We've broken down Johnson's workouts before, but we've never had a chance to hear from the trainer who designs the killer programs The Rock uses to embrace his "Hardest Worker in the Room" mantra to push himself to new heights. Dave Rienzi, Johnson's strength and conditioning coach, has never publicly discussed the star's workout protocols — until now. Rienzi spoke exclusively to MensHealth.com about one of their leg day routines on the heels of the latest Under Armour Project Rock drop, the Bend Boundaries collection.
Rienzi is ultimately tasked with helping Johnson to grow and evolve, even after a 20-plus year career in sports and entertainment. "A lot of people at his age are trying to maintain a physique," he says. "We're trying to evolve the physique. It's very unique."
Rienzi says that he changes Johnson's program roughly every two to three weeks to keep his muscles guessing, so this isn't the only routine they use builds up his lower body. That said, you can still use Rienzi's tips to train like The Rock if you want try to bend boundaries in your own workout.
The Rock's Bend Boundaries Leg Day Workout
Johnson's lower body routines typically start with an exercise to get his glutes firing (which isn't featured in the above video). That means a hip thrust, with an exercise band looped just above his knees. "I'm sure you've seen the videos of him hip thrusting 200 kilograms," Rienzi says. (Yes, we sure have.) "We're really getting great activation out of the glute max and glute medius as well."
Rienzi says that they make sure that the glutes are ready to go so that the rest of Johnson's body is ready for the hard work to come. "He had a football career and then a wrestling career that resulted in multiple back and knee injuries," he says. "Making sure the glutes are firing properly is really the key for him training pain free, especially when we're training legs."
- 4 sets of 8 to 12 reps on each leg
- 8 to 12 reps with both legs
- Last rep 5 second static hold
After the glutes are prepped and ready to go, Rienzi has Johnson move on to heavy compound movements. Depending on how he feels, that begins with a few warm-up sets of leg extensions—but the main focus here is on the leg press. Johnson performs the exercise using a unilateral machine in the video, which allows him to push with either leg separately or together.
"I'm a big fan of unilateral work, so I incorporate that very often," Rienzi says. "I really like to do that because it balances out any muscle imbalances that you may not even notice."
In the footage, Rienzi points out that you can see Johnson keeps a static hold with one leg, while the other pumps out reps. Then he switches to the other side to even out the work, before finishing the set by pressing with both legs at the same time. On the last rep, Johnson holds a static position for 5 seconds to really crush his lower body.
Before moving on to the next exercise, it's important to note that the order here is important. Since The Rock is such an impressive athlete, Rienzi uses a strategy to make their work more effective that might surprise you: tire out the muscles before the heaviest work. "He's obviously super strong, there's no hiding that," says Rienzi. "So I like to do a lot of pre-fatigue techniques with him. That's why we actually start with the leg press, then squat after."
Rienzi has no doubt that Johnson could walk up to a squat rack and reel off reps at more than 225 kilograms with fresh legs—but that wouldn't actually help to achieve the ultimate training goals. "Because he's an actor and he's an action star, and his roles are very physical, I can't structure out programs that are too taxing on his nervous system," he says. "If he's squatting 225, 270 kilograms, obviously that'd be very taxing on his nervous system and his adrenals and he wouldn't be able to perform properly on-screen."
Safety Bar Squat with Chains
- 3 to 4 sets of 10 to 12 reps
Squats that feature chains, one of Johnson's favourite gym accessories, come next. Rienzi says they use the links "pretty often," typically during one phase of a program to vary techniques, load up the weight, and create tension on the quads.
Johnson uses a safety bar squat rack setup in the video, which Rienzi says hits the middle point between the front and back squat and limits the strain on the knees and lower back. If you don't have access to one, you can alternate between the front and back varieties, depending on your needs and experience.
Squats are tough—especially when you're repping out so many at 170 kilogram like Johnson—but you shouldn't be using your fatigue as an excuse to stop to suck air. Rienzi says that rest needs to be as focused as your work periods for the best results.
"We like to keep [rest periods] fairly short," he says. "For legs, he's looking at maybe a minute to a minute and a half rest between sets. This is another technique where I'm able to fatigue the muscles more and not put the strain or stress on his nervous system and adrenals."
This combination of reps and rest is designed to get the blood pumping to promote hypertrophy, the cellular process behind muscle growth. There's a method behind the madness. "I've found the legs actually tend to grow a little better in that higher rep range," says Rienzi. "It's a matter a blood volume, we're getting as much blood into the legs as possible to expand the fascia and get that muscle to grow."
- 3 rounds of 30 reps as drop sets
- 10 steps with 2 chains
- 10 steps with 1 chain
- 10 steps with no chain
Johnson closes out the session with weighted walking lunges, using the chains from the squats for resistance. That's typical for Rienzi's programming—he says he uses either a lunge or Bulgarian split squat to close out the routine with a unilateral movement.
Johnson starts the lunges with both chains draped around his chest. After 10 steps, he drops one set of links. After another 10 steps, he drops the other. He finishes out with no weight—but the high number of reps makes even unloaded lunges challenging.
"We're aiming for muscular exhaustion here," says Rienzi. "I'm not trying to load up where he's lunging an insane amount of weight and he's only doing 12 steps. We're going in the other direction here."
From start to finish, Rienzi says that the typical leg day workout takes about an hour and a half including warms ups, foam rolling, and mobility work. The Rock is a busy man—but as he's told us many times before, his workout regimen is the anchor that keeps him centred throughout the chaos. Rienzi structures out the leg workouts on the weekend when he's not shooting, though, so Johnson isn't so pressed for time.
Train Harder and Smarter
No matter the workout, Rienzi has a few overarching training philosophies. "One thing I always preach is intensity," he says. "A lot of people either aren't lifting the right weight or with the right intensity. And the rest periods between sets are very important—you're going to get much more of a benefit out of the muscle, no matter what your goals are, if you keep your rest periods shorter."
Rienzi is also a proponent of training smart to fatigue muscles without undue stress, using techniques like time under tension techniques, static holds, and negative reps along with perfect form and full range of motion.
Whether you're the biggest actor in the world or just someone looking to get in shape, these methods can help you conquer any workout. Try them and you won't just be training like The Rock—you'll be working harder and smarter than you were before.
This article originally appeared Men's Health US