by Tom Furman
Regardless of how you feel, things like bodybuilding, Crossfit, Power Lifting and Olympic Lifting are fringe sports. They have nowhere near the impact of Basketball, Baseball or Football. Those sports do not have the influence in the fitness realm that show business does. All it takes is for some action or superhero movie to appear and the average person is discussing the appearance of the action star. What did they eat, how did they train and, *gulp*, what chemistry did they use.
There is analogy about the training of athletes versus soldiers. While similar tools may be used, the athlete, most often, is pampered. Ample food, ample rest and minimal worries. Also access to coaching and cutting edge biochemical technology. Soldiers may or may not have good food, less than optimal sleep and high stress conditions. They don’t have coaching nor access to modern ergogenic aids on a regular basis.
Actors live between the two extremes. Getting ready for a role may require months of training. This training is optimal since money buys quality in this case. They use trainers who, “get it”. Meetings, publicity and social life may interfere with training before production as well. The trainers are flexible and have rapport. However while filming, conditions, especially locations, are brutal. That means you shoot 12–16 hours both day and night. Then you have to plan workouts around that. If the production is a costly one and the actor’s stature is great, then hours are trimmed a bit, food is optimal, but sleep and recovery still suck.
Training for a movie may seem like training for a physique contest. However the difference is that the actor may be performing stunts or be required to do more physical acting. They won’t be under hot lights on diuretics to be judged on appearance and synthol artistry. This came to light in a casual conversation. Years ago during a possible run at Expendables 4, Hulk Hogan was considered as a villain. He’d been through endless spine, neck and leg surgeries. However he was tan, had big gunz and an impressive do-rag. Sly Stallone asked him, “Can you still run?” (Check the Internet Movie Database to see if the Hulkster is listed in the cast of Expendables 4).
So, for many reasons, Cinema is not Science. It’s about art AND application. Look good and do cool things that are saved forever on film. The actor is like an athlete before shooting, but more like military after. I’m speaking of the conditions. NO ONE is confusing acting with being in the armed forces.
Traditionally actors who took hero roles were usually just sturdier, good looking guys. When Ben Affleck played Superman actor George Reeves, he explained that that generation didn’t train for those roles. They were, quote, “Just big, beefy, guys.” This changed with the Sword and Sandals films. American bodybuilder Steve Reeves set the standard for visual physicality.
The physical impressiveness and visual impact on screen motivated many men towards the scant gyms of that period. Shoulder width was emphasized due to Reeves and the clothing style of that era. The Iron Guru, Vince Gironda of Studio City California, had the corner on the actor and stuntman market. He too emphasized the broad shoulder, narrow hips look. He designed workouts based on this and much of his material still holds water to this day. Legs were developed using exercises that emphasized the long leg and trim waist that apparently directors were looking for. Stuntmen came from rodeo, military and sportive backgrounds. They trained to prevent or rehab injuries and to look good. Vince had found his niche. He deemphasized squats and trapezious work. He didn’t like, “big asses” and he mentioned that thick traps made your shoulders look narrow.
Of course there are exceptions to the rules. Actors who were already quite fit and known for their physiques and landed roles largely on their appearance.
While there were trends in, “getting in shape”, for movies, including boxing style training in the 50’s, to pure bodybuilding and using athletes for roles, I attribute Sylvester Stallone as one of the first to really have a trained eye for what looked good and what had the most visual impact in the silver screen. He was not a pure bodybuilder like Arnold Schwarzenegger who was built big and simply adjusted bodyweight for roles. Sly’s experience in writing, reading novels and observation of Steve Reeves in movies gave him a fertile base to operate from. Not only did he train himself, but took other actors like John Travolta and Dolph Lundgren under his wing to alter their appearance specifically for certain films. One observation he made was that, “developing the neck, trapezious, deltoids and forearms”, had the most visual impact when you are in wardrobe. Focusing on those areas made you look more muscular and larger. If sleeveless shirts are part of your garb, then arm training, specifically a big bicep with prominent vein has the same appeal as a woman’s overly ample cleavage. Danny Trejo reiterated Sly’s observation when he said that for film, big shoulders and arms were shown the most on film. Danny has been a boxer while in prison and lifter for most of his life.
Given this history, we can extract a framework if you want to emulate this style of training. Let’s be clear. It’s not training for sport. It’s not power lifting. It is not Crossfit. It is not Olympic lifting. The programs, if they are too strongly influenced by a trainer’s “pet” hobby, can be injurious and actually reduce the actors effectiveness in film making.
Here are some general rules and anecdote to build a foundation of method.
