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Beastmode: How Alexander Skarsgård Became Tarzan

We took a look at how the 'True Blood' star transformed his physique.

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"His straight and perfect figure, muscled as the best of the ancient Roman gladiators must have been muscled, and yet with the soft and sinuous curves of a Greek god, told at a glance the wondrous combination of enormous strength with suppleness and speed.”

When Edgar Rice Burroughs penned this line for his novel Tarzan of the Apes (1912), he envisioned a man whose physique had been shaped by the primal construct of the jungle. By nature, Tarzan would be nimble, powerful, and broad-shouldered, bearing no muscle that was not without purpose. After all, we’re talking about a man who grew up in the wild, not a dude who knocked out sets of deadlifts with fallen tree trunks.

From 1918 to 2014 more than 200 Tarzan films were made, both animated and live action. During that time many well-built men portrayed the savage protagonist on screen, but none may be more true to Burroughs’ vision than Alexander Skarsgård in The Legend of Tarzan. What audiences will see on screen will differ greatly from the linear journey of a feral boy who was raised by apes.

SEE ALSO: Tarzan Training: Skarsgard's One-Week Lean Mass Split

“The movie opens [with Tarzan] in London,” says Skarsgård. “He’s been there for a decade. This is not the ‘Me Tarzan, You Jane’ loincloth guy we’re used to. This is someone who has tea with the prime minister. His journey takes him back to the jungle [where he] reverts back to Tarzan. So this is the opposite—a civilized man who reverts to an animalistic state. Psychologically, it’s interesting—that dichotomy of being a civilized man in society but having the primal instinct of an animal. We all struggle with it. As an actor, it was exciting to explore that journey of him becoming a beast.”

And becoming a beast for the Swedish-born actor, best known for his role as a womanizing vampire for seven seasons on HBO’s True Blood, was a bit of a bear. It took eight months for Skarsgård to look, move, and feel like a man raised in the jungle, but on the second day of filming it became evident that his hard work had paid off.

“When he took off his shirt, the first thing you noticed was his back,” says Magnus Lygdback, celebrity trainer and architect of Skarsgård’s physical transformation. “You could hear people whispering, and that’s when I knew we had done it.”

PRIMAL MUSCLE

There’s a memorable scene from 2008’s Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull where Shia LaBeouf’s character effortlessly swings from tree to tree alongside a troop of monkeys. Audiences guffawed, unable to accept that a skinny kid in a leather jacket and tight pants possessed enough upper-body strength to execute a single pullup, let alone keep pace with primates. To avoid scenarios like that, Skarsgård’s Tarzan had to look imposing enough to believably stand toe-to-toe with human foes and 500-pound apes. To do so required added muscle mass, a task that proved difficult for the 6'4", naturally lean hardgainer.

“I wanted to have a bit more weight but not get too big,” Skarsgård says. “It was important to work on looking nimble and flexible–like someone who could move through the jungle like an animal would. That’s his natural habitat. There was [to be] no unnecessary bulk that he doesn’t need.”

The other component was psychological.

“[Director David Yates] and I talked a lot about the way Tarzan moved, his posture,” Skarsgård says. “Someone who’s buttoned up in the beginning, very controlled, and then slowly changes his posture as he comes to accept who he is, his physicality”

Lygdback was dealing with a relative gym newbie with the 39-year-old Skarsgård. So turning his client from leading man to man-beast safely would require time, patience, attention to detail, and a game plan that focused on total-body strength and agility.

For the first several months, Skarsgård did at least four dedicated weight workouts per week with additional sessions of abdominal and core work sprinkled in every other day. Cardio was nonexistent for the first three months, since the focus was on adding mass. With a few exceptions, Lygdback stuck with familiar volume prescriptions for muscle groups: 12–16 for larger muscles like back and legs; and 9–12 for delts, biceps, and triceps. But to establish Tarzan’s back topography, Skarsgård would sometimes do more than 20 sets.

“We started out around 12 reps and then, after a couple of weeks, we started going heavier and heavier. But we never did fewer than 6–8 reps or got in the 1- to 2-rep range. Luckily, he responded well to the training, but you don’t want to go heavy [at the beginning] when someone’s not used to lifting.”

That doesn’t mean the workouts were easy.

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“We went really hard but still kept it to an hour,” the trainer reveals. “And we never did two sessions a day during bulking phase. He did six or seven days a week, and when we needed a day off, we’d take a day off. But when we took those days off, it was because I made him rest. He wanted to go every day.”

This type of hardcore schedule also meant the once-stringy actor had to adopt a high-calorie diet.

“For the first three months we tried to bulk up, and I ate about 7,000 calories a day,” Skarsgård recalls, incredulously. “He gave me these Tupperware boxes of food with cold steak or chicken and potatoes. I was constantly eating, constantly full. It was tough. I would get up in the middle of the night and have some protein and potatoes.”

“It was insane,” Lygdback says. “What I eat in one day, he would eat in a single meal.”

By the end of the fourth month, Skarsgård had added 25 pounds and was tipping the scales at 225.

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