When it comes to good looking, well-dressed actors with solid workout regiments and their pick of choice roles from indie dramas like I, Tonya to the upcoming superhero smash-up The Falcon and the Winter Solider (coming 19 March on Disney+), Sebastian Stan pretty much has it down.
Whether you consider Stan a household depends on your Marvel consumption, but from Avengers: Infinity War to Netflix’s dark and sinister thriller The Devil all the Time, the 38-year-old’s been putting in a shift in for years.
He’s also been putting in a shift in the weights room. And, during lockdown, from the comfort of his own living room, with a little help from ‘Superhero Coach’ Don Saladino.
Based in New York City, Saladino has been training actors for more than 20 years and his roster includes everyone from Scarlett Johansson and Jake Gyllenhaal to Wolverine himself, Hugh Jackman.
With lockdown putting in-person workouts on hold, Saladino and Stan have teamed up to produce the Superhero Challenge, a four-week, dumbbell-only workout programme that launches anew every month and which is designed to help you get the most out of your home set up. With exercise demonstration, nutrition guide plus a zoom call from Stan himself answering your fitness questions, it’s worth signing up for. Especially so considering the profits go to the Ronald McDonald House charity in New York.
“I met Seb eight or nine years ago,” says Saladino. “He was a referral through one of my other celebrity clients. At the time he was preparing for a Broadway show where he had to be shirtless. He was joking around saying ‘I gotta look better naked!’. So we dove into his training and became really friendly.”
With that, a professional relationship was set in stone, and when Hollywood came calling, Saladino went on to prep Stan for the role of Bucky Barnes, aka the Winter Soldier, in Marvel’s Captain America films and the following two Avengers movies.
(Need the Cliff Notes? Stan plays a former World War II soldier who is experimented on with a super soldier serum, and brainwashed by the KGB. He spends the next 70 years carrying out sub rosa assassinations, which eventually brings him into conflict with his old pal, Captain America, in the present day. They’ve since patched things up and went on to fight a big purple alien together. Got it? Good.)
Saladino’s biggest challenge was to transform Stan’s body into that of a highly trained soldier capable of tangling with some of the toughest terrestrial and extra-terrestrial threats the world of comic books could throw at him. Or, maybe the even bigger challenge was bulking him up so he didn’t disappear when Marvel’s Chrises – Hemsworth, Evans, Pratt – showed up.
“[When we first met] it wasn’t about running him around, it was about putting on muscle,” Saladino says. But the Winter Soldier is a physical role that required real-world mobility, not just a bulk-and-cut ready for his contractual shirtless-scene role. “We dove into it knowing we have to look a certain way but we have to also move a certain way and develop that level of resilience.”
A key misconception among actors, Saladino explains, is the belief that getting in shape means cutting carbs. But for Saladino – who also helped Ryan Reynolds get in the shape of his life – carbs are fuel. And when you’re training as hard as Stan, fuel means results.
“I tell my actor clients, ‘You’re an athlete, you have to go perform. You’re not on the field of battle but you’re on the stage or the big screen so you can’t go up there with no carbs.’ We started retraining Stan a bit to trust this process of overall wellness.”
Saladino points out that keeping nutrition even across a training period is the key to not only losing weight, but building muscle. Polishing off 200g of protein one day, but only 100g the next? Then you may well struggle to see the gains you’d like.
“Even if you’re eating the right foods, if the portions are uneven your body is going to be constantly guessing,” says Saladino. “It’s the biggest mistake people make, they don’t have that consistency of the volume of food they’re eating. Often it’s about being on a reverse dieting approach where you actually take on more calories slowly over time, while still losing weight and feeling more energy because you’re eating the right thing.”
With nutrition ironed out and training goals set, Saladino and Stan began moulding Stan into the role. Their partnership has been so successful that since the first film, Saladino says Stan’s body composition has in fact improved with age. Proof that a solid foundation will serve you well for a long time.
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Stars and Stripes
Almost a decade into their training relationship, Stan and Saladino didn’t need to suddenly smash the gym in preparation for The Falcon & The Winter Soldier because, just like the Hulk stays angry 24/7, the Winter Soldier trains year-round. Instead, Saladino ramped up the weight and dropped the reps to help Stan pack on lycra-filling muscle where it mattered the most.
For The Falcon & The Winter Soldier, the aim was to bring out Stan’s shoulders more on screen, creating a heroic, V-shaped physique. Work began as soon as the studio called, with each workout beginning with 10 minutes of cardio, followed by the heaviest lift possible.
Training for a TV show versus a film didn’t offer too much of a challenge, either. With both, the key, Saladino says is to ensure Stan gets enough calories, and isn’t putting too much stress on his body. Part of this involves giving Stan an enforced break from pounding pavements.
“He loves running,” Saladino says. “It’s something I have to get him to calm down on. When we’re prepping for a Marvel film we might start biking or doing something that’s a little bit less impactful. We need him fast and explosive so his cardio usually turns into more fast and explosive work, like sled work, or a motor-less treadmill doing explosive sprint work, or the bike. I like to refer to it as ‘muscle-building cardio’, where we’re feeding that fast-twitch muscle. It’s a great way to build muscle and maintain a level of leanness.”
Naturally, when you’re squaring up against the likes of renowned beefcakes Chris Hemsworth and Chris Evans (not to mention Chris Pratt) it’s important to look your best. That said, Stan’s character isn’t supposed to be a muscle-bound caricature. That means not comparing himself to anyone else in the MCU, even co-star and BFF Anthony Mackie.
“Seb and I had a conversation a long time ago where we agreed that his physique is his physique. We’re not trying to compete with other people if we see them putting on size,” says Saladino. “Seb is his own person, his own role, his own size. We have to train to be that. If Evans is going to come in at 260lbs like he’s about to get on the Mr Olympian stage, that does not impact what Seb and I are doing. If the studio tells us he needs to be bigger, that’s a complete different story.”
Let’s get to it, then.
The Sebastian Stan Winter Soldier Workout
Taken from Saladino’s March Superhero Challenge, this workout mimics exactly what Stan does on abs day, helping you build heroic core strength. You'll work through the moves in a circuit, completing each exercise one after the other with no rest. Once you've finished each round, rest for 30-60 seconds, then go again for three rounds total.
Saladino explains the ‘Pick your poison cardio’ option is to enable you to make the most of whatever you have access to at home, be that a treadmill, bike, kettlebell swings, or just good-old-fashioned burpees...
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