Every time a famous actor or actress gets in shape for a film role, a flood of fitness stories claiming to reveal exactly how they did it are sure to follow. The idea is that that if you do the same workout and eat the same food, it won’t be long before you too have the body of a superhero. But will you? In truth, probably not. There are a number of reasons why following a celebrity-focused workout program is often a bad idea—ranging from genetics to "supplements" that never get a mention in the fawning coverage of the celebrity's transformation. Let's take a look at a few of them.
For starters, imagine you're an A-list star. You've just been offered the lead in the latest Marvel franchise. But in order to land the gig, the producers told you to pack on at least 20 pounds of muscle while simultaneously losing fat. You’ve hired a trainer, and you’re hitting the gym hard six days a week. You’ve got a chef preparing your food, making sure each meal contains just the right amount of fat, protein, and carbohydrate. No stone has been left unturned in your quest for physical perfection. But there’s a problem.
Despite the fact that you’re doing everything right, your body just isn’t responding the way you want. Muscle is being built, and fat is being lost. But it’s not happening anywhere near fast enough. Filming starts in eight weeks. You're under intense pressure to look the part. Millions of dollars are riding on your ability to arrive on set with a body to rival that of a Greek god. So what are you going to do? For starters, you might do what a lot of people in your position have done—or at least, are rumored to have done—and take performance-enhancing drugs to speed things along. Athletes aren’t the only ones to rely on performance-enhancing drugs to gain an edge—they’re a part of life for celebrities and other professionals, too.
Fighter pilots have historically used amphetamines (sometimes referred to as "go pills") to stay sharp. Modafinil is made available to astronauts to optimize their performance while in a fatigued state. Students, doctors, and Silicon Valley millionaires use drugs known as "nootropics" to improve their concentration. And actors have long been rumored to use steroids and other supplements to get in shape for film roles. (Hollywood trainer Happy Hill, who has worked with actors like Jake Gyllenhaal and Ryan Phillippe, estimated that 20 percent of actors use PEDs in a 2013 interview with The Hollywood Reporter.)
Anabolic steroids are a class of drugs that are synthetic derivatives of testosterone. They can generate an impressive rate of muscle growth in a relatively short period of time, even if you don’t set foot in a gym. They're a group of drugs, rather than just one kind of performance-enhancing drug. (HGH, on the other hand—which is commonly conflated with steroids—isn't a derivative of testosterone, and on its own, at least, isn't much use for building muscle. Typically it's used to enhance the effect of other drugs, testosterone in particular, as well as improve connective tissue health, accelerate injury recovery and aid fat loss.)
In one study, a group of men aged 19 to 40 were injected with 600 milligrams of testosterone each week. After ten weeks, they gained around seven pounds of muscle. In other words, these guys were gaining over half a pound of muscle each week—all without lifting a single weight. A similar group of men who trained with weights three times a week, but who didn’t get the injections, gained a little over four pounds. But it was the guys who combined strength training and testosterone injections who saw the best results. On average, they gained over a pound of muscle mass each week, ending the study with an additional 13 pounds of beef added to their frame.
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If you have someone that has all the diet and supplement boxes ticked, is training hard four or five times a week and taking two or three different anabolic drugs at the same time (which is not uncommon), then he’s going to see dramatic gains in a very short period of time.
You also need to consider the influence that genetics can have on your results. Trying to build a body like your favorite actor simply by following their training routine is like going to Chris Evans’ barber and hoping to come out looking like Captain America. It’s not going to happen—in part because your genetic makeup has a huge impact on both the speed at which you gain muscle, as well as the maximum amount of muscle you’re able to build.
Some people build muscle very quickly when they start lifting weights, and see impressive results after only a few months—they’re referred to as high responders. Others tend to progress a lot more slowly, and are labelled low responders. Studies show that high responders can gain muscle up to four times faster than low responders, even if they lift and eat the same.
So let’s say that two guys start out lifting weights. Both follow the same training program and eat the same diet for three months. The high responder gains eight pounds of muscle. The low responder, on the other hand, gains just two pounds. If someone has great “muscle building” genetics, they can often get away with training and nutrition methods that are less than optimal.
Even if the low responder used the greatest training and diet program ever devised in all of human history, the high responder may still end up building muscle more quickly. What’s more, different people respond in different ways to the same training program. In one study, roughly three out of ten subjects showed greater gains in muscle mass when they trained a muscle five times per week. Another four out of ten saw faster results when they trained that same muscle two or three times each week. The others made similar progress regardless of how often they trained.
You also need to consider a phenomenon known as survivorship bias. As entrepreneur and science writer James Clear puts it, “Survivorship bias refers to our tendency to focus on the winners in a particular area and try to learn from them while completely forgetting about the losers who are employing the same strategy," he says. "There may very well be thousands of people who have followed the exact same celebrity workout—or one very similar to it—who didn’t get the same results. But you’re never going to hear about them, mainly because nobody wants to read about the training program used by someone who has tried and failed to get in shape." The result is that you get a distorted picture about the effectiveness of a particular diet or exercise program.
The bottom line is that the “secrets” employed by most actors and actresses to get in shape for a film role are not secrets at all. They work hard. They are consistent. They have a clear goal to work towards. Some may also enjoy the benefits of “pharmaceutical assistance” to help them along the way. They are under intense pressure to look the part. When there are millions of dollars riding on your appearance, missing workouts and not sticking to your diet isn’t an option.
Looking at celebrity transformations can leave you with unrealistic expectations about the extent to which it’s possible to change your body in a relatively short period of time. But don’t expect to see the same results using the same routine—chances are, it’s not going to happen.
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