BODY OFA GOD

With a physique straight out of Norse mythol­ogy and the lead role in TV’s hottest new show, Bri­tish ac­tor Ricky Whit­tle is poised to take over Hol­ly­wood

Men's Fitness - - Fast Track | Sprint Tips - Words Joel Snape Pho­tog­ra­phy Glen Bur­rows Groom­ing Gia Mills

Ricky Whit­tle is a man who knows when to step it up. Af­ter a solid, 238-episode run on teen soap Hol­lyoaks and an im­pres­sively ath­letic turn on Strictly Come Danc­ing (he came sec­ond), he could have eas­ily slipped into the kind of TV turns that open up when you’re the hand­some housewives’ favourite with barely any home­grown com­pe­ti­tion.

In­stead, he de­cided to go all-in, mov­ing to the US and slug­ging it out for parts on the likes of NCIS un­til he landed a reg­u­lar role on cult postapoc­a­lyp­tic drama The 100. Three sea­sons in that gave him a hefty US fol­low­ing, but now he’s shift­ing gears again with the lead role of Shadow Moon in Amer­i­can Gods, the yearsin-the-mak­ing TV show based on Neil Gaiman’s best-sell­ing novel. And that meant up­siz­ing.

“Shadow’s an ex-con and in the book, he’s de­scribed as big enough and don’t-F-with-him enough to not have to worry about sur­viv­ing prison,” says the Old­ham-born Whit­tle. “So I wanted to bring a kind of… in­tim­i­da­tion fac­tor.” Af­ter The 100, for which the 1.88m Whit­tle weighed in at an ul­tra-lean 80kg, that meant pack­ing on mass – and mak­ing it func­tional. So he went to one of the tough­est gyms in Amer­ica.

Un­break­able Per­for­mance Cen­ter in Hol­ly­wood is where the pros go to train. Dwayne John­son and MMA leg­end Randy Cou­ture are fre­quent vis­i­tors, and the NFL off-sea­son sees dozens of mul­ti­mil­lion-dol­lar ath­letes de­scend on a sweat­box space the size of a four-car garage, look­ing for fight-based drills that’ll give them the edge on the field. Lineback­ers and left tack­les learn wrestling, hand-fight­ing and box­ing to make them tougher to tackle – and gen­er­ally tougher.

“It’s full of these 300lb beasts, UFC and muay Thai fight­ers,” says Whit­tle, 35, who rep­re­sented Eng­land and the UK at foot­ball, ath­let­ics and Amer­i­can foot­ball him­self at youth level, and un­til rel­a­tively re­cently played run­ning back for the Manch­ester Ti­tans. “Just a great en­vi­ron­ment to train. We didn’t want Shadow to be a body­builder. He’s been in prison, so he’s been on three square meals a day, train­ing in the prison yard, no ac­cess to a real gym. He’s a func­tional, pow­er­ful be­ing – some­one who can in­tim­i­date, not just some­one who looks good on a magazine cover.”

Real-world strength

Strength and con­di­tion­ing coach Brett Bartholomew (bartholomew­strength.com) was the chief ar­chi­tect of Whit­tle’s trans­for­ma­tion. “Based on Shadow’s back­ground and ap­pear­ance, Ricky needed a pro­gramme based on a bal­ance of ath­letic per­for­mance prin­ci­ples and body­build­ing prin­ci­ples,” Bartholomew says. “It wasn’t enough for Ricky to look the part – he had to per­form the part, and be­come some­one who both had an im­pos­ing pres­ence and could move with pre­ci­sion and pur­pose. So we had a three-way strat­egy: multi-joint movements, ground­based movements that mim­icked real life and sport, and multi-pla­nar train­ing that in­cluded ro­ta­tional, side-to-side and front-to-back movements.” That meant moves with bands and balls, slam­ming sand­bags and a lot of lat­eral lunges – but also lift­ing hard and heavy.

“I’d do weighted pull-ups with a vest,” says Whit­tle. “I was do­ing lunges with 50kg weights, where even though you’re sup­posed to be work­ing out your legs, you’re work­ing out your arms and traps. When you do dead­lifts and squats and lunges it makes ev­ery­thing else grow kind of nat­u­rally – you just pack that size on.”

