The 50 Fittest Action Heroes And The Rules They Use To Maintain Movie Muscle

Hollywood’s biggest, leanest action heroes show you how to build a blockbuster body.


Arthur Jones |

It’s not called the big screen for nothing. Catch any movie these days and you’ll see a cast of leading action men striving to be stronger, leaner and just plain bigger than ever before – just like our cover guy and #01 on this movie muscle list: the Rock. Stars use the latest science, smart coaches and proven old-school techniques to get them there – and you can learn from their efforts.

There are also some drastic strategies that shouldn’t be copied, like Tom Hanks’ Cast Away crash diet (which gave him diabetes), but don’t stress: the tips and advice we’ve chosen are healthy ways to help you add lean muscle and drop fat quickly. This is your script to getting your own IMAX screen-filling, high-definition body.

Related: The Four Move Workout That Marvel Superheroes Use To Get Movie-Ready

1. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson

Johnson admits that his on-screen success isn’t all down to him. “I have an amazing team, a great strength and diet coach,” he says. “But money doesn’t fall out of the sky – that sh*t’s expensive. There was a time I was broke. But there are fundamental principles that will lead you in the right direction. Train hard and heavy; train basic and dirty.” Johnson adds: “Go hardcore, balls to the wall every time you work out. Then leave it all in the gym.” What the Rock says, goes.

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2. Arnold Schwartzenegger

The original Mr Universe has done it all in the fitness world. He brought bodybuilding into the mainstream and was arguably the first real muscleman on the big screen (along with the lesser known Lou Ferrigno), and showed impressive shape in the Expendables franchise. It’s impossible to condense all the advice he has to give into just a few tips, but out of respect for the Governator (and to build serious amounts of muscle), add some of the moves that he’s made famous into your training plan: the Arnold Press, Incline Curls, Dumbbell Flyes, the Calf Raise and Donkey Calf Raise.

3. Joe Manganeillo

The huge werewolf from True Blood has made training his life, writing a book on his training called Evolution and putting in almost as much effort into his workouts as the Rock. He uses bodybuilding splits and fast HIIT to get into superhuman shape, but to build his beast-like back, he uses pronated widegrip pull-ups and pronated wide-grip lat pull-downs. If you aren’t doing these two moves already, you should be. Add them to your plan now. Aim to do sets of 10 reps for both (or work your way up to 10).

Related: Take On Superheros With This Abs And Arm Routine

4. Tom Cruise

Now 55, he’s still one of the biggest earning movie stars in Hollywood. He has one formula that keeps him in shape: kilojoule-counting. His daily limit: 5 081 kilojoules a day (mainly chicken, fish and vegetables).

5. Bradley Cooper

Struggling to get an A-Team six-pack?

Your remake: Cut out alcohol, sodium, sugar and refined flour bread

6. Matt Damon

Use Jason Bourne’s martial-art skills to get stronger, fitter and able to protect yourself in a scuffle. The secret: the combat method used by the Israeli military, Krav Maga. Find a studio near you: go to kravsa.co.za or truekravmagacapetown.co.za

7. Dolph Lundgren

Two-time European Karate champ and veteran muscleman, he now relies on smart bodyweight moves to keep in shape for movie roles. One of his favourites: push-ups on a medicine ball.

Related: Blast Fat Like a UFC Fighter With This Bodyweight Workout

8. Dave Bautista

He made his name in the WWE ring, but there’s nothing fake about his training. Now he’s taking down champs in the UFC and playing the newest Bond villain. His training formula? Fast circuits with explosive moves. Add switch lunges, box jumps, broad jumps, clap push-ups and pull-ups into one circuit.

