How Sam Heughan Forged A Body Worthy Of A Scottish Highlander
On screen, Outlander star, Sam Heughan is a fierce Scottish highlander. Off screen, he uses fitness not just to forge a body up to the task, but to spearhead a global health movement transforming thousands of lives and raising millions for charity. Here’s how he partnered up with Roark Gyms to take his training – and his mission – to the next level.
He brings the weighted ball crashing down, burying it in the ground with a muted rubber thud as it meets the mat. Before it’s even settled he’s already scooping it up again, repeating the exhausting move in a steady, unrelenting rhythm. Sam Heughan has ferocity on tap. It’s no secret. It’s something his coach James White has picked up on, something that the other guys sweating it out in Roark Gym’s sunlit iron halls have witnessed too. The Scotsman can go from zero to a hundred like he’s flicking a switch. “Maybe it’s a Scottish thing,” he laughs. “I like to think it comes from the gut… or maybe it’s just the whisky.”
Sam is sitting on a box taking a breather between brutal sets of pull-ups, dips, box jumps, push-ups and 20-calorie stints on the assault bike. Most guys would be flopped out on the ground, working through a burgeoning vocabulary of expletives, says White; but dancing on the breaking point is exactly where Sam wants to be – and in many ways, needs to be. On screen, Sam is Jamie Fraser, a menacing highlander in the timetravelling TV drama Outlander. It’s a physical role for the man, who has to transition from riding horses to swordfights to sex scenes, and back again. His stage presence is about more than just giving a convincing performance, which for the theatre-trained 37-year-old actor isn’t an issue. He has to look the part too, which means forging a body that looks like it’s been out riding horses, swordfighting and wooing its way into fair maidens’ bedrooms for the best part of Sam’s adult life. “It’s also about being able to get the job done,” says Sam. “To still be standing and giving it my all, after 14-16 hours of take after take of fighting and riding; go home and learn my lines, and wake up and do it all over again.” As anyone who has watched a season or two of Outlander can attest, Sam is in great shape. It’s earned him a rabid following, with countless fan pages devoted to the star, and a few more solely celebrating his pecs (we’re not kidding). But the Scotsman knew he was capable of even more, that he could kick his physicality up a notch; and that’s how he found himself walking into Roark in Cape Town. When Sam’s trainer (and owner of Roark) James first met Sam, he was eager to put him to work.
For the coach – who has trained film and TV stars for the past five years, including the cast of Black Sails – that first training session is a dowsing rod for what he can expect down the line. “We’re not looking to humble you, or squash you,” says James. “But we definitely want to see what you’re capable of, to see you under real physical duress. That’s how you really get to know someone.” After that first session, it was clear that Sam had a solid base, with a wide foundation of skills built by his trainer John Valbonesi at “Everyday Athlete” back home. It meant he was no stranger to the hybrid strength-slashpower- slash-endurance programme that has helped cement Roark’s reputation as a Mecca for actors looking to get into top physical shape. He also had a giant capacity for work, which Sam says comes from a lifelong and healthy addiction to trail running. He’s finished more than a few marathons, too. And his idea of a good time? “Hitting the trail for 90 minutes, and just gunning it.” Says James: “If you’ve run a marathon, you’re probably mentally tough. And that’s gold.” But Sam wasn’t without his issues. It might sound bizarre, but his biggest problem was that he was going too hard. He cracks a smile on his way to the power rack. “I’ve always gone as hard as I can,” he says. “I look forward to it. But with the intensity of these sessions, I was hurting my recovery when I hit the trail.”
As Sam settles in for a set of dips, James chips in: “We promote doing 90 minutes a week when it comes to endurance work. But yeah, he was seriously going too hard. He’d do 90 minutes, bombing the shit out of it. That’s commendable – but unfortunately, not beneficial to the type of work we were doing here.” According to James, what you want from those endurance sessions is to get into that fat-burning zone and stay there. If your heart rate is too high, you’ll start to burn muscle, and unravel all the work you’re putting in at the gym. It was a complete rewiring for Sam, used to flicking the switch and tackling everything with the same ferocity. It worked in the gym; but on the trail or tar, he had to watch his pace to get the results he needed for his time on screen. He learned something new about recovery: it’s not just an opportunity to get the blood pumping, and help the muscles relax and heal; it’s a way to calm himself down, too. “Active recovery doesn’t mean you have to run yourself ragged,” he says. “It could just mean going for a walk, and grabbing coffee with your friends. That was a real eye-opener for me, that had big results.” Sam is learning a lot. Landing the role of Jamie Fraser was his real breakout moment. For many years, he’d been testing his mettle on the stage; but when he first emerged as the intimidating highlander – that’s when the world started taking notice. James says it’s translated into a mentality that pays dividends, day in and day out in the gym. “Sam doesn’t take anything for granted,” he says. “Because he had to work so hard for what he has, it’s natural for him to give it his all, every single session.”