And, he dis­cov­ered, it helps you get lean too. “Peo­ple think you’ve got to do car­dio to get def­i­ni­tion, but your body burns calo­ries nat­u­rally be­cause you’re lift­ing so much weight and it’s mak­ing you so mus­cu­lar. I was train­ing four hours a day – I’d take a break half­way through the work­out, smash

“My char­ac­ter’s a func­tional, pow­er­ful be­ing – some­one who can in­tim­i­date, not just look good”

a protein shake and some BCAAs, and just carry on.”

All you can eat

Of course, spend­ing half your day in the gym doesn’t mean much if you aren’t pre­pared to hit the fridge with equal in­ten­sity. “I’d eat all day. Food be­came a chore,” says Whit­tle. “I didn’t eat be­cause I was hun­gry, I ate be­cause it was time. At the start it was great – pizza, sweets, burg­ers – but once you have to cut out all the crap and the carbs it be­comes tough. You’re eat­ing dry chicken, brown rice and broc­coli, five, six times a day. It’s real men­tal dis­ci­pline.”

The end of the regime meant mix­ing long days on set with strip­ping back fat to re­veal lean mus­cle – no easy feat. “We fo­cused on a mix of clas­sic strength and meta­bolic-fo­cused train­ing to keep Ricky’s work ca­pac­ity high, along­side a lower body fat per­cent­age – and nu­tri­tion is king when it comes to re­duc­ing body fat,” says Bartholomew.

Ex­er­cise and diet weren’t the only bat­tles Whit­tle had to fight. Amer­i­can Gods is a sprawl­ing blend of epic fan­tasy and mythol­ogy, tack­ling ev­ery sub­ject from religion to im­mi­gra­tion – but it also doesn’t shy away from the oc­ca­sional (well, fre­quent) bloody punch-up. And Whit­tle, ev­i­dently, is not a man who likes let­ting other peo­ple do his punch­ing.

“I had to fight Mad Sweeney, this gi­ant al­co­holic lep­rechaun, played by an in­cred­i­ble ac­tor, Pablo Schreiber,” says Whit­tle (Schreiber plays Orange Is The New Black’s abu­sive prison guard Ge­orge “Porn­stache” Men­dez). “We’re both big guys, and we both had stunt dou­bles we didn’t want to use. We take pride in our work and it helps the di­rec­tor in cut­ting and shoot­ing. So… you’re not re­ally go­ing all-out, but you’re still hit­ting each other, throw­ing each other over ta­bles, smash­ing bot­tles over each other’s heads – it’s sugar glass, but it hurts. Lit­tle nicks in the head – it hap­pens.”

The re­sults are ex­hil­a­rat­ing. Gods’ fight scenes feel raw and real, with a touch of the bru­tal­ity not seen since Spar­ta­cus (also from the Starz TV chan­nel). There’s also a fair splash of sex, and sev­eral mouth­fuls of the sort of pro­fan­ity you’ll rarely see on even post-wa­ter­shed Bri­tish TV. With a cast that in­cludes the al­ways-men­ac­ing Ian McShane, Gaiman him­self at­tached as writer and a first sea­son that only takes in the first third of the book, Amer­i­can Gods has the dis­tinct vibe of a show poised to take a run at… the Iron Throne?

Whit­tle smiles at the com­par­i­son. “There’s a line in the show, ‘a storm’s com­ing’, and it does feel like it’s gath­er­ing pace,” he says. “There’s pres­sure to pro­duce some­thing that fans have imag­ined for 16 years. But there’s been huge sup­port. Neil Gaiman’s been at­tached from the be­gin­ning, and if he’s happy the fans have to be happy.”

Lead­ing man

Whit­tle must be happy too. A few years ago, he was win­ning Rear Of The Year against boy-band mem­bers and Strictly dancers; now he’s stepped it up, he’s auditioning against the sort of men you know by one name – Diesel, Statham, Rock. And he’s not fazed. “Hol­ly­wood’s quick to pi­geon­hole you, so I fall into that ac­tion-man char­ac­ter slot,” he says. “So yeah, now I’m up against Dwayne John­son, Vin Diesel, the phys­i­cal elite. It’s an hon­our, but there’s an in­tim­i­da­tion fac­tor be­cause they’ve got great CVs and you’re the new kid on the block.”

