Film Fitness Expert Aaron Williamson on His Approach and Why More Crunches Won’t Work

by Arthur Vandelay on September 9, 2014

IMG_0473-webThis article originally ran in the 2014 September/October issue of Scene Magazine

Aaron Williamson is a health advisor and fitness trainer to the film industry. He has helped craft the physical transformations of Jamie Foxx in Django Unchained, Zac Efron in Neighbors and Josh Brolin in Oldboy. He recently finished molding Game of Thrones star Emilia Clarke into legendary action heroine Sarah Connor for Terminator: Genisys.

Let’s talk about the beginnings of your methodology as a trainer. Where did you first start thinking about the best way to approach transforming someone’s physique?
I never really had any intention of getting into personal training. Initially, my whole fitness journey began with wanting to be a professional body builder. In the Marine Corps, I began studying human anatomy specific to training, as well as nutrition and supplementation. But it wasn’t until years later that I was able to really showcase my approach to fitness, after destiny kind of brought me to New Orleans and I found myself in the middle of the film industry.

My approach stems from my understanding of the human body and my own personal training over the years, as I tried to work around the injuries I incurred in the Marine Corps, and then later, getting on stage as a body builder. And now, also adapting what I’ve learned to the needs of an actor who typically doesn’t like to do traditional free weight training but instead more functional training. Combine all that together and you have my approach, which I think the big screen has shown to be extremely effective.

You spent some time in Okinawa. How did that stay influence your current career path?
Anyone who’s been in the military knows this: when you go overseas to a place like Okinawa, you typically become a “PT stud” – a fitness badass who takes training seriously – or an alcoholic. It’s usually one of those two. There’s really not much to do. We get up early in the morning, do our field training, do our normal platoon or company PT (physical training). And then, during any off time, it’s not like there’s many places you can go in Okinawa, because you’re somewhat confined to the base. The gym for me really became my sanctuary. No matter how tired I was, I looked forward to it every day. In the fitness world, we call it “getting bit by the bug.” It’s when you really fall in love with and become passionate about fitness. There’s a little bit of an addiction to it. You feel good, you get those endorphins going and you see results. That’s where it all started for me, back in 1998 at Camp Schwab, Okinawa, Japan. I was there for a little over six months. I came back just a completely different person and that was due to fitness.

Now you’re in New Orleans and you are regularly working with actors that are working on movies here. You’re also traveling and consulting with people and actors who are working on movies around the world. When an actor first comes to you, what’s the first discussion you have with them? What do you ask them, and then typically what are they asking you?
First off, I ask what their character needs to look like for the film. Nine times out of ten, that’s usually why they’re training: they have to look a certain way. Once we figure out what their character needs to look like, and what their movement is throughout the film, then we address what their physical limitations are. One thing I would have never guessed is that a lot of actors have preexisting injuries of some sort. Or, they never completely healed because they are going from film to film without a break. They don’t allow themselves enough time to recover completely. So, we have to figure out what we can and cannot do. Then, we address nutrition, which is the key piece of getting them the way they need to look. Those are the three topics that we spend the most time on.

And what’s the next step? Do you put them through a series of tests to see what they’re capable of?
The first few days are an assessment in the gym. I’ll take them through a series of different exercises with free weights and doing functional plyometric stuff just to gauge their level of fitness. I need to see where they’re at endurance wise and strength wise to figure out the right exercises to incorporate in. I have to not only prevent them from becoming even more injured, but to actually strengthen where they are weak because of the injury.

Have you struggled with any actors that are just whiners and lacked dedication to succeed?
I’m fortunate in that most of the people who come to me are serious about training. I think that’s why I’ve kind of fallen into the action genre. Because of my intensity and passion in the gym, I’d say that’s what I’ve become known for. You’re going to come in and train with me and you’re going to get results. And you’re going to work your butt off.

Surely there are some days where they’re tired from what they were doing on set the night before or they just don’t feel like working out. How do you rally behind them and get them moving?
That’s probably the toughest part of what I do. The schedules that actors run, especially for these big budget films, is crazy. They’re working five or six days a week and maybe sixteen hours a day. That doesn’t give a lot of time for sleep. Typically, the last thing anyone wants to do is wake up two hours before you have to be at work to train. Or, go through a long day and then come into training. At either end of it, it’s going to be hard: you’re going to feel pain and you’re going to be tired.

My approach is getting a good warm-up and talking to them about what we’re going to do. I try to motivate them about what I’m seeing with their results and keep them going in the right direction. Sometimes they come in and they are beyond taxed, physically and mentally. Sometimes my professional opinion is, “Maybe we just need to take today off.” Or do some cardio. I have to assess where they’re at. And I can pretty much tell if they’re being weak or they’re truly that tired.

You mentioned that nutrition is a big part of it. How do you identify what their nutritional needs are? Say, for someone doing an action film and they need to put some muscles on their shoulders and on their arms. What is the nutrition advice that you are giving them?
For putting on size, it’s a lot different from leaning out. When putting on size, everyone always under eats or eats the wrong food. That’s the hardest thing for a lot of the guys who are trying to put mass on. You’ve got to eat and you need good, clean food that keeps your blood sugar in check and keeps everything in line with being able to build quality muscle. Being on set and having crafty around is hard. It’s hard to stay away from the sugars and salts and those types of things that will just make you naturally hold that layer of water and make you look a little bit blurry. The toughest part about the nutrition is just trying to get them in a place where they won’t give in to alcohol and sweets.

I also like to sit down with them and talk about what they normally do. What is their lifestyle? What is their concept of eating healthy? What is their concept of good foods? That gives me an idea of how to break them in to the new nutrition program.

Fitness Myth Busted

“You can just do more abdominal exercises to get cut.”
This is one of those myths that drive me crazy. I hear it all the time. Clients come in who think, “Are we done working out? Can we do abs now?” The truth is that you can’t crunch your way to a six-pack. The key to a great set of abs is a solid nutrition program, coupled with enough cardio to support fat loss. That doesn’t mean that you have to get on a treadmill and run for an hour every day, ten days a week. There are different types of cardio you can do. Instead of just the traditional treadmill, elliptical or stairs, you can shorten your cardio duration down by doing high intensity interval training sessions, which could be just fifteen to twenty minutes.

Your abs are just like every other muscle in the body. They need recovery time. If you don’t let them recover, you wont be able to train them like you need to, therefore you won’t get results. Typically, beneath the layer of water and body fat that everyone has, there’s a six-pack. It’s already there, you just have to uncover it and you can only uncover it by leaning out.

But the bottom line is that you must have a solid nutrition program and do enough cardio to support the fat loss. I tell all my clients this.

photo by Jason Kruppa

Disclaimer: The information contained herein is intended to provide general information and does not constitute medical advice. The content is not guaranteed to be correct, complete or up-to-date. This information is not intended to create a client relationship between you and Aaron Williamson, Scene Magazine, or any associated companies, and you should not act or rely on any information in this publication without seeking the advice of medical doctor. In reading this article, please note that the information provided is not a substitute for consulting with an experienced medical professional and receiving counsel based on the facts and circumstances of a particular transaction. Many of the principles mentioned are subject to exceptions and qualifications, which may not be noted. Please consult with your doctor before beginning any health and exercise program.