How I got a ripped Hollywood hard body at 40

Robbie Collin holding weight
'Two years ago, as my 40th birthday approached, I decided the time had finally come to get fit'

“I haven’t been on social media for a while,” my editor said to me the other week, “so I had no idea you’d been getting ripped.”

My first thought, for a film critic, was natural: which fandom was insulting me now? But it turned out he meant “ripped” in the 1980s bodybuilding magazine sense, as in cut, shredded, yoked, swole or jacked. And it’s true: I have been, and now am, just about.

Two years ago, as my 40th birthday approached, I decided the time had finally come to get fit. I’d never been one for physical exercise, but having spent the pandemic “getting into cocktails” – i.e. drinking at home while listening to jazz records – I had noticed a certain flabbiness was setting in. So too had my kids.

“Look at Daddy’s tummy!” they happily squawked, while prodding my midriff during family film nights. It was when one of them used his hands to make my belly button talk – “ho ho ho, give me more crisps”, I think it said – that I vowed to change my ways.

Googling local gyms, I came across a personal trainer, John Welsh, who lived nearby and had a background in bodybuilding. This was a subject I’d previously been about as drawn towards as bungee jumping, but he was based five minutes away, so laziness led me to give it a shot.

We spent an hour lifting weights – or rather, the empty bars to which weights would ideally be attached – and afterwards I slithered into a hot bath and ached for the best part of a week. But the aches were outlasted by a tingle of satisfaction, and to my surprise, the following week I went back.

Despite more typically working with young competitive bodybuilders built like rhinoceroses, John was able to devise a beginner’s regime. First, a once-weekly full body workout, hitting all the main muscle groups in a single session. Then after a few months, this became a bi-weekly split: an hour of arms and legs, then an hour of everything else.

Robbie Collin
'The changes in my body went from palpable to visible,' says Collin - Andrew Crowley

After another few months, my weekly split split again: an hour of pushing exercises, in which weights are thrust away from the body, an hour of pulling, in which they’re heaved towards it, and an hour of legs – squats, lunges and so on – just in case the other two were getting too much fun. Finally, after a year and a bit, this altered again into an infinitely repeatable cycle – chest and arms, back and shoulders, legs and core – that I could cycle through as often as I liked. Which, it turned out, was very often indeed.

A bit of puffing and panting was earning me a daily endorphin high. My lockdown paunch vanished, my shoulders broadened, my mood improved. T-shirts started to fit in ways that made more sense. My diet changed a bit, but almost by itself: I just stopped eating things that would make me feel queasy while working out. And the changes in my body went from palpable to visible. To mark my two-year anniversary as a gym bro, I posted a shirtless selfie on Instagram, which got more likes than a picture of me interviewing Martin Scorsese. This felt good. As a film critic I watched for a living, but was enjoying the experience of being looked at.

Robbie Collin as he is more usually known in the Telegraph offices
Robbie Collin as he is more usually known in the Telegraph offices - Andrew Crowley/The Telegraph

I used to tell myself that this new hobby was a standard mid-life plot twist: it had likely been a toss-up between this, a gay affair, Warhammer or a motorbike. But recently, I’ve been less sure. Doubt set in during a preview screening of The Iron Claw, a new film about the Von Erich wrestling family, who, in the 1980s and 90s, were beset by a string of tragedies.

It stars Zac Efron, Jeremy Allen White and Harris Dickinson as Kevin, Kerry and David Von Erich, and all three young actors are in eye-popping shape. Efron especially so: the former High School Musical star packed on more than a stone of muscle for the role, and perhaps the same again in fake tan, to the point that on screen he resembles a sort of sad-eyed joint of char siu pork.

Much of the film’s tragic force stems from Kevin’s inability to stop dreadful things happening to his brothers despite his extraordinary physical strength. But even so, I looked at his physique, and felt envious. The following morning I attacked my back and shoulders workout with a furious new vigour, with Efron’s bod shining on the skyline ahead.

For just how long had cinema been quietly reshaping my self-image? There’s no doubt that over the last 25 years, the male body in the movies has swollen outrageously – first in superhero films, then in the culture at large. And through my job, I’ve almost certainly been exposed to this more intensely than most. As the philosopher Slavoj Žižek once observed, cinema doesn’t give you what you desire, but rather tells you how to desire. Perhaps my new Marvel physique was partly thanks to Marvel itself.

Hugh Jackman is living, rippling proof of the shift. When he was first cast as Wolverine in late 1999, the then-30-year-old actor was certainly buff. But reprising the role in Logan 17 years later, he was a monster, with veins like strawberry laces and cast-iron pecs.

