When I published my master's thesis almost eight years ago, I had an opportunity to thank a few people who had helped me over the years, and one of the persons I thanked was Rocky — “ for the years of blood sweat and tears,” even though I knew "he" would never read it.

How many times had I trained my guts out listening to songs like “Gonna Fly Now” and “Eye of the Tiger” thinking about the character of Rocky Balboa? Like many of you, I have all the movies memorized.

Well, it's 30 years later and Sylvester Stallone is still captivating and motivating hearts to reach beyond themselves to accomplish the impossible both in film — Rocky Balboa, the sixth installment in the epic series releases this December — and through INSTONE, his supplement company.

The 2005 INSTONE LIFECHANGE CHALLENGE gave thousands of people the opportunity to transform themselves. And while many accomplished their goals, a few of them caught the eye of the tiger himself. Graciously, he had a gala in their honor and yours truly was invited to have a one-on-one chat with Sly. What an honor. And what a night it was.

These courageous individuals made some serious changes to their bodies, and their heart-felt stories were unbelievable. Congratulations once again to those who answered the call and accepted Sly's challenge. We at M&F stand and applaud.

Following is an excerpt of my conversation with Sly. Enjoy.

–Jimmy Pena

Peña: Yo! (smiling, laughing)
Sly: Yo, how you doing? (laughing)

Peña: Sly, let me first say on behalf of the thousands of people who would love to be in my shoes right now, thank you for the years of inspiration that you have brought to so many. This is a dream come true.
Sly: Thank you very much. It’s a pleasure.

Peña: What do you want to say to all of those who accepted this transformation challenge?
SLY: That they are extremely honest with themselves. They made an appraisal, they did a value judgment, they said, “You know I’m not who I want to be, I never intended to feel like this, I’m going to do something about it,” and maybe this is the time or the moment that triggers it, but it’s been building in there a long time. Maybe they needed someone, like, we can identify with Rocky to spark the mechanism. But I would say to them that it’s one thing to admit that you’re dissatisfied, but it takes true dedication and guts to act on it, knowing that it’s going to hurt . . . it’s not going to be easy.

Peña: When Secretariat was laid to rest . . .
Sly: I remember it well.

Peña: Doctors exposed an unusually large heart. As we celebrate the transformation of these champions, what has been exposed or revealed? What are we unveiling about these courageous finalists?
SLY: Well, one thing that separates the winners from the losers is, well, one might say the skill level, but I think there are a lot of people with skill that never achieve their potential, but the ones that had the enlarged heart, the big heart, they’re the ones that dug down deep and realized that they don’t have that natural ability, but that they are going to compensate for it with passion, pure passion. They have a heart that belongs on Mt. Olympus. They lay it all out, and they’re not afraid to fail, but if they fail they come back stronger, as opposed to people that are incredibly gifted, failure sometimes spirals them into depression, but people with a lot of heart expect to fail, but they come back at it, they know they have to. It’s an up and down life for them.

Peña: The end of this journey can be viewed as a starting point for another adventure, would you agree that for these heart-felt people, this could be the beginning of a completely different life?
SLY: No question about it. I felt a drastic difference going from Rocky II to Rocky III. When I changed my metabolism to the point where I felt like a different person, it just threw me into a completely different mindset. So yes, these people have hit the crossroads and they passed with flying colors. Now they can take this to the next level until they hit another crossroad. I think they’ll say, “Yeah, I achieved it and I want to keep it going, going, and going.” This will be a real test. It’s one thing to maintain it for a year, two years, and then say that I can relax and rest on my laurels and backslide. But truly, this is where it makes all the difference in the world. This is where heart and perseverance really take you to the next level, cause there’s always levels. There is no finish line, as Nike says. Finishing the last Rocky film, I had to try and top what I did 30 years ago and it’s like, hmm, really tough, but I think we’ve come close or have succeeded in that effort, so I know it’s possible. You just have to want it and know that each couple of years you’re going to be faced with an evaluation of who you are and if you really want the best out of life, you gotta keep testing yourself. You say, “Ok fine, I’ve achieved this, now what’s next? I want bigger arms, I want to be more fit, I want to be more cut, more flexible,” whatever it may be. Just keep laying out your goals, goals, goals. Almost impossible goals, and that’s what keeps driving you.

