Game of Thrones’ Mountain went from skinny to 150kg muscle mass. His secrets revealed
Conan Stevens, the original Mountain, tells us about getting inspired by Arnold Schwarzenegger, following the ‘Grandpa Diet’ and not having any cheat days.fitness Updated: Sep 04, 2017 10:24 IST
Mark ‘Conan’ Stevens is 7 feet tall and all muscle. The Australian stuntman, actor and former professional wrestler was the original Mountain- Gregor Clegane, in Season 1 of the HBO’s Game Of Thrones, Sedullus in the Spartacus TV series (2012) and the giant Goliath in The Bible miniseries (2013). A little known fact is that originally he had auditioned for the role of Khal Drogo, so that he could later on be in reckoning for the role of Clegane.
We spoke to Conan about his inspiration Arnold Schwarzenegger, following the ‘Grandpa Diet’ and not having any cheat days.
Do you have a set sleeping and waking up time?
Yes I do. I go to sleep between 9-10 pm and wake up about 5 am each morning.
There are several reasons and benefits for this, firstly the reasons.
I originally started going to bed early as my friends would be out partying and call me to come out too, going to bed early I would not feel like getting up and going out, so I avoided bad influences from well meaning friends.
The other reasons I like the early mornings are for when I am in Asia (I have been based in SE Asia for 12 years now) this allows me to respond to emails and make calls to America in the early afternoon LA time so as to not miss nor delay any opportunities or communications.
The last reason for this is when you are filming a movie start time is usually 6 am, so I am used to this when I go on set I get up early, eat a light breakfast, train a little or swim in the hotel pool, then go to the movie set for 2nd breakfast (like a Hobbit) and makeup already fully awake and ready to work. I like to be professional at work and ready for whatever the director wants.
Now for the benefits.
I like training in the early morning 6-7 am before it gets too hot, and before I do anything else. Being at the gym in the early morning usually only the serious trainers are there so it is a better atmosphere when people are working out hard and not sitting on equipment for 40 minutes chatting on their phone. This combined with not being too hot yet I can stay longer and get a better workout.
It is also the best way to start the day having done something productive that fully wakes your body and mind.
The other thing is that the natural human cycle is to be awake in the day time, this is called the circadian rhythm and it is accepted by current western medicine and has many scientific studies. Basically the best time to be productive and awake is sunlight hours and sleep is when the sun goes down or shortly after. Your body functions much better like this, a simple online search for ‘circadian rhythms’ will provide a lot of information from credible sources.
Lastly sunlight on the skin and in the eyes stimulates vitamin D and hormone production, Vitamin D receptors are in every cell in the body, Hormones are regulated by vitamin D. The sex hormones make you grow muscle. Get your sunlight if you want to achieve physique goals, it also helps against depression.
Why did you choose to get into such an extreme form of body-building? What makes you stick to your routine and do what you do for so many years?
Originally I saw Conan The Destroyer at the cinema with some friends who had started lifting bricks and concrete in their basement - that changed everything.
I was a skinny kid and had long wished to have a muscular body. After seeing the film I joined the gym the next day as I wanted to look like Arnold and I had found a way to change my 70 kg (144 lb) skinny 6’7” body.
We watched Pumping Iron and Conan the Barbarian on VHS the next week, I was hooked.
I never had any expectation back then that I’d be huge, I thought I had a slim athletic body and I was working at trying to get that, but my biceps grew quickly from 11 1/4” to 15” circumference in the first three months and I put on 20kg (44 lb). I guess that’s what happens when you stop long distance running and go to the gym. Unfortunately the gains stagnated there as we were training too long, too often, and not eating as well as we should have. Back then we thought we had to eat calories (calories will make you fat, nutrition will make you the body you want).
I had been a skinny, unpopular kid playing D&D and war games and spending a lot of time in the library reading everything. The gym had given me a better, stronger, more attractive physique – with it came confidence. I joined the rugby union and basketball teams, the local professional basketball team coach coached me on the side for free, I started skate boarding, girls started paying attention to me.
I, a complete nerd, made friends with the sports jocks at school and was invited to sit with the popular groups at lunch. I was the only one who would alternate between D&D games in the history department and next day be out hanging with the ‘cool kids’ at school.
After a couple of incidences the school bullies stopped pushing me around too. These benefits were enough incentive to keep me going to the gym at that stage.
After a short while of this and while still 16 years old, I got to thinking about what I wanted to do with my life, my mother had planned that I would go to University and get a ‘good, respectable’ job. At that point I did really like Economics but did not see a future in it. The body-building had taught me that I could alter my body and thus my life.
For those that think your life is pre-written, how do you know that the plan was not written for you to get up and strive for a better life? Maybe this was the plan all along?