But getting jacked like Jackman is beyond the reach of mere mortals, who have neither the time nor the funds to pull it off. For as many months as they have between casting and shooting – typically not many, making time of the essence – an actor’s entire life is rearranged entirely around bulking up, with round-the-clock supervision from trainers, doctors and nutritionists. While preparing to play Wolverine yet again in next year’s Deadpool 3, Jackman, now 55, shared a photograph of his daily food intake: six pre-cooked and Tupperware-sealed meals totalling 8,000 calories. It’s fair to say this is likely to yield more dramatic results than my trying to eat more lean protein and cutting down on Frazzles and booze.

Hollywood has come to depend on other, less publicised techniques too. By 2013, five years into the industry’s superhero phase, performance-enhancing drugs such as human growth hormone and steroids were in common usage: as vital in maintaining many male stars’ images as was botox for their female peers. There is no suggestion that Jackman is among those to use them: in fact, some of the most pumped-up stars of the age, from Henry Cavill to Chris Hemsworth, are widely recognised to have got there through a combination of hard work and good genetics. (Warner Bros made a point of ensuring Cavill’s Superman fitness regime was all-natural, aware that word to the contrary could cause a PR debacle.)

Chemically assisted or not, stars will naturally aim to hit peak condition the moment the cameras roll – which  is where a number of (legal) tricks from the bodybuilding world come into play. My trainer John told me about half a dozen techniques which can maximise a body’s visual impact on camera or on stage, some of which sound more miserable than others.

One of the bleakest is carb loading: working out intensely for two days to sap the body of energy-giving glycogen, then spending the next three or four bingeing on healthy carbohydrates – say, baked sweet potato – to cause the reserves to visibly balloon. Another, known as “drying out”, involves doing more or less the opposite with hydration, depleting the body’s subcutaneous water reserves and giving the muscles a harder, grainier look.

For Wolverinesque veins, nitric oxide boosters like l-citrulline and l-arginine can temporarily relax blood vessels and improve blood flow. Fake tan and body oil enhance definition, especially under studio lights. And while food on the big day would typically be nothing more than rice cakes and jam, a last-minute burger and chips can cause flat muscles to suddenly fill out. I asked John if it would be worth trying any of these for the photograph to accompany this article. He looked sceptical. “If we’d had another 12 weeks’ prep time,” he said.

Even so, I’m pleased with my progress. During my final set of Smith Machine lunges on Tuesday – 20kg either side on these, currently – I watched my quadriceps sliding up and down under my skin like strange plated creatures stretching themselves inside an egg case, and felt proud, but also frustrated. Why hadn’t I started doing this 20 years ago? If I had, I might actually look like Zac Efron by now. But then it’s worth remembering that 20 years ago, Hollywood’s biggest hero was Frodo Baggins.

My workout week

Month 1-2

A once-weekly full body workout, hitting all the main muscle groups in a single hour-long session. Here and in all other plans, each exercise is performed for four sets of ten reps, with weights increased when it becomes noticeably easy.

Robbie started with a full body workout
Robbie started his training with full body workouts - Andrew Crowley /The Telegraph

Months 3-8

Two weekly workouts, one targeting arms and legs, the other chest, back and shoulders.

Months 9-15

Three hour-long sessions a week, split between two types of upper body movements – pushing (chest, triceps, shoulders) and pulling (biceps and back) – and legs.

Months 16-24

Five to six hour-long sessions a week, usually three on the trot then one rest day, cycling through three muscle groups: chest and arms, back and shoulders, and legs and core.

Robbie's gym sessions are now split between chest and arms; back and shoulders; and legs and core
Robbie's gym sessions are now split between chest and arms; back and shoulders; and legs and core - Andrew Crowley/The Telegraph

What I ate before

Breakfast: grapefruit juice, Marmite on toast, Moka pot coffee

Lunch: Pret sandwiches (when at screenings), cheese on toast (at home)

Dinner: Home-cooked family meal (chilli, bolognese, grilled salmon, roast chicken, etc) when there’s time, Domino’s Pizza or Deliveroo when there isn’t

Snacks: crisps, cheese and crackers, Tony’s Chocolonely

Alcohol: a glass or two of wine, a whisky or a cocktail every night.

What I eat now

Breakfast: apple juice with a scoop of creatine, porridge, Moka pot coffee

Lunch: Pret sandwiches (still, when at screenings), omelette or meal-prepped rice dish (at home)

Dinner: Home-cooked family meal when there’s time, faster home-cooked family meal when there isn’t

Snacks: sliced apple and peanut butter, biltong.

Alcohol: a glass or two of wine, a whisky or a cocktail once or twice a week.