Training like Lara Croft didn't go as planned—but that was kind of the point.
Photo: Amy Rushlow
When you learn you're going to play Lara Croft—the iconic female adventurer who has been portrayed in numerous video game iterations and by Angelina Jolie—where do you start? I know my answer would be "by hitting the gym." But for Alicia Vikander and her trainer, Magnus Lygdback, talking about the character of Lara Croft came far before any physical training.
"We had lots of meetings early on discussing who Lara Croft is, where she comes from," Lygdback told me as I warmed up on the treadmill at Mansion Fitness in West Hollywood. "We knew she would need to look strong, and she would need to learn skills like martial arts and climbing."
This character-first approach is Lygdback's trademark; he also prepared Ben Affleck for Batman and Gal Gadot for Wonder Woman. Vikander, herself an Academy Award–nominated actress, trained for about six months to get in shape for the role—first on her own, then intensely with Lygdback as filming drew closer.
When I received an invitation to train with Lygdback as a part of the promotions for the new Tomb Raider film, I agreed immediately. I figured that the plan would include a lot of functional fitness that would help me feel stronger, and channeling Lara Croft (and having to file a story about the experience) would be just the motivation I needed to stick with a plan.
I had no idea what I was in for.
My Lara Croft–Inspired Training Plan
The plan Lygdback designed for me was very similar to Vikander's routine to prepare for Tomb Raider. He made a few modifications to account for my fitness level (she's a lot better at push-ups) and my access to fitness facilities (her plan included swimming for cardio and recovery, but I don't have a pool nearby). I would lift weights four days a week for about 45 minutes per session and do high-intensity running intervals three days a week. Lygdback mentioned that he could have made a plan that took less time each week, but I was unemployed during this experiment and had plenty of time to dedicate to training. (I soon learned that time does not equal motivation, but we'll get to that.)
The four weightlifting days each focused on different muscle groups. Day one was legs day, day two was chest and frontside shoulders, day three was back and outside shoulders, and day four was biceps and triceps. Each day also ended with one of three different four-set core circuits, which I rotated through. The program was designed to start the week with large muscle groups, then progressively focus on smaller muscle groups since the large ones would be fatigued.
The running intervals were simple: After a warm-up, run quickly for one minute, then recover for one minute, and repeat this 10 times. The purpose of the intervals was for conditioning—Lara Croft does a lot of sprinting, after all—and to burn extra calories.
Vikander's preparation for the role also included a lot of skills training, like climbing, boxing, and mixed martial arts. (Here's why every woman should add martial arts to her training.) "We made sure that these sessions were focused on skills and weren't too taxing physically so that she was fresh for her regular workouts," Lygdback explained. Fortunately I was only doing her fitness preparation, not her skills training, so I was off the hook for these lessons.
And so, with a workout printed up and folded into my leggings pocket, an Ariana Grande playlist on my phone, and a heck of a lot of nervous anticipation, I dove in. I had four weeks of training before the Tomb Raider premiere, and while it didn't go exactly as planned, I do feel stronger and more confident. Here's what Lygdback and following the program taught me about technique, motivation, and life.
1. Even at the very highest level, life happens, and you need a flexible plan.
As I went through the workout with Lygdback, he kept giving me ways to modify it, or go-by-feel instructions rather than specific times. For example, I was supposed to rest "until I felt refreshed, no more than two minutes" between each exercise. "Some days you'll feel strong and other days you won't," he explained. "What's most important is that you feel recovered enough to finish the next set."
While he was taking me through the running intervals—me on one treadmill in the sunny basement level of Mansion Fitness, Lygdback on the treadmill next to me—he told me that it was okay to only do six intervals, not the full 10, if I needed to. "Work up to 10 as you go, but six is fine, too." He spoke with a compassionate, heart-to-heart tone that felt more like a session with a counselor than a meeting with a fitness trainer. If I didn't have time to do the intervals at all, then skip the intervals rather than skipping a weights workout, he added.
I was surprised that such a high-level trainer—someone who has worked with numerous DC Comics movie stars, Katy Perry, and Britney Spears, just to name a few—had such a flexible approach. (BTW, this is what the ultimate recovery day looks like.)
I soon learned why. "I like training, but what I really like is the life coaching aspect," Lygdback mentions as we rest between sets. Even though celebrities are paid to look a certain way and perform at a certain level of fitness, they have problems, too: addiction, family trouble, self-doubt, a stomach bug. When you need to do something, either as a celebrity or as a regular person, you need to know how to prioritize and adjust your plan when life (or that nasty stomach bug) gets in the way.
2. Yes, you can forget when to breathe. (So learn when you should breathe.)
I've always hated the phrase "don't forget to breathe!" Breathing is an autonomic body function. If you forget about breathing, you still keep breathing. When I met with Lygdback, though, I had to check my snark at the door. I was holding my breath during hard lifts.