9. Tom Hopper

The Black Sails and Northmen star trained at Roark Gyms and used intermittent fasting to sculpt a treasured torso. The fasting rule: Only eat meals between 10am and 8pm

10. Sylvester Stallone

No movie muscle list is complete without the Italian stallion, who played Rocky and Rambo. He’s renowned for his physique, even at the age of 68, and though he may rely heavily on supplements, he still puts in the hard work with his long-time trainer, Gunnar Peterson. We’re not asking you to do the same intense circuits he made famous in Rocky IV when he went against Ivan Drago, but we do have a tip from him that’ll help with any kind of active work: you need to build your forearms. Add these three moves to the end of your upper body day: fat-grip lateral raise, towel grip pull-ups and the cable wrist roll.

Related: Goblet Lateral Lunge

11. Joel Edgerton

He trained with Greg Jackson, coach of MMA champs like George St-Pierre and Shane Carwin, to become a lean, hard MMA fighter in Warrior. His training secret: the “Hill of Tears” in New Mexico. Burn fat with your own hill sprints plan: find a long hill (at least 60m). Do a warm-up (3 sets of 5 burpees mixed with dynamic stretches). Start with 5 sprints, first one at 80% and last one at 100%. Pump your arms, lift your knees and drive off the balls of your feet. Add two every week until you’re hitting 20 sprints at 100%.

12. Alexander Skarsgård

Ex real-life Sergeant in the Swedish army, he played a Marine Sergeant in Generation Kill before landing True Blood. Do this military axis once a day for portable power training:

  • Push-ups
  • Pull-ups
  • Air Squats

Make sure the combined reps add up to 100 (cap the squats at 40).

13. Ryan Reynolds

One of best onscreen physiques: Hannibal King in Blade: Trinity. Here’s how he got it: six days of threehour workouts weekly. Each workout started with 500 sit-ups followed by heavy lifting (no more than 12 reps in each set). To supplement the growth: Creatine + L-glutamine + Conjugated Linoleic Acid (CLA)

Related: 6 Things You Need to Know About Creatine

14. Hugh Jackman

The Wolverine is one of the hardest working men in Hollywood, constantly adding on lean muscle and building strength with his gym, the Dog Pound. For his X-Men role, he consumed a whopping 25 000 kilojoules a day between 10am and 6pm. His workouts: lift as heavy as you can for two days, then rest for one – and hit your legs hard twice a week to catalyse human growth hormone release. Sound advice, and it helped Jackman to build up to a lean 98kg of sinew and muscle, with just 6% body fat.

15. Gerard Butler

Arguably the owner of most impressive six-pack on the big screen as King Leonidas in 300, Butler used Gym Jones and Mark Twight’s insane circuits to build legendary status. Seven exercises (25 pull-ups, 50 deadlifts with 62kg load, 50 push-ups, 50 reps of 60cm box jumps, 50 floor wipers, 50 single arm clean and press with 16kg dumbbell and 25 pull-ups) that add up to 300 reps with no rest between moves. (There are also two easier levels – intermediate and beginner.)

16. LL Cool J

He’s launched his own workout plan (with trainer Dave Scooter Honig) and has made his physicality a characteristic of almost all his roles, including his most recent work with NCIS: Los Angeles. One of his biggest secrets is that he makes sure he can do his workout wherever he is – on holiday, on set or somewhere without a gym. One of his cardio weapons: the mountain climber. This total-body torcher is a great warm-up tool too.

Related: Think Stretching Sucks? Here’s How to Warm Up Better

17. Terry Crews

Famous for his barrel chest and Popeye-like arms, this 46-year-old has relied on his physique to get him roles, from Expendables 3 to ads for Old Spice. His favourite go-to exercise? The Power Clean. Stand behind a barbell, feet hip-width apart. Bend your hips back and grip the bar, hands just outside your shoulders. Pull the bar up along your shins until it reaches your thighs, then pull your hips forward and up powerfully. At the same time, shrug and pull the bar straight up. As it reaches your chest, bend your elbows so that your palms face the ceiling, and catch the bar at shoulder level.

