I grew up in the Age of Arnold. Before the Austrian actor became famous for his Shakespearean classic lines, he was a king in the bodybuilding world.
Not just a king — THE king.
In the ‘60s he won the Mr. Universe championship no less than 4 times. One as an amateur, and three as a professional (read: steroids). He then went on to absolutely dominate the prestigious Mr. Olympia competition a whopping 7 times from 1970 to 1980.
Then he blew up on the streets of Hollywood with unforgettable appearances in Conan the Barbarian, The Terminator, and Predator, among countless others.
Suddenly the ideal male-form was cast in stone.
Huge muscles. Low body fat. A tall physique — with a heavy foreign accent as a bonus.
Then in the late ’90s, movies like Fight Club and Troy and 300 came out — it was the gladiators’ time to shine. Extremely agile looking, 5’10, and more abs than a centipede has legs.
Fast forward a decade and the Marvel movies solidified the next desired form. Extremely cut, muscles bounding, and a little taller than before. Foreign accent — optional.
Just look at celebrities like Jason Momoa, Henry Cavill, Zac Efron, Chris Pratt, or even a late surprise bloomer like Kumail Nanjiani.
— Men's Variety (@mensvariety) March 12, 2020
But did you notice something about how they look versus what they weigh?
I’ll give you a hint, there’s an old adage sometimes whispered in gyms:
“Getting cut adds 20 lbs of muscle.”
Showcasing the ideal
Don’t know what I mean? Let’s start with a look at the weights and body fat of those celebrities.
These can be considered the actors’ ‘fighting weights’ — as in their stats when they appear ripped in movies — not outside.
Brad Pitt (Fight Club):
- 5’11” (180 cm)
- 167 lbs (76 kg)
- ~6% body fat
Zac Efron (Baywatch):
- 5’8″ (173 cm)
- 158 lbs (72 kg)
- ~5% body fat
Jason Momoa (Marvel):
- 6’4″ (193 cm)
- 215 lbs (98 kg)
- ~11% body fat
Henry Cavill (Man of Steel):
- 6’1″ (185 cm)
- 194 lbs (88 kg)
- ~10% body fat
Kumail Nanjiani (Marvel):
— Men's Variety (@mensvariety) March 12, 2020
- 5’8 (174 cm)
- 175 lbs (79 kg)
- ~10% body fat
Tom Hardy (Warrior):
- 5′ 9 (176 cm)
- 180 lbs (82 kg)
- ~10% body fat
Did you notice any similarities? Some of these dudes are just huge human beings and some of them are more average in height.
But they all have body fat percentages around 6–11%.
That’s not the biggest surprise to me — it’s their weight.
If you look at any pictures of these guys, they look like they’re all carrying over 100 lbs of muscle. But of course, they aren’t.
When Arnold was winning competition after competition, he weighed around 230 pounds (104 kg) — at only 7% body fat.
Lee Haney, arguably Arnold’s immediate successor in the bodybuilding world weighed the exact same.
These guys were massive. And yet go out and see the latest Marvel movie (or even a famous actor’s Instagram gym pics) — and they look oddly similar.
There’re reasons for that — which we’ll get into in the next section. But the bottom line?
They’re all extremely lean.
“Getting cut adds 20 lbs of muscle.”
12 ways celebrities appear in great shape (on-screen)
But leanness isn’t the only reason they look so jacked up on-camera. It goes without saying that these actors put in a lot of hard work to achieve their physiques.
We’ve all read those amazing body transformations that actors and actresses have put themselves through to get extreme results.
Think of Christian Bale in The Machinist or Tom Hardy as Bane.
How’d they do it? A few different ways.
Long-term (3 to 12 months):
- To become a superhero (Big and lean) — They hit the gym 3 to 6 times a week, ate an incredible amount of healthy food, and did high-intensity cardio almost every day. A minimum of 4–8 hours a day in the gym while eating 4000+ calories (Chris Pratt).
- To become monstrous (Big and scary) — They did the same as above but also added in the food you and I eat every day — delicious junk like McDees and BK (Tom Hardy).
- To become frail (Unhealthily lean)— They restricted their food intake with a maniacal zeal until they hit their targets. Some of them would add in extremely long-lasting cardio habits as well. Diets such as eating only apples and cigarettes (Christian Bale) or carrots and almonds (Natalie Portman). The general idea, consume less than 500 calories a day for months — extreme stuff. Not to mention incredibly unhealthy.
- Optional — Some may have used illegal substances like steroids, HGH, or ephedrine to boost their results. But it’s hardly ever admitted to.
They are in incredibly great shape (not counting the anorexic roles). But this isn’t what they look like normally.
