As soon as actors Tom Hopper, Toby Stephens and Aussie Luke Arnold arrived at Roark Gyms in Cape Town, South Africa, to start their Black Sails boot camp, strength coach James White issued them a challenge: row 2000 meters on a machine in seven minutes. In his first session, Hopper almost fainted. Stephens felt close to a heart attack. Arnold considered faking an injury. The test left them gasping for air, fighting panic and questioning their manhood. They went to dark places in their psyches. That journey may be the critical part of White’s fitness formula, as all three men lost more fat and built more muscle in eight weeks than they’d thought possible.
It was a baptism of sweat, a trial of hard-fought challenges that tested the three men physically and mentally – and changed them. This strategy isn’t reserved for movie stars. It can work for any man, as long as he’s willing to suffer.
White doesn’t look evil. There’s no whistle, no screaming, no flying spit. He speaks quietly and is quick to share a joke. He has a thick folder of fitness certifications – Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist, Gym Jones, CrossFit – but he explains what he wants in simple terms, without jargon. The production company behind the TV series Black Sails (which screens on Foxtel’s Showcase Channel) had approached White and asked him to train these men to fit their roles. “These guys needed to look like pirates who fought one another, lifted cannonballs, pulled sails and climbed ropes,” says White. “They needed to become lean and strong. So I said to focus on the numbers and the aesthetic results would be guaranteed.”
With mere weeks to produce results, White threw all three men into the deep end. “I used short intervals,” he says. “I wanted to keep their heart rates high and put them in a panic to see how they’d react.” As he watched their responses, White knew how to move forward. “Everyone panics when given a situation that’s tough enough, but you want the guy to hang in and finish regardless of how long it takes,” he explains. “You can work with that.”
White then gave the actors several tough timed tests. “It’s always entertaining to see how nervous grown men can become when presented with a challenge of this nature. Their faces went pale,” says White. (Try them yourself; see below.) Arnold and Stephens failed the rowing test; Hopper passed. The other two passed on their fourth try, weeks later. “You can’t take a challenge again right away – you have to earn another shot at it,” says White. That’s how he created targets for the men and a culture of work in the gym. “It’s about respecting yourself enough to do something properly, and that’s for every single rep,” says White. “If they feel they’ve done a bad rep, they’ll do it again.”
Each session would begin with a 20-minute warm-up: 10 minutes of rowing or running, and then 10 minutes of body-weight moves. Next, the actors did a combination of heavy weighted total-body moves, like squats, deadlifts and sled pushes. Each workout was capped with a finisher, a vicious test designed to exhaust their bodies. After eight weeks of training five days a week, the transformation was stunning. Stephens had carved more than 10 points off his body-fat percentage. “This was revelatory,” he says. “I’d done a lot of gym work throughout my life, rugby training at school, and lots of running, but the kind of intensity that James works at was new. It was about pushing myself further than I felt comfortable, and feeling the euphoria and sense of achievement afterward.”
As the oldest of the three, Stephens, who plays Captain Flint in the series, had to work especially hard to keep up with the two younger men. “My body didn’t respond as elastically, so it took longer to recover,” he says. The three men banded together to survive. “That’s when it was great to have these younger guys around. They pushed me really hard.”
Arnold presented White with a different kind of training challenge. The actor, who plays John Silver, had never done any real training before. He smoked a bit and drank, and often worked late into the night practising his acting roles. “I can draw a line in my life in the middle, where everything on one side is the time before training with James,” says Arnold. “In that first row, I went into complete panic mode – I was ready to quit the job I had just signed up for, even though it was the best opportunity I’d ever had.”
“Since breaking the back of the training in season one, I’ve been able to find more of a balance,” says Arnold. “Training at Roark helps me maintain the physique and fitness needed for Black Sails, but I can indulge myself when I need to let off some steam. We are pirates, after all. The work we did during boot camp still serves me every day, and I would not have gotten through this job without it.”
Hopper, who plays the swashbuckling Billy Bones, was no stranger to lifting weights. But with White he learned to train more effectively. “I’ve been in a number of action hero roles –like in Merlin, where I played Sir Percival – so I’ve always trained, and I worked out by lifting heavy with the aim of getting bigger,” he says. He looked great, but he wasn’t truly fit.
That all changed when he strapped in for the 2000m row. “I honestly felt like I was going to die, and it was where I first experienced what James calls ‘going dark’,” says Hopper. “Now I’ve become used to this fear of the dark, and even begun to crave it – it has made me stronger physically and mentally, and I’ve learned that you should never give up, to keep fighting, no matter what your mind is telling you.”
Hopper’s transformation inspired his friends to start working out as well, and they come to him for advice. “I tell them to hammer it for 15 or 20 minutes instead of doing an hour on a treadmill, to do group workouts, and not to let people talk to you during your intense tests,” says Hopper. “This isn’t a Hollywood secret. It’s a simple formula that relies on hard work and a willingness to go deep.” The best part for Hopper? “You gain more self-respect.”
