Brian Nguyen: Training for ‘Pain & Gain’

  • James Barber
  • August 26, 2013
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Mark Wahlberg and Dwayne Johnson star in Michael Bay’s Pain & Gain, out this week on Blu-ray and DVD. Based on a real-life pair of 90s robbery/kidnappings, the movie is both a crime thriller and a satire on Miami bodybuilding culture.

Pain & Gain is supposed to be a “low budget” break for Bay between Transformers movies. Wahlberg and Johnson are both especially gifted at doing ridiculous stuff with a straight face and Pain & Gain takes full advantage of their skills.

We talked to Wahlberg’s longtime trainer Brian Nguyen about how they prepared for the movie, how that preparation differed from his own workout philosophy and how he got into the business. He also offers some insight into Lone Surivior, Wahlberg’s next movie based on the besteller by Marcus Luttrell. Brian also shared ten core exercise workout tips that you can check over out at Military.com’s Fitness Center.

Brian Nguyen

Tell us about your background, how you got into this, and a little bit about how soemone who wants to be a professional trainer pursues that career.

Yeah, for sure. I started doing Sports Medicine at UCLA and after that ended up landing a job with the Jacksonville Jaguars in the NFL. The head trainer told me, whatever you do, just work your ass off. Never, ever stop. He said if you ever find yourself doing nothing, dig a hole and fill it back up. I really carried that mentality through me with my career. I’ve always found something new, something to learn.

I started doing Sports Medicine and then hung out in the off season with the strength and conditioning coaches and they were amazing guys over there with the Jaguars. I learned a lot from them and really took to a liking to it. I took a head job in the Arena Football League that I could do both the Sports Medicine and the strength conditioning.

During an off season, I started working with Mark Wahlberg in the movie Invincible. Now, this is my second football movie. I had already worked with Adam Sandler for his movie The Longest Yard. I learned a lot on that movie, just being a part of the movie set, understanding the “okay, you’ve got to wait, wait, wait, and then hurry, hurry, hurry, and wait, wait, wait” part. It’s the pacing of movies, but I fell in love with the idea of actuating something that was put on screen. I felt so very proud to be a part of something like that.

But meeting Mark was great and unfortunately he – on our movie Invincible, he pulled his hamstring, pulled his quad. I had to rehab him back, but on the rehab back, I had to take him away from his machines. And that’s something that was kind of new to him. He had the whole line of machines. Even in his gym, it was all lined with, you know, single plane, isolated joints, fixed machine. My job was getting to more of an organic feel, you know? Much more of that military feel where bodyweight stuff and suspension training. Doing that kind of workout with him changed him. He felt more athletic, felt faster, and he asked me to be in his entourage. And so that’s what I stuck to.

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Luckily, we got along really well. And as the years went by, I kind of started to do more, but the one thing I always sharpened my saw on was that idea that functional movement and functional training is really important. I started really opening my eyes to Sports Medicine at the National Academy of Sports Medicine.

For any trainer that wants to go out there and learn, the National Academy of Sports Medicine really has that integrative approach when it comes to training, meaning you’re going to do soft tissue, mobilization work. You’re going to work on a foam roller. You’re going to loosen up all your kinks on your own. You’re going to integrate core training first in your training, so a lot of stabilization stuff. Not just the chest, shoulders, and tri days on Monday, which is exactly what Mark Wahlberg wanted.

And we really took him into a full body approach. Every training we do more and more. In fact, on our latest video together, that Pain & Gain video that went on Bodybuilding​.com, Mark says that line, “Friends don’t let friends miss legs day.” That’s kind of the thing I kind of give to him all the time is, “we can’t just not do our legs.” We’ve got to make sure we’re in there doing our squats or lunges in a variation. Do it – pushing our legs, all these things should be integrated when it comes to the full body approach.

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Stepping into his role in Pain & Gain, he really did all those things. He had already done Fighter. Mark is probably one of the best athletes I know, bar none, not only where he is body-wise but where he is mindset-wise. After 17 years in this field, I understand that an athlete really is built off of their mindset. The best people out there in the Army and the Navy, these guys have a complete mindset when it comes to training.

One of the groups that we train, that I’m now part of, is TRX Force. The military is huge on the TRX and suspension training. Why? Because it allows their soldiers to train pretty much anywhere. They can hang a pair of suspension straps up on one of their tents, one of their trees, and one of their small buildings, and these guys can train and get stronger and not have to move around a lot. You can’t expect our military guys to be out there and have a gym outside there. So what are these guys doing? These guys are fabricating things out of GI straps and belts and buckles. And that’s what that suspension training is.