- The training should prevent injury, not cause it. Jason Statham was training with a former Navy SEAL and while getting competitive, hurt his back. Then he filmed for months with an injured back. Chris Hemsworth got huge for the first Thor. He found out he couldn’t move as well so he enlisted his boyhood friend Luke Zocchi and movement specialist, Da Rulk to add athleticism to his program. Daniel Craig’s trainer altered his program when the actor got minor injuries during shooting since he was biasing towards the beach scenes in Casino Royale. Years later he cracked his ankle doing a stunt during filming and had to film and train with injury.
2. Visual Impact and the Ability To Do Action are the primary outcomes for an actor. Not PR’s, or Rx’ing a workout. The legendary cast of the film, 300, were put through the grinder at Gym Jones by Mark Twight. Mark expounded on the brutal training on interviews. However when Gerard Butler started shooting, he hired a bodybuilding trainer to make him look better on film. This was in addition to the weapons fighting and choreography rehearsal with Damon Caro, a Dan Inosanto protege’.
3. Doing movies is your sport. That means there is a preseason of training general physical preparedness and learning the skills needed for your film. For example, in Halle Berry’s case, she trained 6 months in martial arts and firearms for John Wick 3. Setting records on Westside Barbell Club’s assistance exercises will take a WAY backseat to looking good and being effective. You can’t be drained by maximum lifts while being choked by a Machado brother during jiu jitsu. This morphs during the filming process however. Recovery from the grueling film schedule requires a shift in training towards maintenance, specificity to a visual or stunt needs and of course sleep.
4. Let’s be clear. For a multi million dollar paycheck and an eternity on the silver screen, actors have “chemists” who coach them on the use of performance enhancing drugs. It’s well known in the industry, but the general public is naive except for those like Arnold and Sly who are transparent about using them.
5. It’s still hard, long term, work. The Prince of Persia was shot at a remote location near Morocco. This meant a long drive to the set daily. The star, Jake Gyllenhaal had to work with his trainer to arrive at a schedule to maintain fitness with long hours and working physical acting all day. They woke up early and trained at 3 AM. After an hour of training, Jake would shower, eat and fall asleep during the 90 minute drive to location. He would film 10-? hours and start the ride home. His transportation would stop short of Morocco and he would run the remaining distance. Then shower, eat and sleep. He lived on lean meats and salads. Not glamorous except for probably a nice hotel and the payday.
Training like an actor, therefore, may mimic a statement I heard about keep athletes durable. “Train your upper body like a body builder and lower body like an athlete.” The routine below is based on this.
The use of a simple rep scheme, keeps things from being overly complex when it doesn’t need to be. It’s a simple hypertrophy plan based on input from my friend, Jack Reape. He, through decades of training and observation of world class strength athletes, observed 50 total reps as the, “sweet spot”, for hyper trophy. However training must be progressive and not static. Hence this formula.
Workout 1. 8 reps, 3 sets.
Workout 2. 10 reps, 3 sets.
Workout 3. 12 reps, 3 sets.
Workout 4. 8 reps, 4 sets.
Workout 5. 10 reps, 4 sets.
Workout 6. 12 reps, 4 sets.
Workout 7, Increase the weight, 8 reps, 3 sets.
So the rep scheme starts at 24 total reps and ends at 48 total reps, therefore doubling the volume.
Day One. Lower Body (warm up using your favorite method)
- Sled Drags. Before the Knees Over Toes Guy plastered YouTube with this exercise, it was widely used by pushing sleds in football training and certainly by Louie Simmons at the Westside Barbell Club. Do 8 to 10 up and backs, alternating forward and backward dragging. This will help anaerobic ability and shore up lower body strength from toes to hips.
- Trap Bar Deadlift. The sled drags preexhausted the thighs, but the lower back should be fresh. This movement also taxes the forearms and traps, enhancing the “movie” look. Follow the specific, outlined rep protocol.
- Lunge with Dumbbells. These lunges can be forward, reverse or walking. The last type is preferred. They will maintain or increase the range of motion in the lower body, stimulate core stability and again, hit the grip.
- Weighted Carries. This is the last leg dominant exercise. Ultra heavy weights are not needed, but push the duration. You need to vary the style from Farmers Walk, Suitcase Walk, Rack Carry, Waiters Carry and Walking on your Tip Toes. Just note the weight times duration for this exercise when you record it.
- Cable Crunch. This is a favorite of the late Dave Draper. Kneel in front of the cable apparatus, hunch over with a good grip and crunch. DO NOT fold at the hip crease, but rather shorten the distance between the sternum and pubic bone. Contract left, then right in a slight twist. Abdominal work must be progressive and therefore do the outlined rep/set protocol.
- Aerobics. Stick to Zone 2, long duration, lower body aerobics. The bike or treadmill is idea. If it gets boring or you get tired of watching Court TV on the gym’s big screens, get a rack that fits on the training device and watch an iPad. Captain American actor Chris Evans did this on the exercise bike with his laptop to handle business emails and Face-time his friends and family.
