Before Wakanda was forever, the fictional African nation was just one of a number of obscure Marvel comic book worlds that was yet to make the leap to the big screen. But, out of all the locales in the Marvel Universe, it was Wakanda – and its leader, the hero Black Panther – that Marvel sorely needed to visit.
For a long time, the MCU revolved around the stories of white men (the only woman to feature in the original line-up, Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow, is finally getting her own film this year, 11 years after her character’s debut). Over time, the gender imbalance has been somewhat addressed. But while the MCU roster features Norse gods, scientists who turn into big green monsters and a guy who does his best to make a bow and arrow actually look cool, as of 2016 there was still not a single Black lead in the franchise.
When Chadwick Boseman debuted as T’Challa / Black Panther in that year’s Captain America: Civil War, audiences were offered a glimpse of what might be to come. The follow-up, 2018’s Black Panther, changed everything.
Featuring a predominantly Black cast and set in an African nation (albeit a fictional one), the film reconfigured our perception of what a superhero film could be. It earned nine Oscar nominations in the process (with three wins) and took $1.3 billion worldwide, becoming the highest-grossing film by a Black director and, at the time, the ninth highest-grossing movie of all time.
When Boseman died of colon cancer at the age of 43 last August, the world was understandably shaken. By all accounts, Boseman was a beautiful, generous and giving person and the acting world was united in mourning his passing. For his fans, the loss was twofold; not only had they lost Boseman the actor, they’d lost their King T’Challa too, the hero that had changed how cinema looked and felt, and given many a hope of fairer representation in the stories they saw on screen.
Boseman’s physicality was a huge part of his performance as Black Panther. For his long-time friend and trainer Addison Henderson (himself a writer and director), working out was a way to for the pair to get even closer. A way to share in the adventure. For those watching him on screen, it added to T’Challa's regal presence and gave the sense that yes, finally, we had a Black superhero who could more than hold his own against the old guard.
Here, then, is how they did it.
The Origin Story
“I did not graduate from Howard University [the historically Black college that Boseman attended until 2000],” says Addison Henderson over Zoom. “But my family did and my friends did. In fact, I was introduced to Chad via another Howard alum about ten years ago. Chad and I became fast friends upon meeting. We were both performers and writers and directors and bonded over art. We shared a lot of the same ideas and goals, and things that we wanted to do.”
Henderson and Boseman also shared a keen interest in athletics and soon began training together, Boseman showing Henderson some basic martial arts, Henderson showing Boseman wrestling techniques. And of course, there was boxing.
“We went to a lot of boxing matches together. We watched a lot of boxing on television and we did a lot of boxing training as well. We both had a strong passion for it,” Henderson remembers.
The Man Who Would Be King
When Boseman got the call to the big leagues, naturally it was his friend and sparring partner he chose to take with him.
“I remember when Chad got the role of Black Panther [for Captain America: Civil War] he just looked at me and he said ‘Yo, why don’t you just come train me for the role?’,” Henderson recalls. “I was like, OK, I’ll do it, why not? It’s a great opportunity and I get to be with my boy and I get to be part of something iconic.”
As for just how iconic the role would become, Henderson and Boseman knew it was going to be big, but didn’t let it derail training.
“It’s a Marvel movie. It’s Black Panther, and everyone has been waiting for that,” Henderson says. “ But it didn’t put any extra pressure on his physicality. We always trained hard, no matter what.”
Before Black Panther came out in 2018, Boseman had first taken on the role as a cameo in 2016’s Captain America: Civil War. In the first film, the script didn’t require Boseman to be shirtless, meaning he could focus on building mass without having to lean right down for an on-camera ab shot. Heavy lifting sessions four or five times a week achieved the effect.
For Black Panther, Boseman would have one of Marvel's signature shirts-off scenes, so the goal changed. He wouldn’t just be big, he’d be leaned out too.
“If you watch Civil War and Black Panther you’ll see he was much more stocky in Civil War than for Black Panther,” Henderson says. “We cut up a tremendous amount for Black Panther.”
Henderson recalls “big days” leading up to shirtless scenes. Boseman would get up and work out, focusing on exercises that would accentuate his cuts, even spending time in the sauna before shooting and limiting his water intake to shed as much weight as possible. While we don’t recommend you try this at home, Boseman had a very specific motivation, as Henderson explains.
“He’s playing the first Black superhero in the Marvel universe, and he’s a king!” he says. “We wanted to make sure he looked really good when it was time for that shirt to come off, and he did.”