My best friends had decided they wanted to be Professional Body-builders and started working toward that goal. After some thought I did not think this was a good career option for me and decided that I wanted to work in movies, but how to get there? Ah ha! I’ll become, and now I quote my own stated goal, “The Biggest Professional Wrestler The World Has Ever Seen.” I reasoned that alone would get me a chance in the WWF and hard work would make me famous enough that I could then make a successful transition into movies.
When your life ambition becomes the only career path for you that is when you’ll do what it takes. Body-building was a vehicle that would get me the lifestyle that I wanted (or so I imagined). After many learning processes, trials and tests of my resolve and being sidetracked a few times, I am finally where I planned to be.
Shad Gaspard who was a WWE wrestler worked as the Brazilian fighter, over lunch one day he said to me “Remember when you were a kid watching the big guys on Pumping Iron? Well come train with us at Gold’s Gym, Venice Beach and be one of those big guys with us.” I am currently living in Venice Beach, LA, California, 100 meters from the beach and I train at Gold’s gym and my friends and training partners are world top professional body-builders, world renowned personal trainers, Olympic and International athletes, well known actors, WWE wrestlers, and a sprinkling of powerlifters.
In short I have become one of the guys I idolised as a teenager, and my career now depends upon me keeping good shape so in short I no longer have a choice but I enjoy it the friends, the endorphin rush (like runners high) and I get agitated and depressed if I do not exercise in some form.
What’s your diet like?
I follow what I call the Grandpa Diet.
If your Grandfather saw it and knows it as food from when he was young then eat it. A girl friend went to visit her 94 year old Grandfather in the province, she put a package of hotdogs in his bag for him to have for lunch. When he got back at the end of the days work he said he was hungry, she asked why he did not eat the hotdogs. He pulled them from his bag, looked at them and honestly asked “Is this food?”
I eat a lot of fresh and boiled vegetables, salads, eggs, some fish, and some meat. When I was younger I ate a lot of meat but now I know my body better it really is not good to keep stuffing heavy meat in 3 times a day, your body gets too toxic and it’s not good for your health and it’s not even good for your muscle growth.
I also take one or two whey protein shakes a day with two raw eggs (make sure your eggs are fresh and from a trusted source. Smell them, check they are good before consuming). The raw eggs contain Lipase, an enzyme required to digest fat. Without lipase you cannot digest fat, you only get lipase from raw fats. Heating above 45 degrees C destroys the lipase.
I know a lot of diets count the ‘macronutrients’ and I have done this but I also discovered that there is a MASSIVE difference between carbohydrate types, fat types and protein types. I find it very hard to get fat on coconut oil, but very easy on the western style vegetable oils we were told were healthy.
Sugar is a definite no in all circumstances, for a workout drink I’ll use a teaspoon of raw unprocessed honey from a farm, or blackstrap molasses – it’s sugar but with concentrated nutrition, and it is part of a concoction – these drinks are on my YouTube channel. Sugar makes you fat, no if’s, no but’s, no part of a healthy diet. Sugar directly increases insulin which pumps carbohydrates into fat cells and the fructose component is processed by the liver just as alcohol is meaning it does the exact same metabolic damage. Doctor Robert Lustig from UCLA goes into the metabolic pathways of this in his famous lecture ‘Sugar, the bitter truth’ available to watch for free online.
If I eat wheat I get a bloated gut, feel tired and can gain weight easily (search online for “wheat belly”), if I eat rice I find it much harder to gain weight.
I also find there is a big difference between raw milk (unpasteurised, unhomogenised direct from the cow, goat, etc) milk and the stuff they sell at the supermarket. Raw milk, butter and cheese I do enjoy, the supermarket stuff I tend to avoid a lot.
I can count calories and get fat quickly if I eat Western style take out food on the exact same calorie count as eating natural foods where I get muscular but don’t put on noticeable fat.
Your traditional foods are often the best. For more information the Weston Price foundation has a lot of information that is very similar to what and why I eat the foods I do. I experimented over years, weighing food, counting calories and macronutrients (fat, carbohydrate, protein) by the gram for everything I ate.
Now I eat natural foods, I eat a range, I eat what is available and fresh, best if it came off a tree or from a farm that morning. The best meat and eggs for taste, nutrition are the ones that are running around, not caged up in little pens for “efficiency”. Would you eat a fat guy sitting in a chair and being force fed food and hormones all day to make him weigh more for market? You know how sick he is, plus it is a disgusting way to treat animals.
As to vegetarian. I am moving towards that as I get older, it is what my body wants to eat. Currently I eat a lot of eggs and also fish twice a day, I’ll usually only eat a small amount of meat daily now.
The most processed food I usually eat is oats, which I cook into porridge every second day or so.
You can check what I eat on my YouTube channel where you can see how my eating has changed over the years as I learnt more by experimenting on myself.
I also like to water fast 24 hrs once a week and 3 days (72 hrs) every 2-3 months though I use to do it every month and follow this with a day of low protein vegetarian food. This allows the body to clear toxins and repair itself. If your body is continually digesting protein all day everyday, when does it get the time and resources to breakdown then rebuild the muscle you damaged in the gym?
