How Scarlett Johansson gets in shape for Marvel movies

  • Scarlett Johansson’s personal trainer, Eric Johnson, shares how he helped Johansson get in shape to play Black Widow for Marvel’s Avenger films.
  • To prepare for the role, Johnson focused on building strength and functional movement. They treated it like an athlete preparing for competition.
  • There are three phases in her training regimen: explosiveness, strength, and slimming down.
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Following is a full transcript of the video.

[laser beam blasting]

[grunting]

[intense music]

Eric Johnson: In these scenes, Black Widow is wielding her weapons, and we can see that she needs a lot of rotational power. So the medicine ball rotational slam is a perfect exercise to apply to this.

I’m Eric Johnson. I’m a celebrity personal trainer to stars like Scarlett Johansson, Andrew Garfield, and Jonathan Groff.

Narrator: When Scarlett Johansson first got the role of Black Widow in 2009, she said that she had never set foot in a gym. So we visited Eric to figure out, with the help of his wife, Melissa, how he was able to take Scarlett from never lifting to deadlifting 245 pounds.

To help prepare Scarlett for the role, Eric and Scarlett agreed on a basic philosophy from the very first day: Focus on strength and functional movement, not looks.

Eric: So, I like to approach the training more as an athlete. We wanna prepare the actor for anything that’s thrown at them, so that they can do what they do best, and that’s act.

Narrator: While many movie stars choose to focus on vanity muscles, Eric and Scarlett knew that she was going to have to do some of the stunt work in these films for herself and that having practical strength would be important.

Eric: Confidence is gonna be the biggest thing that’s gonna translate over to her becoming a superhero.

Narrator: However, none of this was a quick fix. It took Scarlett about a year to achieve her desired levels of strength and fitness. To achieve her fitness goals, the duo split her prefilm training into three phases, each lasting three to 12 weeks.

Eric: We always kinda wanna be, like, six weeks out from our peak. But sometimes we have longer periods. We might have 12 weeks; we might have six months. But I like to break up her training into kind of different blocks.

Narrator: For this first phase, Eric says it’s about trying to reset Scarlett’s body and building her mobility.

Eric: We’re focusing on contractions and building that mind-body connection and developing her aerobic conditioning.

Narrator: With explosive swinging, plyometric movements, and muscle-burning isometric holds, this phase sharpens the reflexes and agility she needs for stunts. A good example of where this part of the training paid off is this scene from “Captain America: Civil War,” where Scarlett really needed to be explosive with her movements.

Eric: In this scene, Black Widow is performing one of her signature leg twists around Hawkeye and throwing a pretty high leg kick. So she’s gonna need the hip mobility and the hip-flexor strength to nail that. This is a move that she performs a lot, so we do the 90-90 hip swivels to make sure she has the mobility to perform it well.

We’re trying to optimise the body to have mobility at the right places and stability at the other places. So, for this drill, we really want external rotation and internal rotation of the hips by integrating the core and a nice upright posture. And we hope that this translates over to the screen in Black Widow’s kicks and her punches.

Narrator: The second phase of their training program focuses on strength training.

Eric: In the second phase, we’re really trying to set down the foundational strength work. We’re trying to build muscle here. We’re trying to improve all her lifts. That way we have more strength to pull from when we go into peak power. So, this allows us to go after those goals, increasing pull-ups or increasing our dead lift. That way your body is able to be more resilient.

Narrator: This strength phase has resulted in Scarlett being able to complete a 245-pound dead lift and single-leg pistol squats.

A good example of where this part of the training paid off is this scene from “Captain America: Civil War.”

Eric: In this scene, Black Widow is really showing off her power with her punches. And you can really see that her leg strength is being demonstrated and translated into those punches.

It’s actually not with your arm at all, it’s all through your legs. That’s where this carries over. If I wanna produce power, right, it has to come from the ground all the way up to that fist running into the next person.

One of the goals we had in our training was to do a pistol squat. That was really hard for Scarlett, and most people in general. So we had to work up to it, and we were able to do it by the end of training. What we did was Scarlett would squat to a box, and then we slowly lower that box as she got stronger. So this is a great way to develop that leg strength so that I can get that rotational power and throw that punch.

Narrator: The third and final phase is all about getting lean before shooting, focusing on explosive cardio, like sprinting as well as kettlebell and battle-ropes exercises that increase heart rate while building strength.

Eric: In phase three, we’re trying to increase her peak conditioning, we’re trying to cut back on rest periods, we’re incorporating drop sets and intensifiers, such as giant sets where we might do three to four different exercises for the same body part. We’re really trying to peak here, from her conditioning, from her athletic performance, from just how she looks aesthetically. Trying to become lean and really fit, and really try to put the finishing touches on her character.

Narrator: Eric says that Scarlett needs to be able to do more than simply complete a move. She has to move with ease and fluidity while being as fresh and powerful in the first take as in the 20th. Take this scene from “Captain America: The Winter Soldier.”

Eric: In this scene, Scarlett’s giving a full effort, full-out sprint, and just keeping that calm composure throughout it. This is where our metabolic conditioning really come into play.

So, one way we do that is through battling ropes. This is a great way to kinda work on the cardiovascular system. So here we’ll work for anywhere from 15 to 30 seconds, good, rest. And now on the recovery, we’re really trying to focus on your breathing, trying and get your heart rate down as quickly as possible. And how this translates over to the cameras, like, we’re trying to kind of control her face as well. So we don’t want this kind of pain face. So that way, when you have to do the physical scenes, you’re able to do that and look like a superhero.

Narrator: Physical training is paramount when getting into shape, but diet and nutrition are also extremely important.

Eric: We never really stress, like, specific macros down to the gram of protein. We keep it very natural. We’re trying to figure out, one, from a recovery standpoint, is she getting enough calories? Instead, we made it more flexible. We had chocolate cake and dark chocolate and doughnuts, because it’s more than just filming or looking great. It’s also about living and enjoying the experience.

She starts to do this rope climb, she’s getting way up. On the way up, she knees me in the face. She gets way up, she comes down, and she’s so happy, and then she looks over to me and I’m gushing blood. My nose is just pouring out. So, she is lethal on the screen as she is off.

[laughs]