Peña: So it’s a series of decisions you’re constantly making over and over on whether to go one more round or one more rep, or simply getting up to go to the gym?
SLY: Oh absolutely, and it’s a series of uncomfortable decisions, cause you know that each decision is going to require more dedication, a little bit of pain, more sacrifice, but the end results make you a much better, stronger person. That old Nietzsche saying, “That which does not destroy me, makes me stronger.” Well that’s exactly true. The negative part of your mind cannot pull you back into that old lifestyle. Now you’re twice as strong. In fact, if I had never discovered a gym earlier on, or if I had never gone to a Steve Reeves movie, I wouldn’t be here today. And that influence early on and constant striving to achieve more is what makes all the difference.

Peña: (agreeing, fists touch) You know, had I not seen Rocky II, I wouldn’t be sitting here either. I remember being in the theatre and being so tense during the last scene when both you and Apollo were down, that I was pressing on the seat in front of me so hard that the next day my legs were sore from the isometrics.
SLY: No, really?

Peña: Yes! Promise! So I understand what pivotal moments and memories like Steve Reeves and Rocky and what they do to spark long-lasting change.
SLY: Oh, absolutely. I’ve never gotten over it.

Peña: How do you hope that this accomplishment affects other aspects of their life, such as their work environment, home life, etc?
SLY: Good question, listen, when you feel good physically, it permeates every aspect of your life, the way you perceive yourself, because the most important aspect is self perception and in the last film, I wrote a line that said it’s not about how hard you hit, but it’s about how hard you can get hit; you gotta keep moving forward and see what you can take and still keep moving forward. In the end, you know what you’re worth, so go out and get what you’re worth, but you gotta be willing to take . . . the . . . hits. But the first chapter is always the hardest. Then soon you’ll be saying, “I proved it to myself, I took the blows and I now I can go to my next level.”

Peña: That’s awesome.
SLY: It’s the truth.

Peña: Those that have done the best have made excellent choices of supplementation.
SLY: Supplementation is the holy grail of accelerating your goals. You have to subscribe to them. Supplements and good dieting are so key if you’re looking for actual transformation, but moreover, it’s 99% up here (pointing to his head), the brain power that motivates every move. So willpower combined with smart food and supplement choices is the key combination.

Peña: Finally Sly, Roosevelt said that it’s not how well you start something but how well you finish that matters most in life.
SLY: Of course.

Peña: Changing yourself to be a better person can be thought of as a life-long decision, so what would you say to those who did accept the transformation challenge, but failed or quit?
SLY: Well, I’ve quit many things in my life. Either the timing wasn’t right, the moment wasn’t right. Maybe there were extenuating circumstances, financial, family, injury, whatever. I would say to not be so hard on yourself. And believe me I wanted to quit on my last film! Seven weeks before I was supposed to go do Rocky VI, I’m 59 years old and I break two toes, have a bulging disk in my neck and I tear my calf muscle. The clock is running. I know the opportunity to do this is going to dissipate if I don’t arrive in the ring to shoot within 5 weeks. I could hardly train. I’m in there sparring with the light-heavyweight champion of the world, Antonio Tarver, and I wanted to quit 1000 times, cause it was very, very painful. But I knew that if I just hang in there, if I just keep moving, it would all turn around. In other words, I didn’t give up and say, “Man I’m not going to be as good as I could be or in the shape I want to be in.” No, I kept my eye on the big picture, and I want these people to keep their eyes on the big picture. Just because they may have missed this opportunity, opportunity itself is always there. In fact, that fight scene I struggled through, in my opinion, is the best fight scene of all my pictures. So sometimes the best things in life turn out because you don’t quit. Usually, when you have a couple of failures, you ‘re much more motivated and excited for the next time because you always learn through failure. You really do. In reality, success doesn’t necessarily breed any great deal of enlightenment but failure really brings enlightenment.

Peña: That’s awesome. Did you have fun tonight?
SLY: Yeah, had a great time.

Jimmy Pena, MS, CSCS, is the Fitness Director for Muscle & Fitness Magazine.

For more information on Sylvester Stallone or the INSTONE LIFECHANGE CHALLENGE, visit www.instonenutrition.com.

Rocky Balboa hits theatres this December. For more info visit the official Sony Pictures website at www.sonypictures.com.