Photo: Jack Snyder
When Hollywood cast trainer Mark Twight needed a UK-based personal trainer for the Justice League Amazons, he turned to PT and former elite triathlete, Helen Mayhew, to whip the female cast members into Amazon warrior shape.
I quizzed the former competitive swimmer on the workouts and training it took to create the strong, kick-ass Amazons you see in the Justice League film.
You have a background in elite sport, triathlon in particular. Were you always sporty?
I swam competitively as a teenager but then rebelled against sport and training through my late teens and early twenties. Guess that’s the danger of having to do a lot of training as a kid – it easily results in a yearning to do things that normal kids do. So I didn’t find triathlon until my mid-twenties when my sister suggested us doing a local sprint. With my swimming background I found I was naturally quite good at it and enjoyed it. I also realised that I had a good endurance base, so I continued, getting into the longer distance triathlons. I completed 4 Ironman triathlons and competed, both elite and then age group, at long course triathlon.
What are your most memorable moments from your triathlon days?
Whilst completing an Ironman is really rewarding, it’s pretty brutal. Long course is a bit easier for me, as it’s a longer swim and shorter bike and run, plus getting to wear GB kit and compete against the best in the world is such a privilege.
But my favourite race ever was probably Escape from Alcatraz. Compared to the UK, races in the States are real spectacles. The whole set-up is big, bold and exciting, and you’re made to feel like you’re part of something amazing. Also, the really challenging swim from Alcatraz to the shore (by the Golden Gate Bridge) played to my strength. It’s a really superb race in an amazing setting – I couldn’t get the smile off my face the whole way around!
How did the opportunity to work on the Justice League film come about?
A good friend, the legend Mark Twight, who’d previously trained the cast for the 300 and Superman films, led the training for Wonder Woman and Justice League. Luckily for me, Justice League was being shot in the UK and he wanted a female trainer for the Amazons, so he and Stu Walton could focus on training the main cast – Jason Mamoa, Ray Fisher, Ezra Miller and Amber Heard. Of course, I jumped at the chance.
How long did you spend training the Amazon cast members?
I worked with the Amazons for three months ahead of filming. Once they were on set, it’s very long days including hours in hair and make-up, so there isn’t much chance for training. We managed to squeeze in a couple of sessions with the larger group when they had a day off, and the cast Amazons (those with the main parts) were able to make some time for 1-2-1 training – often in full hair and make-up!
What was the objective of the women’s training initially?
The focus was to make them look and feel like warriors – proud and strong with real presence.
It was as important that they felt like a team and bonded with each other as it was that they looked ripped and amazing. I was initially worried about how 40 women would gel together, but it was incredible how much they supported each other, even whilst knowing they could get cut and replaced at any time. They really dispelled every myth about jealousy and bitchiness, and although it sounds clichéd, there was a real sisterhood.
What kind of training did you have the cast do?
For the most party, they trained with us for 2-hours, three times a week. This would largely be boot camp-style workouts consisting primarily of body weight and kettlebell exercises. Lots of press-ups and pull-ups! We did some heavier weight training, but that was trickier with the large groups.
We’d also do interval weight training, sprints and longer relays on the rower, ski-erg and assault bikes. And of course, always abs to finish – gotta get those six packs!
The cast Amazons trained every day, generally similar workouts on their hard days. But due to the intensity of these, we interspersed them with recovery days which were generally longer endurance sets on the rower and ski-erg, and kettlebell Turkish Get Ups.
Could you run through a typical training session in the gym?
First mobility, followed by 10 minutes on the assault bike, ski-erg or rower. Then some kind of dumbbell complex, or set of 1 to 4 pull-ups. For the main workout we’d often do a circuit – something like a 15 to 1 ladder of push-ups, KB goblet squats, plank pulls, Romanian Deadlifts, dumbbell strict presses.
As a finisher we‘d often do 6 x 30/60 second ski-erg sprints – this is a good one to do with a partner. And then a series of abs: plank, v sits, crunches and hollow holds.
Did you take the cast running and swimming?