- Stretching. Hit all the stretches you hate and hold them for 60 seconds while practicing relaxed breathing. It is that simple.
Day Two. Push-Pull
- Glute-Ham Raise. This exercise with the prescribed rep/set formula will pump up your posterior chain from mid back to butt. You too can own, “America’s Ass”. It will also get some blood in the complex spinal muscles.
- Row-Pulldown Superset. To stimulate some thickness and width, we can exploit the fact that the upper back can tolerate volume. Use a supported row machine and any overhead pulldown rig you prefer. Don’t race between machines. Pulling in front of, or behind the neck is up to you.
- Incline Dumbbell Press. You can go heavy with these, even when using the set/rep template. “High” pecs are preferred to give the appearance of width on camera.
- Weighted Dislocates with a Broomstick. This is a mobility drill with the ability to increase strength around the shoulder joint. Any increase in muscle size is modest, but the smaller, neglected muscles will get surprising stimulus. Slip a plate on a broomstick and move, “slowly”. Start with your hands wide and don’t be overly ambitious. Watch cracking your tailbone as the bar passes behind you. Use the same rep/set method.
- Hanging From a Bar. This is healthy for the shoulders and stimulates the forearms. Time yourself and record it.
- Aerobics. Upper body emphasis. Use the rower, ski erg or if available, an upper body ergometer. Even the upper body portion of an assault bike is good. Stay in Zone 2. Duration is the key.
- Stretching. Rather than pure static stretch, grab a stretch band. Do 50–100 pull aparts at various angles. Include some dislocates and those “shoulder rehab” external rotation moves too.
Day Three. Vanity.
- Kettlebell Clean and Press. This is an effective exercise that has both a pull and push for your deltoids with benefits that include the traps and grip. Win/win. Do the rep/set formula, alternating arms. You can do it non stop or take breaks. That’s up to you.
- Face Pulls. Grab the ropes and pull to face level. This hits the whole trapezious complex. You may like adding a press overhead when the hands are near the face.
- Scott Curls. A barbell or machine are sufficient. Move slowly and go through the full range of motion. Literally flex the triceps at the bottom of the repetition to stretch the biceps a bit.
- Maltese Raise. This exploits the function of the bicep which moves the humerus forward. Use a light weight due to the unusual nature of this drill and just do one high repetition set to failure. You may add an occlusion band around your upper arms. This *may* add to a “veiny” appearance. Here is a video for those unfamiliar. https://youtu.be/lmlVTOUDXpU
- Gironda Triceps. This exercise trumps most for developing the triceps development. Here is a photo. Same reps/sets.
7. Straight Arm Rear Triceps Raise. While this may be difficult for those with compromised shoulders or excess weight, give it a try. Dumbbells may be easier than a straight bar. You can use the broomstick loaded with a small plate. Hold it behind you in a pronated grip with LOCKED elbows. Do NOT lean forward or round your back. Raise the stick to the rear as high as possible without pain. Pause and lower it. Do one set to failure. Again, putting ligature on your arms for occlusion training is a viable option here.
8. Reverse Drag Curl. You can use a straight or EZ curl bar. Your choice. Grab it with a pronated grip with the bar touching your upper thighs. Now drag the bar up the body while keeping the elbows BACK. Pause at the top an extend the wrist to fire more muscle. Slowly return to the stretched position. This exercise is done slowly. In fact a 3–3–3 cadence would be good. Same reps/sets.
9. Wrist Curl on the Bench. Use a straight bar and a flat bench. Straddle the bench and rest your forearms on the bench, not your knees. Larry Scott recommended keeping the thumb under the bar. Lower the weight and let the fingers relax and bar roll down, now curl slowly, never allowing the elbows to come off of the bench.
10. Aerobics. Do Battle Ropes. A minute on, a minute off for 20 minutes.
Day Four. Yoke.
- Clavicle Superset. This can be done on an incline press and supported row machines, or with a cable and bodyweight drill. Using the same formula of reps and sets, you will be doing protraction and retraction. If it is a cable and bodyweight, start in the push up position with locked arms. Allow the shoulders to sink until the shoulder blades touch. Then protract the clavicle region to spread the shoulder blades. Finish your reps and move to a low cable and handle. Keep the body tense, grab the cable in both hands with a pronated grip. Step back to keep the tension even. Now shrug or retract the upper back, pinching the shoulder blades together. When you are finished, move back to the first exercise. If machines are your choice, simply mimic the movements while seated in a press machine and supported row machine. Easy peasy.
- Dumbbell Shrugs. Forget about jerking up the weight or moving quickly. Focus on an extended range of motion during the shrug. Dumbbells may make for a better experience. This is another exercise that can have a cadence of 3–3–3. The standard repetition template applies.
