If you see a Hollywood actor chewing up the scenery with a jaw-dropping physique, there’s at least an outside chance that David Higgins played a role in helping them to build it.
Higgins has been so successful over the last decade at conditioning actors for the big screen that he has even published a book—The Hollywood Body Plan—which serves up the core components of the strategies that have enabled stars like Samuel L. Jackson, Gal Gadot and Margot Robbie to strut superheroically across the screen. From his London-based gyms, the Australian transplant has also worked with the likes of Simu Liu and Kumail Nanjiani, both of whom were in prime shape for their Marvel films, Shang Chi and The Eternals, respectively.
So what is the secret ingredient within the training plans devised by a former Aussie-rules football player and Pilates specialist that has so many A-list stars booking trips to London to work with him? Higgins offered up some time out of his busy schedule to explain to us how his fitness practices help to get his clients into the best possible shape for their blockbuster roles.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Does a pure mass-building transformation vary greatly in its approach from one that involves significant weight loss?
Gaining size is about having the dedication to show up for an hour or two in the morning, go down for a nap in the afternoon if you get the opportunity, and then showing up to do something else at the gym in the afternoon. Consistency with diet and sleeping habits is also key, and when you’re already skinny and trying to add muscle, you have the benefit of being able to see the change happening quickly. That’s a real asset in convincing a person to stay the course versus someone who’s trying to lose weight, which is a far more monotonous process. Guys losing weight are doing a lot more cardio instead of following sharp movement patterns. When you pack on size, you’re getting your testosterone going and you’re learning that’s a thing you can enjoy all on its own. It’s much more of a fun process as opposed to having to lose weight, but both destinations are rewarding when you get there.
So going along with the work those clients have to put in at the gym, do you advise them to adhere to any dietary changes that are essential or critical to the process?
I truly believe that not all calories are the same, which is a bit of a misnomer that goes around. If you’re going to eat 4,000 calories to put on weight, a lot of people will say that you can just pack it in there, and it doesn’t matter where the calories come from so you don’t need to be concerned with that. The reality is that you shouldn’t simply eat Big Macs all the time to hit that 4,000-calorie mark. Instead, you should be eating quite clean and following a higher protein diet.
Does that mean you’re steering your clients away from eating carbs?
That’s another misconception: You do need carbs in order to build muscles. A lot of people are skeptical about that, but carbs are not the enemy; they just have a bad rep. Your body is going to be using carbs to build that lean muscle for you, so you have to eat carbohydrates along with everything else, including the protein and the fat.
Is there anything special you instruct your clients to eat or drink?
I cycle my clients through protein shakes. As you can probably imagine, shakes are a really efficient way of getting the nutrients you need into your system. I always advise my clients to drink one post workout. I also advise my clients to train in a fasted state as well. From there, the first thing I have them take after they train is a workout shake with creatine, and maybe a collagen powder in there as well to mix it up a bit. It just gives the body an extra advantage to utilize what you’re putting in the system.
So they’re not showing up to train with anything in their system at all?
If you want to go down this road, you can also combine that with a shot of coffee in your system just to kickstart your metabolism in the morning. You should also be drinking a mountain of water: two to three liters a day at a minimum. The water is there in order to encourage your body and to provide it with that volume it needs to grow. That growth material has to come from somewhere.
Obviously, exercise selection is a crucial component to building muscle mass. Are there any exercises that you consider to be absolutely essential if men want to pack on mass quickly, and does the fact that your featured clients are film stars influence any of these training decisions?
When you’re working on these types of jobs, like when you’re an actor preparing for a film, you don’t have a huge amount of time to get everything prepared for the big screen. Squats, deadlifts, and large functional movement patterns encourage the body to move and gain size on a global scale; I obviously recommend those movement patterns.
It seems to me like the workout goals of a film star would be predominantly cosmetic. Is it just a matter of rounding out the squats and deadlifts with the standard segmented body part training?
If you arrange the workout in traditional bodybuilding segments like back and biceps one day, and the chest and triceps the next day, you should know that I actually don’t adhere to that method with my clients. Instead, I prefer to do more of a circuit for the whole body every single day, but I’ll apply different training loads on each day. So for example, Monday is a heavy lifting day, and Friday is a high-rep day with 20 reps for five sets. In between those days we’ll do a Wednesday workout that is a hybrid day; we’ll do 10-to-12 reps in each set. On Tuesday, I might implement a kettlebell swing workout, or club-bell swings, and then on Thursday I might put them through a dynamic pilates reformer type of session. On top of all that, you’ll still have some cardio you need to do, but not a huge amount.
What is it about that training style that makes it more appropriate for a film star that some of the other methods that are out there, like the bodybuilding-style training regimen you mentioned?
This type of training process creates a body that has the look you want people to see, but it also gives your body the physical ability to do what you want it to do on camera repetitively. It will be strong and resilient. If you want to put on size for movies or TV, you need a body that looks good, but it still has to be capable of enduring the physical demands of the job.
As a package, that variety of training kickstarts the central nervous system. Every day, you’re hitting the body in a slightly varied way instead of getting in the habit of isolating the same body parts over and over again. My belief is that if you throw a lot at your body, it will change a lot faster. I often think that sometimes if I had more time with my clients I might do things differently, but I never do.
Are there any special dietary or training considerations that need to be taken into account when you’re handling the transformations of older guys?
What I would honestly say is that the older I get, the more I realize how little training my body actually requires. This means if I’m working with somebody in their 20s, I need to fuel them up; they’re going to need far more of everything—food, training, etc.—than someone in their 40s.
For an older client, I would have them do more intermittent fasting as well as having them stick to a really clean diet at an average caloric intake of 2,500 to maybe 3,000 calories. Someone in their 20s can eat all day and all night, consuming far more calories, and they won’t have to pay for it so much in the end. When you’re older, your body doesn’t require as much food as you’re giving it, and as you age you have a tendency to pack on more fat because your body just wants to chill a bit more. I keep myself on a 16-8 fasting window – 16 hours fasting and 8 hours eating—then one day a month I might do a 24-hour fast. I feel like that promotes muscle growth and recovery because your body isn’t constantly exerting energy from being preoccupied with digesting food all the time.
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