When the Black Sails cast members arrived in Cape Town last year to begin filming the first season of the new Starz pirate drama, each of them had a mandatory meeting with a personal trainer. The producers wanted most of the cast to exhibit the lean, hard look that might have been common to pirates and sailors of the early 1700s—a point in history when manual labor, especially on ships, ruled the day, and big meals for common folk were few and far between.
Zach McGowan, who plays Captain Charles Vane, attended one of the sessions, then never went back. To that point, his preparation for the role had included everything from studying the true history of piracy and the real pirate Charles Vane, to nailing the right English accent and reading Treasure Island, since the new show takes place 40 years before the events of the Robert Louis Stevenson classic. So when he went to his first personal training session and saw a lot of modern-day equipment, he believed it was antithetical to the process.
“It wasn’t an argument, but it was a bit of back-and-forth with me and the producers,” McGowan says. “To me, the idea that these guys had weight machines is kind of absurd. But did they pull their body weight up a lot? Yes, they did. You know that they had to climb up into the rigging. This was before the advent of winches and some of the things that make sailing so much easier. Everything had to be hoisted by hand, so I basically went by the adage that if it wasn’t giving me calluses, then it wasn’t the right workout. I tried to emulate what they were doing.”
For McGowan, emulation meant a training regimen devised almost entirely of distance running, pull-ups, and push-ups, performed at a daily volume most guys can’t even fathom: Five days a week, McGowan ran for 13 miles, did 400 pull-ups—all from a dead-hang, with no kipping—200 push-ups in two sets of 100, 25 handstand push-ups, and 50 inverted sit-ups. That’s not including heavy bag and stunt work added at random intervals. To be perfectly accurate about the distance run, McGowan stops four times during his morning half-marathon, but considering those brief interludes only exist so he can grab a tree branch or the frame of a high-tension power line pole to snap off a set of 50 straight pull-ups, they probably shouldn’t be categorized as breaks.
It is an absolutely staggering workload that would make most gym rats reflexively call bullshit. We’re inclined to be jaded because we’ve all known the storytellers—the guy who says he can bench 450 but has a shoulder problem at the moment that won’t let him load more than 225 on the bar. But while the 33-year-old McGowan might make his living in fiction, his training regimen is anything but. He’s been an athlete his whole life, playing running back at Fieldston Upper High School in the Bronx, then at Carleton College in Northfield, MN. Back then, he weighed 220 thanks to a training regimen that was heavy on the bench, squat, and clean, and a nutritional philosophy that saw him eating as much as he could to better absorb the hits he’d take during games.
He eats a lot now, too, only for different reasons; his training is so demanding it’s almost impossible to keep the meat on his bones. Now weighing in at a lithe 175—he dipped down to 167 at one point during filming—he has the perspective of having lived in both worlds.
“It wasn’t like I was an overweight 220,” McGowan says. “But the funniest thing is that I don’t feel like I was any stronger back then than I am right now. It was fun to eat that way, but I don’t need it, especially not for what I’m doing now.”
Since McGowan hits 200 pull-ups during his morning run, he pounds out another 200 throughout the course of the day, sometimes in between takes. In fact, 50 dead-hang pull-ups isn’t even close to his max reps—his best-ever single set is 78. The fact that audiences probably can’t tell the difference between lats developed in a gym and the ones carved on a tree branch is beside the point; since McGowan considered training to be a part of his character prep, he wanted to stay as far away from technology—and personal trainers—as possible.