CALEB McLAUGHLIN HANGS from the bar, sweat dripping from his fore- head. He’s midway through his morning workout at EpiFIT Club, just west of Atlanta, and his trainer, Mikael Hadiri, is pushing him through a pullup gauntlet. Each set, McLaughlin switches grips, going from underhand to overhand to wide grip to narrow.
It’s a tactic for back gains and serious forearm burn—and it’s going to cripple McLaughlin’s jump shot when he hits the court later. But the 21-year-old actor wouldn’t have it any other way. “I’ve been super competitive my whole life, and I’ve always been into, like, physique and health,” he says during a 60-second breather between sets. “I just felt that if I stay consistent with doing pushups and situps, I’ll be ahead of everybody else.”
McLaughlin smiles, perhaps in part because he knows that few people realize how hard he trains—or how long he’s been working at his gym craft. He’s known mostly for playing not-so-jacked teenager Lucas Sinclair on Stranger Things, and that role has meant limiting his pursuit of size and muscle—for now, he says with a wink. “If I start lifting heavy weights, then I’m gonna get really big.”
One day, he admits, he may lift for pure brawn. In the meantime, though, he’s getting more out of these sessions than mere muscle. “A good refreshing workout in the morning helps me with my mental space,” he says. “Helps me get in a good workspace for the whole day.”
Plus, he’s found other ways to challenge his body. One of his latest roles, in the upcoming LeBron James biopic Shooting Stars, gave him a chance to do that. There was no superhero transformation, but when the film hits NBCUniversal’s Peacock on June 2, McLaughlin will show off something else he’s been honing for years: athleticism. He plays Dru Joyce III, the undersized point guard who became LeBron’s best friend when the two played together at St. Vincent–St. Mary High in Akron, from 1999 to 2003.
It was a role that had the actor training both in the gym and on the court. To prep to play Joyce, who stands six feet tall, the five-eight McLaughlin hooped daily with his castmates and several college ballers who were brought to the set. And while he’s played plenty of basketball (he appeared in the 2018 NBA All-Star Celebrity Game), he’d never faced runs this intense. “I’ve worked out my whole life,” he says, “but getting that type of training was something that I haven’t experienced. So it definitely brought out the best in me.”
McLaughlin is keeping up with that work today. Filming on Shooting Stars wrapped months ago, but he continues to meet with Hadiri three days a week. And the sessions are much like this one, which started with high-rep sets of overhead extensions (to fry his triceps) and reverse lunges (for glute, quad, and hamstring strength—and to boost his vertical, too). Once he’s done a few more strength moves, he hits the basketball court for suicide runs and shooting drills.
By the time he’s finished with these, he’s in a deep sweat. But when Hadiri asks him to do five sets of pushups, McLaughlin battles to keep his form ultratight. Years of training have taught him that form is key. “I’m understanding what these workouts are doing for me,” he says. “And even now that I’m starting to implement weights into my workouts, I don’t ego lift.”
Spoken like a true gym veteran.
When Caleb McLaughlin hits the road, he relies on this bodyweight workout. Do the exercises in order, resting 90 seconds between sets and moves. Can’t hit your reps? Just do as many as you can each set.
4 sets of 50 reps
4 sets of 50 reps
2 sets of 50 reps
2 sets of 50 reps
A version of this story originally appears in the May/June 2023 issue of Men’s Health, with the title “6AM WITH … THE LITTLE BIG SHOT”
Branden Peters lives in Atlanta and writes about sports, fashion, footwear, entertainment, technology and everything in between.
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