Captain Jacked: Zach McGowan's Black Sails Workout

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.” 

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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. 

Watch our exclusive behind-the-scenes video with Zach McGowan at his photo shoot >>

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.


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“It’s always been hard for me to work with personal trainers,” says McGowan, who lives in L.A. with his wife, Emily, and daughters, Elsie and Nellie, when he’s not filming in South Africa. “There was a point in my life where I almost went into personal training—I have my own philosophies on a lot of these things that don’t necessarily see eye to eye with other philosophies. I think I got really good results doing what I was doing and a lot of other people got good results doing what they were doing. But I think that’s also the key to fitness. The same thing doesn’t work for everyone. 

“I’m happy to take that responsibility on myself because I really feel that people’s own fitness is their own responsibility. That’s what I like about my workout—it doesn’t put the responsibility on having some machine. Oh, the machine’s broken, can’t do the workout…Someone’s on the machine, I have to do something else. It’s all on me. It’s all here for me to do at any moment. I’m going to do it, or I’m not, and I’m just an I’ve-got-to-do-it-type person.”

It’s an outlook to be expected for the son of a Marine. His father, Vincent McGowan, served in Vietnam, then raised three sons in New York City who all embody their dad’s same spirit of grabbing life by the short hairs. The eldest, Doug, is also a Marine and served in Iraq and in Afghanistan. The youngest, Matt, is a successful marketing guru.

 “Growing up, I only wanted to do one of three things,” McGowan says. “I wanted to either be a professional actor, a professional athlete, or as professional soldier. After high school I knew I didn’t want to be a professional athlete, so that left two eventualities.”

With Doug already serving in a war zone by the time Zach was done with college, parents Vincent and Brenda pushed Zach not to join the military. With one option remaining, he leaped headlong into acting, and since 2004 he’s racked up 39 professional credits, including parts in Terminator Salvation, CSI: Miami, Cold Case, and the role of Jody Silverman in the Showtime series Shameless.

In the years since college, his training evolved; he didn’t need the bulk to play football anymore, so he started to add more body-weight movements to his routine—replacing much of his barbell work with pull-ups and push-ups. In time, the 6′ McGowan transformed from a clean-cut, wide-bodied, and square-jawed all-American type to a wild, long-haired, shredded-to-the-bone surfer type. Whenever Doug came home from deployment, Zach would train with him. During one of their runs, Zach marveled at the ease with which his older brother covered the miles.

“I said, ‘Man, how can you run so far? Why do you do this?’” McGowan recalls. “And he was just like, ‘I just feel it’s better for me if no one in the world can catch me if I needed to run away.’ I wanted to take a little bit of that philosophy with me. That idea that if I needed to get somewhere by foot in L.A., I could. There’s nowhere in this city that I couldn’t get to in about an hour and a half…It really all started with our dad, I think—the whole idea that people are just capable of doing so much more than their brains give them credit for.”

McGowan’s training volume suggests that if he hasn’t pushed the absolute limit of his capabilities, then he’s very close to it. He says he allowed his body fat to fall low enough where it could be considered dangerous, though he admits he’s never kept track of the actual number. To combat muscle loss while filming, he drank a half gallon of full-fat chocolate milk every day, slamming a tall glass at the completion of his run and another right before bed. This one indulgence aside, he keeps his meals fairly clean, taking a pseudo-Paleo approach and eating mostly fish, meat, and vegetables. “I like a nice salty steak…and raw milk,” he says. “I go to the farmers’ market as much as I can.”

Even so, the constant eating hasn’t prevented him from hitting the wall while running unfamiliar paths. Many of his runs are totally random, with no sure way back home—and with no cell phone, even for that just-in-case moment.

“People always ask, ‘Don’t you get scared you’re not going to be able to get back?’” he says with a laugh. “I’m like, ‘That’s what I try to do.’ I try to get lost, to go farther than I thought I was going to go. And I have gotten lost. I’ve gotten very lost. Because of that, one time I wound up running 20 miles…But I let go. I’m not trying to save something for the way back. I’m just trying to get as far away from where I am as possible.

“Then when I get back—it’s because I have to get back.”

NEXT: Get Zach McGowan’s Complete Training Routine >>

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Zach McGowan’s Black Sails Workout

1) 13-mile run, starting with 50 pull-ups and stopping four times to perform 50 more.

2) 50 pull-ups
 upon completion of the run; 100 more later in the
 day, for 400 total—McGowan varies 
his grip and torso positions to prevent his muscles from growing accustomed to the stimulation.

3) 200 pushups in two sets of 100 reps—end each set with a two-minute hold at the top.

4) Handstand pushups—one set of 25, then hold the top for two minutes, using 
the wall to spot as needed. McGowan sometimes adds extra sets throughout the day.

5) Inverted sit-ups—McGowan wears a pair of gravity boots and does one set of 50 sit-ups while hanging upside down, varying his torso position with each rep.

6) Heavy bag training—McGowan ends each workout with a five-minute round of punching the heavy bag. During production, most days include 45 minutes of general fight and stunt training and choreography.