How does Alex O’Loughlin prep for his second season as Steve McGarrett on last year’s breakout CBS show Hawaii Five-O? The same way he approaches everything. He works his ass off.by Mark Morrison
Alex O’Loughlin was 6 years old when he started studying Shobukai karate in his native Australia. On the first day, he slipped into his pint-size gi with its crisp white belt and bowed before entering the dojo. Inside, he met the sensei, watched the other kids practice their lessons, and couldn’t wait to be part of the action. “I picked it up very quickly,” he remembers. By the time he was 10, he’d earned a brown belt. “It was a huge part of my life, man,” he says. “I wouldn’t miss it.” But even more important, it was the beginning of a commitment to fitness that has served the 34-year-old actor well throughout his life — not to mention as the star of CBS’s turbocharged cop series Hawaii Five-0. Over the years, O’Loughlin has dabbled with other forms of exercise. “In my early 20s, I did a lot of weights. I was huge—closer to 200 pounds,” says the 6’1″ actor, who clocks in today at a solid 175. “For lunch I’d have a chicken, a loaf of bread, a gallon of milk, and a bag of chocolate cookies. Then I’d go to the gym and bench 240 pounds. That’s a young man’s thing.”
Today, he pulls up to a roadside cafe in Malibu for his MF interview and jumps out of his black Porsche Cayenne, looking tan and happy in a gray T-shirt and khaki cargo shorts, a plastic gallon jug half-filled with water dangling from his hand. It’s been a big year for O’Loughlin. “An epic year,” he says. After two previous TV series disappointments—2007’s vampire-detective drama Moonlight and 2009’s even shorter-lived Three Rivers — he’s just wrapped his first season of Hawaii Five-0 and returned to the mainland.
But the actor has also discovered that island living has its perks. For one thing, he’s finally taken up surfing — a sport he tried when he was 18 but quit after getting caught in a steep, fast break. But this year, he conquered that fear and now frequents the beaches of Diamond Head, Tongs, and Velzyland on the North Shore. “Surfing is my great passion in Hawaii,” he says. “I have a bunch of boards — all of which I ride badly.”
His co-star, Scott Caan, who plays Danny “Danno” Williams on the series, reports otherwise. A longtime surfer, he says that O’Loughlin is progressing “on a very advanced level.” Of course, there’s nothing like sports to bring out competition among cast mates. “Scotty is a machine,” says O’Loughlin. “I’ll never be as good as him. And I’ll never match his jiu-jitsu, either. But if we’re in a ring together — fists and stand-up fighting — I’d lick him standing up.”
Caan laughs when he hears this. “We have a great respect for each other,” he says. “We are completely comfortable working together and going for each other’s throats without worrying that we’ve crossed a line. Alex is a natural leader. He takes control and makes things happen on-set — and in his personal life, too. He’s The General, and I think that comes across in this role.” Of course, even for The General, chasing bad guys every week — pretend or not — can take its toll on the human body. “I’m damaged a bit,” O’Loughlin admits. His litany of first-season injuries includes tendonitis in his bicep, and a torn shoulder. So he’s spending his time off getting his core energy up, stabilizing his back, and healing his shoulder. “I’m going to come in like a bull at the top of Season 2,” he promises.
When it comes to body transformation (and maintenance), O’Loughlin turns to L.A.- based trainer Jeff Blair, whom he met two years ago while playing Jennifer Lopez’s baby daddy in the romantic comedy, The Back-up Plan, which required him to look lean and ripped, fast. “He put me on this nutrition program — and he changed my life.”
These days, O’Loughlin makes sure to drink about two gallons of water a day (which explains the jug he carries). Breakfast consists of a half-cup of oatmeal, a banana, a few almonds, and a splash of 2% reduced-fat milk. Lunch and dinner include a balanced combo of protein, veggies, and carbs — and he has a simple paradigm for portion control. “If you look at your open hand, the size of your palm is the amount of protein you should take—about two-thirds of a chicken breast. Your splayed four fingers equal the amount of space you should have for vegetables. And the triangular area between your index finger and thumb is for carbohydrates—brown rice or whole-meal pasta. The key is to have a very low-sodium diet and understand that 80% of [the process] happens in the kitchen, not in the gym.”
When it comes to workouts, though, the actor is hardly a slouch. “I like to circuit train,” he says. “If you do one exercise after another without breaking, you bump your metabolic rate up to such a place that you create what’s called a ‘furnace effect’—your metabolism is firing at such a high rate that you can go to sleep and you’ll burn calories through the night. That’s my ideal place to be.”
For The Back-Up Plan, O’Loughlin worked out two hours a day, six days a week and was able to get his body fat to under 7%. Now he is slightly bulkier as befits a Navy SEAL. “Alex probably trains harder than anyone I have ever worked with,” says Blair. “He [seems to have] an ‘extra gear’ in training intensity, mental focus, and his commitment to nutrition.”
This is particularly impressive for a guy plagued by attention deficit disorder growing up in Australia. “It went undiagnosed and I managed to keep it hidden, but it caused a lot of frustration,” he says. Yet, whenever he did martial arts or any form of exercise, the problem seem to disappear. “When I stopped being cerebral and became physical, my mind cleared. That’s probably why I like to be so active [today]. It’s a huge part of the balance of who I am.”
If he had his way, though, O’Loughlin would avoid indoor workouts altogether. “I much prefer being in the canyons or the hills or the ocean – being outside and using the resistance of the earth and gravity and my own body weight,” he says. “I’d rather hang from trees and do pull-ups than to be in a gym surrounded by people in spandex.”
Maximizing every opportunity, he combines indoor circuit training with hill running, improving some resistance exercises along the way as a bonus. “During the run I’ll stop and drop straight into lunges,” he says. “Running is my cardio preference. My sister Jackie has this theory that through the course of evolution we’ve devolved. We used to get up, kiss the kids, walk outside the cave, scratch our bum, and then you’d run – to catch the meal for the family or to get away from whatever was trying to catch you. We were constantly using these bodies God gave us, and that’s why for the most part we were fit and strong and we were warriors. When I’m running and my breath’s right and I get in the zone – there’s something very powerful and primal about it”
O’Loughlin says it feels “fantastic” to be turning 35 this month. The light dusting of gray in his close-cropped brown hair doesn’t faze him a bit. “I’m on the Clooney train to freedom,” he cracks. “I love it.” He also loves being able to share this time with his 13-year old son, Saxon, who lives Down Under with his mother. In fact, one advantage of working in Hawaii is that it’s so much closer to Australia, and his son has been able to visit more often. “These are the most amazing years of my life. My son is not only the greatest thing that ever happened to me, but he is also my greatest success, my greatest inspiration. I’m getting to pass on all the good things I’ve learned in my life to another human soul.”
Which includes his fitness philosophies. “The other day, [Saxon] and his buddy were at my house and they were buggering around, and I thought, “What am I doing with these kids?” So I put them through their first calisthenics workout — sit-ups, push-ups, and planks. At the end, they were dripping with sweat and saying, “This is the stupidest thing ever.” I threw them it the pool and made them little smoothies. And I talked to them about the feeling they were experiencing, and about nutrition, and about the way their muscles were now open and building.”
Whether or not a father knows best, O’Loughlin remembers what being a 10-year-old brown belt meant to him and has high hopes for his son. And for himself – since he’s determined to stay healthy and live long. “I don’t know what pushes me out of bed some days,” he says. “I’m running up that hill cursing the mountain, or at myself. But I also find it exhilarating. There’s something really validating about reaching the top of a mountain and looking back.” And after that? “You enjoy the view,” he says. “And then you walk down.”