Acting can be a surprisingly tough gig – especially if you insist on doing your own stunts like Henry Cavill does. To help him come back from a hamstring tear earlier this year stronger and faster than he’s ever been, MuscleTech’s Chief Creative Director turned to physiotherapist Freddie Murray of London clinic Remedy, whose resumé includes elite athletes from a wide array of professional sports – plus Foo Fighters frontman Dave Grohl.
Even by pro sports standards, the role of an actor is “quite a demanding job”, says Murray. Long days of shooting would force Cavill to get up at 4:30am to fit in his training. “But the thing about Henry is there’s no more dedicated professional than him,” says Murray. “I’ve never worked with anybody as diligent.” Cavill’s also “very intelligent” and understands the body – his body. He questions why he’s doing things. “That challenges us,” says Murray. “But it hopefully also makes us better.” And Cavill, who’s now working on a high-level strength and conditioning programme “like an elite athlete would”.
Disclaimer: this is a “snippet” of Cavill’s program, created for him at a particular point on his journey and based on the equipment he had available. But if you want to run at high speed, says Murray, then this type of training will be beneficial for you too.
Spin bike warm-up
To get his heart rate up, mobilize his joints and activate his muscles, Cavill cycled on a static bike for five to ten minutes, depending on how he felt and how much time he had.
Prone hamstring curl
Cavill started off with three sets of ten, double leg, building up to three or four heavier sets of six, with a view to progressing to single-leg and eventually Nordic curls. “The prone hamstring curl is very good for loading the adductor magnus, which is also a hip extensor, and often forgotten about,” says Murray. “We get a big bang for our buck.”
Standing calf raise
Three to four sets of 20 reps of bodyweight standing calf raises – per leg – might sound like a lot. But you effectively do a rep every time you step. This is really just a “primer” for Cavill before running, says Murray – as are all the exercises here, in fact.
Cable hip flexion
Glutes get everybody’s attention, but your anterior chain, AKA the muscles down the front of your body, are typically a missing link in sprinting mechanics, says Murray, who finds that soccer players who come to him have weak hip flexors. They’re “not sexy muscles to strengthen” but nevertheless Cavill would do three sets of 12 reps using a light weight to balance out the front and back of his pelvis and kick on towards his performance goals.
Seated calf raise
This bent-knee calf raise targets your soleus: the muscle in the body that can pull with the greatest force, and key for high-speed running and quick direction changes. “If you ignore it, you’re missing a big trick,” says Murray. Cavill would do three sets of 25 reps, which again sounds a lot but is just a warm-up: your soleus needs a lot of stimulus to trigger adaptation.
Copenhagen side plank
This works all your adductors in your inner thighs, which are “big sprinting muscles”, says Murray, plus your obliques – next to your abs – on the opposite side. Cavill would do three sets of 20-second static holds on each side. You can progress to six to eight reps of lowering your body to the floor then pushing back up, and perform the move by the side of the field with a partner or on a park bench (although you might get some odd looks).
The brainchild of an award-winning Swedish researcher, “the extender” targets your hamstring and loads it under tension. The majority of hamstring injuries happen when your leg is reaching out before you pull back, says Murray. So if you can do this and the other exercises in the “Askling protocol” (Google it), you should be good to go fast.
All of that was just a warm-up for… the warm-up, only this time more cardiovascular and dynamic (and outdoor), with an emphasis on dialling in proper running mechanics. The side shuttle demonstrated by Cavill mobilises your hamstrings “through the frontal plane” – that is, through your pelvis – without taxing the muscles too much, says Murray. Cavill might also do squats, lunges or some of the Askling exercises eg “the diver”, where you stand on one leg and lean forwards, each for 30 seconds on, 30 seconds off.
All about coordination and timing, skipping is mechanically “really important” for sprinting, says Murray. So Cavill would do “A skips”, where you focus on driving your knees up, and “B skips”, where you “snap” your leg down to straighten your knee.
Hamstring speed and coordination drills
A warm-up mainstay for a reason, classic butt kicks get your hamstrings contracting quickly and on cue.
Imagine your warm-up as an upward curve, says Murray, gradually increasing in intensity, your dynamic stretches getting more… dynamic. Explosive plyos are the last stage, to fire up your fast-twitch, type-2 muscle fibres. Cavill might do two or three sets of four reps, either double-leg, single-leg or onto a box.
Yes, after all that warming up, Cavill still has another 15mins.
Cavill’s action scenes typically require him to sprint about 50m, and repeat that for multiple takes. So he trained by sprinting over 60-70m to build spare capacity. Murray tracked Cavill’s speed with a GPS, getting feedback from the actor after each sprint and, if that was positive, slowly upping the pace: 6.5m/s, 6.8m/s, 7.2m/s, 7.5m/s, 7.9m/s, 8.1m/s. Cavill would do blocks of four sprints, then some dynamic stretches or loosening off, for a total of 12 sprints. As he got fitter, he got up to top speed in fewer intervals, and improved his acceleration and deceleration. Because it’s not just how fast you can go – it’s how fast you can stop.