How does he get past that? “You have to be­lieve in your­self. I be­lieved in my­self when I moved to the States six years ago, be­lieved that’s where I de­served to be. You’ve got to switch the mind­set to ‘Well, maybe they’re in­tim­i­dated by me’. Just like when I played sports – I never wor­ried about what other peo­ple were do­ing. You have to fo­cus on your own game and do the best you can. Then you’re un­stop­pable. I’m com­ing with a lot of thun­der.” Amer­i­can Gods is on Ama­zon Prime Video in the UK now

FOUN­DA­TION

“Here we em­pha­sised move­ment qual­ity over load,” says Bartholomew. “That meant higher-vol­ume train­ing – around three to four sets of eight to ten reps – at a rel­a­tively low in­ten­sity, in terms of the amount of weight lifted. It’s hard to train at peak lev­els if you can’t move ad­e­quately or are al­ways in pain.”

As Bartholomew says, “En­gi­neers and con­struc­tion work­ers on skyscrap­ers will tell you that the smart money al­ways goes into the ground.” In prac­tice, that meant start­ing with the fun­da­men­tals: push and pull. “Ricky ad­hered to what I call a mixed split for­mat for this. Days one and three were up­per­body push­ing ex­er­cises paired with lower-body pulling moves, and days two and four were up­per-body pulling movements paired with lower-body push­ing ex­er­cises. Each ses­sion only com­prised about four to six ex­er­cises, all done with tremen­dous fo­cus and in­tent. This helped en­hance move­ment qual­ity and add mus­cle mass.”

IN­TEN­SI­FI­CA­TION

“Once a foun­da­tion was set , it was time to work on max­i­mal char­ac­ter­is­tics,” says Bartholomew. “I in­creased the weight Ricky was lift­ing and re­duced the rep­e­ti­tions to the two-to-five range, but kept many of the ex­er­cises the same. This helped re­duce dif­fi­culty and max­imised his pro­fi­ciency in each lift so Ricky could fo­cus on get­ting stronger and truly learn­ing how to work hard, rather than fo­cus­ing on some new fancy ex­er­cise. Nov­elty is over­rated - the body is al­ready get­ting a dif­fer­ent stim­u­lus through in­creased load so there is no need to throw out what has al­ready got­ten us great re­sults.”

Aside from set and rep vari­ants, the only ma­jor change Bartholomew made was from the mixed split to an up­per/ lower fo­cused rou­tine. “This meant that days one and three were now up­per body­fo­cused while days two and four were lower body-fo­cused. This gave Ricky’s body more time to re­cover be­tween ses­sions. ”

Sim­plic­ity is the watch­word. “Peo­ple of­ten think ev­ery­thing has to be com­plex in or­der to work, but there’s a rea­son that no­body has rein­vented the wheel. Do the sim­ple things sav­agely well and fo­cus on con­sis­tency.”

COM­PE­TI­TION

“Usu­ally this is the phase where in­ten­sity – or the weight lifted – is the great­est and vol­ume con­tin­ues to drop off. That may work in the world of sport, but in this in­stance Ricky still had to put on a sig­nif­i­cant amount of mus­cle mass, so we kept the vol­ume fairly high.”

The for­mat changed again to re­flect the new goals. “Ricky now fol­lowed a split where he would con­tinue to lift mod­er­ately heavy loads within the four-to-six rep range on days one and three, while days two and four would fo­cus on meth­ods such as bar­bell com­plexes, mod­i­fied strong­man train­ing and medicine ball cir­cuits. This not only served to re­fresh him psy­cho­log­i­cally af­ter sev­eral weeks of heavy train­ing, but also pro­vided a much needed phys­i­o­log­i­cal shake-up since his body had to re­spond to a va­ri­ety of stim­uli.”

Bartholomew notes that none of these work­outs were in any way ran­dom. “De­spite this cur­rent craze for what peo­ple keep re­fer­ring to as ‘mus­cle con­fu­sion’, each train­ing ses­sion was planned and ad­justed accordingly based on Ricky’s travel sched­ule and sleep qual­ity as well as how well he re­cov­ered be­tween ses­sions.” Brett Bartholomew’s book Con­scious Coach­ing is avail­able now from ama­zon.co.uk

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