At the start of the movie 300, King Leonidas (Gerard Butler) bids farewell to his beautiful wife, Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey) as he heads out to lead the Battle of Thermopylae. In it, 300 Spartans fought to their death against Xerxes and his massive Persian army in 480 B.C.
In the movie scene, Butler is dressed for war, shirtless with a crimson cape flowing behind his broad, chiseled shoulders. As he looks into Gorgo's eyes, much of his sentiment unspoken, moviegoers are drawn into the dramatic, macho moment.
But anyone who has struggled to get fit or stay fit can be forgiven if they get a little distracted here, wondering as they look at Butler in those skimpy Spartan battle duds: How did he get those six-pack abs, that whittled waist, and those rock-hard thighs? Could I ever look that buff and toned?
The Secret's Out
The now not-so-secret training regimen, discussed all over the Internet in messages complete with how-to videos, is called the 300 workout. It's the brainchild of Mark Twight, a self-taught exercise guru and former world-class mountain climber who apparently still clings to the "no pain, no gain" mantra.
At Gym Jones, his invitation-only, no-frills gym in downtown Salt Lake City, where he says there's no air conditioning, no mirrors, and no place comfortable to sit, his mission was to whip the 300 actors and stuntmen into warrior-fighting shape, most of them in eight to 10 weeks. Butler trained for 12 weeks. Twight warns that his Spartan workout is not for the faint-hearted, nor the out-of-shape.
Traditional exercise physiologists who took a look at the 300 workout for WebMD agree with him, and they caution that Twight is not certified as a trainer by conventional organizations.
The 300 Workout
The workout gets its name from the total number of repetitions. But those 300 reps weren't done daily, as some media accounts report, Twight says. Rather, the 300 workout was the finale of months of training, a kind of graduation test, after actors had weight lifted and trained with tools such as medicine balls and Kettlebells (cast iron weights with handles).
It's daunting, and includes these weight-training moves:
- 25 pull-ups
- 50 deadlifts at 135 pounds
- 50 push-ups
- 50 box jumps with a 24-inch box
- 50 "floor wipers" (a core and shoulders exercise at 135 pounds)
- 50 "clean and press" at 36 pounds (a weight-lifting exercise)
- 25 more pull-ups -- for a total of 300 reps
There's no rest between movements and the score is based on total time, Twight says.
But before that graduation test, Twight says, there were months of work, transforming the actors and stuntmen not just physically but mentally, he notes. "Zack [Snyder, the director,] wanted the Spartans to appear as though they had been fighting together since they were children," he says.
When they arrived, the men were at various starting points, says Twight, who trained Gerard, many co-stars, and stuntmen but not the women in the film. "Guys ranged from 40 pounds overweight to being in perfect, lean, hard-fighting shape," Twight tells WebMD.
The regimen was varied based on the person’s starting point, Twight says. "Some days guys did high-intensity circuit training. Some days guys lifted very heavy loads for a few reps. Some days guys did a series of miniworkouts that added up to an 'interesting' total load and volume. Some days guys did hard interval training on the Concept II rowing machine." And some days, the exercisers were asked to train for balance by doing their tasks blindfolded.
"Some days were punishment days where our intent was to break guys physically and psychologically," Twight says.
Training for the actors required 90 minutes to two hours a day, five days a week, Twight says, plus the same amount of time fight training. Stuntmen trained 90 minutes to two hours, five days a week, and another four to six hours fight training, Twight says. Everyone was given just enough food to recover from the workout, he notes.
At the end of the training, about half of those who trained took the 300 test, Twight says. Andrew Pleavin, who plays Daxos, leader of the Arcadians, was the only actor to take it. He finished in 18 minutes and 11 seconds.
Exercise Physiologists Burst Our Bubble
Before you head out to see if you’re good enough to pass the 300 test, heed the caution from William J. Kraemer, PhD, professor of kinesiology at the University of Connecticut in Storrs. “This [program] was done for a stylistic effect, to look like a Spartan," he says. Forget about trying to do the graduation test right out of the box, he says. "The out-of-shape person who starts [the 300 graduation test] is going to be dead the first day. No one could do this without prior training. You have to progress."
Even if you start out slowly, Kraemer recommends proceeding with caution and checking in with your doctor first.
The breakdown of muscle fibers, for instance, may be severe enough to be toxic to the kidneys, he says. "If you have [heart problems] or are not screened, you could have a variety of exertional problems [with this workout], from serious tissue breakdown to heart attack to kidney problems," he says. "It's too extreme for the average person."
Walt Thompson, PhD, a professor of kinesiology and health at Georgia State University in Atlanta, agrees. "This kind of workout is for a very, very small subset of the population," he says. "The person who could probably benefit from the Gym Jones workout is the person who already has a long and extensive 'career' in exercise. It's not for a beginner."
Advice for Beginners
That does not mean if you are a beginner all hope is lost. Thompson and others recommend beginners start out slowly and consider hiring a certified trainer to learn proper form, especially for weight training. The top three certifications, in Thompson's opinion, are those offered by the American College of Sports Medicine, the National Strength and Conditioning Association, and the American Council on Exercise.
Hiring a trainer who is certified by one of those groups, if even for a few sessions, he says, will help ensure you learn proper technique and form in weight training and other muscle-strengthening exercises. "It helps to keep someone from being injured," he says.
Next at Your Local Gym?
Even though the entire regimen is viewed as too intense for the average person, don't be surprised if a modified version of the 300 workout appears at your local health club, says Brooke Correia, a spokeswoman for the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association, a Boston-based industry group that has 4,000 U.S. health clubs in its membership.
"Remember Striptease, the movie with Demi Moore?" she asks. Soon after that 1996 movie was released, striptease pole dancing classes began to be offered at health clubs nationwide, she says.