Building a Better Action Hero
Credit: Illustration by Paul Martinez

For much of Hollywood history, only women's bodies were objectified to such absurd degrees. Now objectification makes no gender distinctions: Male actors' bare asses are more likely to be shot in sex scenes; their vacation guts and poolside man boobs are as likely to command a sneering full-page photo in a celebrity weekly's worst-bodies feature, or go viral as a source of Web ridicule. A sharply defined inguinal crease – the twin ligaments hovering above the hips that point toward a man's junk – is as coveted as double-D cleavage. Muscle matters more than ever, as comic-book franchises swallow up the box office, in the increasingly critical global market. (Hot bodies and explosions don't need subtitles.) Thor-like biceps and Captain America pecs are simply a job requirement; even "serious" actors who never aspired to mega-stardom are being told they need a global franchise to prove their bankability and land Oscar-caliber parts.

"If I wasn't playing some young hero who can swing a sword, I wouldn't care what my upper body looked like," says Kit Harington, who wields heavy metal in both Game of Thrones and the new Pompeii, roles he prepped for with twice-daily training sessions and "stupid amounts of protein." Says Harington: "Playing these hard warriors, it would be a mistake to not look muscle-y."

Even the type of muscle has changed. "In the Eighties, it was the bigger, the better," says director Tim Burton. "Think of that shot from Rambo of Sly holding the machine gun and the veins in his forearms bulging." Actors rarely bulk up like that anymore; they're all trying to be Tyler Durden.

Every trainer interviewed for this story cited Brad Pitt's ripped physique in 1999's Fight Club as an inspiration. Previously known for his lush, golden hair, the girls' guy Pitt was reborn as Durden, a sinewy, predatory man's man. "Brad Pitt in Fight Club is the reference for 300," says Mark Twight, who trained the cast for 300. "Everyone thought he was huge, but he was, like, 155 pounds. If you strip away fat and get guys to 3, 4 percent body fat, they look huge without necessarily being huge."


Trainer Gunnar Peterson sculpted Sylvester Stallone and Matthew McConaughey in 2012's Magic Mike.

To get that hungry look, trainers stress calorie-conscious diets and exercises that pump up fat-burning metabolism. No actor can gain 10 pounds of muscle in a six-week period, but he can lean down to reveal the muscle underneath. Trainers talk about the "lean out" – the final, preshoot crash period when actors drop their BMI (body-mass index) to its bare minimum and unveil muscle definition.

But maintaining extremely low body fat for the duration of a multimonth shoot is nearly impossible and often dangerous: The stress can make an actor ill, damage internal organs, and make him susceptible to other injuries. Matt Damon, who dropped 40 pounds without supervision for 1996's Courage Under Fire, got so sick that he was beset by dizzy spells on set, impairing his adrenal gland and nearly doing serious damage to his heart. Even in the best-case scenario, calorie deprivation can exhaust an actor, making him light-headed, distracted, and fatigued.

Since 5 percent body fat is nobody's natural condition, fitness plans are geared to peak on the days of the sex scenes or shirtless moments. To prep for these days, trainers will dehydrate a client like a boxing manager sweats a fighter down to weight. They often switch him to a low- or no-sodium diet three or four days in advance, fade out the carbohydrates, brew up diuretics like herbal teas, and then push cardio to sweat out water – all to accentuate muscle definition for the key scenes.

The last-minute pump comes right before the cameras roll. Philip Winchester, the hero of Cinemax's action series Strike Back, recalls seeing the technique for the first time on the set of Snatch: "Hundreds of extras were standing around," he recalls, "and Brad Pitt would drop down and do 25 push-ups before each scene. I thought, 'Why is he showing off?' " Then Winchester figured it out. "I realized he was just jacking himself up: getting blood flowing to the muscles. I'd always wondered, 'How do actors look so jacked all the time?' Well, they don't. Now we ask: Is it a push-up scene? When I shot that Strike Back poster, I was doing push-ups like a madman, saying, 'Take the picture now! Take it now!' "