Many successful people don't see health and fitness as an afterthought. Instead, health and fitness play a major role in their success. While the physical benefits are obviously important, the mental benefits -- perseverance, resilience, determination, and mental toughness -- are just as critical.

This is the latest in my series where I follow an incredibly successful person's workout plan for one week. (Others include seven-time Nascar champion Jimmie JohnsonDef Leppard guitarist Phil Collen, and ex-Twitter CEO and Chorus founder Dick Costolo.)

This time it's the regimen Tom Cullen followed to play the lead role in KnightfallHistory's new scripted series that airs Wednesday nights at 10 p.m. (I've seen the first eight episodes. It's great. And so is Tom.)

Tom plays Landry, a veteran crusader and leader of the Templar knights, a religious and military order that -- in terms of skill in battle -- were basically the Navy SEALs of their day. And that meant Tom had to get in kick-ass shape.

But he got more out of the process than strength, stamina, and muscle mass. "I really did like it," Tom told me. "It was a challenge, and definitely something I had never done before.

"It's easy for me to fall into patterns. It was really great to be forced out of my pattern and out of my comfort zone and really test myself. I knew I was testing myself because I was definitely scared; there's a fear that comes with committing to that level of work. It felt great to overcome that fear. It was exciting to accomplish something I wasn't sure I could."

Isn't that what we're all looking for?

Tom started training three months before Knightfall shooting began. His goal was to look like someone "who had been fighting wars since he was 11 years old." (And, as you'll see, to wear 50 pounds of armor for twelve hours a day.)  To do that, he basically followed Cory Gregory's Get Swole muscle building plan, a workout regimen Tom describes as "insane." 

Halfway through the first roughly 90-minute workout, I decided he was right.

In a good way.


Jog. One to two miles, at a moderate pace. The goal is to warm up and gradually increase heart rate.

Run. Sprint for 40 seconds, jog for 20 seconds. Repeat 10 times. This series of intervals is great for cardiovascular fitness, and also serves as a final warmup before hitting the weights.

Which I definitely needed.

Weight Training: Back and Chest

Tom did supersets. (A superset is two exercises performed back-to-back without any rest in-between. You can do two exercises for the same body part -- like working your chest by doing flat bench and then DB flyes -- or different body parts.)

The key is to do the first exercise and then move immediately to the second. Then you take rest for 90 seconds and repeat until you've done the total number of sets required. 

For example, the first superset is wide grip pull-ups to failure, then 12 reps of bench presses. Then you rest for 90 seconds, and go again.

Superset 1: 5 sets

  • Wide grip pull-ups: to failure (meaning you do as many as you can)
  • Bench press: 12 reps

Superset 2: 5 sets

  • Incline DB flye: 12 reps
  • Seated row: 12 reps

Superset 3: 5 sets

  • Wide grip pull-ups: to failure
  • DB flye: 12 reps

Single set: 5 sets

  • DB pull-overs: 12 reps

Sound hard? It is. Since Tom's supersets involve different body parts, the "muscle" aspect is hard, but not as hard as it might sound; pull-ups use very different muscles than bench presses. But the cardio aspect is a killer.

It's also tough to get the amount of weight you use right the first time. If you're used to benching 200 pounds for 12 reps, trust me: You won't come close if you do pull-ups first. 

So if you want to try Tom's workout, see the first week as a great week of workouts... that will also include a little trial-and-error as you determine how much weight you can use and still hit 12 reps.

Hint: It's not nearly as much as you might think. Which is another good thing.


Jog a 1 to 2 miles, then do 10 minutes of sprint for 40 seconds, jog for 20 seconds. (You'll do that every day.)

Weight Training: Legs and Abs

Superset 1: 5 sets

  • Squat: 12 reps
  • Leg press: 12 reps

Superset 2: 5 sets

  • Stiff leg dead-lift: 12 reps
  • Hamstring curls: 12 reps

Superset 3: 5 sets

  • Walking Lunge: 12 reps (each leg) with barbell
  • Standing calf raises: 12 reps, with barbell or dumbbells

Single set:

  • Ab wheel: 50 reps (do as many as you can until failure, rest, then continue until you've done 50)

Think you're in decent cardiovascular shape? Do the first superset of squats and leg presses and get back to me.

That's the thing about weight training; you may be strong, but if you don't have decent cardio, your lungs will fail before your muscles do. Any serious weight training program needs to include at least some cardio work; you want your muscles to fail before your lungs.

You also want your body to fail before your mind does. By the third set of any superset, around 8 reps or so I would think I couldn't do more. But I could. The key is to ignore the pain and keep grinding out reps. Whether that means having someone else count for you, or mastering the art of counting without counting (somehow I've learned to keep track of the reps I've done without thinking about how many are left), the goal isn't to stop when it hurts. The goal is to stop when you've done 12 reps. 