- Biceps: Barbell bicep curls, often I’ll just do 6-9 sets of these for a biceps workout, varying the hand grip every 2-3 sets.
- Chest: Definitely barbell benchpress
- Shoulders: Rear delts first, find the exercise you can feel your rear delts with and always train them first. Almost nobody trains them and this leads to a bad posture, skinny looking delts and the worst is you’ll end up with bad joints as the overbuilt front pulls the joint out of place just a little and the constant work over the years destroys the joint.
- Abs: Anything as long as you train them. Work at doing the ‘Dragon Flag’ if you can do a set of these you will have abs. Diet is the most important for abs.
- Legs: Squats, deep squats and beach sprints. If it hurts your knees or your heels come off the ground it means you are too tight from doing 1/2 movements, take 90% of the weight off and squat all the way down. Consider it weight assisted yoga. At the end of the day do you want massive Tom Platz like legs or do you want functional legs?
- Statistics and show-offs
- 7 ft tall is about all I give now as soooo many times I’ve heard “Well I know this guy who is much bigger than you.......” often I know the guy and it is just the story teller being negative, possibly from jealousy. Others online ‘big themselves up’ and quote outrageous numbers.
- The other issue is some gyms intentionally order weights that are 5-10% lighter than the marked weight. This then attracts all the guys with ego problems who want to pretend they can push more weight than they really can.
- My best ever weights though were from when I was training with a group of about 10 Samoan weight lifters we got big and strong. I deadlifted 318 kgs (700 pounds) with no straps, no belt, no assistance suits or anything like that. 190 kgs (420 pounds) bench was my best and 400 lbs squats for sets due to my leverage disadvantages- these required a heck of a lot of force.
How many hours do you workout daily and what’s your weekly schedule?
Ha, well this is difficult to answer.
If your readers want to know the best routine for them 2-3 times a week is enough for an hour of constant training. You can develop a very good physique with 2 hours of solid work a week, being in a gym and talking on the phone while sitting on various machines is not ‘going to the gym’, also spending all your time on the treadmill or forearms machine is doing nothing – go outside for a walk instead.
Concentrate on the old school stuff, lifting heavy weights with good technique until you completely utterly cannot move the weight a single more rep. Do the harder movements like bench press, squats (all the way down, put on a lighter weight, and dead lifts as your main exercises to build around).
I train each body part once a week. The schedule varies a lot due to if I’m still sore from last week and I train with different people on different schedules many days of the week so we find something that we can both train that day. I’ve been at the gym training arms with the Director from the upcoming movie Dead Squad, he’s also the US national drug tested powerlifting champion in his weight division, and after he left Shad Gaspard (Cryme Tyme from WWE) came in training arms and I ended up training two full arm workouts one after the other. This is where guys like me who have been training for decades differ from guys who have not been lifting for as long. To do this at a junior or intermediate level would be very bad advice.
Personally the number of days I train varies to the gym I’m at, at Gold’s in Venice Beach I go most days, while if I’m on a movie shoot I’ll usually just do three days a week and do more stretching and swimming to keep active but to not tire my muscles out and risk injury during an action scene.
In the tropics in an open air gym I train more like Dorian Yates, few heavy sets where I go to absolute failure then cheat rep to absolute failure and get out within 30 minutes.
In Gold’s it is more about meeting people, exchanging ideas, a little bit of business mixed in, so I tend to spend more time in the gym and do longer workouts with more sets and more reps not necessarily to failure each set – I also do calves most days and 30 minutes on the stationary bike up in the ‘peanut gallery’ a raised section at the back of the gym where you can watch everyone coming and going and everything happening in the gym – a good way to learn new techniques and to spend a little more time in the gym for the social aspect of it.
What would you normally eat on your cheat days?
Lol, cheat days? There are no cheat days.
I just eat as much as I want whenever I want of real food. Food that comes from a plant, the ground or from an animal. Then sometimes due to circumstance I’ll eat a little bit of junk food or a junk meal so if I’m at a friends place and they offer me something to eat that Grandpa wouldn’t eat then I’ll take a little. If it is dinner then I’ll sit with everyone and eat the food unless it is really poor nutritional stuff like pancakes or pizza in which case I’ll abstain.
If you find yourself craving for a cheat meal, go and eat a big salad with a couple of boiled eggs and some cheese with olive oil and sea salt dressing. You won’t feel like eating junk afterwards and if you do it’ll just be a nibble.
I’ve seen a friend consume a big plate of spaghetti made with tinned sauce then 2 whole loaves of white bread and still be hungry. I suggested to him that his body was hungry for nutrition, not calories and he should try eating a large fresh salad instead.
He tested this himself a few days latter and said that the low calorie salad had satisfied his hunger whereas his previous huge, high calorie low quality meals had not, even though they were making him fat.
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First Published: Sep 02, 2017 08:40 IST