18. Tom Hardy

Hardy relishes physical, tough challenges. He built lean muscle to play an intimidating MMA fighter in Warrior, then bulked up some more to play the towering beast Bane in The Dark Knight Rises. He used a scientific approach called “signalling” to build his MMAready body, which involved doing the same 20-minute workout at least three times throughout the day. Instead of doing 100 push-ups in one go, you do 30 in each of four workouts. And to bulk up to Bane, he used “The Bulk Matrix”, a brutal bodyweight regime designed by trainer Patrick Monroe. One example: perform this push-up circuit four times, 10 reps each: diamond, square, rectangle, and eagle push-up.

19. Chris Hemsworth

Thor relies on the suitably old-school kettlebell to build god-like muscle. He focused on going as heavy as he could, as often as possible. His rule: it should be heavy enough that you can’t do more than six reps. Add these three classics to your training plan: KB Swing + KB Goblet Squat + KB Turkish Get-up.

Related: Fry Fat With This 5-Move Kettlebell Workout

20. Chris Pratt

The comedian from Parks and Recreation lost almost 30kg to play Peter Quill in Guardians of the Galaxy. His trainer, Duffy Gaver, mixed bodybuilding, cardio circuits, MTB, swimming, calisthenics and rowing to get him into leading-man shape. MTB, in our opinion, is a year-long fitness tool that gets you into great shape and lets you train outdoors. Start your two-wheel adventure by checking out bicycling.co.za

21. Henry Cavill

This hardworking actor built arguably the most powerful Superman physique ever seen on screen in Man of Steel. Besides lifting huge pieces of metal at the famous mecca of muscle, Gym Jones, he also kept his circuits fast (sets of 25 reps of one move) and with as little rest possible, to blast fat at superhuman speed. One of the methods he used to keep his rests short: Tailpipe Recovery. You’re allowed only eight breaths of recovery between each 25-rep set to maximise fat burning and muscle growth. Think that’s a long time to rest? It’s not. But you’ll work up to it.

22. Kellan Lutz

The Legend of Hercules star relies on a smart move to get warm quickly (and to build muscle) in his training before lifting: the Bear Crawl. Get on all fours and crawl as quickly as you can for 20m. Try sideways too.

Related: A 15-Minute Total-Body Workout For Busy Guys

23. Wesley Snipes

This Daywalker is a true Mixed Martial Artist. His fitness formula: Karate (Goju and Shotokan) + Aiki-Jujutsu + Tae Kwon Do + Capoeira

24. Daniel Craig

A harder, stronger James Bond took a lot of covert effort. Here’s two of his undercover secrets: Food: Eating up to six times per day, Craig cut out carbs in the evenings and based his diet around fish, eggs, chicken, fruits and leafy green vegetables. Training: Weight training during workdays and cardio on the weekends. He started and ended the week with a circuit of pull-ups, squats, triceps dips and push-ups.

25. Viggo Mortensen

His secret training passion: swordfighting. Our closest fitness weapon: the Indian Clubbell. Find one at kettlebellsforafrica.com

26. Aaron Taylor-Johnson

He piled on muscle for Kick Ass 2, and revealed an impressive six-pack. He relied on a core move that was made famous by Bruce Lee: the Dragon Flag. Find a bench, lock your arms and then drive your legs like you’re doing a reverse crunch. Then lower your legs slowly (keeping your body in a straight line) – only your upper back should touch the bench.

27. Christian Bale

One of the most dedicated actors when it comes to training, he lost 27kg (through a diet of coffee and apples only) to play an insomniac in The Machinist, then bulked up from 55kg to 100kg for Batman Begins. His muscle-up meal ratio: one part fat, two parts protein, and three parts carbohydrate – every 3 hours. No chicken or beef (Bale is a vegetarian).

Related: This Diet Is Ranked #1 In The World – But Is It Right For You?

28. Mel Gibson

This 57-year-old movie veteran added 10kg of muscle to play the villain in Expendables 3.

Your remake: HIIT and cutting out food baddies: sugar, refined pasta + potatoes.