Claim your birthright
Sam grew up in New Galloway in Scotland, living with his family in converted stables in the grounds of Castle Kenmure. He credits his upbringing for his passion for the great outdoors. Not only did this locale – his home opened up onto kilometres and more kilometres of wild, lush and enticing Scottish countryside – nurture an adventurous spirit, but his mother brought him up on a strict diet of healthy, home-cooked food. “It’s helped me not crave bad food, and I seriously believe that you are what you eat,” he says. “You put enough good stuff in your body, and eventually that’s what you’ll be seeking out.” He would go on to enrol at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama in Glasgow. But the outdoors always had a hold on him, and he would jump at any opportunity to leave the concrete jungle behind and escape up the nearest mountain, or lose himself chasing trails in a dense uncharted forest. During the photoshoot for this feature, we head up Table Mountain. While in the gym, Sam is calm and collected, relishing the challenges engineered by James; out on the trail, the Scotsman is definitely in his element.
“The new perspective you get from up here: it just gives you a moment to reflect, to appreciate everything you have.”
But it wasn’t just his adventures that kept him fighting fit. Contrary to popular belief, theatre can be as physically demanding as anything else, he says. When he stepped into the role of Batman (and Bruce Wayne) for Batman Live, a stage interpretation of the caped crusader’s escapades, Sam caught a glimpse of the physicality he would later require to step into the boots of Jamie Fraser. “It was a two-hour show, it was insane. The quick costume changes to get from Bruce to Batty, the demands of flying around in a full harness and then unclipping and fighting 20 henchmen – I was sweating buckets. It’s probably the most physical thing I’ve ever done.”
It’s where he first learnt to tap into that ferocity, to make his performance larger than life, to flick a switch so that the crowd in the back row was getting the same experience as the early birds at the front. “I tried to make my Batman like a tank – like nothing could stop him.” When Sam landed the Outlander gig, there were few who doubted he could pull it off. Even the author of the adapted books commented: “That man is a Scot to the bone, and Jamie Fraser to the heart. Having seen him not just act, but be Jamie, I feel immensely grateful to the production team for their painstaking attention to the soul of the story and the characters.” Sam doesn’t just understand that he needs to embody everything it means to be the highlander – he relishes it. “Right now, I think, physically, I can take on anything – within reason!” he says, after finishing a set of bear crawls. “This show is constantly changing. Any challenge this show can throw at me, I have to adapt to it. It doesn’t matter if we’re on boats, jumping off rigging and fighting after the 15th take – I know my body is prepared for it.” It’s the confidence he needs, in a show that notoriously revolves around intimate sex scenes between him and his co-star, he admits. Most of the time he doesn’t know when he has to strip down; but what he does know is that he always has to look his best. It’s a lot of pressure.
Leading the charge
To power up the Scotsman – who was already in incredible shape – James knew he needed to switch things up. While Sam had a solid base, he had become used to the training programme laid out by his coach back home. James’ first step: take him out of his comfort zone. “When you train at the same place, you get used to certain types of training,” says the trainer. “Unless someone is taking you out of that zone – and for Sam, it was by no means an easy zone to be in already – and changing stuff, adding 5 or 10% to the top. Then you’ll start to see some real results.” Second step: dial up the intensity. “There’s so much information out there on what moves to do, and how to do them. But the one thing every guy forgets is to work out at the correct intensity. There’s no ceiling to intensity. “Everyone wants the ‘special programme’ that actors supposedly have to get in shape, but there isn’t one. The only thing that truly works a hundred percent of the time is hard work,” explains James. “While Sam’s workouts were carefully structured, especially around his work and sleep patterns, you don’t need a programme designed especially for you – what you need is to attack whatever you’re doing in the gym with intensity and to do that consistently.”
The actor admits he was exhausted after every session. But hours later, he was already raring to train again. “This kind of training helped me adapt, it made me ready for any kind of eventuality,” he says. “But mentally it helped me relax, to feel confident that my body was capable; it let me take out my aggression in this super-positive way.” The third step: it’s supposed to get harder. James structured workouts in such a way that every set would be a step up from the previous one. Just done a long stint on the rower? Do 50 metres more this time. “Almost all our workouts are geared towards doing more as the workout progresses,” he says. “That’s the expectation: we want you to perform at a higher level when you’re most tired. That’s the secret to developing true power endurance.” James says his best advice is that if it isn’t getting harder, you aren’t doing as much as you can. The bottom line is that you get stronger and the rest of your life gets easier; but your sessions in the gym get more brutal, because you’re capable of doing much, much more. After six months, the trainer has watched Sam make giant strides. While he was already strong before he walked into the gym, the actor has climbed to the next level, through a combination of intense workouts, smart recovery and getting enough sleep. James says: “I’ve trained with him every step of the way, and we really like doing horrible shit in the gym. Now he’s in great shape.”
“Working out is about trying to find new ways to challenge yourself,” says Sam. “This is what this was about.”
Raise the banner
Taking on new challenges is central to Sam’s belief system. It’s something he wants to share with the world through his initiative, My Peak Challenge, which aims to build a global community and support people looking to live healthier lives. “You don’t have to do a marathon or an adventure race,” he says. “This challenge is about stepping outside of your comfort zone.” The best part? He has raised over R8.6 million for the blood cancer charity group Bloodwise. On the website you’ll find countless users sharing their triumphs – from finally taking their dog for a walk around the park, or taking on a hike, to climbing a mountain that’s been sitting on their doorstep for years. Spearheading the initiative has been a rewarding process for Sam, who wants to see others find the same solace and happiness in fitness that he was fortunate enough to discover at an early age. “It doesn’t matter what it is,” he says. “Seriously, it can just be going for a walk or taking the stairs – that’s what we’re trying to communicate.”