Movie Stuntman Rick English Shares How He Maintains an Action Hero Physique at 47
He’s doubled for Gerard Butler, jumped down elevator shafts in The Batman, ridden motorcycles as Ghost Rider, and done stunts in countless movies. But when Rick English was in his teens, he had his eyes on a different role in the movies: Becoming the next Jean Claude Van Damme.
“I was doing martial arts and stuff from the age of seven … I thought I was going to be like an action actor kind of guy,” English says. He moved to London to pursue his Jean Claude Van Dreams and found work as a personal trainer in the meantime. “I was working in the West End, training actors and directors—trying to be in that world where all the creatives were based.”
While putting movie folks through their paces at the gym, English didn’t get cast in Time Cop 2, but he did get pulled into some stunt work. And then some more. Twenty years later, the now-47-year-old has appeared in films of just about every major franchise you can imagine: Marvel? Yep. James Bond? You know it. Mission: Impossible? Again: Yes. The Fast and the Furious? Yes and the yes. You get it.
To become such a legend in the stunt scene, English has undergone dramatic transformations to his physique, gutted through gnarly injuries, and learned how to train for—and recover from—just about anything. He recently caught up with MH to talk about his workouts, offered recovery secrets every guy can try, and how he does it all on a plant-based diet.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
You started out as a personal trainer, so you know your way around the gym. What’s your training like now?
I like to train in the mornings. Especially at my age, I think it it kind of loosens you up, wakes you up. I’ll train probably 45 minutes before work, and it’ll just be an all-over-body kind of thing. Circuit-based. I wouldn’t train like a bodybuilder. I won’t be doing four sets of front delts and then four sets of pecs. I just keep rotating body exercises, but still using significant resistance, significant weights, mixed in with some cardio, some bag work, some movement, stretching, some plyometrics and some sort of functional-type exercises, hanging and leg lifts. I would put all that stuff in.
For machines and resistance exercises, I’ll usually use a weight that only lets me do 12 reps maximum, and I’ll do one set. And I’ll go to failure pretty much on every set, on every station. If I can do way more than 12 reps, then next time I’ll crank the weight up a little bit more. For stations where I’m on a bike or anything like that, then it’ll be more like 50 calories [on the bike’s computer.] Even though it’s an arbitrary figure, it just gives me an idea of how much work I’ve done in that particular thing.
For boxing or if I’m on the bag doing kickboxing or something, I normally do three-minute rounds. I tend to not rest between between stuff because I’m mixing stuff up. I’m a bit hyperactive and I get bored really quickly. I tend to want to go in the gym and then just train for the whole time and not even have time to talk to anybody or stop or anything. So I don’t tend to rest between sets.
I know there’s differing trains of thought on that, and on recovery and ATP [the molecule your body uses to fuel movement] in between sets. But I just like to maximize my time. The biggest rest I having is probably just stretching between sets or some abs or something. I’ll call that like an active rest.
I tend to listen to my body a lot more these days. When I was young, I would just have a set routine. Now I also have to plan what’s what’s coming up as well: if I know that I’ve got some jump off or something or do a back somersault off of something later that day, I probably won’t train legs even two days before that. I don’t want DOMS to be kicking in when I’m trying to use my quads to absorb an impact or something.
Do you use any kinds of special training apparatuses or anything for the stunt work you do?
I’m training a lot of balance stuff, proprioceptive kind of work where you’re actively kind of engaging those balance muscles all the time. It’s invaluable for [motorcycle] stuff, because you’re all balancing all the time. Bosu balls, Swiss balls, any of that type of stuff really helps.
There’s a Praep sports thing that I use. It’s like a pair of handlebars with a camp in the middle. It’s a stability thing for doing pushups and different exercises. It was developed by mountain biking guys, and it’s to train stabilizing muscles specifically for sports. I also use this thing called a Skill Board. It’s like a surfboard that you balance on.
Since you double for so many different actors, do you have to do big transformations for different movies? What’s the most you’ve had to gain or lose?
I think the hardest one I ever had to do was for World War Z. I doubled Brad Pitt in that movie, and that was in 2011. I was probably about 13.5 stone (189 pounds) at that time, which is probably as heavy as I’ve ever been. I was carrying as much muscle as my frame can probably hold naturally. And then I got the call to go and double Brad. And I remember speaking to the costume guys, and I was like, “So what kind of shape is Brad in at the minute? Is he in, like Troy shape, or is he more like Fight Club shape?” Because he he can go up and down. He’s always in great shape, but I never know how big he is going to be. And they said, “He looks like he’s just been living on caffeine and cigarettes. He’s tiny.” So I reckon I lost about 25 over the course of a couple of months.
During the prep for that movie, I kept an eye on what he was doing when he would come in and train. He was lean—I mean, he looked great, but he was a lot smaller than we were used to seeing him. But I like the challenge of that. I could see what my end goal was. And, you know, it’s really important for me [to get it right] because that’s going to be on film forever. And they can only use me for so much stuff if I don’t match the actor.
The hardest thing for me was was losing the muscle. I cut out most of my heavy resistance work because my shoulders were a lot bigger than Brad’s were at that time. And so I was consciously trying to lose my shoulders. But everything I did seemed to blow my shoulders up, like boxing, training… everything.
When you do those transformations, do you usually alter your workouts like that—add in more cardio, stuff like that? Or is it more diet-based?
