How Linda Hamilton Got Back In Sarah Connor Shape For ‘Terminator: Dark Fate’: Her Trainer Explains


EXCLUSIVE: Sarah Connor may be sci-fi filmdom’s most badass female action hero this side of Alien‘s Ripley. While played subsequently by numerous actresses in sequels and a TV show, the role is most indelibly linked to the performances turned in by Linda Hamilton in James Cameron’s 1984 original Terminator, and Terminator 2: Judgment Day. Cameron washed his hands of the series after the rights were scooped out from under him by Mario Kassar and Andy Vajna, until he had a change of heart and lent a creative hand to director Tim Miller on the upcomingTerminator: Dark Fate. Arnold Schwarzenegger continued to reprise his signature cyborg, but Hamilton demurred. She only seriously entertained coming back when Cameron did. Between Cameron’s first and second film, Hamilton transformed herself from a reluctant heroine with everywoman qualities, into a jacked action heroine. After setting the bar so high, could she be as convincing 28 years later? That was one of the key questions for the movie. It took a year, but she got there with the guidance of Mackie Shilstone, who has spent 43 years in the wellness sports performance industry helping to mold elite athletes and soldiers. The results will be on full display when Dark Fate opens November 1. Here, Shilstone –who is the father of Deadline’s Social Media Director Scott Shilstone — explains the process in detail, down to specific exercises and diet. He cautions aspiring Sarah Connors to get fully evaluated by a physician before even attempting something like what Hamilton endured.

Though I have spent 43 years training 3,000 pro athletes, including 11 years with world champion tennis player Serena Williams, various sports teams, and volunteer work with special forces, a call I received from Hollywood director-producer and innovator James Cameron presented a daunting challenge.

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Aware of my reputation for extending careers through exercise and nutrition, Cameron said he wanted me to help Linda Hamilton to get as close as she could to the incredible physical shape her character Sarah Connor displayed in Terminator 2: Judgment Day. Considering that movie filmed 28 years ago, and Hamilton was 61 when this offer came in, I wasn’t interested, frankly. But I was aware of and admired that Cameron’s movies were always built around themes of female empowerment, long before it was fashionable. And he said something that got me thinking. Cameron told me he wanted to change Hollywood’s mantra of “throwing female actors away, after the age of 40.”

Still, I was skeptical that at her age, Hamilton would be able to survive the training long enough to get to the production in the shape Cameron needed her to be. I told Cameron I would accept, conditioned on Hamilton passing extensive medical and physiological evaluations, including cardiopulmonary stress testing for heart rate training guidelines, pulmonary assessment, laboratory studies, DXA Scan for body composition determination, vision screening, radiology scans, physical therapy and orthopedic assessment.

She passed all the tests, and I met her in New Orleans – my hometown – where Hamilton had recently purchased a home. When Linda entered the one-year comprehensive performance program, she was a 61-year-old, out-of-shape female in need of body composition adjustment. That’s not an insult: it’s not unlike hundreds of similar women of the same age and stage in life. Post-menopausal women tend to accrue more visceral abdominal fat, and this places them at risk of Type 2 diabetes, and cardiovascular disease. While many women don’t realize this, women in this age group have the same cardiovascular risk as a man – the result of changes in their estrogen-dominate hormone system.

We started with three weeks of rigorous training to see if she could hold up under the training stress – both physical and mental. She did. But not without some concerns. Hamilton’s biggest concern was that the audience would compare her to what she looked like 28 years ago. The other apprehension was two-fold – that she would let me down by not living up the physical expectations I was accustomed to with my athlete clients. And most importantly, that she would not be physically able to handle the rigorous part – appearing weak – the age factor.