When Lygdback told me to breathe during lifts, it wasn't as easy as just remembering to breathe. Unlike the rest of life, breathing during weightlifting doesn't feel natural—my instinct is to hold my breath, so when I needed to breathe, it felt strange at first.
We planned out exactly where to breathe during each exercise. In short: Breathe out during the lifting portion of the move. So if you're doing a squat, you'd breathe out as you're standing up. During a push-up, breathe out as you push up.
3. Always carry snacks.
The Tomb Raider workouts took about an hour, with the exception of leg day, when I spent about an hour and 15 minutes in the gym. (Leg exercises take a little longer to do, a little longer to set up, and—since it's such a huge muscle group—a little more recovery between sets.) This was more time-consuming than my typical workouts, where I'll spend a max of 30 minutes lifting and could get away with having a banana or a piece of toast beforehand. I learned very quickly that I had to prepare differently to make it through a full hour.
That first leg day, I got through about half of my workout when my brain just clocked out. I didn't even feel fuzzy-headed, I just felt brain-dead. I finished my workout (credit stubbornness), but I was completely out of it on the way home. As in, thank god I didn't get into a traffic accident out of it. Once I arrived at my apartment, I downed three bowls of cereal and promptly took a three-hour nap. Not exactly healthy.
After that, I always brought at least a granola bar to the gym with me, if not extra snacks and sports drink just for insurance. I also stashed a couple of granola bars in a hidden compartment in my duffel bag just in case. I found that this was better for my energy and my fussy tummy than fueling up with a big meal beforehand.
4. Bribe yourself to stay motivated.
The plan Lygdback designed for me required a greater frequency than my usual routine. (If you could call it a routine.) I work out for my physical and mental health, which means I do whatever I feel like doing. If I want to go for a run, I run. I try to lift weights at least twice a week for muscle and bone strength, but I don't follow a specific plan. With the Tomb Raider workout schedule, I had to do a workout whether or not I felt like doing it.
My fix: an extra hot soy chai latte from Starbucks. My gym is in a large outdoor mall, and I pass Starbucks on the walk from the parking lot to the gym. Knowing that I would be able to have that sweet, spicy, comforting beverage was just the kick I needed to get out the door. I didn't make it a routine, but it was a special form of positive reinforcement when I really didn't feel like going to the gym.
Most people would think that you should treat yourself after a workout as motivation to finish it. That wasn't my problem, though. I like working out and usually feel great once I start. My problem is turning off Parks and Recreation reruns and driving to the gym in the first place. Some days, knowing that I'll feel good after my workout was enough to get me to the gym, but other days, I needed the simple bribe of my favorite tasty beverage.
5. Learning a new routine involved a lot of trial and error, and I had to get over some of my own hang-ups.
I usually do about two to three sets of exercises—enough to challenge my muscles, but not so much that I'm in the gym forever. Most of Lygdback's plan called for four sets of each exercise. The purpose was to completely exhaust each muscle group before moving on to the next exercise. Lygdback told me it was okay to drop down to three sets if I needed to, but I wanted to aim for the full four sets.
During the first few workouts, I ended up dropping down the weight on my last two to three sets because my muscles were already fatigued. It took some trial and error to find a weight that I could lift for four sets consistently, and that felt challenging at the end of the fourth set.
I eventually learned that I had to choose a weight that felt relatively easy. Nine times out of 10, that easy weight felt pretty darn hard by the end of the fourth set. If I was still feeling good by the end of my third set, I would increase the weight for the final set—but honestly, that only happened a few times.
The real lesson here was mental, though. I'm used to lifting heavy weights, and I take pride in holding my own in the weight room. I like the feeling of squeezing out the final rep by the skin of my teeth. To complete four sets, though, I had to go lighter—and get over my ego and my own biases in the process. Mentally, I reminded myself that I'm still fatiguing my muscles, just in a different way. I also moved to a different part of the gym for most of my lifts, one with a lighter selection of weights. There, I not only had access to a wider variety of the equipment I was using, I also was surrounded by people using similar equipment. Being around people doing exercises with similar equipment (light dumbbells) helped me focus on my workout rather than comparing myself to the other lifters around me.
I feel stronger and tighter after four weeks of the Tomb Raider workout, and I definitely have more muscular endurance. I try to take groceries in on one trip, and I don't get winded as easily during workouts. But I'll be honest: It was a lot. A lot of time, a lot of physical effort, and a lot of mental games to make myself stick with it.
Ultimately, I think it comes down to goals. Alicia Vikander was able to follow a similar plan for several months because she was getting ready for a role. But my goal is to stay healthy and energized. The workouts were so difficult that I usually felt pretty drained after them. Change requires pushing your limits and getting out of your comfort zone, which I definitely did, and I'm proud of myself for the effort I put in.
Now that the four weeks are over, though, I'm happy to go back to my less-challenging routine. Life is hard enough, and at this point in my life, I need to focus on other things besides my workouts. I know that's a plan that Lygdback would surely support. Because I'm not Lara Croft—I just play her in the weight room.