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Philip Winchester is at the front line of fitness while playing sergeant Michael Stonebridge in Strike Back. Use his workout to get special forces fit.
Lesson 1: Forget about vanity
“Most guys try to go too heavy and increase weight too quickly – it may impress your mates, but not your joints,” says Emil Makan, Winchester’s strength and conditioning coach. “If Phil had a heavy day on set, I would bring down the weights and focus on other techniques to stimulate his muscles,” explains Makan. “Just because you maxed out last week, doesn’t mean you’ll do so this week.” This way your body recovers better (which results in more muscle growth) and you’ll have less risk of being sidelined due to injury. Forget about doing single arm curls too. “Your body doesn’t use one muscle for a particular task, so why train that way?” says Makan. “Rather use multi-joint (or compound) movements with exercises that target the most muscles, and split your routine into either upper body and lower body splits or whole body splits.” Makan’s favourite move for Winchester is the dead lift. “It pretty much works the whole body, releases huge amounts of testosterone and bulletproofs the body to injury,” says Makan.
Lesson 2: Shortcuts become crutches
“I’m not doing creatine or any hectic supplements – I’m just doing it all-natural this time, and it’s been a great lesson,” says Winchester. “When I was younger, I looked at cover models and I wanted to be like those guys. Now I’ve got the opportunity to talk to the younger guys and tell them that you don’t have to take any of these supplements or crazy diets to get into good shape.” Winchester sat down with Makan and the stunt guys (who do the same kind of training), and all agreed to skip the hectic chemicals, including dropping the pre-workout boosters – now all Winchester has before a workout is a cup of coffee. “There’s such a problem these days with 16 and 17 year olds juicing and taking human growth hormone – the US has become really terrible with the amount of young guys using these illegal substances,” says Winchester. “So we decided to go all natural, or at least as much as we could, and Emil changed our workouts to increase our testosterone production without the supplements, so we did big compound moves in an upper and lower body split.” (Check out “Ripped to the Core”) “My eating plan changed too,” says Winchester. “Last year I was on creatine, pre-workout boosters, drinking four protein shakes a day and everything was timed – this chicken breast at this time, this shake later – but I decided I didn’t want to train like that again.” What the action hero found that while he didn’t gain the same kind of size he has in previous years, his body changed drastically. “What Emil and I found is that I got much fitter and much stronger for my body weight – I can lift and push more now, my stamina has improved but most importantly I also feel much better.” No longer did he feel bloated or have any trouble digesting all the extra protein. “Last year after two weeks of training, all the chemicals and protein used to just come out of my pores and my wife would complain!” says Winchester. Going natural was an experiment, but it really paid off. “The stunt guys and other actors all said I was now the streamlined version of Stonebridge, and there’s been even more benefit that just feeling fitter and stronger, I’ve also been able to do more on the show and take less strain – and I think that’s partly because there’s less chemicals pumping around my body,” says Winchester. “I had to have a detox, both psychologically and mentally to get rid of my dependence on the stuff that I was linking my fitness too. When it came to his meal plan, Winchester went back to the tried and tested basics – just like his weight training. “We went back to the old school way of bulking up – loads of kilojoules, but all in whole foods and proper meals – there was no dieting,” says Makan. Winchester had full cream milk in his coffee, real butter on his toast – all real, whole foods with no special requirements. “It’s like a farmer’s diet; I grew up on a farm, and used to do haymaking in the summer time, and I’d never eaten so much food in my life because you’re throwing hay all day, you’re out on the fields and on the tractor sweating all day,” he explains. “Then you’d come back in and have a proper meat and potatoes meal – that’s what’s what I tried to replicate. (Check out “Fighting Food Plan” for more nutrition tips.) The real lesson that Winchester learnt about going back to the basics was a profound one. “The culture these days is that you want everything yesterday, and that’s why there’s so much pressure to take these shortcuts which are bad for you in the long term,” explains Winchester. “I’d fallen into that trap in the last few years, as we’d be given a very short time to get ready for roles (like a few weeks) and I would use supplements to put on weight as quickly as possible,” says Winchester. “I would put on a few kilograms, but then I’d lose them just as quickly – the added weight was from the chemicals, not from hard work in the gym. I may not be huge now, but I do know that this isn’t chemical trickery.” The strength and power that Winchester has now is practical and proven, and he uses it every day on set and in his life. “All the unnecessary supplements became a psychological crutch for me, and if I missed one, I felt I couldn’t work out or do any proper training,” says Winchester. “Winchester is now physically strong, but not at the expense of size or endurance,” says Makan. “The exercises we did allowed him to change direction quickly and handle loads way over his body weight. Coupled with his incredible mental toughness, means he really could be a Special Forces soldier.” This helps with the authenticity of the show, which is one big part of the success of Strike Back.
Lesson 3: Hard work means nothing without proper rest
“I set an alarm at night to tell me when to get to bed so that I can get at least eight hours sleep,” says Winchester. “The most important things are to sleep, eating good food and being willing to get hurt.” There’s no more shortcuts for Winchester, even with all the pressure and last minute phone calls from agents and less than four days warning before having to be ready for a casting call. “I always keep myself in good shape, so that if the role needs me to put on muscle or get fitter, it’s not hard for me.” Winchester always maintains a good base. “Most of the other actors are jacked on something or stop drinking water, but I refuse to do that – it’s all about balance and the harder I work the more I can enjoy myself.” “I’m not a soldier, but this work does make you realise what they go through and the mental stress of acting is very real,” says Winchester. “I’m lucky to have an amazing wife and a great house in Montana.” After each job, he goes back to his house, wife and dog, and tells the agents to leave them alone for a month. “I get back to what’s important: I turn off the phones, disconnect from the world and just get back to nature.” The couple hike, ski, hang out with friends, take their dog for walks – it’s his stress valve. “In the winter I ski, my wife snowboards – we go to a little hidden gem called Bridger Bowl about 30 minutes away, and on the weekdays you have the whole mountain.”
Lesson 4: Tailor your training
Forget about what the guy is doing on the bench next to you – create a plan that suits you and your particular lifestyle. “So often you see guys in the gym following a bodybuilder’s routine, but what they don’t realise is that most professional bodybuilders are sponsored athletes who get paid to train, don’t have to work eight hour days or get chewed out by their boss before coming to gym – their circumstances are way different,” says Makan. “So adjust your training to your lifestyle, make it practical and achievable, and that way you’ll stick to your workouts better.”
Lesson 5: Define your motivation and make it measurable
“The real Special Forces experts that taught us are a really tight fraternity,” explains Winchester. “They all have a gallows sense of humour that seems to keep them going, I think once you realise that you can die at any moment, humour can take the edge off of a the situation and help you deal with it – it’s what we have tried to replicate in Strike Back too,” says Winchester. For research, he studied a documentary called Restrepo (R230, kalahari.com) – inspired by Sebastian Junger’s book War (R201, kalahari.com) – and tried to recreate that feeling of realism, of what war does to the soldier. “It may not be changing them physically on the outside, but it is destroying them on the inside,” says Winchester. “These men are fallible, but that’s what also makes them interesting characters.” His goal as an actor is to accurately portray them, and that includes their attitude to every other part of their life. “I’ve learnt discipline, and all you need to motivate yourself is in your head,” says Winchester. He has a mantra that he uses, and it’s the motto of the SBS: “By strength or by guile.” But it’s not just for himself: he takes training and prep work very seriously, because he feels a duty to the real soldiers watching the show. “I don’t want to let them down – I have to do it right,” he says.