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So even this last movie that Mark did, Lone Survivor, where he had to train with a lot of that gear. He was already fully prepared to train in that kind of environment, because that’s exactly how he already trained in the house. You know, loaded carries off to the side. Something very elemental. Just carry heavy loads. Lift, carry, pull, throw, drag. That’s exactly how we train. Throwing medicine balls, you know, moving that rope around, pushing the sled, carrying things over our shoulders, squatting. Not just back squatting, but you know, squatting a heavy sandbag in front of our bodies. These are things – rope climbing. These are elements to our training regiment that aren’t foreign to Mark or to our training regiment because that’s how the human body is supposed to move.

Pain & Gain is a movie that’s set in the world of old-school bodybuilding. How does the philosophy of the guys portrayed in the movie differ from what you’ve been talking about?

It’s so different. You know, and that’s the reason why we have to train a little bit in that realm. I wouldn’t let Mark do a lot of the old-school stuff, but he was all into it. You know, he said we have to grow this way. And he was right. There’s nothing wrong with machines, as long as they’re done in the right fashion.

You know, I do – I feel like it’s a terrible thing that we live in a community where a guy can’t do 20 pushups, but he’s going to go there and do, you know, bench press for 200. I mean the functionality doesn’t make sense. Mark and I went in there and we trained on the regiment. We were doing all of our offset squats, the atomic pushups on the TRX. And here we go, after it’s all done, we had to get into bench press. You know, we had to create that growth to look and feel like that 80s and 90s bodybuilding.

That’s an era that Mark actually comes from, so he fully enjoyed being able to fit in that pec deck and fit in that rear fly machine and throw up ridiculous amount of weights again. He wasn’t without his pains though. Those type of machines always cause the pains. And as soon as he started feeling those pains again, he felt back in the 90s and he said, “You’re right.” You know, there is a balance. You can’t do it too much because you start to feel it in the shoulders. You feel it in the back. You feel all of those things.

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Which actor in the film had the biggest physical transformation? Was it Anthony Mackie?

Yeah. I mean especially with knowing what he came from. By far he had the biggest transformation, considering he had to eat a lot. But I mean as far as strength gains, I don’t know. I’d have to hand it to Mark. He went from – we didn’t really bench press at all. We started our first week training only bench pressing, you know, 135 a rep, and then here he is at the end of the movie benching 305 again.

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As far as my clientele, I mean everybody just gets a kick out of it. Considering what it is, I preach it every day. But the reaction to it, I think stirring up – with Mark at least, it stirred up a little bit of that old school love he has for the machines. I mean, at this point in time when we train, he wants to use machines for his biceps, I don’t know what it is about him and his arms, but he wants to continue to pull and lift a little bit of isolated biceps and isolated triceps. And, you know, if that’s what it takes to make him happy, I think that’s what you have to do in the gym.

For so much of our baby boomer era, the only thing they really do understand and really know is that push down, pull, push on things mentality. So for those people, if that’s what you had and that’s what you grew up with and that’s what you need to come back to in order to stay active, then I applaud you for it.

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Our readers are really looking forward to Lone Survivor. Can you offer us any insight about that movie?

Any time you’re put into a situation like the one described in that movie, you are ultimately preparing yourself physically so you don’t have to think about the physical aspect of what it is you’re doing when you’re out in the field. Whether you’re fighting for your life or you’re fighting for the life of others, everything is respectable. So to have that kind of mentality, to be a warrior in that sense, I – you know, I am so – I am so damned respectful for anybody that puts on that badge of courage and goes and fights the good fight.

We really did train – you know, Mark trained a lot. From getting the headgear on right away into the heat and having to sit there and continue to train with Marines who obviously want to show off a little bit of how they train and how superior they are. But ultimately, Mark was able to hang tight and hang tough. And, you know, I am very, very, very honored to have my athletes complete that kind of thing and in that situation.

I haven’t seen the movie Lone Survivor yet, but a couple of my friends have who are in the entourage, and they say, you know, it is definitely one of the best ones out there.

I have a lot of respect for anybody in the military who has to prepare their body in that way. It sucks, but the #1 thing people are coming back home for is back pain. And really, we have to question our line of training. Are crunches and sit-ups still the best way to train people who already live in an environment where they’re already seated all the time? And most people have a forward lean, bad posture thing. To have that and continue to do crunches increases that back pain. That’s the one thing I really do question, is how do we come about with a better training regimen, to really pick the brains of the movement specialists that are out there? And I’m happy to be part of that world of being a functional movement specialist and knowing that human movement really was, you know, we weren’t really meant to sit down in a desk all day or in a car all day. So how do we combat those effects? And I think that’s one thing forward. I hope the military does figure that out.

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