They are showing us the end results of the pursuit of the ideal — not the real.
After every movie, they take a break. They fatten up. They work out less. They become slightly more normal.
But how do they get these superhuman short-term results for movies?
Short-term (Hours to days):
- They dehydrate themselves — this is an old bodybuilding and boxing trick where athletes/models/actors will literally drink only a few sips of liquid in the previous 24 hours before a photoshoot. (While drinking upwards of a gallon a day for a week before that.)
- They load and de-load salt intake — Some actors and models will go to extreme lengths with their sodium levels. They’ll eat a huge amount (along with a lot of extra water) for a week or two before the big day. On game day — they’ll be as dry as a bone but full of salt. A thin balloon of skin wrapped around inflamed rocky muscle.
- They play with carbs to the extreme — Some will eat extremely little carbs for a week or two, then a lot right before the big day. This also involves toying with muscle glycogen levels to optimize muscle swelling while restricting the water levels of their skin.
- They pump up before scenes — Can you imagine 50 actors all doing hundreds of pushups, sit-ups, and rubber band pulls between every take of a scene? That’s what happened while filming 300. They temporarily boosted the blood flow to their muscles by doing a bunch of exercises right before.
- They add makeup — Abs don’t always pop-out as we see in the movies, especially if an actor is above 12% body fat. So the crew will dust their abs at clever angles to add depth and effect to their abdomens.
- They use camera angles — Why was Gandalf always looking down in Lord of the Rings? Why is Tom Cruise often filmed from below? These camera tricks add a sense of added/reduced height and presence when filming.
- They used lighting and shadows — Have you ever been to a gym with no windows? Or perhaps your gym is in a basement like mine is. I look incredibly muscular down there — but back home in front of the mirror, the effect diminishes. The gyms do that on purpose when they can — yellow overhead lighting that casts shadows makes your muscles look way more defined than in natural light conditions.
- They get tanned — I challenge you to find a bodybuilding competition where the contestants look less tanned than the orange turd all over the news these days. They use spray tan, tanning beds, or natural sunlight to add more effect during photoshoot days — just like the lighting trick above.
I want to be clear, none of the above are good options for you to pursue.
Excess salt and water intake can wreak havoc on the heart. Using tanning beds frequently is correlated with skin cancer. Models showing up for photoshoots are often half-expected to pass out from delirium because of the extreme state they put their bodies in.
And it’s all just temporary.
But we can use some habits from celebrities to look way better in front of our mirrors (with or without basement yellow lighting).
8 simple ways you can get in phenomenal shape like a celebrity
I’m going to keep this next part extremely simple — but a bit wordy.
In addition to the above tricks actors use to get super lean looking, celebrities and models put in a lot of hard work before that.
But please keep in mind a few things:
- Actors get paid millions of dollars to be in this shape — Do you have a reason pushing you to greatness every day other than ‘I’d like to have a 6 pack of muscles instead of beer for once’? Maybe you can find one, but it probably won’t be a $1 million paycheck waiting for you at the end.
- Actors are on short deadlines — Most of the body transformations you read about with actors is always in a shockingly short timeline. 6 weeks to gain 20 lbs of muscle. 3 months to lose 50 lbs of body weight. These are extremes, and even if true (hint: the muscle claims aren’t) why would you need to hold yourself to such a strict deadline? You don’t. Slow and steady baby, you can win the same race in 1 or 2 years — in a super healthy manner.
- Personal help — Do you have a live-in chef named Antonio? Well, surely you must have a professional nutritionist calling you three times a day for 6 months. Or at the very least, a $25,000 a month personal trainer waking you up in the morning. No? Me neither. Actors and actresses have these services at their fingertips because movie studios have a vested interest in getting their physiques ready. In a short amount of time. You, on the other hand, have the luxury of time. But you may not have the luxury of waking up to a personal trainer screaming at you.
- They don’t have day jobs. Everyone on the internet you can read about actors and actresses doing these crazy workout routines to achieve their results in crazy short periods of time. 4 — 8 hours in the gym and training with boxing, yoga, running, swimming, you name it — it’s common to see. But again, you don’t have that kind of time on your hands. Nor do you need it. They HAVE to achieve these results in 6 weeks. You can pace yourself to do the same in 6 months.
- Something extra — Unlike Olympians and some athletes, actors don’t get tested for performance-enhancing drugs. Most celebrities will deny ever having taken drugs like steroids, HGH, or ephedrine — they need to protect their brand, after all. But that doesn’t mean they don’t take it. If you were about to make $5 million if you had to lose 25 lbs of fat in the next 8 weeks — would you really mind getting a bit of extra help? Who knows who takes it, but I can promise you the number of famous actors that do isn’t 0.
