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How Alexander Skarsgård Trained To ‘Look Like A Bear But Move Like A Wolf’ For The Northman

The RSNG team

Alexander Skarsgård has always brought presence and intensity to his roles, but the 6’4” Swede took things a step further for The Northman, transforming himself into a compelling embodiment of Viking ferocity. He has got shredded for roles before, including The Legend Of Tarzan, but as the Viking warrior prince Amleth, he’s shown that age is no barrier to peak physique.

The 45-year-old worked with personal trainer Magnus Lygdbäck to put on a reported 20lb of muscle within three months, and because some of this time was in lockdown, they even managed to achieve it without access to a full gym. If you’ve ever been inspired to build and enhance your own strength and body composition, but been put off by imagined obstacles, then maybe those weren’t so insurmountable after all?

But how, exactly, did Skarsgård and Lygdbäck go about achieving the goal of forging a Viking hero? RSNG spoke to Skarsgård to find out…

Alexander Skarsgård is used to the physical demands of appearing in action movies, from Battleship to Godzilla vs King Kong , but he had never taken on a challenge like The Northman, the Robert Eggers-directed blood and thunder movie that also stars Nicole Kidman, Anya Taylor-Joy, Ethan Hawke and Bjork.

Skarsgård is terrifyingly brutal as Amleth, the Viking warrior prince, who is mentioned in the historical sagas, but in surprising ways. In the Icelandic tradition, for instance, he appears more as a fool or a simpleton, and some drawings of the character make him look more like a jester.

“In this interpretation you couldn’t possibly be any further from that,” says Skarsgård. “He is a beast, a towering, terrifying man.” Embodying this while being aged over forty required an intense training regime… Skarsgård and strength and conditioning expert Magnus Lygdbäck began their program three months before filming was set to begin. Then, filming delays caused by the Coronavirus outbreak meant Skarsgård had to maintain his physique during a break in the schedule, even though he didn’t have access to a gym.

Strength Of The Bear, Speed Of The Wolf When full training recommenced in June 2020, the blueprint for a character who Lygdbäck imagined should “look like a bear but move like a wolf”, was to train five or six times a week, with a combination of light and heavy weights in order to build strength and athletic capacity.

Oh, and if you want to take a step on the same path as Skarsgård and get a Viking warrior’s body, then check out this exclusive RSNG Viking Workout, taken from his training regime, and designed by Magnus Lygdbäck!

For Skarsgård himself, no foods were deemed off-limits, and a small calorie surplus ensured the gradual progression of body muscle which, at its peak, totalled 20lbs. In the final weeks a deficit, matched by plentiful protein shake intake, enhanced and repaired muscle mass.

“The more I bulked up and the more my strength accelerated beyond even what I thought was possible, the more we evolved the character into this almost superhuman being”

“The idea was not to look shredded in the same way I did for Tarzan,” Skarsgård tells RSNG, referencing another time when he and Lygdbäck had worked together. That meant each session included high-intensity work, followed by strength training.

What Skarsgård says was interesting, was that as his body evolved, so too did the characterisation of Amleth, and vice versa. “The more I bulked up, and the more my strength accelerated beyond even what I thought was possible, the more we evolved the character into this almost superhuman being, who was being unleashed on something like a rampage where anyone who stood in his way could regard themselves as in putting their life in danger,” he says.

“The two intertwined together. And that makes sense to me – some films play by the exact blueprint you set out for them; others, like this one, evolve with you as you go through the process.”

While getting into shape was a big part of the role, and Skarsgård knew pretty quickly he would be able to do what was needed physically, injury prevention played a big part. “At 45 you need to factor in a method that respects the limitations of some parts of your body.

“We even built a potential injury recovery window into the schedule as a kind of worst-case scenario, but thankfully things went largely to plan, and we didn’t need too many sessions.”

The Recipe For Adding Movie Muscle For muscle gain, the usual recommendation is to lift weights in sets of eight to 10 reps, but in order to protect Skarsgård from the pressures of the intense training schedule, Magnus Lygdbäck adjusted the training load and reps on the day.

“Magnus was good at recognising when I was close to a point of potential injury, either just through tiredness or lack of hydration, or even maybe in a wrong frame of mind where I might be tempted to push things too much. In those instances we would lower weights or do machine work instead.

“And as the program progressed, we tapered off closer to filming before tightening up the plan again when filming began,” Skarsgård says. As far as nutrition goes, a target of one gram of protein per pound of body weight per day, led him to eat a diet rich in eggs, fish, chicken and beef.

Skarsgård’s commitment to building 20lbs of muscle in such a limited initial time frame reflected his investment in the script, as well as admiration for his fellow cast members. “It was an amazing cross-section of people I truly respect,” he says. “When you have acting royalty in the shape of Nicole Kidman and a songwriting icon, Bjork, together in the same space and coming at creative ideas from completely different perspectives, sometimes you just have to sit back and admire the talent at work.

“And on top of that, it makes you want to stay at the very top of your game – for me that was maintaining this monster of a man, and it was that idea that attracted me to the film in the first place. After all, when you take on a role, you want to find yourself fighting to be a part of it. You want to be asking yourself, ‘Do I find this intriguing? Do I want to spend, two, three, four or months exploring this character with this filmmaker?’”

“Overall, I think I have done myself and my directors justice – but you are only ever as good as your last film, and it is very easy to slip away from prominence”

While the end result for the actor has been a very dramatic and widely-discussed evolution of his body – a transformation that’s right up there with the likes of Jake Gyllenhaal (Southpaw), Chris Pratt (Guardians of the Galaxy), Tom Hardy (The Dark Knight Rises), and others – for Skarsgård the program and the project was one that was very much a personal thing, and certainly he resisted the urge to share his progress across social media.

“That’s one thing I always have and always will try to stay away from,” he says. “I like to see people enjoying my work, but I don’t go out looking for validation through social media. I try to stay away from all that; and when I'm not working, I want my life to be private with friends and family. Whether that is possible, I don’t know, but that is certainly the dream.

“At the end of the day, my acting world is a job, and one I take very seriously, but I do it because I have a passion for art and drama. And overall, I think I have done myself and my directors justice; but you are only ever as good as your last film, and it is very easy to slip away from prominence.

“It is something that is always on my mind.”

WHAT NEXT? Want to build a Viking body? Then take the first step on the path with this exclusive workout, designed for RSNG readers by Magnus Lygdbäck, who helped Alexander Skarsgård build new strength and speed.

Photos: Shutterstock/REX, MoviestillsDB