As the sets wore on, that got really hard to do. But that's how you get stronger: Not just physically, but mentally, too.

One other note. After this workout you'll have trouble walking to your car. And just wait until you try to get out of bed the next morning.



Jog and run.

Weight Training: Biceps and Triceps

Superset 1: 6 sets

  • Cheat curls: 8 reps
  • Lying French press: 8 reps (also called triceps extensions)

Superset 2: 6 sets

  • Incline DB curls: 6 reps, shake out arms, then 4 more
  • Triceps pushdowns: 20 full reps for 5 sets, 20 one-quarter reps for final set

Superset 3: 5 sets

  • Bench dips: to failure
  • Preacher curls: approx. 30 reps (failing around 30)

If you want big arms, this could be the workout for you. If you want your arms to feel like wet noodles for hours after you work out, this is definitely the workout for you.

Normally I can do 30 or so bench dips in a row (legs straight out, heels resting on another bench) with a couple of 45-pound plates in my lap. But by the time I got to bench dips with this workout, I used body weight alone -- and could barely do 20 reps before failure.

And then the preacher curls made my biceps scream.

But that was a great way to finish off the workout. If you enjoy leaving the gym feeling like you've really done something, cap off your workout with high-rep supersets. 


Jog and run.

Weight Training: Shoulders and Abs

Superset 1: 5 sets

  • Military press: 12 reps
  • Upright rows: 12 reps

Superset 2: 5 sets

  • Lateral raises: 12 reps
  • Front raises: 12 reps

Single set: 

  • Ab wheel: 100 reps

(Or for variety, you could do 50 crunches and 50 Russian twists.) 

Combining overhead presses with upright rows isn't too bad; while both target your shoulders, it feels like you're using somewhat different muscles.

That's not true for lateral raises and front raises; no matter how strict your form, your front deltoids get involved in lateral raises... so when you get to around rep 6 of front raises, your shoulders will be begging for mercy. But that's okay, since maintaining strict form is easier with front raises than with lateral raises.

Diet and Nutrition

Before we get to the "rest days," let's talk about nutrition.

Adding muscle means eating more -- and eating right. (It's easy to add bulk; it's a lot harder to add lean muscle.)

Here's a snapshot of a typical day for Tom:

  • 7 a.m.: 3 eggs, quarter cup of oatmeal, fruit
  • 10 a.m.: Protein powder
  • 1 p.m.: Meat or fish, half a cup of carbs
  • 4 p.m.: Protein powder plus a small meal of protein and vegetables
  • 7 p.m.:  Meat and broccoli (no more carbs after 7 pm)
  • 10 p.m.:  Protein powder

Snack on nuts through the day, like macadamia nuts.

Sound like a lot of food? It is. "I ate more than I've ever eaten in my life," Tom says. "Sometimes it was hard to think about eating another meal."

But clearly the effort paid off. Check him out as Tony Gillingham on Downton Abbey, then as Landry on Knighfall.


Friday, Saturday, Sunday

Tom's workout plan was based on four days on, followed by three days of rest.

I needed the rest, but I also decided to make it interesting. Tom's costume for Knightfall weighs about 50 pounds, and if you've seen the show you'll know he's almost always wearing armor (except when his character makes the ultimate in career limiting romantic decisions.)

Why so heavy? "Most of the time actors wear plastic chain mail," Tom says, "but that looks and moves like plastic. So our costume designer put us in the real thing -- including the same heavy muslin fabrics underneath." (Laughs. "Just walking up steps felt like a workout."

Tom wore his costumer for approximately fourteen hours a day during filming. Since local stores don't carry Medieval armor, I borrowed a weight vest from one of the SEALs who sometimes train on the beach and inserted 50 pounds worth of sand bags.

And jeez did that suck. An hour in and I was sick of it: It's harder to walk, harder to stand up, harder to feel comfortable sitting... and if you really want to make life fun, go to a local high school and walk up and down the bleachers for a while. Wearing the vest fourteen hours a day for three days felt like hot death. I can't imagine wearing it day after day after day -- and riding horses and swinging swords and...

I finished the week extremely impressed with Tom's workout, but even more impressed by the willpower it takes to carry 50 extra pounds around all day. It's physically draining, but possibly even more draining mentally.

And that's the real benefit of taking on a challenging workout program. You learn that you can always do more than you think. You always have more in you. 


Most of our "limits" are arbitrary and self-imposed. When we think we're out of strength or energy... when we think we're out of brain power or willpower... we're not.

We just think we are.

Thanks to Tom for helping me remember that.

Published on: Dec 13, 2017
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