Now for a dose of realism.
How can you get a body like a Marvel superhero?
It’s really not complicated — but it might not be easy.
In general, for beginners:
- Use beginner gains — Newbie gains are a real thing. If you are a bit chubby or just brand new to lifting weights, you can literally lose fat and build muscle at the same time for 1–3 months. But then the effect goes away, and you have to adjust your eating and training to continue seeing results.
- You can get back your old strength — If you used to be muscular — whether from a job or weight training — there is a lot of evidence that you can quickly regain those old muscles of yours in just a few months.
- Get mindful — Incorporating mindfulness into your life can make drastic differences in everything from stress to mood swings to satiety. You can start with things like yoga, meditation, or something more low-key like mindful eating. If you are prone to binge eating, mindfulness habits can change your life.
- Don’t go overboard — When you start a new gym or exercise habit, many people make the mistake of going at it like a nerd in an iStore — and set themselves up for failure. Think of the January Effect at gyms. Every year when I’m being a good little lad and am actively using the gym, I despise January’s. Why’s that? Because they’re full of people — of whom 95% won’t be there in February. They sign up. Get pumped up. Get some great endorphin kicks that they haven’t had in years. Then rinse and repeat every single day. Until one week later when they can’t move a muscle and their old bad habits sink right back in. If you are new to exercising, please pace yourself — you can always ramp it up later when you’re stronger.
Now that we’ve covered the basic tenets of what you can do generally, let’s take a short look at two of the main goals of people.
Getting muscle and losing fat.
Do you want to add muscle?
- Lift weights — As a general rule of thumb, if you want to add muscle, you should aim at every muscle group at least once a week. I personally am a fan of doing head/toe days — I’ll work out every muscle in my upper body twice a week, and then two other workouts for my lower body. There are 1000 variations of workout programs, but you don’t need to stress over the details. Just aim for 6–12 reps, 3–5 sets, and make sure every muscle is worked 1–2 times per week. Simple — after you do it a couple of weeks. If you’re brand new, aim for lighter weights until you’re more comfortable and know your limits.
- Eat protein — I can’t emphasize this enough. I’ve wasted years in the gym because I didn’t eat enough protein. I was always trying to cut down to have abs while focusing purely on calories. My mistake. I only saw real gains when I started eating WAY more protein than I was comfortable with. Also my mistake. Most modern studies point to an optimal level of protein per day — about 0.8 grams per pound of body weight (1.7 grams/kg). If you want to add muscle, you need to eat this amount of protein. Every. Single. Day. For a guy who wants to be around 180 lbs, that would be about ~6 chicken breasts a day. Or ~6 protein powder scoops. Or ~20 ounces of steak. It’s a lot, but you get used to it quickly — and you lose your desire to eat crap instead.
- Get enough sleep — Sleep is also one of the biggest factors in gaining muscle over time. It’s the time of day when your body actually builds the muscle, so you definitely need it in abundance. Aim for 7–9 hours for most people.
- Optional: Take legal supplements —I’ve never been a huge fan of supplements because the industry is so full of gimmicky snake oil. So, I won’t get into the details, but three supplements that have been proven to help with increasing your performance in the gym. They’re whey protein, creatine, and beta-alanine. If you’re a beginner, I’d advise skipping these — at first. Make sure you form a new exercise habit before spending any of your hard-earned money on supplements. They’re the icing on the cake of a solid exercise habit. If you want to take anything, aim for why protein. It’s an easy way to add more protein if you don’t want to eat too much meat and eggs.
1. Go to the gym a few times a week
2. Eat enough protein every day
3. Get enough sleep.
Life is hard enough already, you don’t need to overcomplicate something as easy as exercise.
Now onto the other side of the spectrum — and something I’ve struggled with on-and-off for most of my adult life.
Do you want to cut fat?
- Diet is everything — There are a few sayings in the community. ‘Abs are made in the kitchen.’ ‘You can’t out-train a bad diet.’ ‘Abs are 80% diet, 20% exercise.’ These are all said for a reason — because they’re mostly true. When overweight people focus only on exercise, they’ll often get addicted to the act of it. Endorphins are flowing and their stress levels are reduced. It’s great. But the assumption that weight-loss will follow usually doesn’t work. Because we often reward ourselves for our extra effort — and kill all the fat-loss progress.
