How Chris Evans Built Muscle and Burnt Fat Without Cardio for 'Captain America'

Edward Cooper
·11-min read
Photo credit: Marvel Studios
Photo credit: Marvel Studios

From Esquire

There are few Hollywood transformations more impressive than Chris Evans's hardcore effort to become Captain America. Released in 2011, Evans' Captain America physique — and the training programming that built it — still commands tens of thousands of search engine queries every day, but few can pinpoint the exact plan that built his frame.

Until now, that is. Here, we'll be exploring the exact workouts that Evans used to gain upper-body brawn and transform from an affable wimp to a villain-crushing, armed-and-dangerous warrior. While impressive, Evans' objective of crafting a frame that would strike fear into even the most wretched Marvel villains was an unenviable one, and would see him supersetting a tough workout with an even more regimented diet plan, making the most of lean protein sources, smart supplementation and a trainer that knew his way around Hollywood's toughest alums.

Despite these odds, Evans pulled off a remarkable transformation to the point that, unbelievably, Captain America's post-production had to rely on CGI trickery to shrink his body down. Curious? Let's take a closer look.

Chris Evans' Captain America Trainer

Behind every impressive silver screen body is an equally gifted coach. In Chris Evans' case, elite Hollywood trainer Simon Waterson was briefed with the task of whipping Evans into Avengers shape. No stranger to the demands of Hollywood's leading men, Waterson was the mastermind behind Daniel Craig's first outing as James Bond in Casino Royale (lest we forget the blue trunks scene), and continued to shape the seventh, and current, Bond's fitness, all the way up to 2021's No Time to Die. Unlike the new aesthetic that Craig brought to Bond, Evans' portrayal of Captain America needed to be the product of several elements of training, including hand-to-hand combat, swimming, explosive strength, sprinting and, unsurprisingly, mirror muscle.

"They briefed me on how they wanted Chris to look," explained Waterson in a 2015 interview. "I did work to that shot where he comes out of the machine to make him look a tiny bit bigger and leaner than he is in the rest of the movie. But, ultimately, it is about performance rather than just looking good. He has to be able to sprint, throw a shield, jump over a wall. The aesthetics are almost like a byproduct of being an athlete."

It hurt. But it worked. "It was gruelling, it was brutal and I’d find any excuse possible not to go,” Evans explained of his Captain America workout programming in a 2011 interview with Men's Health. "But I had to do it." Consider your appetite whetted. Here's what Evans had to grind through.

Chris Evans' Captain America Workout

Photo credit: AF archive / Alamy Stock Photo
Photo credit: AF archive / Alamy Stock Photo

As you can expect, the "byproduct of being an athlete" is just wellness shorthand for the end result of months of rigorous training, hundreds of thousands of reps and total commitment to a role. What's more, Evans wasn't equipped with the typical Hollywood-grade training facility loaded with next-gen tech. Instead, his fitness mecca was no more complex than a high street commercial gym or fitness centre. "The gym wasn’t anything too special,” he said in his Men's Health interview ahead of Captain America's release. "We would take two muscle groups, whether it was chest and back or biceps and triceps and we would just destroy those muscles, literally, for about two hours. Then we’d cool down with core and abs."

By hitting the muscle groups from multiple angles, Waterson's smart programming kept Evans' muscles constantly stimulated, leaving no muscle fibre un-torn. "I had no idea there were so many ways you could burn yourself out," said Evans of Waterson's muscle alchemy. Even more appealing, however, was the duo's approach to dreaded cardio. Or, more fittingly, the lack of. During his three-month prep to become Captain America — at the start of which, Evans admitted to being "pretty skinny" — he never worked through a jot of cardio. Zilch. Zip. Nada. "If I do cardio I’ll disappear,” he said. "I just needed to gain size." And that, reader, is what he did. Here's how.