“Terminator 2: Judgment Day” Terminator 2: Judgment Day

The studio budget provided for the creation of a home gym for training, and I soon realized that physiology aside, Linda Hamilton was not like most 61-year-old women. How many of them have the determination and willpower reminiscent of the Sarah Connor character she left behind nearly three decades ago? What was unique compared to other women I’ve seen in my prior hospital-affiliated wellness programs, was Linda’s attitude. Many women at that point tend to throw in the towel and accept what is. Linda had an inherit drive and determination to make a change. It is one that other women might use as a road map for their life – that you can affect positive change if you are willing to take a first step. What was that step? In the face of adversity, you must see opportunity to feel and look better, and take back ownership of your health.

Every day, when I would come over to train, Linda had a smile on her face and an attitude that was infectious. I am 68, 5’8” and 142 pounds, and I took the steps with her. I think she drew strength at what I could do, physically and mentally, and she wanted to match or surpass it.

One incident that solidified that point came while we were in the gym that we built in an annex of her home. I had ordered 6- and 8-pound medicine balls that we use for combative training – boxing, special forces – made of parachute material, all of the same diameter despite the weight. I taught her a rotational slam, where you place the ball close to the hip, cradled in both hands, then you rotate and slam the ball into a concrete or solid wall. You judge the power by the sound the ball makes against the wall. The ball comes off the wall fast, and you must catch it and immediately repeat another throw – so that it replicates the rapid fire of a machine gun.

When Linda would marvel at the force that I could generate at my size, I would remind her that it’s not the size of the dog in the fight, it’s the size of the fight in the dog. Linda’s first try knocked her down, when the ball hit her on the rebound. She picked that ball up and did it again. Same result. She got knocked down. I did the movement with her and soon we were slamming the door to the gym so hard it was off the hinges.

Courtesy Mackie Shilstone

We would start each session asking who in our lives we were knocking down today. Door broken, we moved to the wall adjacent to it. I was having a bad day. She knew it and said, you’re first up. My first shot smashed into the wall and literally shattered a large section. I apologized, but to this day she refuses to get it fixed. To her, it was a symbol of what can come from commitment. Linda never deviated from that message – commitment over contribution.

The first three months of work encompassed six days per week, 1.5 to 2 hours of circuit training exercises, using a cable weight apparatus with arms, permitting functional human movement patterns. Then, core training using a stability ball, steady state and interval cardio training on an elliptical device, power training with a specially-designed medicine ball. All this with specialized pre-habilitation (injury prevention) exercises based on her bio-mechanical analysis.

Hamilton had two AM/PM additional, scripted, heart-rate monitored sessions on the elliptical lasting 45 minutes.

A typical circuit session might include:

Core: Gym Ball – Alternate between lower & upper exercises
Lower Crunches – legs grip side of ball with heels on ground
Lower Hyperextension – Upper torso stabilizing on elbows
Upper Crunch – lifting 12 inches off the ball
Upper Hyperextension – knees against ball, feet against wall
Med Ball Warm-Up
Chest throws
Overhead two-arm slam down
Resistance Tubing:
Parallel to ground:
Chest Press – arms below 80 degrees, abducted away from body
Horizontal Abducted Row – below 80 degrees
Close Grip Chest Press – arms at 90 degrees at sides, cord under armpits
Close Grip Rows – arms to 90 degrees at sides
Bow & Arrow – pull back parallel to ground, slightly seated position
Legs: Forward Assisted Lunges – waist high attachment

The exercise would not alone have achieved her goal without an equally rigorous nutritional regimen. Prescriptive meals were delivered to her home twice a week – with medically approved nutritional supplements to support preservation of lean muscle mass and mobilization of body fat – monitored by DXA scans every six weeks. Despite what has been alluded to in inadequate Internet reporting, at no time during my training with Linda did I provide her with any prescription medication. Every nutrient combination used was medically approved in advance and placed in her private medical record, which assisted in her dramatic transformation.