29. Scott Adkins

He’s probably the least famous on this list, but he’s arguably in the best all-round shape and has real-life black belts in Taekwondo and kickboxing. To build his serious martialarts muscle, he combines a number of different training styles, but his favourite is taking on the punching bag and pad drills. Start with 5 rounds of 30 seconds on the bag, using fists, knees, elbows and feet – at 100% effort. Increase your time as you get fitter. And watch Undisputed 3: Redemption. He makes it all look very easy, but after you’ve tried it, you’ll quickly realise it’s not.

30. Ryan Gosling

Sugar kills six-packs.

The healthy option: Freeze grapes or berries for guilt-free training treats.

31. Jason Momoa

Replacing Arnie in Conan is no easy task. The Game of Thrones star uses short, intense 30-minute workouts of just three compound moves to build muscle and lose fat. The rule? You need 330 reps in total (110 for each move). Start with 7 sets of 7 reps, with 7-second rests in between, then work your way down.

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Related: Is Game of Thrones Making You Fat?

32. Matthew Fox

Fox lost 20kg (a fifth of his bodyweight) to play the villain Picasso in Alex Cross. Here’s how: fast circuits with no rest. Try this circuit (3 rounds of 5 exercises, 10 reps each): squat thrust into pull-up; low-pulley woodchop; explosive push-up; KB swing; step-up, push-up and squat thrust (this combo counts as one move).

33. Jai Courtney

Too busy to cram in a 60-minute workout? Fit it around your body’s fat-burning schedule instead. Perform 50 press-ups, sit-ups or prisoner squats, broken up into as many sets as you need before eating. It will force your body to access fat stores for fuel.

34. Taylor Lautner

The muscular werewolf uses a method called “tasting” in his lifting. For example, in the benchpress, he loads 20% more on the bar than he can lift, using a spotter to help him to finish. This helps him to get used to the weight, and to smash his PBs faster.

35. Shia Labeouf

Shia is a hardgainer, but piled on 18kg for Lawless. If you’re also an ectomorph, make sure you follow his rule: protein every 3 hours. At night, take a shake before bed, and if possible, wake up at 2pm to take another one.

Related: How Much Protein Can Your Muscles Absorb In One Sitting?

36. Matthew McConaughey

For his Oscar-winning role as a drug- smuggling Aids patient in Dallas Buyer’s Club, he lost a staggering 3kg a week (he ended up going down from 84kg to 65kg). Then he put it all back on, and is back to his six-pack surfer shape. While we don’t recommend drastic diets, we do like the way he trains: he uses whatever is near his Malibu home, and if the waves are right, he’s out surfing. The one tough, take-anywhere move you can learn from him: the leg-blasting pistol squat.

37. Zac Efron

Efron put on 9kg to play a Marine in The Lucky One. He focused on oldschool lifting with his trainer, ex-Navy SEAL Logan Hood of Epoch training. Simple exercises that allow for easy (but serious) increase of weight.

The moves (3 times per week): Heavy overhead presses, squats, deadlifts and weighted pull-ups.

38. Mark Wahlberg

The rapper, underwear model and actor may have tried a few different careers, but there’s always been one constant: huge arms. He relies on traditional bodybuilding to train, and one of his favourite moves is the Preacher Curl. Find a bench and E-Z bar; grab it at the close inner handle so your palms are facing forward. With your arms on the pad and chest against it, start with the bar in line with your shoulders, then lower it slowly until your arms are straight and pull back to the start. Squeeze your biceps hard at the top and hold it for two seconds before the next rep.

Related: How Do Your Biceps Measure Up? (& How To Grow Them)

39. John Cena

You’ll know him from WWE and action movies with dubious plots but there’s nothing lame about his work ethic – or his strength. He can squat 270kg and deadlift 300kg, and those numbers earn our respect. Two moves we’ve borrowed from his repertoire: Barbell Landmine and the Pause Squat. The first will build your core faster than most traditional six-pack-focused moves and it’ll work your glutes from all angles, while the second will give you a strength foundation that’ll supersize your gains (as long as you hit the proper depth).