How Chris Evans Built Captain America's Super Shoulders

“Chest is exhausting. Triceps always hurt. But I love shoulder exercises,” says Chris Evans of his Captain America workout, which assaulted his upper-body muscle groups. Add these moves to your routine to ensure a battle-winning transformation.

Lateral Raise, 3x15 Reps

  1. Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, with a very slight bend in the knees.

  2. Grab a dumbbell in each hand. Raise both slowly out to the side until your arms form a T-shape with your body.

Tip: Use a weight light enough for you to keep perfect form for each exercise. Evans builds up from 12kg to15kg. “Don’t compromise form for weight,” he says.

Front Raise, 3x15 Reps

  1. Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, and hold a dumbbell in each hand with palms in front of your thighs.

  2. Tense your core to keep your lower back from bending, and slowly raise both hands straight out in front of you until they are parallel to the floor.

Tip: “This hits the front of your shoulders,” says Evans, which is key to that spandex-filling shape.

Military Press, 3x15 Reps

  1. Position your feet close together and lift the barbell or dumbbells up to your shoulders, palms facing forward.

  2. Press the weight above your head explosively until your arms are fully extended, then lower the weight under control.

Tip: Use machines rather than free weights. "I find when I do military press with dumbbells, I push my chest out too far and my spine compresses,” Evans says.“I use a machine when I can, to get a controlled motion and stack the weights up."

Reverse Shoulder Fly, 3x15 Reps

  1. Lie face down on an incline bench set at 45 degrees.

  2. Hold a dumbbell in each hand below you, palms facing each other.

  3. Keep your arms slightly bent at the elbow and pull back with your shoulder blades until your upper arms are parallel with the floor. Then return to the start.

Tip: Squeeze your shoulder blades together as though you're crushing a tennis ball between them.

Captain America's Leg Workout

In a 2016 interview with Coach, Waterson shared his expertise on building Chris Evans' body for Captain America: Civil War, the actor's fifth outing as the first Avenger.

“When I first started working with Chris for the original Captain America film, the studio had a very specific idea about how they wanted him to look,” Waterson said. "My brief was to build Chris a strong, big and lean body that was realistic, functional and in proper proportion. In the movie, his character is physically transformed into the perfect soldier specimen so he had to look the part."

“Chris had done some weight training before, but as with a lot of guys it had been focused on the vanity muscles – chest, arms and abs,” he said. "He understood the importance of a balanced physique. I had to work him hard but at a sensible pace – I couldn’t afford to have him sidelined for four weeks with an injury." Inevitably, building this "balanced physique" would involve a lot of lower-body work for Evans, who went from 77kg to 82kg for the role. In the same interview, Waterson shared Cap's heavy-lifting lower-body workout:

Barbell Back Squat: 3 sets, 6-8 reps

  1. Stand with your feet more than shoulder-width apart and hold a barbell across your upper back with an overhand grip – avoid resting it on your neck.

  2. Hug the bar into your traps to engage your upper back muscles.

  3. Slowly sit back into a squat with head up, back straight and backside out.

  4. Lower until your hips are aligned with your knees, with your legs at 90 degrees – a deeper squat will be more beneficial but get the strength and flexibility first.

  5. Drive your heels into the floor to push yourself explosively back up. Keep form until you’re stood up straight: that’s one.

Barbell Lunge: 3 sets, 6-8 reps

  1. Choose an appropriate weight and place the barbell across your back.

  2. Step forward with your right foot and sink into a lunge, so both legs are bent with your back knee as close to the floor as possible.

  3. Drive yourself back up and repeat on the other side.

Leg Press: 3 sets, 6-8 reps

  1. In the leg press machine position your feet shoulder-width apart on the platform and raise until your legs are outstretched without locking your knees.

  2. Slowly lower the platform until your knees are at 90 degrees to the floor, then push back to the start position through your heels.

Tip: Range of movement is more important than sheer weight, so don't be tempted to put the pin in the bottom plate.

