John Cena is just getting warmed up. It’s 1:58 p.m. on a Friday. We’re outside Tampa, FL, inside Hard Nocks South, a private gym inside a converted warehouse. It’s surrounded by swampy terrain and hidden behind a stone wall and black gate. It’s out of the way, and that’s sort of the point. Only those who belong here know where it is. Military flags adorn the walls. There are some mats, a few benches, a power rack or two, and a lot of weights. There’s a working bathroom, but the door is tricky. 

Equinox, this ain’t. A few feet behind the warehouse, alligators roam in a pond.

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“You might see one,” says Rob MacIntyre, Cena’s best friend since high school in Massachusetts and now his personal trainer. (For what it’s worth, MacIntyre could be an M&F model in his own right. He speaks softly and carries a big, lean physique.) It’s the day before Halloween. It’s also, incidentally, the day before a Taylor Swift concert in the nearby Buccaneers stadium. The same sort of massive coliseum Cena has helped WWE sell out countless times. Yet here he is with eight other people in a warehouse gym, his back resting on a bench, his enormous arms lifting a weight-starved bar to heat up his muscles. The photo shoot—and interview and Web video—is scheduled for 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. With other M&F cover subjects, this process could take all day. But Cena doesn’t have time for that. 

This is a guy who does more than 250 shows a year for WWE. Who acts in movies (like the recent Trainwreck and the new Tina Fey/Amy Poehler comedy Sisters). Who has granted more than 500 Make-A-Wish wishes to children facing life-threatening ill- nesses—nearly twice as many as the next closest person in the charity’s history. Who appears on Total Divas, the hit reality show on E! that stars his gorgeous girlfriend, WWE Diva Nikki Bella. This is a guy who has spent three years taking lessons in Mandarin so he can better entertain the WWE fans in China—his contribution to the WWE’s expansion efforts into that gigantic market. Think LeBron James or Tom Brady would learn conversational Mandarin in order to help their respective leagues win over the Chinese? Right.

SEE ALSO: John Cena’s Upper-Body Workout Routine

In fact, this is literally the last day we could do this shoot before Cena will venture way off the grid—“to an undisclosed location, 46 floors be- low the earth’s surface,” as he puts it—to complete a long-in-the-works show for Fox called American Grit, a military-inspired competition series from the production company that does Pawn Stars. So, yeah, here you are. Watching Cena work out, observing a photographer snap hundreds of pictures of him, peppering him with questions (“This is like Sunday Conversation with weights,” quips Cena), witnessing him shoot a magazine cover and conduct a video interview. This isn’t a fake, “for the photo shoot” workout, either. Cena is going hard. Not as hard as he’ll go next week, when he’ll go on to set PRs in the squat (611 pounds) and the clean (364 pounds). But still, hard.


He starts on the bench press. Like most exercises, it’s a lift in which he’s still getting stronger, even at age 38. His biggest bench is 487 pounds, but Cena has his eyes set on 488. It’s all about baby steps at this point, he says. Small improvements. “I’ve stopped looking at PRs in increments of 10 or 15 pounds,” Cena says. “I go one pound at a time. Because that still means more weight than you’ve ever had in your life.”

It’s not the only tweak he’s made in his regimen as he approaches 40. Recovery time has become much more important. He can’t go balls-out like he used to. He trains four days a week (two days of powerlifting, two days of Olympic lifting) and rests for three. What’s more, MacIntyre assigns him specific weight values for each workout so he doesn’t push himself too hard. It hasn’t always been like that.

“My focus on recovery used to be just party all night, lift all day,” says Cena. “That changed pretty fast. I’m able to maintain a level of training with my age by manipulating recovery. Strictly that’s the answer, period. Knowing when to pull back. Knowing that I just did three hard days in the gym and you guys were going to be here on Friday. Even if you showed up with a suitcase of cash, I’m not going to do any more than this. It’s like, ‘Know when to say when.’ Know that you have to pull back to get that one day of max effort. It’s not like, ‘Oh, I train six times a day! For three hours a workout! I never stop!’ That’s not it. As you get older, you have to stop. You have to be judicious with your body.” 