- Anterior Neck Flexion. This is old school. Wrap a plate in a towel and place it on your forehead as your head hangs over a bench. Move slowly. Allow development. Don’t force it.
- Posterior Neck Flexion. Flip over and load the weight on the back of the head. Some may choose a neck harness instead. That’s perfectly acceptable.
- Anderson Neck Rolls. Named after strongman, Paul Anderson, you will need a towel on the floor for this exercise. Lay prone with your forehead on the folded towel. Keep the hands behind your back, handcuff style. Create tension in your neck and core as you roll your head side to side, SLOWLY. This exercise is as therapeutic as it is developmental. Use one set of higher reps like 20/20. Then roll over press the back of your head against the towel and repeat.
- Anaerobics. Kettlebell Pass Around The Body. Do a minute in each direction. Eight minutes total. Pass the ‘bell carefully and don’t drop it. Use some body english, but keep your arms straight to prevent elbow strain. This varies the stimulus to the trapezious and upper back.
- Adonis Belt Drills. The V shaped muscles that include the obliques, inguinal ligament and transversus can appear prominent by way of genetics or training. Either get in to the Captains Chair or hang from a bar. Pull the knees to the stomach and twist left, slowly. Lower your legs to the starting position, pull your knees to your stomach and twist right. That constitutes one repetition. Now use the same formula that you used for all the other exercises.
Day Five. Parkour. While NO ONE is asking you to recreate the chase seen in Casino Royale with Sebastien Foucan late in your athletic career, practicing better movement can be fun ONLY if it is scaled and progressive.
- Go Outdoors. Either bike, ruck, run or walk to the park or gym depending on the weather and where you live. This should be 30 plus minute getting there and home.
- Use the FREE or paid material from MovNat. This source of training starts you off on insanely basic movement in a safe, instructional environment and allows for progression. It’s fun and can enhance your life, your sport or your martial arts. It can remove fear since you get gradual exposure to what seemed to be impossible situation. It’s a nice workout too.
- PNF Stretching. After your trek home, take time for the final effort of the week. Do some stretching that stimulates a bit of strength in the end range. This can conceivably prevent injury and maintain joint integrity. A good source is Tom Merrick. He’s very organized and clear.
While doing stunts or backflips off of buildings is probably not your goal, stimulating the brain through challenging yourself might allow you to climb the Burj Khalifa.
Day 6 and 7. Rest.
The structure of this template provides several things.
- Weekends off for family, social life and TWO days to recover.
- Shorter workouts since time, energy and recovery suffer.
- The flexibility to emphasize a body part for an on screen shot.
- Low risk exercise. Filming for 3 months on locations throughout the world might effect a deadlift workout at 90% of your 1 rep max.
- Adjustments due to injury or strain are easy.
- Truncating the workout is simple if that is needed.
- It’s varied and you won’t bore a client who feels entitled.
- There is ample stretching, aerobics and prehab built in.
- While the intended results are cosmetic, overall fitness is addressed.
About every fourth week, you can reduce the volume by returning to the 8r x 3s, rung and coast a bit for recovery.
Stick with the workout for 3 months before you get exercise ADD and change. Give it a chance.
If you are obese, reduce measurable caloric intake by 10%. Eat as much of a whole, fresh and raw diet of real food that you can. If adding weight is your goal, bump calories 10% from your average. Make sure protein is ample, meaning 1 gram per pound of TARGET bodyweight. This may require the use of liquid protein drinks, especially when filming. Large meals can distend the stomach and instead of a superhero you look like a basketball thief.
Lastly if you are past forty, get blood tests and make decisions on HRT. ALL or most action actors do. That is more in realm of Derek at More Plates, More Dates, than this article.
There is a prize for doing three months of this workout and following a structured diet. Mickey Rourke will stop by and do your ink. Train Smart.
If you need private coaching or a phone consultation, please email me at email@example.com #trainforlife
Tom Furman has been involved in martial arts and conditioning since 1972. With an early background in wrestling and a student of the methods of the York Barbell Club, Tom immediately separated fact from fiction growing up outside Pittsburgh. Eleven members of his family were combat veterans, the most famous one being “Uncle Charlie” (Charles Bronson) His down to earth training methods are derived from his decades long practice of martial arts and his study of exercise science. The application of force, improvement of movement and durability rank high on his list of priorities when training. He gives credit to hundreds of hours of seminars, training sessions, and ‘backyard’ workouts, including training time with many martial arts legends. He also credits his incredibly gifted training partners who came from varied backgrounds such as Exercise Physiologists, Airborne Rangers, Bounty Hunters, Boxing Trainers and Coast Guard Rescue Divers. In addition, Tom spent 30 years in the theater and film business. His best selling ebooks, are available HERE.