A typical meal plan:

• Egg white veggie & avocado omelet, fresh berries
• Egg, veggie and ground turkey breast scramble
• Scrambled eggs and veggies
• Non/low-fat Greek yogurt with fresh berries
• May add oatmeal, whole grain/Ezekiel toast or fresh fruit to meals

• Large green salad with ample veggies & lean protein, olive oil/vinegar side
• Lean protein (grilled, baked, steamed, broiled, boiled, blackened or roasted using olive oil), steamed, roasted or grilled veggies (using olive oil), 1/2 cup brown rice, quinoa, or sweet potato
• 6 oz protein with each meal
• unlimited starchy veggies
• Olive oil used in place of butter
• Healthy fats with meals: avocado, olive oil, nuts/nut butter
• Fatty fish (salmon/tuna) weekly

Her dedication brought her remarkable results over the first three months, but we were hardly done. In the final nine months, Linda’s training became more functional to what would be required of her Sarah Connor character in the film. We moved to a high school football field. The purpose was to emphasize footwork. That encompasses short sprints, agility drills, and combat training. No way we were going to let a stunt double take her place. Or worse, put her in the position to get pushed around by a younger adversary.

During that period, Hamilton was becoming an Industrial athlete. That meant many of the associated aches and pains that come with this non-profession athlete designation. Low- and mid-back discomfort, shoulder fatigue and lower-extremity aches and pains. Physical therapy onsite and chiropractic care addressed these issues when they arose.

The most unrelenting feeling was the result of 12 weeks of nothing more than train, eat, train, eat, train, eat, sleep – with one week off at the six-week mark to allow for restoration, so that we could push harder over the next six weeks. She allowed her life to exist around the performance system that I put in place and for all practical purposes we became training partners. Though our breaks between exercises were short by design, we spoke about our families and I felt like I became part of hers, and she part of mine.

Any women reading this and thinking of replicating Hamilton’s regimen should first see a doctor and make sure it is safe. And they should know Hamilton, for Terminator 2 28 years ago, was quite ripped by body building standards. Especially her arms, or at least that is what I would hear most from envious women. At age 63, understanding the effects of sarcopenia – loss of muscle with age and dynapenia, and the associated loss of strength – was critically important. Education, and the technology learned from my prior experiences from wound care, provided the solution: the use of an amino acid blend – arginine, HMB, a metabolite of the anabolic amino acid leucine, and glutamine. This partially addressed this issue.


Research demonstrated that the standard 0.8 grams per kilogram for protein requirements would not begin to address Hamilton’s needs with the associated intense training. Based on DXA scans every six weeks, the daily protein requirement was determined down to the gram, as with my athlete clients.

It was fascinating to watch Hamilton’s progress in real time. One example was the use of a functional exercise to push away an opponent – like wresting for a weapon. It’s called the Chest Push. Using a stability ball (65cm), assume a standard push-up position – chest resting on the ball, hands on each side of the ball – with legs extended and spread in a wide base for stability. Press into the ball with your chest, then exhale and push up with hands. Return to the starting position and repeat 5-10 times.

When we started, Hamilton fell off the ball – the inability to stabilize in an upright, extended position. By Week 12, she was performing 15.

Mackie Shilstone Linda Hamilton
Courtesy photo

The results? Even though you only had to look at her to see Linda’s metamorphosis back to Sarah Connor, we had her condition reassessed before she departed to the location sites in Budapest and Spain in June of 2018. It was amazing to see a 60-plus female drop 15% of her body fat mass. That is a number less than most healthy, athletic 20 year olds, with increase in lean muscle, stamina, and endurance. In our year together, Linda did not suffer any major injury setback during our project.

Hamilton will rank as one of the best I have had the honor to help. Her drive, discipline, and commitment to excellence was matched only by her love of her craft and compassion, as she said, for anyone who follows with me in her footsteps.

As for Cameron, the filmmaker who brought this challenge to our doorstep?

James Cameron
Photo by Matt Baron/Shutterstock

In one of his last communications, after he was provided with pictures of Hamilton just prior to the project’s completion, Cameron emailed me and borrowed words you would expect to hear from her co-star, Arnold Schwarzenegger.

“Linda, you look ripped and shredded,” he wrote.

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