Building a Better Action Hero
Credit: Illustration by Paul Martinez

Hollywood's most infamous gym is actually located in an ugly parking lot on the outskirts of Salt Lake City. It's even less hospitable inside: a huge hangar with cinder-block walls, exposed insulation, harsh fluorescent lights. There are no mirrors, electronics, or elliptical machines. Just weights, kettlebells, rowing machines, cables, and more weights. Steel bars are welded to the walls, next to rugged wooden milk crates stamped gym jones.

The only decorations are a few autographed photos of the 300 cast, an autographed poster of a broad-chested Henry Cavill as the new Superman, and dozens of framed commendations from American Special Forces teams. At the gym's center, a giant Plexiglas frame contains this Fight Club quote: quit your job. start a fight. prove you're alive.

This is the lair of Mark Twight, who has salt-and-pepper hair and the skin of a man who's spent most of his life on mountains. Twight made his name as a competitive mountaineer, writing Extreme Alpinism and the punk-inflected memoir Kiss or Kill: Confessions of a Serial Climber. With his Mountain Mobility Group, he runs high-altitude and extreme-cold training sessions for Special Forces. And he trained the Spartans for the two 300 movies.

He's still irritated that people think they used CGI to create the muscle he worked so hard to achieve in the 300 cast. "We're selling this male ideal," he says. "Is it achievable? Fuck, yeah. It can be done. Ninety-five percent of the people who we have put into condition for these roles have done it clean."

In 2006, the week after 300 came out, Twight's website got 13 million hits, after the so-called 300 Workout went viral. It wasn't actually a daily workout but a 300-rep test that Twight offered his cast – as a challenge and a taunt – at the end of 12 weeks of training: 25 pull-ups, 50 dead lifts with a 135-pound barbell, 50 push-ups, 50 24-inch-box jumps, 50 floor wipers, 50 single-arm clean-and-press reps with a 36-pound kettlebell, followed by 25 more pull-ups. In the end, 17 of the 40 actors Twight trained were able to pull it off – and that cast included world-class athletes turned stuntmen, former martial-arts champs, and pro fighters.

For 300, the idea was to get the cast looking "like a gang" that had been training together since childhood. Twight set up the gym as a gauntlet and played on actors' insecurities by forcing them all to train on the same soundstage with their shirts off, watching each other.

"Male vanity," he says. "Fuck – nothing more powerful. Thirty guys in a room, all vying to be alphas. Everyone had on leather underpants and a cape. Nobody wanted to be remembered as the Spartan with the muffin top."

Even the goofball Parks and Recreation star has made the transition to action-hero superstar physique for Guardian of the Galaxy. His advice for getting into superhero shape? "Book a Marvel movie and had a deadline: If you don't [lose weight], you might get fired." 

A trainer's personality can be as dominating – and as grating – as any movie star's, and on-set disagreements are inevitable. Twight and Gerard Butler clashed on the 300 set, and the actor started working with his own trainer. Though Butler looked convincingly gladiatorial in the film, Twight says he lacked the commitment to lean down like his Spartan brethren. "He's not mentally equipped," Twight says. "Gerry does not want to do the work that other people are doing." Another actor says Butler was more willing to train than to make sacrifices to slim down. "Gerry goes straight for the cream puffs, man. He works out hard, then he likes to drink beer. He'll get big, but he'll never get ripped."

Deborah Snyder, who produced the film, points out that Butler is an "extremely hard worker" and that "there's no way to look like that without doing the work." She takes a more equitable view of Twight and Butler's creative differences: "I think you break down whoever you're training a little bit, as part of building them up, and when you have two strong personalities, sometimes there are clashes." Lead actors almost never get fired because they don't get in shape, though sometimes a shoot will be delayed to give an actor more time. In extreme cases, directors will lean heavily on body doubles, air-brushing, CGI, or old-fashioned padded costuming. "One character on Watchmen didn't want to train at all and said, 'Gimme the muscle suit,' " says Twight. "He likes to eat and drink and smoke, so the poor guy had to go through three hours of putting on prosthetics every day."

The trainer admits that there will always be actors who take shortcuts, especially when shooting in a B-movie locale like Bulgaria, "where their relationship to performance-enhancing drugs is completely normal, like walking into a pharmacy."

And those aren't the only drugs actors are known to sample. On the set of the 300 sequel, Twight recalls that one of the original Spartans confided, "You know one of the reasons I lost so much weight on that job? I was doing enormous quantities of cocaine."

Twight shakes his head. "You should have told me," Twight says he told the actor, "because I might have killed you. But I'd much rather have you doing a lot of blow than smoking a bunch of dope."

A Spartan with the munchies would never lean out.

The munchies would have been impossible to appease on the set of last summer's Superman – Twight banned junk food and soft drinks from the set, as he continued to sculpt the new Man of Steel, Henry Cavill. The trainer has nothing but praise for Cavill, who had to keep up his physique for a grueling 127-day shoot. "It's not like you're peaking a guy for three days for his shirtless scene," Twight says. "You're living with this guy for a year."

For the six months prior to the shoot, Cavill worked out and ate according to Twight's plan. The film's producers actually contacted Twight and his wife, Lisa, a trainer, to make sure they weren't giving Cavill anything illegal. With tarnished heroes like A-Rod and Lance Armstrong, it was important to establish that our most American superhero wasn't a juicer.

"Someone in production had me more than pinky swear," says Lisa, leaning on a stationary bike. "They told me that they'd be drug-testing Henry."

Did they?

"They never tested him," says Twight, "but I gave them a list of every supplement, with contact numbers."

Twight says there is a secret to Cavill's transformation. "Yeah, there's a 90-day miracle, but you're not gonna fucking like it," he says, laughing. "It's hard work. It's commitment. Self-discipline. Persistence. And mindful attention to all this stuff. Then you can become whatever you want."