White knew that working the actors into cover-model shape would require nutritional adjustments. His solution: a fasting diet that allowed eating only from noon to 8pm. This helps your metabolism fire more efficiently, because your body burns fat reserves for fuel.
The men’s energy levels needed time to adjust, but it worked, and they slept better too, says White. “The training was effective, but I think the diet is even more powerful,” says Hopper. It emphasised meat, vegetables, eggs and salads, and avoided sugar. “We never ate late, and we had two protein shakes a day,” Hopper says. “Not eating before a workout went against everything I’d understood before. But as long as you’re eating correctly, you’ll have all the energy you need, and I actually find it easier to exercise on an empty stomach because I don’t feel sluggish.”
TV pirates aren’t the only ones who need to look good with their shirt off. We’re talking to you, matey.
Don’t be afraid of a little suffering. “Many people say they’re willing to hurt, but few are ready to do it,” says White. “That’s where the best gains are made and where you learn the most about yourself.” It never gets easier, but you’ll continue to get stronger. “Yes, you lift your pain threshold, but it also expands your expectation of what you can achieve,” says Stephens. “Stuff that you would put off, you now will get done quickly.” Forge a “burn the ships” mentality: Spanish Conquistador Hernán Cortés kicked off his against-all-odds conquest of the Aztec Empire in 1519 by giving the order to destroy his own ships, to signify that there was no turning back.
Start with your legs. “Compound moves, like squats and deadlifts, are essential to a serious strength program because they fortify your legs,” says White. Your legs are your foundation; you can’t build on a shoddy base. “So many guys don’t have base strength, and that makes it harder to maintain the correct movement patterns as you progress through a tough workout.” At Roark, the actors did heavy lifts three days a week, slogging through 10 sets of 10-12 reps, using weights that made finishing the set challenging. They rested for up to two minutes between sets.
Do more work in less time. Most workouts at Roark start with some rowing at a moderate pace and a series of body-weight exercise ladders. For instance, you do 20 push-ups, then 19, then 18 – down to one. Plus, you do three pull-ups between sets. By the end, you’ve done over 200 push-ups and more than 60 pull-ups. Multiply that by five times a week for eight weeks and you’re adding serious volume to your training. “One key to improving your fitness is doing more work in less time, and ladders and timed intervals ensure you achieve that in a way that’s not daunting,” White says.
Don’t grunt. Breathe! If the going gets tough, focus on breathing deeply. Shouting and grunting don’t help get oxygen to your muscles. Concentrate on the physical process of breathing in as much oxygen as possible. When you inhale deeply, your shoulders move back and your chest expands, putting you in the strongest position to push or pull anything.
Set scary goals. You should always make your goals about performance and find a way to measure yourself, says White. “Start by setting concrete, measurable goals that scare you.” Keep a training journal to mark your progress. Focus on the process, not the outcome.
Rest and recover. The best workout programs require periodisation and variety. “A program has to change in pacing and intensity, each workout, each week and each month,” says White. “That makes the routine more sustainable.” This loops back to your targets: your workouts should help you gradually improve so you can achieve your goal. White doesn’t require his clients to go all out all the time, or to continually “go dark”. That’s usually reserved for once or twice a week. This protects them from overuse injuries and also offers a mental change of pace. “There were days where the pace on a rower would allow you to have a conversation,” says White. Pretty reasonable – for a pirate.
Break Through Fitness Plateaus
Take on these challenges from White to elevate your fitness and forge elite-level discipline. You’ll suffer – but emerge a stronger and more resilient man
2000 metres in seven minutes
“This test is simple to understand, and there’s no room for excuses. Either you row the 2000m in the given time or you don’t. It’s particularly gruelling because many guys don’t miss the seven-minute mark by much, and so they suffer right to the end whether they achieve the goal or not. It’s the best psychological challenge in the gym. It teaches you the meaning of sustained, intense effort.”
300 calories (1250kJ) on an Airdyne bike in 10 minutes
“To torch 300 calories in 10 minutes, you have to sustain a power output between 315 and 415 watts. That’s an intense effort. In fact, only six guys have ever done it in this gym, and Tom Hopper was one. It’s demoralising because, as you tire, your wattage drops. That’s when you have to dig deeper and grind through and pump your arms and spin your legs.”
210 reps in 15 minutes
“Start by doing 20 burpees, then walk across the room and do 19 burpees. Continue down to one. To do a burpee, stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and squat until you can place your hands on the floor. Now kick your legs back into a push-up position. Do a push-up, then reverse the move. As you rise to standing, jump and clap your hands above your head. Under 15 minutes is excellent.”
4 reps every 15 seconds for 20 minutes
“You can scale this test – beginners do one push-up, intermediates do two. Doing one push-up every 15 seconds means you’ll pull off 80 push-ups in 20 minutes. If you told someone to perform 80 push-ups, the number might seem overwhelming. This test helps you stay in the present and do a lot of work in a structured way that allows for enough recovery between sets.”