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The 10 greatest action heroes and their workouts

Workout
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There was a time, way before hi-def and widescreen, when being in shape for a film role was a rarity – something you did for a boxing biopic, maybe, or as a by-product of a former career as a carpenter (Harrison Ford) or bare-knuckle boxer (Robert Mitchum). Those days are gone. In the post-Tyler Durden, post-300 era, a six-pack is as much a part of the actor’s arsenal as a stunt double, and barely a year goes by without an eye-popping transformation from one formerly lardy lead. But who’s the real king of the big-screen bodies? We asked a team of experts to decide, then uncovered the nutritional secrets, moves and workouts that built their physiques. And… action!

The experts

To make our selection, we consulted an array of body transformation specialists, coaches, trainers and film buffs. Our panel were asked to consider both form and function, so stuntwork, athletic credentials and aesthetics all count. Disagree with them – we dare you.

Nick Mitchell is one of the world’s foremost body transformation coaches, a best-selling author and the owner of seven UP Fitness gyms around the globe.

Richard Tidmarsh is the owner and lead trainer of Reach Fitness London, where he trains UFC fighters, rugby stars and footballers with lung-sapping metabolic conditioning and strength circuits.

Andy McKenzie is a bodyweight exercise specialist and former army PT known as ‘Iron Mac’ who has worked with the likes of polar adventurer Ben Saunders.

Andy McTaggart is the health and fitness manager of Fitness First’s flagship gym in central London, a CrossFit competitor and conditioning specialist.

Richard Jordan is the associate editor of Total Film magazine, an occasional gym-goer and an enthusiastic consumer of all things Marvel Universe-related.

10. Tom Hardy

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Hardy’s had impressive traps since his turn as a malnourished, homeless alcoholic in TV movie Stuart: A Life Backwards – so it appears those are genetic – but everything else about his bulk comes from sheer hard work. Hardy and his longtime trainer/bodyguard Patrick ‘P-Nut’ Monroe use ‘muscle signalling’ to pack on mass in short order. ‘Do ten fast press-ups and then one slow one, or switch hand positions,’ says P-Nut. ‘Don’t let your body get used to what you’re asking of it.’

More Tom Hardy workout tips

9. Hugh Jackman

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‘Look at Wolverine in the first X-Men film, then the latest one,’ says Jordan. ‘He’s not just regenerating, – he’s getting bigger.’ It’s true: Jackman’s getting bigger and better every year – and he’s doing it via big compound lifts and good old-fashioned hard work. The Aussie actor boasts a 180kg deadlift – get yours up to indestructible- mutant levels by warming up with single-leg Romanian deadlifts to switch your glutes on.

Hugh Jackman's official The Wolverine workout

8. Bruce Lee

Bruce Lee

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As well as basically inventing MMA – check out his fight with Sammo Hung in Enter The Dragon and most of his posthumous book The Tao Of Jeet Kune Do – Lee took physical conditioning for martial arts more seriously than any of his contemporaries… and still has one of the most legendary bodies in film history. ‘He’s the star of the greatest fight scene ever – with Chuck Norris in the Colosseum in Way Of The Dragon – and a man who knew the power of displaying an attractive physique,’ says Mitchell. ‘You can see how he clearly increased his efforts to get in better shape as his movie career progressed.’

Abs of Fury

Lee did everything from experimenting with electrical muscle stimulation to drinking duck’s blood to build his ultra-strong abs. You could try that – or use this mini-circuit to build Lee-like core strength and definition. Do three rounds.

Good Morning

Reps 8

This is the move that did for Lee’s back – not, as suggested in Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story, a vengeful martial arts rival. Lee lifted heavy but you should go light and focus on perfect form. Holding a barbell on your back and with your knees slightly bent, lean forward until you feel a stretch in your hamstrings. Pause, then straighten up. Carefully.

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Dragon Flag

Reps 3

Holding on to a bench, bring your whole body into the air in a straight line, then lower down as slowly as possible.

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7. Chris Hemsworth

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When your other half swoons at Hemsworth’s Asgardian physique in any Marvel film’s regulation shirt-off scene, it’s tempting to point to the big man’s godlike genetics. Tempting, but wrong. ‘You just have to look at Hemsworth in his surf-bum days to see that he’s not naturally muscular,’ says McTaggart. ‘When he landed the role of Thor he put on about 10kg of lean mass by following a strict diet and bodybuilding regimen.’ In other words, he’s mortal – he just works harder than you.