- Avoid fad diets — I don’t care what fad diet you’re trying, it won’t work for you in the long-term. The very definition of a fad is that it’s a short-lived craze. I just hope these diets aren’t referring to our life spans in that sense. If you want to get into keto, vegetarianism, low-fat, eating only cabbage soup — whatever — just don’t expect it to be a long-term thing. You will eat sugar again one day. You will crave meat. You will occasionally desire a juicy pork chop with grizzled. And you’ll definitely want to murder cabbage farmers after a week or two. Use these for short bursts of fat loss if you must — and find a way to eat healthier during your normal life. I personally like to toy around with intermittent fasting and low-carb days. I purposely don’t do it every day — it keeps me sane and I can eat more of the good stuff from time to time. A couple of days a week, a 2-week sprint, 1 month of keto — these are short periods where you can actually achieve small goals and get results. Win, win.
- Get moving — Don’t have time for cardio? Too busy to hit the gym? Sure, that’s a good reason. But are you 100% positive you can’t find 45 minutes every day to at least do something? How much Netflix do you watch most nights? Why not throw on an interesting podcast and go for a walk while learning something cool instead. Can you walk to work? How about the grocery store? What about playing with your kids? Maybe an at-home cardio machine in front of your TV would do the trick. My point is, you can find dozens of ‘micro-ways’ to add cardio to your normal life. If you try, that is. One of the best ways is to double up the activity too. I’ve walked 1–2 hours every day for the last 2 years. That’s an extreme amount, but I enjoy the hell out of it. It’s why I consume hours and hours of informational podcasts every week. What can work for you will be different than what works for me. But there will be something that can work for you. Just go find it.
- Eat more — healthy foods. Our stomachs can shrink or expand over time (just like our bodies). But they don’t usually change that much within a single day. If you fill your stomach, you will get full. And if you’re super hungry, the chances of you filling it with crap (sugar, spice, and everything fatty-nice) is huge. That’s why some dietitians advise eating many small meals throughout the day. But that takes a lot of effort, planning, and consistency. I like to keep things simple. When I’m losing fat, I eat before I eat. I’ll have a protein shake before I go to a restaurant. I’ll drink lots of water before I start cooking dinner. Fill up a little before you fill up a lot — and you’ll eat less generally. Even better if you’re able to do this with healthy filling foods like vegetables, beans, and lean meats. Eat the good stuff before your body makes you eat the bad. Even if you go on to eat the bad, it won’t be as much.
- Binge occasionally — One of the biggest reasons people fail at committing to new diets (especially the fad ones) is they mess up — eventually. Whether it’s day 1, day 10, or day 1000, sticking to a strict diet is incredibly hard. And I believe sticking to a healthy way of living is just as hard. That’s why I advocate for cheat days. Just not every week, like most bodybuilding programs will suggest. If you have a personality that is prone to binging on anything (not just food), having a weekly cheat meal can destroy your hard-fought gains. Instead, see if you can plan a cheat meal way ahead of time — like for a holiday or a once a month fancy meal outside. Having something to look forward to is a great way to stay motivated — and can feel incredibly rewarding when you finally make it to that cheat meal day. You might even notice you don’t actually want to eat all the crap when you get there.
Moderation really is the key to a celebrity body
No beet juice diets. No meatatarian diets. No soup/pineapple/<insert random food to become the next Hollywood diet-fat gimmick here>.
None of those work in the long-term. You could literally pick any food and mimic these silly snake oil diets. Have you heard of the sugar diet?
It’s what 75% of Americans unwillingly subscribe to thanks to 5 decades of the corrupted food industry. If you want to break out of that diet, you need to break out of the corruption.
No gimmicks, just hard work, some good habit building, and time.
Moderation is the key.
A moderate amount of exercise every day. A moderate weightlifting a few times a week, being sure not to injure yourself while slowly building muscle. A moderate diet full of healthier food with a rare cheat food and even rarer binge.
To recap the simple steps to gain muscle or lose fat, just follow the below.
If you want to build muscle:
- Train each of your muscle groups 1–3 times per week
- Eat ~0.8 grams of protein per pound of body weight (1.7 grams/kg) every day
- Sleep 7–9 hours every day
If you want to lose body fat:
- Find a diet that works for you with lots of fiber, slow-digesting carbs, and enough protein
- Use fad diets only for short-term gains — have a plan for after
- Get moving — find ways to add exercise into your daily life
- Add more healthy foods to your diet to fill up on (even if you’re going to go eat ‘bad’ food later)
- Plan your cheat days — use them as occasional goals to look forward to
A moderate body used to be what was common in America. We are victims of extremism now. But you can choose to not be any longer.
At the end of the day, if you want to get shredded and look like a celebrity, you need to shred your bad habits and build some good ones.
Over time. Not in 6 weeks.
You’re not Thor — and neither is Chris Hemsworth.