The Full-Body Workout Viola Davis Did to Prepare for Her Role In 'The Woman King'

Learn all about how fitness and nutrition helped the actress transform into a warrior, according to her trainer, Gabriela Mclain.

Viola Davis
Photo: Sony Pictures

For her role in The Woman King, a film set in the 1800s about an all-female unit of warriors called the Agojie, Viola Davis quite literally got into fighting shape. Of course, she didn't do it alone. She had help from trainer Gabriela Mclain, who used her background in martial arts and nutrition to prepare Davis and many of her co-stars for their physically demanding parts in the film, which debuts in theaters on September 16, 2022.

Nutrition played a "major role" in getting Davis ready to step into the part of Nanisca, the general of the Agojie, Mclain tells Shape. "She needed to gain lots of muscle mass to look strong and powerful," she explains. To achieve this goal, Mclain took Davis for a DNA health analysis, which provides information about a person's genetic predispositions.

The analysis found Davis was at higher risk for type 2 diabetes, so eating smaller portions more often helped control her blood sugar levels and insulin production, according to Mclain. "Eating every three hours helped her [have] more energy, maintain and increase lean muscle mass, and [reduce] body fat storage," says the trainer, who notes, in general, "eating too little causes weakness and fatigue, which is detrimental for such training my clients went through."

"I made sure to not cut carbs too low because they are the fuel that gave Viola the energy she needed during the training and filming," she adds, listing sweet potatoes, quinoa, and brown rice as some of the complex carbs that were part of Davis' meal plan. She also ate protein, such as lean beef, chicken, fish, and eggs, and had two protein- or carb-based snacks between meals each day. Healthy fats from avocados, olive oil, meat, eggs, and fish were also part of her training diet. Plus, Davis drank a gallon of water a day to prevent fatigue and boost energy.

Mclain incorporated explosive weight training and strength training into Davis' fitness routine because the actress has more fast-twitch muscle fibers than slow-twitch fibers, the DNA analysis also revealed. She trained a minimum of five hours a day during three months of pre-production, including an hour of running, two hours of martial arts, and two hours of strength training. Davis enjoys deadlifts and bicep curls the most, says Mclain. "She always comes alive when she can do some punching and kicking," she adds. As for the moves she dreads? That would be squats, step-ups, and push-ups.

During training sessions, you could find Davis and Mclain listening to old-school music, top hits, or Afrobeats — "anything upbeat," according to Mclain. They also trained so early in the morning that Davis would occasionally show up to a workout with her clothes on backward or inside out by accident. "But she has a good excuse for it because most of the time we train so crazy early when it's still dark," says Mclain, who notes that she and Davis became "very good friends" during their time working together.

"I push her and she pushes me. She is always ready to work hard, and that challenges me to stay on my toes and always come up with a good workout plan," shares Mclain, who adds that when Davis is lacking motivation, they train together. "It's always more fun if you have a partner to suffer with through the workout. But all jokes aside, Viola is a very disciplined person, and she knows what is required to get the results to transform into a warrior."

If you're up for the challenge, keep scrolling to try out a workout designed by Mclain. It's filled with tough exercises that helped prepare Davis for her latest role.

Viola Davis' Full-Body Warrior Workout

How it works: Do each exercise for the recommended amount of time and reps. If you're looking for a modification, you can go lighter on the weights, slow down the tempo, or go less deep with the movements, according to Mclain. She recommends doing this workout three to four times a week.

What you'll need: The exercises require a plate, a set of dumbbells, a kettlebell, and a barbell. Choose between light and heavy weights depending on your fitness goals. You can even skip the equipment and utilize body weight instead.

Standing Elbow to Knee Oblique Twist with a Plate

A. Start standing tall with feet slightly wider than shoulder-width apart. Hold the plate with elbows bent and facing out.

B. Draw right leg up, bringing right knee toward left elbow while twisting upper body to the right.

C. Lightly touch right foot down to ground and immediately begin next rep.

Repeat for 45 seconds and rest for 15 seconds. Switch sides; repeat. That's one set. Do 3 sets per side.