Chris Hemsworth's Avengers: Age of Ultron back workout

6. Chris Evans

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You’re doing something right when they have to fake your body for the ‘before’ shots, and Evans’s emergence from his super-soldier cocoon in Captain America is a film-stealer. For the sequel he combined size and agility with combinations like the squat-to-box jump: do five reps of back squats with a weight that you can just about manage, then go straight into a set of five box jumps. Rest a minute, and repeat three times, soldier.

Chris Evans' Captain America legs workout and diet plan

5. Terry Crews

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Not many men can make singing a Vanessa Carlton hit into a career-defining moment, but Crews’ performance of A Thousand Miles in the otherwise-dreadful White Chicks marks the exact moment he went from muscular ex-NFL heavy to reliable comic film-saver. He’s since parlayed his physique and comedy chops into fame as tough-but-adorable police sergeant Terry Jeffords on TV’s Brooklyn Nine-Nine and Hale Caesar in the Expendables movies.

Terry Crews' top 5 gym crimes

Unleash the Cobra

To build shirt-packing muscle, Crews uses a dizzying array of pulling moves in his ‘Cobra back’ workout. Try three rounds of this poisonous pairing for size.

Wide-grip pull-up

With your hands slightly wider than shoulder-width, pull your chin over the bar. Pause, then lower. Go to failure and rest for 60 seconds – no cheating.

Close-grip pull-up

Fitness

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4. Jason Statham

Statham

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Then, with your hands slightly narrower than shoulder-width, pull your chin over the bar, pause, then lower. And yes, go to failure again.

‘Most people don’t know that Statham use to be a world-class athlete – he competed in diving at the 1990 Commonwealth Games,’ says McTaggart. ‘His role as Frank Martin in the Transporter trilogy showcases just how athletic and badass he is, and that he has a build most dream of having.’ Including Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, apparently. Get his functional strength with a Statham-favourite warm-up: three pull-ups, five press-ups and seven squats, for as many rounds as possible in five minutes.

Get a body like Jason Statham

3. Arnie

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‘Arnold Schwarzenegger changed my life when I went to see Conan The Destroyer at the cinema,’ says Mitchell. ‘Without his inspiration I think pretty much all the experiences of my life would have been different, thanks to the pull of the gym and its results on my appearance, my lifestyle and how people react to me. Arnold set a benchmark for movie physiques that will never be matched and any judge who doesn't have him as their number one choice is missing everything about physical culture of the last 40 years.’ Strong words.

Build T-800 Triceps

The Governator may not be in his physical prime, but – with Terminator Genisys coming up – he still hits it hard. His advice? ‘Dumbbells are better than barbells for your delts and tris. First, the Arnold press. Start with a weight you can do six times. After six, pick the next weight down. Work down the rack and do at least five sets. No rest, because picking up the lighter weight should be easy. Once you finish that, do lateral raises the same way. When I did this, I couldn't move my arms after, but it works.

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2. The Rock

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Anyone who gets bigger after they leave pro wrestling behind knows something about bulking, and Dwayne Johnson’s showing no signs of stopping. His daily diet? Steak, four egg whites and porridge for breakfast, meat, rice (or baked potatoes) and chicken for meals two to five, and a show-stopping ten-egg omelette in the evening. Pie: optional.

12-week Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson training plan

1. Henry Cavill

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Surprised? Don’t be. Others might have the edge on bulk or physicality, but it’s the new Superman’s combination of both that bagged him the top spot. It also assisted his performance – which is sort of the point, after all. ‘By doing physically difficult things, by changing his body of his own will, Henry changed his attitude and his bearing,’ says Mark Twight, who trained Cavill for the part. ‘He looked huge. He walked huge. His attitude broadcast his physical capability.’ Next up: making Batman look small in 2016, ahead of DC’s oncoming blitz of superhero movies. If anyone can…

Henry Cavill's Superman training plan

Joel Snape
Joel Snape

From 2008 to 2018, Joel worked for Men's Fitness, which predated, and then shared a website with, Coach. Though he spent years running the hills of Bath, he’s since ditched his trainers for a succession of Converse high-tops, since they’re better suited to his love of pulling vans, lifting cars, and hefting logs in a succession of strongman competitions.