuck also became a movie star, and then McQueen was passed along to Pat Johnson, a stuntman and stunt coordinator, in 1972. He and Steve had this incredible friendship and karate instructor/mentor relationship.”
I couldn’t find any pictures of McQueen actually doing martial arts. Marshall says there’s a likely reason for that: “Steve kept his martial arts practice on the down low and never tested for a belt because he didn’t want that to be used against him in a court of law if in the event he ever had to use his martial arts training.”
As mentioned above, McQueen wasn’t a fan of cardio, but would do it if needed. On the set of his 1979 film Tom Horn, he’d work out every morning with stuntman/karate instructor/friend Pat Johnson. They’d begin with a jog and hike and then do an hour of karate.
McQueen continued his daily two-hour workouts pretty much every day of his adult life until he became too sick from the cancer (mesothelioma, caused by cleaning out asbestos from ships while in the Marines), which would cause his untimely death at age 50. As he put it, “I like hard work — that’s my niche.”
All photographs used with permission/license. Photos cannot be reproduced without permission or license.
To learn more about McQueen’s life, listen to our podcast with Marshall Terrill: