James White is the founder of Roark Gyms. While Sam Heughan was in South Africa shooting a season of Outlander, it was James’s responsibility to get him strong, fit and shredded for his physically grueling role… and his cover model shoot for Men’s Health SA.
**Editor's note: If you would like to own this edition of Men's Health, SA, here is the link! Buy a digital copy of the August issue of Men’s Health South Africa, featuring Sam Heughan
Sam Heughan sweated for every fibre of muscle on his cover model body, under the expert guidance of his personal trainer. Here’s how he built his formidable physique.
A typical week of training Sam would look like this:
- Monday: Upper body work with a hypertrophy (muscle building) bias.
- Tuesday: Legs day with a real focus on front squats as his quads, glutes and midsection needed strengthening and building.
- Wednesday: Hellish mix of weights and cardio.
- Thursday: Upper body hypertrophy again.
- Friday: The 1000 Rep Challenge – a session in which we did 1000 repetitions made up of different exercises. This may sound like a huge amount of work, but we used it as a recovery session with the weights being light and the heart rate staying in a fat burning zone between 100 and 120 beats per minute.
- Saturday: Weights and cardio, similar to Wednesday in that we really dialed up the intensity of the session.
- Sunday: Steady state cardio, usually a 1h30 walk or slow cycle, once again staying in the 100 to 120 beat per minute zone. This serves as recovery as well as an essential part of the leaning out process.
One of the secret ingredients to getting lean is this steady state cardio work.
Most people would be surprised at how hard it is to walk for an hour and a half. It requires a lot of dedication to set aside this amount of time, but it’s the only way to build a big fitness base while burning fat without impacting on muscle growth. It’s a technique that body builders have been successfully employing for years.
You’ll notice that we only had two days a week where we went really hard in the gym.
Most people have no idea what ‘hard’ truly entails and there’s only one way to find out – by doing it.
The difficulty of these sessions involves a hybrid between duration and intensity, where the person exercising is required to produce more work, at a greater intensity, the further they go into the workout. An example of a hard session would be:
30 rounds of 30 seconds of work on the rower, 90 seconds of ‘rest’ doing push ups. Start at 151 metres of work in the first 30 seconds, and increase by 1 metre each round, therefore ending at 180 meters in the final 30 seconds. In the 90 seconds ‘rest’, perform 10 strict push-ups.
The above format requires the participant to row further in the same time period as the workout progresses. This will result in roughly 5000 meters of rowing at a high intensity, as well as 300 push ups.
Photograph: Sean Laurenz
I love using the Assault Bike, Concept 2 Rower and Ski Erg for these sessions. These machines are extremely simple to use which almost completely eliminates the risk of injury. Their computers are also very accurate and provide a lot of valuable information that’s useful to compare the output and performance of different training sessions.
I love ‘hiding’ work from my clients.
We predominantly used bodyweight movements as ‘fillers’ during warm ups or in between sets. If the workout is properly set up with varying spikes of intensity, most people will focus on the weight they lifted or the cardio work they did as opposed to the push ups or pull ups – which are just as valuable – that they performed in what would normally be a rest period.
The takeaway here is don’t waste time. Set an hour for yourself in the gym and fill that hour with as much constructive work as possible. If you’re doing five sets of five bench press as your strength set, why not get on an exercise bike in the three minutes between sets and get your heart rate to 120 beats per minute? Instead of taking arbitrary breaks during your warm up, why not fill that time with push-ups or air squats? It’s very easy to do five push-ups every five minutes during your hour gym session. Most people wouldn’t even consider this a lot of work, yet if you did this five days a week for a year you would have done 14,400 push ups you wouldn’t have ordinarily done. Imagine having that base of work banked in your body.
Photograph: Sean Laurenz
Sam had fantastic results, but they didn’t come easily.
Just because he’s famous doesn’t mean he doesn’t hurt the same as you and me. I feel that the main thing he learnt from training with me is that there’s a time to reign in your intensity and there’s a time to let it loose. In managing his intensity levels and heart rate Sam was able to get to a single body fat percentage while not losing any weight, meaning he packed on some muscle in the process.