Calf Raise: 3 sets, 6-8 reps

Stand upright holding two dumbbells by your sides. Place the balls of your feet on an exercise step or weight plate with your heels touching the floor. With your toes pointing forwards, raise your heels off the floor and contract your calves. Slowly return to the starting position.

Tip: Different foot positions target different muscles. Toes pointing in hits the outer head harder, toes out works the inner head

Hamstring curl: 3 sets, 6-8 reps

  1. Sit in a leg curl machine with your heels against the lower pad and the upper pad against your thighs.

  2. Bend at the knee to pull the pad down as far as possible then return to the start position.

Tip: The move should come exclusively from your knee. If you're swinging your body, the weight's too high.

Photo credit: Chad Buchanan - Getty Images
Photo credit: Chad Buchanan - Getty Images

Build Captain American's Athleticism

Crank up your athleticism with this two-phase workout designed by strength and conditioning expert Jamie Sawyer. Perform twice a week for gains in lower body strength and higher power transfer from your core into your upper-body.

Phase #1: Explosive Power

This super-set recruits higher levels of muscle-fibres in your legs than normal squat work and then lengthens the muscle to keep you powerful rather than bulky. Perfect for chasing down bad guys.

Phase #2: Athletic Strength

Ready for round two? This session is designed to build up strength in your posterior chain. This will be used to transfer power when performing any athletic movement with your legs.

Rest for two minutes between sets. Do 4-5 sets and rest three days between sessions to allow your muscles to fully recover.

Tip: Hot-wire your muscular growth by fusing heavy resistance with powerful, plyometric movements to recruit more fast-twitch muscle fibres.

Photo credit: David M. Benett - Getty Images
Photo credit: David M. Benett - Getty Images

5 Ways Chris Evans Used Food To Transform for Captain America

Ready to sit at the Captain's table? You'll be glad to know that, as with his training, his approach to nutrition was a simple one. Here are a few bite-sized pieces of advice from the man himself.

Raw Power

"I never counted calories," he said in the cover interview with Men's Health. "I wasn't trying to lose [weight] or tone — I was just looking to gain. The rule of thumb was: if you're not eating, go get something."

Amino Business

Evans doesn’t distinguish much between protein shake brands, so long as they aid recovery. "I would also take a lot of amino acids," he said of his supplementation for his role as Steve Rogers. Make like Evans and try branch chain amino acid supplements.

Fight For Your White

“I eat lots of chicken, turkey and fish,” Chris Evans said. If you’re looking for great value protein, choose free-range turkey – it delivers 25.7 per cent protein per helping, compared to 22.7 per cent for your average T-bone steak.

Fished Out

"Evans ate for a purpose. “It’s not about flavour, you’re fuelling your body,” he says. Sick of tuna? Make sure you have a variety of protein supplements available. Having a shake or bar means you won’t be full by dinner.

Photo credit: Greg Doherty - Getty Images
Photo credit: Greg Doherty - Getty Images

Captain America's Stuntman Workout

Of course, some scenes demand the experts and asking Chris Evans to throw himself into potentially dangerous situations often isn't realistic. Which is where stuntman Sam Hargrave came in — he was Chris Evans' Captain America double for The Winter Soldier, and shared his gruelling workout with Men's Health in 2020.

  • Martial Arts Conditioning/Sparring - 3 sets of 1 minute rounds

  • Stability Ball Kettlebell Squats - 3 sets of 8 to 12 reps

  • Neck Crunch - 3 sets of 20 to 30 reps

Core Work

  • Toes to Bar - 3 sets of 10 to 20 reps

  • Hanging Knees to Elbows - 3 sets of 10 to 20 reps

  • L-Sit Flutter Kicks - 3 sets of 10 to 20 reps

Windshield Wipers - 3 sets of 10 to 20 reps

Aesthetic Workout

  • Hang Clean and Press - 3 sets of 10 reps

  • Wide Grip Pull-ups - 3 sets of 7 to 12 reps

  • Bodyweight Skullcrusher - 3 sets of 8 to 12 reps

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