I tend to change my eating more than I change my my training, to be honest. I tend to kind of train to keep balanced, body-wise the whole year round.
For me, not eating in the evening tends to work if I want to lean out. At the minute as well, I don’t eat right away in the morning, either. Like today, I’m not working, but I went and did a Pilates session this morning just to try and keep my core strong. So I went and did a reformer Pilates session, and I didn’t eat until probably 1 p.m. That’s pretty typical for me on on a day off. I’ll train in the morning, but not actually eat until the afternoon.
When you grab those post-workout meals to break that fast, what do you have? Is it food, or a shake? What’s in it?
I tend to try and eat real food if I can. But I’ll use a shake for convenience sometimes post-workout if I know I’m going to be out and about and I’m not coming home for a little while. And then sometimes, I will just make a shake at home when I get back from the gym.
I’ll put fruit in it. Normally berries—like strawberries and blueberries—whatever we have in the fridge. My wife’s a fitness instructor as well, and my kids are both into fitness, so we have about a thousand different protein powders because we all like different ones. And then I’ll have a bit of almond milk and then with that I’ll put in my protein powder, which these days is usually either Huel or my friend has a fitness company called Fit for Films which trains actors specifically, and they just come out with their own range of supplements, which are pretty clean.
But it’ll be a plant-based protein, because I don’t actually meat anymore. For about eight years I’ve been plant-based. So they’re usually like either hemp-based or pea protein. Then peanut butter. I love peanut butter for some good fats and stuff. And then whatever else we have around—we usually have mixed seeds or maybe a bit of muesli … something just to make it more of a substantial kind of thing rather than just a drink. I like it to be like a bit more like a meal replacement.
I talk to lots of guys who want to eat more plant-based meals, but they’re worried about what they’ll cook, and how they’ll get enough protein. What do you do for both of these things?
People always ask, what have you replaced meat with? And I’m like just… food. I just try and eat a balance of foods, and try to eat real food all the time. A lot of things that are “vegan food,” it isn’t necessarily healthy and it’s not necessarily natural either. So we’re very wary of that. But yeah, I eat a lot of fruit, eat a lot of salad, and as far as protein goes, we’ll have either like a corn-based thing, like a veggie burger, or else it’s vegetables and beans and lentils and stuff like that.
I’m lucky that my wife, well, she’s been vegetarian since I met her. And then like seven or eight years ago, I decided I was going to be vegan. And so she cooks that way all the time. She makes a chili kind of thing—we’ll have that with quinoa or something in the evening and that’s literally my favorite thing. It wasn’t like the little lumps of meat in it that I was craving when I wanted chili, so to have the same thing without that, just with more vegetables and more beans is great. It is better for me and I prefer it.
You’re going out on a work day and doing things like slamming a motorcycle into the back of a van…on purpose. Do you have any secrets for recovery from bumps, bruises, and other soreness that our readers can try?
For me, at the end of the day, I always go to training after work, no matter what what I’ve done that day. I’ll go to the gym anyway and I’ll do something. I think it helps keep things loose, rather than just going straight back to the hotel, sitting down, having a shower and then just laying on the bed. For me, that seems to be the worst thing I could do. If I do, I’ll get up the next morning and be super stiff. So I like to go, even if it’s just to have a 20-minute easy cycle, a nice stretch, and a little bit of abs or something. Just a bit of whole body kind of movement, that really helps me.
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And then the other thing that I found that works really well for me, if I’m trying to deal with specific areas of inflammation, is a Game Ready ice and compression unit. [Editor’s note: Game Ready units pump icy water around an injured area.] I first used it on, I think, Mission Impossible 5. I did a big motorcycle crash scene, and I basically tore my MCL and had to keep riding. I knew what I’d done the second I stood up [from the crash]. But we had another week left of filming, so I taped it up every day.
And then Tom [Cruise]’s physio gave me a Game Ready in the hotel room. I would just sit and do my emails or whatever I was doing that night. And this thing compresses the joint and pumps freezing cold water down there. So that would just help reduce the inflammation at night time. So and I have one here right right now that I’m using because I have the same injury right now.
Speaking of Tom Cruise, he’s kind of legendary for doing his own stunts. What’s it like to work with him? Is he super intense?
He likes to be part of the stunt team, so he does the stuff himself 100 percent. I mean, obviously, we’ll kind of test everything with the stunt guys and with Tom’s guy. But when it comes to actually filming and stuff, he likes to do all that stuff himself and it’s one of the big kind of draws of the movie and I think is that people want to see Tom do this stuff for real.
He likes to hang out with us. I was quite lucky on Mission Impossible 5, there’s a lot of riding and driving on that. And so, we would be on these racetracks and stuff, and Tom would be there practicing on the bikes. And I’d look down my at my speedometer and I’m looking in front of me—there’s Tom—and we’re doing 130 miles an hour. There’s Tom Cruise in front of me. And there’s not many actors that would that that would do that stuff for themselves, or that would be allowed to.
You’re still doing all this stuff in your mid-40s. What’s your secret? What should our guys be doing in the gym to keep thriving in their 40s?
You know, I think when you’re a young guy, you can get away with throwing weights up and putting your back into everything and having shitty form. You can kind of get away with that. I think you have to be a little bit stricter and a bit more sensible. I certainly wouldn’t cut out heavy weights, but I would just be more conscious of form.
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