How did the actors who wowed us as the Avengers get their amazing onscreen physiques? It wasn’t Hollywood special effects, but months of intense workouts that delivered those buff bodies.
Trainers Bobby Strom, Brad Bose, and Steve Zim who prepped Scarlett Johansson, Robert Downey Jr., and Chris Evans respectively share the diet and fitness secrets that helped whip these A-listers into fighting shape.
In The Avengers, Scarlett Johansson reprises her role as super-spy Natasha Romanoff (aka Black Widow), whom she first played in 2010's Iron Man 2. For about two months prior to filming, Johansson worked with personal trainer Bobby Strom to ready herself for the role.
"We picked up with the same program we'd used for Iron Man 2," says Strom. "It had a proven history."
During her 90-minute, high-intensity workouts, Johansson lifted dumbbells and straight bars as well as worked with resistance bands, medicine balls, Bosu balls, and TRX. She also did Olympic-style lifting and platform jumping, exercises that required explosive movements, to build muscle as well as develop cardio fitness.
Her workouts were built around sets of 25 to 30 reps, which Strom had her do in one of two rotations: either five exercises each done four times or 10 exercises each done twice.
Strom also put her on the treadmill for 15 minutes. Each minute, she sprinted for 20 seconds and rested for 40 seconds. Then, he got her out of the gym and into the parking lot.
"I would wrap a band around her and pull her backwards as she tried to sprint," Strom says.
During their time together, Strom focused on definition rather than muscle mass.
"You want to see that definition in the biceps, triceps, and shoulders, but you don't want the muscles so big that she loses her femininity," Strom says. "The studio didn't want her looking like Thor."
Robert Downey Jr. had just finished filming 2011's Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows when he started prepping his body for The Avengers. He had eight weeks to put on 25 pounds of muscle.
"It required cutting down the cardio and the high reps and increasing the weight lifted and making him more explosive," says personal trainer Brad Bose. He also trained Downey for both Iron Man films. "This required more bench presses, shoulder presses, pull-ups, etc. We basically went back to a modified old-school workout."
High-intensity workouts ran up to 45 minutes. Lower-intensity sessions that focused on what Bose refers to as "detail work" lasted for 70 minutes.
Among the many exercises in a typical upper body workout were pull-ups, dips, instability bench presses, low rows, and pushups done on a Bosu ball. Most were done in three sets of eight to 12 reps.
For many of the exercises, Bose would cap Downey, 47, at 80% of his maximum capability to help prevent injury.
"After age 40, shoulder stabilization becomes important, and pull-ups and dips put an unusually large strain on the shoulder capsule," Bose says. "Doing these to failure risks the shoulder capsule unnecessarily; therefore, we stay at 80% of max reps."
Downey worked his legs with exercises such as lunges, squats, and leg presses. For his abs, he would do a three-round circuit of four to six exercises, spending two minutes on each.
"Our goal was to bring back as much muscle as possible as quickly as possible," says Bose, who boosted Downey's protein intake to promote muscle growth. He also added creatine to Downey's already organic diet. While generally safe when used appropriately, creatine may affect the kidneys at higher doses. If you use creatine, make sure to drink plenty of water and let your doctor know of any supplements you're taking.
Bose uses a variety of equipment when designing a workout. One in particular that he likes -- and which Downey spent a lot of time with -- is the War Machine, which uses a pulley system to provide resistance, stability, and core training.
"It's inexpensive, versatile, and gives really good results," Bose says.
Keep It Interesting, and Stay Focused
Strom says that before she came to work with him, Johansson had had enough of the dull, repetitive workouts a previous trainer had put her through. "She'd lost all interest in training," Strom says.
Strom's approach with all his clients -- celebrity and otherwise -- is to vary the workouts so that no two are exactly the same. "That's how you keep yourself challenged. That's how you keep pushing through the walls that come up."
"If you are bored, your muscles get bored and they don't change," says Steve Zim, creator of the popular fitness app ZimFit.
He also says that you need a goal going in. For instance, visualize what you want your body to look like so that you know what you are working towards, Zim says.
Actor Chris Evans had a very clear mission when he showed up at Zim's gym. Evans had to go from skinny to all muscle in order to play the Human Torch in 2005's Fantastic Four. A month later, he had the superhero body he needed.
You likely won't need to pursue your fitness goals on such a tight schedule or as intensely, Zim says. "Things are different when your goal is to have your shirt off in front of a camera."
Still, Zim notes, you will want to work hard enough so that you see progress quickly. "If you don't see a result," he says, "you get frustrated and bored."
Make It Challenging and Be Consistent
All three trainers say that intensity makes the workout. When it starts to get easy, ramp it up.
"Most people fall short in the intensity department," says Bose, who allows only 40-60 seconds of rest between sets. "We push past the fatigue and the instinct for the body to quit, and you find that very soon the body starts liking the intensity. You perform better and the workout seems shorter because you're not wasting a lot of time resting."
Strom recalls Johansson complaining to him one day that, three months into training, her workouts were not getting easier.
"'Do I suck at this?' she asked me," Strom says. "She didn't realize that I'd been progressively building the intensity."
Strom says showing up at the gym five to six days a week will do you no good if you're not pushing yourself. "I'd rather see you for 40 minutes and kick the crap out of you," he says.
But the intensity is not up to your trainer, Zim reminds his clients. It's up to you to bring it each time you work out.
"The ones who do well are the ones who push themselves, the ones who give me full sets," Zim says.
Not only do you have to work out hard, you have to work out regularly and frequently to see real changes. Once in a while just won't cut it.
"Along with intensity, the other big word is consistency," Bose says. "You need to motivate yourself to do good, consistent workouts. Take pride in consistency more than in the amount of weight you lift."