Former Military Pro Preps Jake Gyllenhaal for High-Action Role in Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time

 May 07, 2010 09:51 AM EST

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Former Military Pro Preps Jake Gyllenhaal for High-Action Role in Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time
Being an action hero is hard work. Becoming one is even harder. So when Jake Gyllenhaal began preparing for his portrayal of rogue prince Dastan in the upcoming "Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time," he knew he'd have to call in the big guns.

"The development of the character was massively physical at first," Gyllenhaal says, "getting in shape and learning parkour, sword-fighting and the mentality of a warrior."

Enter strength and conditioning coach Simon Waterson, 36, whose approach to fitness is inspired by the eight years he served in the military. "The ultimate goal with Jake's training was to provide a functional, strong and agile physique which would enable him to carry out the huge workload and stresses he'd have to undertake as prince Dastan," says Waterson. "My main aim was to build athleticism-his scenes included sprinting, jumping and wielding swords-but he also had to look amazing, too."

While Waterson admits that ultimately, Gyllenhaal had to look the part of an action hero, it wasn't the driving force behind the program. "The aesthetics were not the focus," he says. "I knew that if he trained, ate and slept like an athlete, he'd inevitably look like one."

Waterson says he created a program for the Oscar®-nominated actor with the film's script in mind. "The approach I took with Jake's training was to mimic what would happen during the production of the movie. "For example, I knew Jake would have to wear a lot of armor, which is heavy and restrictive, so he wore a 20-pound flak jacket during training to simulate the armor.

"A lot of the movie was shot in Morocco in the sand," continues Waterson. "So our outdoor cardio included interval training in the sand-we'd do early-morning workouts on the sand horse tracks in London's Hyde Park, wearing the flak jacket."

The trainer also employed gym-based workouts-incorporating functional plyrometric and strength circuit training into Gyllenhaal's regimen. "We concentrated on movement, rather than muscle so his body would perform naturally. Jake is methodical; he has a vast understanding of fitness and he made every workout count, always giving 100 percent."

According to Waterson, he worked with Gyllenhaal twice daily during pre-production, tackling cardio in the morning and gym workouts in the evening. But the actor didn't abandon his training once production began. Waterson trained with Gyllenhaal throughout production, 45 minutes a day, six days a week, alternating cardio with strength and conditioning. "Workouts during production had to be very early due to the intense heat in Morocco," says the trainer.

It wasn't easy. In addition to his conditioning, Gyllenhaal was asked to do a lot of gymnastic-based exercise to complement his parkour training. Parkour, a fantastic, gravity-defying practice of running up and flipping off of walls, among other things, requires pristine physical prowess. And Gyllenhaal's prince Dastan was an expert at parkour. "There's no reason to do a movie like this if you can't do the stunts," says Gyllenhaal. "It was all about functional fitness, being able to do everything that was asked of me. So I got into the best shape I could, with a whole lot of running, parkour training, circuit training and horseback riding."

It worked. "Watching an actor perform like an athlete is very rewarding," says Waterson. "And seeing him perform certain stunts that we trained for was very satisfying. I always over-prepare for these roles, so regardless of what was asked of him, Jake was ready to give it a go-and to do it with great confidence."

The Action-Hero Regimen

  • Morning cardio/strength routine kicks off with a one-hour run with weighted vest, including 20 minutes in the sand. Ten sets of plyrometrics (squat thrusts, press ups, etc.), followed by five 25-meter hill sprints.
  • Evening gym-based routine features plyrometric circuit with five exercises in succession, five times through. For example, Gyllenhaal would be asked to do 10 reps each of exercises like squat thrusts straight into a wide pull up (while wearing weighted vest), medicine ball press ups (with one hand on the ground and one hand on the ball, jump-switching hands), overhead barbell squats (with a 20kg bar), and more.
  • Waterson recommends choosing one body part daily to train heavily, doing five sets of six to eight reps (chest=bench press, back=dead lift, shoulders=shoulder press).
  • To work abdominal muscles, the trainer attacks the midsection from different angles, working it every other day. Waterson likes hanging leg raises and incorporating medicine balls into exercises.
  • Every workout includes cool-down and stretching sessions.
  • Gyllenhaal's nutrition plan called for six small meals throughout the day, each including protein, carbs and fats (allowing slow energy release throughout the day). And even when not braving intense Moroccan heat, drinking lots of water is critical. 

The routine Waterson developed for Gyllenhaal isn't just for film stars. Waterson suggests starting off with fewer reps and half the cardio, gradually building as one's fitness level develops. "Have short- and long-term realistic goals," he advises. "Always do so some kind of workout, even if it's just 15 minutes-it all counts. Never give up and remember, the most important muscle in the body is your heart."

From the team that brought the "Pirates of the Caribbean" trilogy to the big screen, Walt Disney Pictures and Jerry Bruckheimer Films present "Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time," an epic action-adventure set in the mystical lands of Persia. A rogue prince (Jake Gyllenhaal) reluctantly joins forces with a mysterious princess (Gemma Arterton) and together, they race against dark forces to safeguard an ancient dagger capable of releasing the Sands of Time-a gift from the gods that can reverse time and allow its possessor to rule the world. Directed by Mike Newell ("Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire") with a cast that includes Sir Ben Kingsley and Alfred Molina, and a screenplay by Boaz Yakin and Doug Miro & Carlo Bernard from a screen story by Jordan Mechner, "Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time" hits U.S. theaters May 28, 2010.

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