How Magnus Lygdbäck Turned Alexander Skarsgård Into A Viking Berserker For The Northman

"The Northman," directed by Robert Eggers ("The Lighthouse," "The Witch") and starring Alexander Skarsgård in the titular role, will be charging into U.S. theaters on April 22, 2022. Skarsgård plays the Viking berserker Amleth, who becomes fixated on getting revenge on the man who killed his father, the king. 

As I'm sure you've seen in the trailers and pics, Skarsgård is ripped in this movie. His trapezius muscles are so developed that they may be sentient at this point. Skarsgård has always been in shape, but "The Northman" finds him at a whole new level. 

The man responsible for this (besides Skarsgård himself, of course) is celebrity fitness trainer and nutritionist Magnus Lygdbäck. He has trained Skarsgård for years, including getting the actor ready for "The Legend of Tarzan." Lygdbäck has also worked with Gal Gadot, Alicia Vikander, Ben Affleck, Dua Lipa, Katy Perry, and James McAvoy. Perhaps you've heard their names (or seen their abs)?

To celebrate the imminent arrival of "The Northman," I was given the chance to participate in a workout with Lygdbäck – the same one he did with Skarsgård every day before shooting. I'm in pretty good shape, but I'm typing with my arms resting on a table because they're so sore today. Afterwards, I chatting with Lygdbäck to get some tips, many of which surprised me. If you're up for a little Viking training, I've got all the info for you. Plus, Lygdbäck just started a six week "The Northman" challenge on his fitness app, complete with a nutrition plan.

So, before you set out on your next Viking raid, here are Lygdbäck's advice for getting into fighting condition.

Food restrictions can't be an absolute

I asked Lygdbäck his top tips for training, and the first thing he talked about was a balance between workouts and nutrition:

"You need to make sure that you get on top of both nutrition and training because you can run a marathon and be overweight, and you can have, say, a six pack and be in lousy shape. So it's not 50/50, 60/40, it's taking control of both. Don't be too hard on yourself is my second advice. Start with three days a week working out instead of five. We tend to overdo things and then it lasts for a week and then we quit. Same thing with food. Don't be too hard on yourself."

That really surprised me, hearing a trainer say (more than once during the day) not to be too hard on yourself, and to work out less in the beginning. Lygdbäck's focus on nutrition is a big thing, and he says that even with his app, the nutrition plan is a big part of it. He told us that Skarsgård ate five times a day, meaning there were 20 meals in four days. He also shared that Skarsgård really likes to eat, and that it's a bad thing to completely restrict yourself. 

Lygdbäck said of the meals, "17 out of 20 meals should be on point. Three out of 20 meals, eat whatever you want. I don't like food restrictions." More on nutrition in a bit, but I wanted to know about the process of turning Skarsgård into Amleth.

Moving like a Viking

We've previously seen Skarsgård flexing his abs for "The Legend of Tarzan," so he was already in great shape. This time around though, he's ... well, he's hulking. His shoulder muscles are so large from ax-swinging that he's walking with his neck forward. We were told that, in the film, the characters have animal spirits, and that Amleth has two: a wolf and a bear. I could absolutely see that bear in the way he walked. Lygdbäck explained: 

"We wanted Alex this time to look more like a bear/wolf, a real Viking. So that meant a thicker look, a little heavier and he needed to move like a Viking. So we built that into the program as well, making sure that his shoulders and hips were up for the task as well by prepping those shoulders from all that swinging with an ax on set." 

Having tried that warm-up workout, which was designed to help prep his shoulders and hips, I can tell you that it was pretty intense. Lygdbäck was on set every day with Skarsgård, helping to pump up his shoulders for certain shots. He said he'd step in with exercise bands to work them out in between takes. Not only that, he had to make sure Skarsgård stopped to eat every three hours. He said that he worked with the directors and producers, and worked to make sure the right food was there at the right time. He also worked with the chefs on set to plan out those meals.

By the way, there weren't many stunt doubles for "The Northman," so Skarsgård had to pretty much do it all!

How much work do you have to do to Viking?

I asked Lygdbäck what someone should do if they're in fairly good shape, but want to push themselves into Viking territory, and what the balance of cardio to weights should be. Again, his answer surprised me.

"No cardio, necessarily. You can do 10 minutes to warm up, but it's all about strength training. And I never do more than an hour. I say, 'What doesn't happen in the first hour in the gym will not happen in the second.' So never more than an hour, tops."

I'm just going to throw this out there: That must be an intense hour! That does make it seem less intimidating though, and the mental part of this can be a stumbling block for a lot of people. Lygdbäck also explained that, for major roles, he trains his actors for about six months. Because production on "The Northman" was interrupted by the pandemic, his time on the movie ended up being longer than that. 

Talking to Lygdbäck made me want to immediately go to the gym. He's really inspiring! I asked if that happens on set, with the other actors trying to join the workouts, and he confirmed that it does:

"A lot of people want help and I actually try to help all the actors on set if I have time. So, I helped Ethan [Hawke] a little bit when he came in to film, and especially since I'm doing nutrition for Alex and I'm there, it's easy for me to help other actors with their nutrition as well, if they want." 

Speaking of nutrition, he said the best foods are: 

"Protein, which means eggs, beef, chicken, fish, or vegan protein source. Protein's the key when it comes to building muscle mass. Some good flow carbs like quinoa, barley, farrow. I like potatoes as well, and avocado's great, and a ton of salads."

Nutrition is key

Lygdbäck focused more on nutrition than doing specific moves, and that was a really nice thing to hear from a trainer. In fact he explained that for a film like this, you want to go through three phases, which people can do for themselves. 

There are several weeks of bulking up in terms of muscles, where he says you can overeat calories. Then there are a few weeks of shredding, where you undereat (still working out, of course), and then a sweet spot in the maintenance phase, which goes on and on. He even joked that, during the bulking up phase, as much as he says Skarsgård liked to eat and have a glass of wine on Saturdays, Lygdbäck had to sort of stand around and make sure he finished his food.

It's a different approach than I — and probably you as well — are used to hearing about. I've always heard to work out like a fiend, eat protein, and that's it. Here, the manipulation is in the nutrition side, and it's not super restrictive. He explained to the group before the workout:

"I try to approach the nutrition part with the most balance or most sense as possible ... it's really hard to stick to your diet if you don't get to eat the food that you like to eat, right? At the end of the day, it comes down to calories in, calories out, and macros, which are macronutrients, protein, fat, and carbs. Proteins are the building blocks of muscle and tissue. Then fat and carbs are both fuel for the body. So if you make sure to eat enough protein, they can kind of figure out what you want to eat, fat, or carbs, or a combination of both. There's many different strategies but I prefer to eat a combination of everything."

Lygdbäck has a YouTube channel with tips and tricks, that app I mentioned, and an Instagram account that even gave us a peek at one of Skarsgård's training meals for "The Northman," which included four poached eggs, spinach, smoked salmon, half an avocado, and seeds. I don't know about you, but I am now going to go food shopping. If you want to try that warm-up workout I did with him, I've explained it all for you.

The Northman" (and Skarsgård's mighty shoulder muscles) will hit theaters on April 22, 2022.