40. Channing Tatum

The ripped Magic Mike star relies mostly on bodyweight moves to build fast- and slow-twitch muscle fibres for better growth and definition: explosive pull-ups, box jumps and dips.

41. Taylor Kitsch

Kitsch trained hard to play the role of hero and Navy SEAL team leader, Michael P. Murphy, in the hectic Lone Survivor. As part of Operation Red Wings, Murphy was killed in Afghanistan and awarded the Medal of Honour and the Purple Heart posthumously. The tough CrossFit Hero workout named “Murph” was created in his honour:

  • 1.6km Run
  • 100 Pull-Ups
  • 200 Push-Ups
  • 300 Air Squats
  • 1.6km Run

Elite athletes do it in 25 minutes (some while wearing weighted vests).

Related: Here’s What Running Really Does To Your Knees

42. Chris Evans

Captain America went old-school to get superhero strength and add 15kg of muscle for the role: heavy barbells, low reps, compound moves, bodybuilding splits and more chicken than a fast-food restaurant. To help him grow, he used the following supplements: glutamine, whey protein, BCAA (Branched Chain Amino Acids) and fatty acids through fish oil (Omega 3, 6 and 9).

43. Brad Pitt

Pitt was at his most physically impressive in Fight Club: 72kg with 6% body fat. He used classic bodybuilding splits. Mondays: chest and back; Wednesday: shoulders; Thursday: arms, Friday: cardio.

44. Will Smith

Added 17kg of explosive muscle to play Muhammad Ali, and ended up with a 165kg benchpress. Your remake: Add explosive push-ups and weighted tricep dips to improve your bench.

45. Jake Gyllenhaal

Cardio-blaster: Put on a 15kg weighted vest (R770 rebelstore. co.za), then head off on a trail-run, followed by a 60-minute boot camp-style workout.

Related: Fry Your Fat With This 5 Minute Full-Body Bootcamp

46. Ryan Kwanten

This True Blood vampire relies on one training secret: breaking up monotony to ensure gains. He mixes trail running, MTB, boxing, yoga and hill sprints with lifting weights.

47. Jean Claude van Damme

The 54-year-old has built up a career that’s famous for flying kicks, chair splits, tree-breaking shins and aerial acrobatics. He’s mixed ballet with karate for his fitness formula – and it provides him with a trademark explosive, agile strength. While most men won’t do ballet, we can help you build the same kind of leaping power that Van Damme is famous for. Box Jumps: find yourself a platform 60cm high. Start practising jumping and landing on it with soft feet and perfect control. Add 5cm of height each week until you reach your max. And look out for the new Kickboxer.

48. Tony Jaa

Famous for his role in Ong-Bak and showing soon in Furious 7, Jaa’s speed and agility is phenomenal. He doesn’t do any weightlifting, but focuses on Muay Thai and flexibility work. But the first training tool he swears by is massage. He has one daily before training sessions to keep him limber and injury-free. Check out MTASA, the Massage Therapy Association of South Africa, to find a therapist near you. mtasa.co.za

Related: Avoid Injuries With This New Take on Classic Lifts

49. Jason Statham

This ex-Olympic diver has worked hard on both his gymnastic skills and his body-toweight strength to become the agile, powerful scenestealer that he is today. His workouts are filled with different kinds of training methods, but one important tip you can learn: cool down properly. Most guys skip this, but it helps you recover quicker and improve your range of motion. Use a slow 10 minutes on a rower, or do a full Statham and try 10 minutes of freestyle aerial work on a trampoline. It’s good for our lymphatic system (flushing toxins) and fine-tunes your motor skills.

50. Bruce Lee

Famous for more than just his razorsharp body and legendary agility, he created his own martial art (Jeet Kune Do) and was a pioneer of fitness techniques. One of his lessons was doing extra core work, where he’d build up his midsection to form a shield and be a better power transfer for his strikes. He did high-rep sets, three times a day, of leg raises, sit-ups and side-bends. Start with 1 set of 10 reps each, and go from there.

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