How to get a body like a Viking

Those villages aren’t going to pillage themselves.

My English blood is genetically programmed to freeze solid at the thought of invading Norsemen, but when Vikings comes on TV I pour a frosty ale and glue my eyes to the screen. Two of the buffest and most badass characters on the show, which has its season finale tonight on History, are Rollo, played by Clive Standen, and Bjorn, acted by Alexander Ludwig. To learn how to look and play the part of battle-hardened berserker I chatted with Standen and Ludwig about the Viking Workout.

As it turns out, neither man had a body that was ready for filming, but they got ready in different ways.

“When I found out I was going to be the guy who leads from the vanguard,” Standen told me, “and that I had to have the kind of physique that matches up with that, I hired a personal trainer.” His athletic background created a more lean physique, and he needed muscle mass. “To play a Viking you need to understand that most of their strength comes from having a strong back and shoulders, and a strong core from things like rowing, tilling land, chopping wood and manning ropes and sails. I wanted it to be really organic so we came up with a workout that matched that.”

Clive was motivated to have an authentic physique, so he trained like a Viking would. In other words: no gyms or elliptical trainers.

“Working outdoors suits me,” Standen said. “We came up with a routine that kept me out of the gym: weighted tail sprints, kettlebell farmer walks, using a sandbag for power cleans and presses …” And much of this was done on location, with kettlebells placed on trolleys to be hauled up to filming locations along with the rest of the show’s equipment.

But for Alexander Ludwig, he needed to drop pounds prior to taking on the role of Bjorn, not gain.

“When I first started the show I wasn’t in the shape I wanted,” Ludwig said. “I had to bulk up for the Navy SEAL movie Lone Survivor, and it was really tough to lose the weight to lean out for Vikings. I already had the muscle, but it was more about losing fat.”

So was it a punishing workout to lose that fat? Nope. “Most of the work wasn’t in the gym, but in the kitchen,” Ludwig said. “It’s what you eat.”

But it doesn’t mean Ludwig eschewed that gym. While Standen went old school on set, the younger actor got up early each day to hit the gym before filming. “It’s nothing too crazy,” he said. “Most of my stuff is cardio and circuit training. It’s not traditional bodybuilding.” He’s also a fan of the TRX “because it engages your entire body.” In addition, Alexander has made up his own form of interval training on the treadmill that involves a lot of all out sprints intermixed with high inclines.

The two actors take a fairly different approach to training, even though the acting itself is often a workout. “The show is not for divas,” Ludwig said. “It’s grueling.” And that’s why he does his workout first thing in the morning, because he knows he’d be too wiped to do it afterwards.

But Standen doesn’t just do his workouts on set to manage time, he considers it a critical part of getting into character. “I carry my resistance bands everywhere so I can do small installments of workouts in between takes,” he said, “and there are a hundred different things you can do with your own body weight.” Last year I interviewed the actors of the 300 sequel, and they told me of using dumbbells in between takes to get “puffed up” for the camera, but such a concept never occurred to Clive Standen.

“It doesn’t come from a vain point of view, I do it because Rollo is a berserker,” he said. “When I’m the berserker it makes your blood boil and I want to do a quick blast of a workout before a take, because I want to look authentic. To physically scream and shout and get yourself into a berserker rage you need to get the blood pumping beforehand. It’s an ugly thing to go through.”

And while the battle scenes certainly suck less than going into a real battle, they wreak havoc on the actors’ bodies.

“The battle scenes are gruelling,” Alexander Ludwig told me. “We play a game of who can get rid of their shield first, because it’s so heavy and it throws your back out. You have all that gear on. It’s the most exhausting filming I’ve ever done.”

Clive Standen doesn’t have to worry so much about that heavy gear, but getting punished by the lack of it. “A lot of the stunt guys and actors have pads under their clothes because they can, but when you’re playing Rollo and going berserker you fight with your top off. After some of the fight scenes you’re getting hit with spears and shields and you come out black and blue.”

But Clive is used to taking hits.

“I come from a Muay Thai background,” Standen said. “I used to be a professional boxer before I was an actor.” He explained that this training taught him to take a hit, and that he can get knocked down, shirtless even, in a battle and get right back up again.

Standen still practices his Thai fighting, getting most of his cardio workouts from pounding the piss out of a heavy bag, but he also likes to use the Vikings’ constructed sets as part of his workout regimen. “I love to use whatever is around me,” Standen said.

“I use the rafters in the huts on set for doing pull ups, and different logs lying around for press ups.” He also uses the long boats for rowing and climbing up and down the ropes. “It’s a great upper body workout.”

As hard as it is to portray a Viking for these two actors, there was one scene in particular that left them both battered, bruised, and utterly exhausted. In episode 5 this season the characters Rollo and Bjorn have a brutal fistfight, and it was just as hard to film as it looked.

“That was an incredibly tough scene,” Standen said. “As Rollo I had to pretend to be drunk, so you’re not fighting at your best ability. Rollo has lost everything and it’s a form of self-harm. He wants to experience physical pain to escape his emotional pain.”

“To date that is by far the hardest physical scene I’ve ever had to do in my life,” Ludwig echoed his co-star’s comments. And it wasn’t just the fighting, but the wet and cold. “Clive and I had all this gear on, and there was a rain machine, and when the gear gets wet it gets heavy, and we were cold and soaking and had sand stuck in our clothes.” Standen said an added peril of the rain machine was how it limited visibility, making it harder to act like they were fighting: “Some of the punches connected too much, and there were fingers in eye sockets, and we’re slipping and sliding. It was really tough to come out of that in one piece.”

“By the end Clive and I were just shaking, we were so tired,” Alexander said. “The shower afterwards was the most incredible Zen feeling in the world. I just sat down and let the water fall over me.”

But the next day it was back at it. “You have no time to be out of filming,” Clive Standen told me. “Even if you’re hurt, you have to bring your A game.”

The show must go on, and go on it shall, with a fourth season about to start production. Be sure to catch tonight’s season finale of Vikings so you don’t miss any of the action.

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