Path to Glory
Taking on a physical role isn’t just about looking good when you take your shirt off, though. Often an actor will need to be able to move convincingly. Especially when – as in the case of Boseman – he’s doing a lot of his own stunts.
To address this and round out his performance, Boseman also trained with martial arts instructor and actor, Marrese Crump. The aim was not just to build on Boseman’s martial arts abilities, but to build mobility too. Alongside four or five workouts with Henderson, Baseman and Crump would fit in three to four sessions a week too.
“Plus Chad was doing his own thing by himself,” says Henderson. “Chad was also a trainer; realistically he didn’t really need me to come on and train him, he could do it himself. What ended up happening was as you get busier you need to focus on certain things like the character, or how the movie will play out. One of Chad’s qualities was being able to see the whole movie inside of a role. He had a lot to think about, so one of the reasons I was brought on was to create that training roadmap.”
Specifically, the roadmap entailed building a strong posterior chain, to carry the literal and metaphorical weight of the film. “[T’Challa] carries Wakanda on his back, so we wanted to make sure his back was strong and worked hard on that to accentuate those muscles,” says Henderson.
The physique, however, was a constant case of adjustment and polish. “When we were training for Civil War we didn’t have a lot of time, but for Black Panther we had ample time to really get it right, which was great. We trained in LA then Atlanta, we rehearsed for at least a month and we were still tweaking and getting in the proper condition. Even when we did test shoots we were looking at the body like ‘OK, we’re going to improve here and we’re going to improve here’. It was always a work in progress to reach our goals. Just finding little things to improve.”
Although a laborious one, Henderson and Boseman’s work is evident in the final movie. It’s an experience Henderson wouldn’t change for anything.
“There are so many memories that I hold dear to my heart and I’m just happy to see everything that happened with the film,” he says. “It was a blessing that I could be part of Chad’s life for so long and tag along, see the world, and also learn a lot of things from him too. Chad’s voice will always be with me forever.”
The Chadwick Boseman Black Panther Workout
Henderson’s approach to fitness? Go big, and maybe never go home.
“I do these crazy workouts,” he admits. “I’m a runner so I like building endurance. I power through sets without stopping so it’s like cardio at the same time. We used to do that once or twice a week. Sometimes Chad would be like ‘Man, hold up, we need to take our time today, please’. So we’d slow it down. Those were funny days. Sometimes we’d go to the gym and people would be watching us like we were crazy.”
Henderson recalls that it wasn’t unusual to stay in the gym for three or four hours. But we have news for you: you aren't a comic book king. Instead, incorporate the session below into your training plan once a week instead.
Struggling with motivation? Remember, pain is temporary. Gains last longer. And Wakanda is forever.
“I’d start with a mile run as fast as you can to get the heart-rate up,” says Henderson. “Then I may get you on the stairclimber for ten minutes going as fast as you can.” Yes you read that right, this is the ‘warm-up’. Now onto business.
Henderson’s approach to fitness works to keep the body in a state of surprise, forcing it to continually adapt, even in the middle of sets. Complete the below, with ten reps per exercise and no break between moves. That’s one set. For the next set, mix up the exercises so you work through them in a different order.
The gold standard of muscle building. Lie on a bench, feet shoulder width apart, hands comfortably resting on a barbell loaded with as much weight as you’re comfortable with. Screw your behind into the bench to secure a strong base, then exhale as you push the barbell straight up from the rack, inhaling as you bring it down to just above your nipples before powering it back up for one.
Adjust the bench so it’s in an incline position. Get yourself set up as before, but ‘reverse’ your grip so your palms are facing you, instead of facing away. This opens up the chest even more, hitting the side of the pecs for a more rounded shape. Bend your elbows to lower the weight and complete your reps as before. If you’ve never tried this before, get used to it with just the bar before adding weight.
To hit the top of the pecs you’re going to go back to the standard bench press technique, but leaving the bench at an inclined angle. You’ll be bringing the bar down to just under your chin this time, so be careful.
Once you've worked through all three, remix the order and complete each move twice more to complete your sets.
Still here? Then it’s time to hit those legs.
Rest: 60 seconds
Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, toes turned slightly out, then push your hips back and lower your body as if sitting onto a chair. Keep your weight on your heels as you drop as far as possible (your thighs should be at least parallel to the ground at the bottom of the move), pause, then drive back up explosively.
Reps: 20 per leg
Rest: 60 seconds
Stand facing forward and step out onto your right foot, bending at the knee to create a ninety degree angle. Hold that for a second or two, then push down through your heel to return to standing. Swap legs and keep going until you’ve hit a total of 20 reps.
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