The cast Amazons were generally at the studio all day and tended to get a bit stir crazy, so we’d often go to the local pool for a training swim, or to the woods for a run. These were pretty relaxed sessions, mostly just for a change of scene and some recovery, so nothing too intense. Not sure that the locals knew what had hit them though, with this group of stunning, ripped women running around the woods whilst they walked their dogs!
Cast members Brooke Ence and Hari James compete in CrossFit. Did you write programmes for them or did they follow their usual training?
They both did their own thing – very little I could teach those amazing women, although I did get the chance to join in from time to time! They both trained four times a day; I’ve got nothing but admiration for how hard they train and the extreme level of athleticism.
I did take Hari for some swim coaching a couple of times, and took Brooke running. I thought it would be the one thing I’d be better than Brooke at but she shocked me by how fast she is – and how long she can keep going for.
What did a typical day look like while you were training the Amazons?
We’d have either two or three 2-hour boot camps a day. So generally 8am to 5.30pm. Time in between was spent writing plans or doing my own training. It was also really social with the main cast and crew, either training or hanging out in the gym. So really fun and quite mad, but also quite full-on! As you can imagine, some of the main cast are real characters so never a dull moment.
I often used to take in my dog, Slim, who became the gym therapy dog. And we’d often go to the local woods where we could to get a bit of peace and quiet.
Were you involved in the cast’s nutrition as well? If so, how important was it to fuel the cast properly?
I was lucky that most of the Amazons were athletes, dancers, fitness models and stunt women, so they understood their own nutrition needs. For those that didn’t, many were models and their main need was to eat more to enable their bodies to benefit from the increased training. It’s tricky to persuade someone who’s been told all their life to eat less to look good to now do the exact opposite. Main thing was to make sure they ate well a couple of hours before they trained so they could sustain the intensity, and to have high protein based snacks with them to eat as soon as they finished.
Going back to your own training, how do you personally like to stay fit?
I still do the odd triathlon and have recently completed a Spartan race, which was great fun and something I’ll definitely do again. I met my husband at Club La Santa, so fitness and exercise are things we’ll always have in common and enjoy together. I really love challenging myself, but now as I’m in my late 40s, it’s really about staying fit for life. I massively admire people who are elite at their sport and push themselves really hard to get there, but with that comes injury and sacrifice. For most of us, I believe exercise should be fun and make us feel better.
I keep my training really varied now, running, swimming and cycling will of course always play a part, but are now combined with functional gym-based training, yoga, and weights. I’ve also recently started having some body building PT sessions with a good friend of mine who’s a master at female physique. It started as a way of getting some shape back after I lost it from marathon training, but
I’ve realised it’s a great way to understand and improve where we have over- or under-developed muscles which are often the cause or injury. Never too old to learn!
What are your favourite items of kit for racing and training?
I’ve always loved my bikes. I’ve got a Terry Dolan time trial bike that my dad bought me years ago.
It must be 15 years old, but it still looks so cool. I’ve also recently got an On One Cyclocross bike – it’s great to be able to go anywhere on one bike. For training in the gym, I’m addicted to No Bull Shoes. Can’t beat them for comfort and function. And they come in amazing colours and patterns – which I’m sorry, is important! And recently I wonder how I’ve managed before without Wod N
Done hand protection – no more ripped up hands.
What have you got on the horizon for the rest of this year?
Unfortunately there aren’t too many gigs like Justice League needing 40 Amazonian women!
However, I really do find it just as rewarding training my non-film clients. Especially women. It’s so important that we feel good about ourselves and there’s no getting away from the fact that what we look like is a big part of that. Being a part of making a woman love the way she looks and feels without crazy diets and help her feel strong and empowered by it, is so brilliant. And seeing a woman who’s always been intimidated by the gym walk into the weights section and rep out more pull-ups than the guys doing their bicep curls could even dream of doing is incredible.
So my plans? To make every woman feel like a real life Amazon Warrior!
You can follow Helen on social media via www.instagram.com/helenlmayhew.