If you’ve ever gone to a Marvel movie, you know there’s something special waiting for you at the end of the credits. But the credits aren’t just a test of your patience, they acknowledge everyone who made the movie happen. Everyone down to the dialect coaches, caterers, security team, and – yes — the personal trainers, get their moment on the screen.
Yes, CGI has done amazing things for Mark Ruffalo but there’s no replacements for what a fit physique is going to do for an actor. “If you’re going to play a superhero, the character building starts with what we were doing,” says Jason Walsh, who trained Brie Larson for the role in Captain Marvel. “You’ve got to believe that you have superhuman strength.”
Don Saladino agrees. “He had to feel like he was able to kick some ass, and walk on the set and feel like Hellboy,” he said of working with David Harbour in his transformation from Chief Hopper to Anung Un Rama.
Truth is, these trainers are the real deal. It’s their job to keep actors looking good, feeling good, and healthy enough to do the work. Reading an article on a “celebrity workout plan” does not even scratch the surface.
Here is advice from superhero trainers that will help you feel like a superhero, too.
1. Fundamentals First
Raise your hand if your jaw dropped watching Brie Larson pushing a jeep or hip thrusting 400 lbs? But those superhuman-seeming feats did not come overnight. Larson, who describes herself as “an introvert with asthma,” had a long way to go before stepping into the powerful role of Carol Danvers.
Before filming her solo film, Larson used the time leading up to and filming Avengers: Endgame to establish “fundamentals and really honing in on her movement skills before we started progressing,” says trainer Jason Walsh.
Steve Moyer, who trained Zoe Saldana for many films including Guardians of the Galaxy, has strong opinions on pushing too hard too fast. “I do think there is this wave in fitness where things have to become more and more intense. Everyone wants things done now, now, now and I think that’s a very dangerous trend in fitness. People need to have patience and realize that fitness and health are about the long-term goal and not the short-term”
2. Fitness is about Function
Admittedly, I went into working on this post a bit short sighted. Obviously, the role of the trainer was to make the actors look heroic, right? But I overlooked a huge part of how the trainer prepares an actor for the role – to be physically fit enough to handle the work on set.
Jack Graves, who worked with Daisy Ridley on the set of Star Wars, reminded me of the truth. “The actors are going to be doing stunts for 8-9 hours a day. A big part of it is developing their endurance and strength, as well as their looks, so they are able to perform. They practice for months but it could last 10-30 seconds on screen.”
“If you’re doing a running scene, you want to be as fresh and powerful in the first take as you are in the 20th,” says Eric Johnson, who has been responsible for Scarlett Johannson’s 10-year journey as Black Widow.
Looking good is a great side-effect of exercise, but the real importance of physical fitness is how it impacts all of the time you’re not working out. Not only that, but focusing on how your body moves and what you can achieve has positive mental health aspects as well.
Instead of worrying about flaws in your body, recognize what you can do now that you couldn’t do two weeks ago. This keeps you motivated and moving forward.
3. “You can never out train a bad diet.”
Wise words from Amber Walker, the woman who helped Tessa Thompson built up Valkyrie’s mythical warrior physique. To take on Thor: Ragnarok, Thompson put on 15 lbs of muscle, so her diet had to accommodate the gain accordingly.
“She had a moderate amount of protein, lots of healthy fats and healthy greens, and carbs like sweet potato when she felt she needed it,” says Walker. But, she points out that Tessa had life mixed in with the hard work. “There was room to have treats at the weekend because she was so dedicated in the week. She took her job seriously.”
“The main tip here is simple: know what, when, and how much you are eating,” says trainer Mark Twight. Twight trained Jason Momoa in the lead up to Justice League, balancing the aesthetic demands of his job and the actor’s famous love of Guinness. “More importantly, know how it affects you. Be sensitive to it. Question everything.”
When it comes to nutrition, Twight puts the emphasis on honesty and accountability.
“Take responsibility. If you are dissatisfied with your current condition, then something you are doing is the cause. You did this. Own it. Change it.”
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4. Remember Rest, Active Recovery, and Non-Exercise Physical Activity.
Simon Waterson, who transformed Chris Evans into Captain America without a super soldier serum, believes that action hero actors have to work as hard as professional athletes. “Professional athletes get to have 12 hours sleep, they get to nap, they get the right food. They’ve got that structure, as well as not having to go to actual work and do like a 14-hour day and then train, like an actor has to.”
That’s why it’s important to emphasize that rest really is a part of the program. Jack Graves knows this from working with the Star Wars cast. “I’m a massive believer in quality over quantity, so if they have had a stressed day, I’m not going to expect them to work out because it’ll only stress the body more and put them at risk of getting ill.” But just because you’re not grinding it out in the gym, doesn’t mean the best solution is a Netflix binge. No matter how much time you spend training, the rest of your life is going to affect your fitness.
“The maximum I’m going to see my clients is six days a week and that really is the very maximum… they’re away from me for 106 hours,” says Steve Moyer. “That’s a way bigger aspect of their life than their training alone. So if they’re working an office job and then going home and watching TV, working with me really isn’t doing much, to be honest.”
Light activity – going on a walk with the dog or an easy yoga class -speeds recovery by increasing blood flow to your muscles. And there is no supplement out there that can replace what a good night’s sleep will do for you.
5. You have to like what you’re doing.
Magnus Lygdback is one of the most sought after trainers. Whether it’s Alicia Vikander’s arms and abs in Tomb Raider, James McAvoy’s beastly body in Glass, or taking Gal Gadot’s already fit physique up a notch for Wonder Woman — this is a man who knows how to get results.
“The challenge is to find something you like and that your body needs,” says Lygdback of training. “Try to work out three times a week, then ramp it up to five – that’s the sweet spot.”
When it comes to nutrition, Lygdback‘s approach is smart sand sensible. “Food-wise, eat five meals a day. Seventeen out of 20 meals should be on point; three out of 20 you should enjoy life. People are too hard on themselves. Don’t be.”
Eric Johnson and his brother Ryan recommend a small square of dark chocolate before a work out. Why? It boosts the positive association with physical fitness.
“Enjoying your workout is the only way to ensure . . . that you’ll keep coming back.”