Of all the images in Robert Eggers’ Viking epic “The Northman,” there’s no sight more jaw-dropping than that of Alexander Skarsgård’s bulging traps. The actor’s shoulders look like two protruding volcanoes ready to erupt. Skarsgård’s muscles are a testament to his work with Magnus Lygdback, the celebrity trainer who helped the actor pack on 20 pounds of muscle and transform into the hulking Viking warrior prince Amleth.
Lygdback, who first worked with Skarsgård on the 2016 adventure film “The Legend of Tarzan,” is both an exercise trainer and a movement coach. Moviegoers might know Lygdback’s work best from M. Night Shyamalan’s “Glass,” starring James McAvoy as a man with 24 different personalities. McAvoy’s disturbing body contortions were the result of his work with Lygdback, who similarly helped Skarsgård learn to shape his body so that his trapezius muscles were bulging and defined. Lygdback calls this “postural manipulation.”
“This character, his spiritual animals were a bear and wolf. So that is exactly what we were trying to embody in terms of Alex’s build and movements,” Lygdback said in an interview with Variety. “The wolf is really agile, and then you have the size of the bear in this Viking. You can just get one look at him and get scared. That was [the elevator pitch] for what we were trying to achieve [with Alex’s transformation].”
Lygdback and Skarsgård’s training schedule included six gym sessions a week (one a day) for the three months leading up to “The Northman’s” original March 2020 production start date. COVID delayed the film’s start date to September, so the duo’s six-days-a-week schedule picked up for another three months in June. Skarsgård spent the interim months in lockdown in Stockholm, where he reduced his weekly training sessions to three or four per week. Anyone who watches “The Northman” would be forgiven for assuming Skarsgård spent multiple hours in the gym each day. In reality, Lygdback’s training sessions lasted only one hour.
“You see it in interviews all the time where an actor says, ‘I trained for multiple hours a day.’ That’s not necessarily true,” Lygdback said. “They might have been moving around for four hours a day, let’s say, but the actual gym session? I never train my clients for more than an hour because what doesn’t happen in the first hour will not happen in the second hour at the gym. All you do after the first hour is just start to break down your body. So one hour a day, six days a week. While filming, five days a week.”
Lygdback described Skarsgård’s “Northman” exercise routine as “a hybrid between plyometrics training and old-school bodybuilding philosophy.” The trainer utilized free wights and resistance bands, the latter of which were used in the first 10 minutes of each training session to activate Skarsgård’s shoulders and glutes. Lygdback threw in bear-crawling exercises to help Skarsgård prepare for climbing stunts, and also incorporated throwing exercises since “The Northman” includes spear and axe-wielding scenes.
“We knew Alex was going to be moving a lot, from running around to swinging axes, so we took a lot of attention to shoulders and hips,” Lygdback said when asked about focus areas for Skarsgård’s body. “I did a lot of band warm-ups for his shoulders and hips, and then that was followed by pretty intense strength training. It was a four-day split, meaning you’re working different muscles each day and and then you’ve covered the whole body in four days. Then you start over.”
Lygdback also curated Skarsgård’s diet, which included eating roughly 3,700 calories a day. Each day, the actor ate more calories than he was burning in order to build maximum body mass. Skarsgård ate five times a day every 2-3 hours (“This will keep your energy up and your metabolism burning,” Lygdback said). The trainer’s rule of thumb for his clients is “eat clean 17 out of 20 meals in a four-day cycle.” Three meals are “treat meals” where you can eat whatever you’re craving. A clean meal consists of a protein (chicken/fish/beef), a vegetable (spinach/asparagus/broccoli) and a slow carb or a fat (quinoa/barley/rice or avocado/olive oil). Skarsgård stuck to this diet during his three-month prep periods, plus the six-month “Northman” shooting schedule.
Skarsgård often picked fish as his protein of choice. The actor’s first meal of the day was often four eggs for breakfast followed by a protein-based snack, which Lygdback said “could be anything from smoked fish salad, to some chicken or beef skewers.” Lunch would be one of the clean meals listed above (Skarsgård enjoyed salmon with asparagus), followed by another snack and then a similar clean dinner. Skarsgård sprinkled in a protein shake here and there, although a shake is not a mandatory part of Lygdback’s training diet.
Moviegoers interested in Skarsgård’s “The Northman” training routine and diet can find Lygdback’s full nutrition guide, plus meal plans and a grocery list, on his app. Lygdback also has a YouTube channel, where he breaks down some of his celebrity training sessions. The trainer is next turning his attention toward Skarsgård’s “The Northman” co-star (and McAvoy’s “Glass” co-star) Anya Taylor-Joy, who’s working with Lygdback on prep for “Furiosa.”