One Arm Closed Shoulder Press In Split Squat

A. Start in a split leg position, with left leg forward and right leg back. Flex knees and lower hips until right knee is just above the floor. Hold this position.

B. Hold dumbbell in right hand with right arm by shoulder and right palm facing in toward the side of the face. Right elbow is tucked in and facing forward.

C. Press the weight up in straight line. Close the gap between ear and shoulder. Make sure to keep elbow in the whole time.

D. Lower the weight back to starting position. Push the weight downward against the ground right next to left foot.

Repeat for 45 seconds and rest for 15 seconds. Switch sides; repeat. That's one set. Do 3 sets per side.

Split Squat to Arnold Press

A. Start in a split leg position, with right leg forward and left leg back. Flex knees and lower hips until left knee is just above the floor.

B. Hold dumbbells at shoulder height with arms tight to body and palms facing in.

C. Stand up and rotate arms out to the sides and press the dumbbells upward. Palms face forward at the top of the movement

D. Reverse to return to starting split leg position with elbows in tight. Palms face in at shoulder height.

Repeat for 45 seconds and rest for 15 seconds. Switch sides; repeat. That's one set. Do 2 sets per side.

Kettlebell Halo with Split Squat

A. Get into a squat position with feet slightly wider than hip-width apart in order to pick up the kettlebell. Then, raise the kettlebell to chest level. Hold the kettlebell like a ball, locking thumbs on the handle.

B. Move the kettlebell around head in a counterclockwise halo motion. Extend the rotation all the way to the left side to move into a split squat with left leg forward and kettlebell in front of chest.

C. Stand and face front. Immediately begin another kettlebell halo in the opposite clockwise direction. Extend the rotation all the way to the right side to move into a split squat with right leg forward and kettlebell in front of chest.

D. Return to standing and face front.

Repeat for 45 seconds and rest for 15 seconds. That's one set. Do 3 sets.

Jumping Lunges with Lat Row

A. Start with feet shoulder-width apart, core engaged, and shoulders back. Take a step back with right leg, with the weight on the ball of right foot and left foot flat on the floor.

B. With right arm, row kettlebell up to right side of ribcage, concentrating on lifting with back and shoulder muscles, rather than arms. Keep chest open and still as you lift.

C. Lower kettlebell until right arm is fully extended again. Rest the kettlebell on the floor.

D. Jump up to switch legs in mid-air (right leg forward and left leg back). Keep the jump low. Land with both knees bent at 90-degree angles, ensuring that right knee isn't further forward than right foot.

E. With left arm, row kettlebell up to left side of ribcage.

F. Lower kettlebell until left arm is fully extended. Rest the kettlebell on floor.

Repeat for 45 seconds and rest for 15 seconds. That's one set. Do 3 sets.

Chest Press with Bicycle Crunch

A. Lay down on a bench or the floor, holding a barbell above chest with hands a little bit wider than shoulder-width apart.

B. Draw belly in and flex spine. Chin is slightly tucked in, firing up entire core.

C. Draw left knee to chest as right leg extends out to maximum extension. As right knee draws in, lower barbell to chest.

D. Exhale to press bar above chest in slight diagonal angle toward knee as right leg extends and left knee draws in.

E. Continue alternating, keeping the same rhythm.

Repeat for 45 seconds and rest for 15 seconds. That's one set. Do 3 sets.

Sword Crunches

A. Lie down on the mat or floor. Keep knees bent, back flat, and feet flexed.

B. Hold a dumbbell tightly with both hands like a sword over head.

C. Exhale to lift shoulders and squeeze abdominal muscles. Pull belly button in with each crunch. Make sure to go only half way up. It's not a full sit up.

D. Swing arms as if to split something in half right between knees. Return to starting position on an inhale as you lie down.

Repeat for 45 seconds and rest for 15 seconds. That's one set. Do 3 sets.

Standing Chest Press with a Plate

A. Stand with feet shoulder-width apart, holding plate in both hands. Elbows are facing out and bend. Chest is open.

B. Press hands into the plate and push it straight out until arms are fully extended.

C. Slowly bring the weight back to chest.

Repeat for 45 seconds and rest for 15 seconds. That's one set. Do 3 sets.

Was this page helpful?
Related Articles