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The ultimate Shaka Ilembe warrior workout guide 

Zooming in on the exercise plan that got the cast of the TV drama into godlike shape

Actor Senzo Radebe plays King Senzangakhona, Shaka Zulu's father, in Shaka iLembe.
Actor Senzo Radebe plays King Senzangakhona, Shaka Zulu's father, in Shaka iLembe.
Image: Supplied  .

With sublime acting, scenic cinematography, and a captivating storyline, local series Shaka iLembe has set a new standard for filmmaking in Africa.

And the dramatic physical transformation of most actors in the show has received just as much attention. But just how much work went into getting them, including our current cover star Nomzamo Mbatha and former SMag cover stars Thembinkosi Mthembu, Lemogang Tsipa, Senzo Radebe, Hope Mbhele, and Wanda Zuma, in shape?

“Bomb [the production house] gave us 35 days,” laughs coach Mubeen Bassa, the founder of Versa Fit Club . “A lot of the guys came to us carrying extra body fat and we had to make them look like warriors in a very short period of time. The challenge was to make them look lean and big, because they are supposed to be physically dominating onscreen, so we needed to get as much body fat as we could off them so that whatever muscle they had would shine through.”   

The personal trainer worked on getting the main male cast members such as Wiseman Mncube, Tsipa, Mthembu, and Radebe in warrior condition. He had his work cut out for him, as he ordinarily takes 16-20 weeks to get world-championship bodybuilders ready for stage. 

Lemogang Tsipa has scored the titular role in the upcoming drama series Shaka Ilembe
Lemogang Tsipa has scored the titular role in the upcoming drama series Shaka Ilembe

“Guys like Senzo Radebe were sort of in the vein of training, but I can tell you, trying to train actors is like trying to hurt cats,” he laughs. “It was one of the biggest challenges of my life because of the production schedule. While the actors were prepping for Shaka most of them were also working on other sets, which meant they would have a call-time from 3am to midnight.”  

However, Bassa’s experience as a classically trained actor helped him understand this process, aided by the fact that the training programmes designed for the cast were on an app and showed each of the performers what to focus on so they could train in their own time — even though they were racing against the clock.   

“The guys who could train twice a day would train twice a day, but it was quite traditional hypertrophy (weight resistance) training once a day,” Bassa say. Their step count and activity in-between training sessions were also factored in.   

“A lot of them were on set and on their feet, which meant that they were expending a lot of energy. People often underestimate the value of the energy burned during non-exercise activities, which is basically everything else that you do between exercise. Everything has an energy cost, so you are able to hit certain targets in between sessions,” he adds.  

This is why many trainers will advise you to get at least 10 000 steps outside of the gym when starting a fitness journey. Instead of breaking up the days according to different parts of the body like “leg day”, the training schedule was broken up into “push and pull full-body days”, which meant that multiple muscle groups were focussed on over multiple days of the week. Legs, for example, were covered three times in a week for optimum results, with the focus on increasing volume with frequency, weight or reps. 

Actior Thembinkosi Mthembu plays the role of King Dingiswayo.
Actior Thembinkosi Mthembu plays the role of King Dingiswayo.
Image: Supplied.

“Everyone believes cardio or HIIT (hight intensity interval training) is going to give you the fat loss you need, but hypertrophy training will give you the biggest benefit in terms of fat loss, because it has a longer-lasting impact throughout the day,” Bassa explains. “When weight training you are damaging muscle and that muscle needs to be repaired — that repair costs the body energy and in that process, for up to 24 hours, you’re having a metabolic response, which means you burn calories even while sleeping. With cardio you’re only training an aerobics system, which last up to an hour after training.”  

Most of the actors had one day off, but they still had to do some kind of activity like jogging or walking their dog because every single day of that 35 days counted.   

Although Bassa’s world-champion-style training in the gym was instrumental in the conditioning of the actors, with the results aided by the stunt work, which was hours of physical work for the actors. All of this ensured they looked professional and smooth on camera in their fight scenes.  

“Stunt work requires a lot of stamina and endurance in order to execute a fight choreography with power,” says stunt trainer Kabelo Mokoena Chalatsane, who took the cast through martial arts and combat training.   

“The first step was focussing on boxing to help with movement and footwork — we needed to give actors a strong fighting stance in order to help them get their level of confidence up. We taught them different moves and techniques for a better-flowing performance,” Chalatsane explains.  

In-depth weapons training was important, as the show is authentic in its use of spears, sticks, and knives. “We also worked on fight choreography, which included floorwork-like rolls and falls, footwork, punching, blocking, kicking, and reactions,” Chalatsane adds. 

Image: Supplied.

Although many people on a fitness journey will eventually start a boxing class because of the amount of calories burned and strength acquired, Chalatsane highlights that punching for camera is different and uses a unique technique.   

By now we all know the importance of the 80/20 diet/exercise ratio when it comes to approaching fitness, and this was also the same method used to build the Shaka iLembe body. Although the production had a dietary specialist for the cast, Bassa explains that the cast had to go through a lot of crash dieting due to time constrains, which is not his usual method.   

“No two people are the same in terms of their nutritional needs, so it was very customised to their body fat percentage. The main goal was to make sure they all had a protein, carbohydrate, and fat source,” Bassa says.  

Although customised, this was still not a glamorous menu, as it used the age-old traditional bodybuilding recipes of rice, chicken, and repetition. “There are a lot of myths out there about losing fat, like needing to go keto or cutting carbohydrates. Even though we were crash dieting there was a fine line between keeping the actors productive on set and trying to give them enough energy, because they needed energy to lose body fat,” says the evidence-based trainer, who holds a qualification in nutrition from the United Kingdom.   

“We also had to try remove their social lives and alcohol completely, which was a struggle because they are actors, they have lives,” Bassa laughs. “Lemogang Tsipa felt this process the most because initially we needed to make him lose as much body fat and muscle as possible to make him look like a young Shaka, which meant about six small meals a day. Then, during a short production break, we had to help him gain the weight and muscle as he was now an older Shaka.”’  

Bassa was very impressed by the fact that the female cast didn’t need any training. 

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