Alexander Skarsgård beefed up. The 45-year-old Swedish actor packed on 20 pounds of muscle for his starring role in the Viking thriller The Northman. Previously, the 6’4” Skarsgård was noted for his lean physique when he starred in The Legend of Tarzan (2016). How did he do it then and how did he do it this time? The one constant was his trainer/nutritionist, Magnus Lygdbäck, who in addition to being a fellow Swede has also worked with such celebrity clients as Ben Affleck, Gal Gadot, Katy Perry, and Harry Styles. Let’s explore his programs for turning Alexander Skarsgård into mythical heroes.
In his True Blood years before The Legend of Tarzan, Alexander Skarsgård was thin and not particularly muscular. He was also pretty much a workout novice. Before Tarzan shooting began, Los Angeles-based Magnus Lygdbäck devised a program for Skarsgård to both pack on muscle and strip away bodyfat—three months of bulking and five months of cutting.
“For the first three months we tried to bulk up, and I ate about 7,000 calories a day,” Skarsgård told Muscle & Fitness in 2016. “[Lygdbäck] gave me these Tupperware boxes of food with cold steak or chicken and potatoes. I was constantly eating, constantly full. It was tough. I would get up in the middle of the night and have some protein and potatoes.”
Workouts consisted of the bodybuilding basics for 6-12 reps, at least four weight-training workouts weekly, and additional workouts for abs and core every other day consisting of planks, mountain climbers, and leg raises for rectus abs and cable wood choppers, Russian twists, and side planks for obliques. He also did yoga, 10-minute sprints, and five three-minute circuits of bear crawls, frog jumps, chin-ups, hand walking, and movement drills.
In the cutting phase there was no sugar, gluten, dairy, or wheat. Meals consisted of egg whites and seafood for protein, brown rice and sweet potatoes for carbs, plus vegetables. And 10-14 workouts per week, including morning cardio: a 10-minute jog followed by sprints. “When we went to the stricter diet it was tough because it’s hard to make stuff taste good and interesting,” Skarsgård said. “You get sick of it. I love food and wine and beer and rich foods, but I don’t have much of a sweet tooth. In almost a sadistic way, [the austerity] was exciting.”
Though The Legend of Tarzan wasn’t a box-office success, Skarsgård successfully transformed his physique into a jungle king.
SKARSGARD’S CHEST AND FRONT DELT ROUTINE
Bench Press 4 x 6-12 reps (pyramid)
Incline Dumbbell Press 4 x 10 reps
Cable Crossovers 3 x 10 reps
Seated Shoulder Press 3 x 10
Push-up Burpees (each rep starts with a pushup) 3 x Max
Note: Rear delts (cable face pulls: 4 x 15 reps) and medial delts (dumbbell side laterals: 4 x 15 reps) are worked at the end of his back routine.
For The Northman, Skarsgård again teamed up with Lygdbäck. This time, however, the goal was a bigger body. Lygdbäck told The Insider: “We wanted Alex to have a little thicker look, a little more Viking. We needed him to look like a bear but move like a wolf. We wanted him to have low bodyfat, but we didn’t want him to be as shredded as Tarzan. It was more about building that power and looking powerful.”
The goal, attained over eight months of training and dieting, was more muscle without more fat. Skarsgård trained five times weekly, with a potential sixth workout of active recovery or mobility. Each of the five workouts included some cardio through HITT (high-intensity interval training) and then weight-training. Skarsgård did sets of both lower (6-8) and higher (10-15) reps. Lygdbäck was cognizant of his client’s middle age, so if Skarsgård arrived at the gym exhausted, the trainer prescribed lighter weights and machine exercises on that day to guard against injuries.
The plan was interrupted by COVID-19, as was The Northman‘s filming. Still, Skarsgård stuck to the routine even when Lygdbäck couldn’t be at his workouts for a few months. “The amount of discipline that Alex put into this role is crazy,” director Robert Eggers told Total Film magazine. “He transformed his body more wildly than he did in Tarzan.”
When it came to nutrition, Lygdbäck aimed for slightly above the calorie count needed for maintenance with an emphasis on protein to add muscle but not fat. His nutritional plan calls for one gram of protein per pound of bodyweight daily, constituting about 30% of the total food intake. So, if you weigh 200 lbs. aim for 200 grams of protein spread over five meals. Skarsgård hit his protein target via eggs, seafood, chicken, and beef.
And there was some splurging. Skarsgård followed Lygdbäck’s 17/20 nutritional plan, meaning out of every 20 meals, 17 are clean (protein, complex carbs, veggies) but with the other three you can eat whatever you want (yes, even pizza). That’s also why grilled shrimp might be on the menu on a strict day instead of another plain, skinless chicken breast. “For me and my clients, it’s really important that you can enjoy your food,” explained Lygdbäck. “What’s the point of eating broccoli and chicken breast and white rice seven days a week?”
For the final three weeks before shooting The Northman, Skarsgård ate in a slight calorie deficit to strip away bodyfat and better etch in his abs.
Lygdbäck gave this advice to other potential Tarzans or Vikings: “It’s a marathon, not a sprint. There are no shortcuts. That means hard work when you’re in the gym. You’ve got to get on top of training, nutrition, and recovery.”