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I tried Kumail Nanjiani's arm workout — here's what happened

photos of Kumail Nanjiani
(Image credit: Getty/Mike Marsland / Contributor/Instagram)

It’s a tale as old as Hollywood itself — a relatively fit actor bulks up for a role. Yet Kumail Nanjiani’s transformation from The Big Sick to Marvel’s Eternals really is something else. If you’re looking for workout inspiration, look no further. 

In an Instagram caption that broke the internet in 2019, the actor wrote, “I found out a year ago I was going to be in Marvel’s Eternals and decided I wanted to transform how I looked. I would not have been able to do this if I didn’t have a full year with the best trainers and nutritionists paid for by the biggest studio in the world. I’m glad I look like this, but I also understand why I never did before.” But what exactly did he do to build those superhero-worthy arms? I set out to find out. 

To get in shape, Najiani trained with Grant Roberts, a former Mr. World Canada bodybuilding champion, at Granite Gym in Beverly Hills. Once filming started, Najiani trained with David Higgins, a personal trainer and Pilates instructor in London. Luckily for me, Grant has shared information about Najiani’s routines in interviews, so I was able to try one of his superhero arm workouts for myself.

It goes without saying, what works for Najiani won’t work for everyone. If you’re new to strength training, it’s worth working with a personal trainer before you start adding weights to ensure your form is correct. Looking for more workout inspiration? Here are some of the best bicep exercises to try. 

What is Kumail Nanjiani's arm workout? 

According to interviews with Grant, here’s a typical arm workout for Najiani: 

  • 10 minute warm-up on the treadmill 
  • Preacher curl: 4 sets, 6-20 reps 
  • Reverse Grip Cable Pushdown: 4 sets, 6-20 reps
  • Standing Alternating Dumbbell Curl: 4 sets, 6-20 reps  
  • Skull Crusher: 4 sets, 6-20 reps 
  • Concentration Curl: 3 sets,12 reps 
  • Chin-up: 3 sets,12 reps 
  • Triset: Overhead Cable Extension: 4 sets to failure, Overhead Cable Extension: 4 sets to failure, Cable Kickback: 4 sets to failure (each arm) 

It’s worth noting that this is only one day in Nanjiani's plan — he reportedly trained five to six days a week to build his body for the role. 

I tried Kumail Nanjiani's arm workout — here's what happened

Full of optimism, I headed to the gym — this isn’t the first time I’ve tried a superhero’s workout, and it probably won’t be the last (here’s what happened when I tried Brie Larson’s Captain Marvel workout, Tom Holland’s Spider Man workout, and Chris Hemsworth’s 35-minute bodyweight workout). Arms are by far my least favorite to train, but during my 10-minute treadmill walk I psyched myself up by reading an interview Nanjiani did with Men’s Health. Talking of his workout routine, Nanjiani said, “I had to change my relationship to pain,” he says. “You’re so designed to avoid it, but in that situation you really have to be okay with it. You have to want it. It’s almost trying to rewire your brain.”

Brain re-wired (kinda), I started with the preacher curls, albeit with a lot lighter weight than Nanjiani would have been curling. I’ve noted from reading interviews with Roberts that a typical pattern during the workouts is to increase the weight for each set, so the final reps are performed at max weight. I did this dutifully, before moving on to the cable pushdowns and dumbbell curls. 

Halfway through the workout, I realized how feeble my normal arm workouts are — I often opt for bodyweight moves like push-ups, or Pilates-based moves with light weights and longer reps. The workout plan's 6-20 reps is a huge variation, so for most exercises, I'd opt for 10 reps, but focus on increasing the weight for each set — this is definitely something I'll be adopting for my strength training going forward, as it was oddly satisfying knowing I was beating myself each set. 

Nearing the end of the workout, I let out a quiet sob when I saw chin-ups on the plan. I struggle to do one chin-up (remember reader, I hate training arms), and this plan required me to do 48. After managing a pathetic two reps, I decided for health and safety reasons (and for my own pride) it was best to switch to lateral pulldowns, which target pretty much the same muscles at chin-ups. (Here's how to do a lateral pulldown, in case you want to try it out yourself.)

Last, but by no means least, came the triset — three exercises, designed to be performed back-to-back with no break. The words "to failure" always fill me with dread, but for each of the sets I set myself the goal of doing one more rep, and each time I was able to. 

While my arms probably won't be the same for a week, the workout taught me one important lesson — that often, my head gets in the way. I was able to add weight or reps to each set, despite thinking I couldn't. Sure, superheroes are built in the gym, but if there's one thing we mere mortals should take from their workouts, it's that the superhero mindset is equally as important. 

Jane McGuire
Jane McGuire

Jane McGuire is Tom's Guide's Fitness editor, which means she looks after everything fitness related - from running gear to yoga mats. An avid runner, Jane has tested and reviewed fitness products for the past four years, so knows what to look for when finding a good running watch or a pair of shorts with pockets big enough for your smartphone. When she's not pounding the pavements, you'll find Jane striding round the Surrey Hills, taking far too many photos of her puppy.