In training to be Captain Marvel, Brie Larson worked her way up from a normal-but-fit person to someone who can crank out pull-ups and do push-ups with chains and who pushes her trainer’s car up a hill. We talked to her trainer, Jason Walsh, to learn what goes into training to be a superhero.
First, what kind of time commitment are we looking at?
Larson has said in interviews that she trained for over four hours a day, but that included a lot more than just gym time. “Nobody needs to lift weights for four hours,” Walsh says. A typical day would start with “soft tissue work” like massages and stretching, then move on to big lifts like squats in the morning.
Then Larson would come back in the afternoon for more fine-tuning types of exercises, plus other training like fight choreography.
So was she just sore all the time?
“Yeah, like, pretty much all the time” in the beginning, Walsh says, but that’s why he modified the training as needed, and put a lot of emphasis on recovery. (Larson made sure to get plenty of sleep between sessions, and Walsh recommended supplements that he thinks can help.)
Over time, soreness fades — “she wasn’t sore every single day, that’s not the goal” — but Walsh says over time his clients develop an “appreciation” for the soreness, that it might be a signal to modify a workout but it doesn’t have to stop you from training.
How do you handle the mental challenges of working so hard?
Mainly by having a trainer who you can trust to know exactly what you’re capable of. “You have to push through at certain points. You’re going to push through comfort zones. There were many times when I would push her, knowing full well that she’s capable of doing [an exercise]...and she would cry.”
Larson described those moments in a press conference: “It’s very emotional when you’re kind of stirring up something very vulnerable and raw inside of you, and you’re also learning that it’s just for you; there was nothing for me to prove. I wasn’t proving it to other people at the gym. I certainly wasn’t proving it to my trainer, because he was never going to be fully impressed; it’s his job to not be impressed. I [was there at the gym] for myself.”
Listening to your body is important, because you don’t want to get hurt — and that’s especially important when your job depends on your body. Walsh says avoiding injury is a huge priority, especially for celebrity clients. But you have to (or your trainer has to) distinguish whether you’re getting that “I can’t do it” message from your body or your brain. “[Sometimes] your brain is just screaming at you, your brain really holds you back. And then you get to the point where you can do it and you’re like, ‘holy shit,’ and you’re kind of crying and kind of laughing about it. It’s weird to see people get emotional about overcoming their expectations.”
So how do you work up to those big-ticket exercises? What about pull-ups?
“It’s adding more, and doing more, and being patient, and knowing that the body is going to adapt.” You knew that, of course. But sometimes it’s hard to see the path to your goal when it seems so far away. I asked Walsh about how he works clients up to pull-ups, specifically. (He also has a video about this in the Playbook app — search for “Brie’s Workout”)
Here are some of the variations Walsh uses with clients on the path toward full, strict pull-ups:
Isometric holds (just holding a position for 30 seconds or as long as you can) in three positions: arms fully flexed, arms bent 90 degrees, and arms most of the way extended. Once you can do all three independently, try doing 10 seconds in each position, one after the other.
Assisted pull-ups, with your feet touching the ground so they can support some of your weight. (Lowering the handles on a suspension trainer can get you in a good position for this.)
Jumping pull-ups, where you use your feet to give yourself a boost as you begin the movement.
Negative pull-ups, jumping to the top of the movement and slowly lowering yourself down.
Different grips, beginning with a chin-up grip (palms toward you) or neutral (palms facing each other) before moving to the standard pull-up grip (palms facing away from you).
OK, what about pushups with chains?
It’s a similar story to get up to pushups with 23kg of chains draped over your back. Walsh started Brie with push-ups with good form with her hands on a wall, then on lower and lower surfaces. During each pushup, you can lower yourself down slowly, and push up explosively. Then you can work on isometric holds at the bottom, middle, and near the top of the pushup position.
Once you’re doing full pushups on the ground, then it’s time to add weight. You can use a regular weight plate, near your hips, which forces you to keep your core tight through the whole movement.
Chains are actually easier, in a sense. Even though they’re heavy, the whole idea is that they rest on the ground as you lower down, so at the bottom of the pushup they feel lighter. As you rise to the top, they get heavier.
Make a highlight reel
Larson posted some of her most impressive work to Instagram, and whenever I asked about a specific move, Walsh would emphasise that these clips were a sort of “highlight reel” of what Larson was able to achieve after nine months of training. She wasn’t pushing cars in the gym every day; that was a goal move that she worked toward, that she wanted on camera for bragging rights. (It grew out of her work with a standard gym item, the weighted sled.)
I think there’s a lot to be said for making your own highlight reel. What can you do that you never used to be able to do? Video that. And remember that that’s what your favourite Insta stars are doing, too: They’re not always showing you the days they struggled. You can also use the promise of a future highlight reel to motivate your training: what victory do you hope to be able to film in a few months?
What should a normal person do if we don’t have hours a day to train?
One of the biggest differences between Larson’s training and what a normal person might do in the gym, Walsh said, is that she showed up every day because getting in shape was literally her job. It’s ok to recognise that you’re not a movie star and you might need to spend a little less time at the gym than she did.
So how can you make the most of limited time? Look for “those multiplayer, multi-joint exercises that incorporate every muscle in the body. You’re squatting, you’re deadlifting, hip thrusting, things like that. Sled pushes. All the variations... If I’ve only got two days [to work out this week] I’m going to put my time into something like a deadlift because I’m going to get a hell of a lot more out of that than bench press and bicep curls.”
What’s your best advice for beginners?
“Being realistic, and being patient, and having, you know, the proper expectations. ... It’s like, you brush your teeth. To me it’s in that same category. I’m taking care of my body, I want to be healthy. I want my body to function well.”
What’s some common fitness advice that’s terrible?
“‘No days off,’ that kind of a mentality. ‘More is better.’ No. Better is better.”