For his role in the gritty movie “Triple Nine” about crooked cops, Chiwetel Ejiofor called on superstar Will Smith’s fitness trainer, Darrell Foster. Through training, the Londoner, who was nominated for an Academy Award for his role in “12 Years a Slave,” wanted to find his way into the personality of a criminal who concocts a heist.
Ejiofor had done character conditioning before. In “Redbelt,” a romantic comedy-drama, he played a jiu-jitsu master. Similarly, this role required functional athleticism for fight scenes, not just the six-pack-abs aesthetics for shirtless shots. Inspired by Smith’s transformation in “Ali” and “I Am Legend,” Ejiofor turned to Foster. “Chiwetel is 5'10" and was 178 pounds. He wanted to drop fat but put on 10 pounds of muscle in three months,” says the fitness trainer. “His ultimate goal was bench pressing 225 pounds for five reps.”
If we’re doing chest on Monday, that’s Lift. Tuesday is Rest and Wednesday is Recovery. So we don’t do chest again before Thursday.
Ejiofor Steps Up to the Challenge
Ejiofor, 37, was new to weightlifting. “He had played soccer as a youth and has very developed legs,” Foster says. “But we had to get his upper body caught up.”
The goal appeared unattainable except to Foster, CEO and founder of Omega Bodies, an exercise science-based fitness company. No matter what experience Ejiofor had, Foster knew how Ejiofor could achieve extraordinarily inspiring results. First step: Foster made the bench press -- the king of upper-body exercises -- a priority in Ejiofor’s regimen. “That’s because the weight you lift doing a bench press is a marker of your upper-body strength,” says Foster. “It recruits chest, shoulders and triceps, so you can build upper-body mass fast.”
Five days a week for three months starting in March 2014, each of Ejiofor’s weightlifting sessions mixed strength training with bodybuilding. “This was in contrast to the high-rep programs many actors follow for an endurance-training effect,” says Foster.
“After lifting for an hour we practiced martial arts,” Foster says. He taught Ejiofor techniques from aikido and wing chun. “Chiwetel needed to be reactive during action moves,” says Foster. “He needed to improvise during the stunt sequences so that it wouldn’t matter what moves the fight coordinator comes up with or the stunt team switch around, Chiwetel would be well-rehearsed in the techniques and apply them in action.”
Cardio workouts completed the four-part regimen. “Chiwetel ran three miles a couple of times a week outdoors with his dog,” Foster says. But on key strength-training workout days, Foster advised Ejiofor to skip the run to conserve energy for boosting his bench press.
Steal Foster’s “Triple Nine” Pyramid Training Workout
Ejiofor’s starting one-rep max for the bench press was 185 pounds. To increase strength, Foster chose a pyramid training scheme. “We do two [rounds] of each set and start with 10 reps of 135, the next set is 185, then 205 -- ultimately trying to get 10 reps with 225.”
Pyramid training increases the weight and decreases the reps for each set (compared with straight sets in which sets and reps remain the same, but the load increases each set). “We lift up to failure and work back down,” says Foster. “We rest two to three minutes between sets.”
So his pyramid sets looked a little like this:
Set 1: 135 pounds for 10 reps
Set 2: 185 pounds for 5 reps
Set 3: 205 pounds for 5 reps
Set 4: 225 pounds for 3 reps
As for frequency, Foster, who has trained Antonio Banderas and Terrance Howard, insisted the “American Gangster” star follow his “Lift, Rest, Recover” method, which allows for optimal recovery. “If we’re doing chest on Monday, that’s Lift. Tuesday is Rest and Wednesday is Recovery. So we don’t do chest again before Thursday.”
Consume Muscle-Building Protein Like Ejiofor
In order to fuel the demands of his rigorous training schedule, Ejiofor adopted Foster’s bodybuilding diet. “Chiwetel understood choosing organics, but he needed to learn the role of protein in muscle repair and daily calories.”
Eating protein-packed meals four to six times a day maximized muscle growth. “Some of those occasions were shakes,” Foster says. “I put him on Nitro-Tech (a whey protein powder) because he needed a gram of protein for each pound he weighed and for the pounds of muscle he wanted to put on.”
The Results Speak for Themselves
In three months, Ejiofor’s bench press increased by 65 pounds to 250 pounds -- 25 pounds beyond his original goal. Plus, he developed more practical strength than he’s ever had. Ejiofor stoked his fat-burning metabolism by building extra muscle, and his body fat shrunk to 12 percent by maintaining a bodybuilder’s diet, preparing him for other action roles. Now Ejiofor has the physical prowess to take on any role Hollywood has to throw at him next.