Darren Palmer is comfortable with judgement. The interior designer from Gladstone in Queensland has built a reputation on dishing it out during nine years as a judge on TV juggernaut The Block. Yet when it comes to compliments on his impressive MH-ready rig, he’s quick to deflect.
“Thanks for saying that, but truth be told that shoot was a bit of a surprise,” a relieved Palmer tells me before saying this spread wasn’t something he’d trained specifically for. This is just how his body looks, the result of a lifestyle that has put him in the best shape of his life at 45.
I wrongly assumed that for Palmer, as a star on one of Australian TV’s most popular and enduring reality franchises, finding the time to work out amid his busy filming schedule must be tough. However, as he says, when you make your health a priority, everything else falls into place around it.
“[The Block] actually doesn’t interfere much, if at all. It’s not any encumbrance for me,” he explains as the latest (and 18th) season, set in country Victoria, goes to air. Similarly, the show’s rural setting didn’t faze a meticulous Palmer, who made sure his routine was uninterrupted.
Darren Palmer’s physique and robust good health are the result of 25 years of training and sound eating. As a self-described “skinny kid”, Palmer says he could eat anything he wanted – whenever he wanted – thanks to a supercharged metabolism. Just out of his teens, he discovered a passion for training, having been unseduced by other physical activities.
“I decided to start training at 20 because until that point I hadn’t found a sport I enjoyed. I’d tried soccer, cricket, rugby and surfing, but I wasn’t any good at them. When I discovered weight training, I’d found my jam.”
The resultant aesthetic changes that Palmer experienced coincided with a period in his life when his perceived self-value was tied up in his appearance. “I started caring more about how I looked purely because of my self-esteem and self-perception being pretty tied to looking good.”
As Palmer matured and graduated into his 30s, his priorities changed. This new decade ushered in marriage and fatherhood – and with them, shifting paradigms. “I absolutely want to be able to do things for and with my family and I absolutely want to be around for them in my healthiest body for as long as possible. Fatherhood gave me other things to focus on in terms of being and staying healthy apart from just doing it for myself.”
While long familiar with the benefits of a healthy lifestyle, Darren Palmer recently had to reset his approach to wellbeing when his capacity for hard training ground to a halt. Midway through last year, a niggling back injury turned debilitating, derailing not only his training regime but his life. The cartilage between his L5 and S1 discs had disintegrated to the point where they were grinding against each other, causing unbearable pain. He sought relief anywhere he could find it, with visits to osteopaths, acupuncturists, physiotherapists and spinal-pain clinics, none of which delivered more than mild relief. It wasn’t until he met Dr Richard Parkinson, a neurosurgeon in Sydney, that the black clouds began to clear.
“The actual procedure was something that scared the life out of me when it was first mentioned,” Palmer says. “I wanted to do everything I could to avoid it.” Alas… The operation involved a 7-cm horizontal incision around Palmer’s waist. “They go through the front for a spinal issue in the L5/S1 location, as fortunately the two major arteries separate just above that point,” he explains. “They move everything out of the way and have direct access to your spine.” After removing the troublesome disc fragments, the surgeon scored two lines into the bottom of the L5 and the top of the S1 vertebrae, before inserting a titanium disc. The titanium will bond over time to Palmer’s vertebrae and a polymer matrix pad in between will allow for a natural range of movement.
Despite the delicacy of the surgery, Palmer was in hospital for only five days, and walking again on day three. Determined to reclaim his fitness, Palmer was an A-grade patient, sticking to recovery protocols like a dux. “I could move pretty normally within two weeks and was given the best-possible assessment at the 12-week mark – that I could pretty much climb Mount Everest if I wanted to. When I was given that news by the surgeon, I laughed and cried all the way home.
I was so full of joy, relief and gratitude for something to be have been lifted from my shoulders that I thought I would have to carry for the rest of my life.”
After almost four years of constant pain, Palmer was a new man, and further maturity brought with it heightened focus. Armed with renewed vigour and profound gratitude, he threw himself into his training once again.
Back to it
Now, Darren Palmer uses workouts and diet to benefit his mental health and stay strong, both vital to managing a growing styling empire. “As I’ve have grown older the focus is really not about external validation as much as it is being strong and healthy,” he says.
Training is his time to recalibrate, refresh and rebuild. “I feel best mentally when I schedule training. That’s time to myself where I have nothing but music and being in my body instead of in my thoughts.” He doesn’t talk and he doesn’t socialise, and he takes his Apple Watch – not his iPhone – so he’s not distracted by emails. “I just put my AirPods in, listen to some energetic music and train”.
Palmer still sees an osteopath regularly “just to keep free of that nagging tightness you get as you hit middle age”, but the outlook is good, for both his ongoing recovery and his ripped physique.
“I do care how I look and I’m glad I’m still in good shape, but I also accept that I’m getting older and the goal posts move.”
Darren Palmer’s diet
Darren Palmer’s diet is best described as “clean but not obsessive”, consisting of five smallish meals each day. “Breakfast is usually a soy latte and two pieces of toast with cultured butter,” he explains. He then plans his snacks, either a protein bar or protein yoghurt, and has one in the AM and the other in the PM. Lunch is usually kilojoule- and portion-controlled, a fresh premade meal from a meal service with a protein source and vegetables. Night-time is family time in Palmer’s household, so dinner can be anything as long as it’s enjoyed with his husband, Olivier, and son, Hugo. “We either cook a simple, functional meal, have Japanese or Mexican, while Thursday night is pizza night. We eat whatever we feel like when we have meals out with friends.” To manage kilojoules, Palmer opts for low-energy beverages when he does imbibe – vodka soda or gin mixed with diet tonic.
Darren Palmer’s training
Darren Palmer trains 4-5 days a week, alternating this back workout with a leg day, with very little variation to his workouts. His focus is on deliberate, textbook-quality reps, progressing by slowing his tempo rather than adding weight
Palmer performs 3 sets of 8-10 reps of each movement, with 30 seconds rest between each set.
1/ Single-arm row (varied grip)
2/ Lat pulldown
3/ Cable single-arm, shoulder-level rotation
4/ Reverse cable crossover
5/ Triceps pulldown