Older and Wiser


The key is how Cena works out. When he’s lifting, he’s all in. Totally focused. The workouts run an hour to an hour and a half. There’s no music blaring in the gym, no headphones in his ears. Cena uses an app developed by MacIntyre called Mogy ( to check off
each exercise as he completes it. MacIntyre even records Cena’s workouts on video, and every couple of weeks they’ll go over them together in a film study session, noticing tiny, correctable mistakes in Cena’s form. For example, if he’s rebending his knees too quickly during the second pull of a clean.

“He’s a very present person,” says MacIntyre. “So if he’s lifting, for those minutes, he’s a professional lifter. He puts the time in like he’s a professional Olympic lifter, even though he’s not. But he’s like that with everything. If he’s shooting a cover or if he’s in the ring, he’s there and giving it his best. And then when that’s over, he’s on to something else.”

Cena has been lifting weights since he was 12. Early on, he trained in an old-school workout den in Amesbury, MA, called Hard Nocks. (Cena’s own gym is named after it.) He made a lot of mistakes when he was starting out. He says he regrets them now, but you can tell he really doesn’t. They were good mistakes. Errors of aggression. Crimes of passion, if you will. He would do sets of 500 on the leg press. Not 50, but 500. “I thought it was awesome,” Cena says. “Get on the leg press and play loud music and get fired up.

It was a bad idea, but it was better than missing the day, you know?” Along those lines, Cena’s training advice for others is remarkably simple: Just get in the gym and do the work. Don’t overthink it. Keep showing up. “Consistency, consistency, consistency,” he says. “Looking back on my training, I would’ve done things so much differently if I’d just known a little more. But I think what set me above anybody else is that I just went to the gym.”

Cena’s workout rolls on. Incline dumbbell presses. Single-arm dumbbell rows. Barbell shrugs. In between each set, other topics are broached. Cena answers every question with the sort of confident, fully engaged, 110% conviction he’s known for. 

Would he like to do more comedies?

Yes. They don’t beat up his body like action movies, and they allow him to express a different side of himself. Can anyone attain his exact physique? No. But from an appear- ance standpoint and a functional standpoint, anybody can do some really phenomenal things. Has he set a deadline on how long he’ll perform in WWE? Yes. It’ll probably be when he can’t go anymore. Maybe till he’s 85, 86 years old.

Why was he, as the biggest star in WWE and the face of the company, OK with competing as a middle card and opening the pay-per-view event Hell in a Cell? Because you have to do what’s best for the group, and it would be ignorant and gluttonous to think otherwise. Plus, he’d rather be the first match in front of 100,000 folks than the last match in front of a hundred folks. What do people outside the WWE universe not understand? That all WWE Superstars train like madmen, and that even though it’s entertainment, they’re all elite athletes. Does he remember the specific moment when he felt like he made it? No. Because the moment you think you’ve made it, you’re done. That’s when you need to go fishing. Is there anything else he does for recovery? He gets a lot of deep-tissue massages. And on flights he likes to wear compression recovery boots. Does he take any supplements? Caffeine and fish oil. What are his favorite and least favorite exercises? Favorites: squats and Olympic lifts. Least favorites: biceps curls. What else can he share about this Fox show? It will do justice to our armed services, and it will capture the personal struggles of people on an unbelievable journey. It’s going to look awesome. And it just might have global adaptability. Does working with so many Make-A- Wish kids who have terminal illnesses take a toll on his psyche? No. Quite the opposite. It’s inspiring. “There’s nothing more powerful than when you see somebody on paper who not only is up against it but is probably more than up against it,” says Cena. “And they’re happy. They’re fired up. They’re excited. It’s a great day. I get achancetogiveakidadaytobea superhero. And I’ve seen them become superheroes. It’s the coolest, most rewarding thing. Keeps me going. That puts you in check mode. Like, ‘He’s fired up. And I’m complaining?’ ”

Finally the workout is done. Cover is shot. Video interview is a wrap. Cena collects his things and says a few quick goodbyes. His work here is finished. He’s got to move on. There are more lives to touch somewhere. More kids who need a moment to treasure forever. More Mandarin expressions to learn. Or maybe he just needs a shower, some one-on-one time with Nikki and a nap. At any rate, he’s out the door. You check your phone for the time. It’s 4 p.m. on the dot.