With the right plan and the right discipline, you can get seriously shredded in just 28 days.Read article
“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.
“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.”
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.
“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.
After Skarsgård had added the requisite jungle beef, it was time to trim him down and move into a sculpting phase. This called for a stricter menu that was devoid of sugar, gluten, wheat, and dairy. And, no, he doesn’t have any allergies.
“When we went to the stricter diet it was tough because it’s hard to make stuff taste good and interesting,” Skarsgård says. “You get sick of it. I love food and wine and beer and rich foods, but I don’t have much of a sweet tooth. In almost a sadistic way, [the austerity] was exciting.”
Lygdback adds, “We had five weeks of cutting and dieting before we started filming. We did 10 to 14 [training] sessions per week, including morning cardio. And that’s a lot for a guy who’s on a diet, less energetic, in a caloric deficit, and still working out hard.”
And then, disaster.
“Ten days before filming he had to do camera tests, and that was the first time he’d taken his shirt off in front of people [since he began training],” Lygdback says. “He was on a diet, so he was flat, pale, didn’t have volume in his muscle, and he had way too much body fat. He looked great, but not how we wanted him to look. We could tell David Yates wasn’t happy.”
Like precompetition bodybuilders, Skarsgård learned that the body begins to revolt against deprivation by holding on to every physique-obscuring bit of water it can. At this point in any athlete’s prep, the body is thinking survival, not stage. Still, that didn’t stop Skarsgård, who had tortured himself into this condition, from freaking out.
“I was stressing because we weren’t quite where we wanted to be,” he says. “I was eating what I was supposed to eat and training twice a day, and my body was holding on to that last bit of fat.”
Lygdback’s solution? Eat more, train less.
The approach left Skarsgård puzzled, and for the first time, he was losing trust in his trainer. But Lygdback assured him that his body was simply overtrained.
Lygdback says Skarsgård’s stress hormones were way too high so they cut his training volume in half and, in secret, Lygdback had the chef increase the carbohydrate and fat content of Skarsgård’s meals. The addition of calories, carbs, and fat would reassure Skarsgård’s body that the situation wasn’t so dire, coaxing it into reducing its production of cortisol and allowing it to burn body fat and shed superfluous subcutaneous water.
“The last few days he was trying to work out behind my back, and I had to physically stop him,” the trainer reveals. But, alas, by the time principal photography started, Skarsgård had whittled himself into the shredded character he was hired to portray.
To mimic Skarsgård’s transformation you’re better off following the overlaying principles than his macros: Take no shortcuts, increase calorie consumption, and stick to the plan until it’s time to change things up. The workouts themselves are rather unremarkable in nature, but they’re rooted in a philosophy proven to produce results.
“For me, it was the platitude of ‘eye on the prize,’” Skarsgård explains. “That’s what motivated me on a daily basis. I was excited when I woke up. Every day, every workout, every meal was a stepping stone, and every single one of them is important. There was also the challenge of ‘Can I do this?’ and ‘How will my body respond?’ I was really curious about that and very, very motivated.”
It just so happens that his exploration of becoming a beast also meant training like one.