Muscle mass or mess?

Acquiring the body of a superhero is beyond the abilities of most mere mortals

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By Christopher Muther
Globe Staff / August 25, 2011

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“Turn, kick! Left, up, swing! Right, up, swing! Now . . . down on the floor!’’

By this point in the Blockbuster Body class at Equinox, I was panting like a dog abandoned in a car on a 90-degree day. I was feeling parts of my body that haven’t functioned since Technotronic stormed the pop charts in 1990. Yet here I am, working out in a vain attempt to obtain the body of a superhero.

I’m not the only one trying to emulate Chris Evans’s “Captain America’’ pecs this summer. Not only was my class full (I arrived late and couldn’t hide because the back wall was occupied), but trainers in gyms from across the country are now encountering gents who are specifically requesting Ryan Reynolds’s “Green Lantern’’ abs or Chris Hemsworth’s “Thor’’ arms.

Me? At this point I’d be happy to make it out of this class alive.

As I start a round of sprint drills, I bolt like Seabiscuit but quickly slip on the wood floor and hit the parquet with my elbow and hip, demonstrating the grace of an inebriated giraffe. By the end of the class my elbow is bleeding, my hip is bruised, and I finally understand why I was always picked last in gym class in high school.

I found no sympathy from friends, who simply asked, “Which superhero are you trying to be? Wonder Woman?’’

No matter how much the Blockbuster Body class at Equinox challenged my meager athletic prowess, the gym is reporting it to be a popular addition to its schedule, particularly with men who tend to eschew group exercise classes. The creators of the class say interest can be traced to the new generation of superheroes.

These action films have introduced a new body type for the modern crime fighter: eight-pack abdominal muscles (six packs are very 2005), sculpted arms, and wide shoulders accentuated by a nipped waist. Even Herculean werewolves such as Joe Manganiello of “True Blood’’ and Taylor Lautner’s shirt-shedding “Twilight’’ beast are shaming men to the gym. Then there are mortals, like Ryan Gosling in “Crazy Stupid Love,’’ who have women doing second takes and men wondering how they can transform their bodies.

“I see a tremendous amount of e-mails coming in asking ‘How do I get abs like Ryan Reynolds?’ or ‘How do I get arms like Chris Hemsworth?’ The frequency is [well-timed] to the release of certain movies,’’ says John Romaniello, developer of the recently released book “Superhero Workout.’’ “It’s usually right when the trailer hits, and then three months after the movie is out that the questions begin.’’

Women have been facing this kind of pressure for years. Halle Berry’s “Catwoman’’ may have been box office kitty litter, but trainers say at the time there were plenty of requests for her feline physique. That svelte suit will soon be occupied by Anne Hathaway. But for gents, this emphasis on jaw-dropping brawn is a more recent phenomenon.

Broad shoulders and great hair were all Christopher Reeve needed to take flight as Superman, and it was only 20 years ago that Michael Keaton’s physique was good enough for director Tim Burton in “Batman.’’ The costume did the work. Sadly, those halcyon days are over for American men. The Internet is now clogged with tips on how to work out to achieve the taut stomach and perfect arms of big-screen comic book heroes come to life.

“I think women are seeing these bodies more and more and asking, ‘Why can’t my guy be the same way?’’ says Kristy DiScipio, group fitness manager at Equinox. “I’ll check out a guy, and my husband will say, ‘Really?’ But it’s just the same way a guy looks at women.’’

That’s the reason celebrity trainers such as Bobby Strom and Michael Knight have heard from an increasing number of men asking how to obtain a superhero body. Knight, who trained Hemsworth for “Thor,’’ and Strom, who has trained Reynolds for the past eight years, say that achieving the type of body seen on Imax screens in 3-D is nearly impossible for men with jobs and families.

“We all want that body,’’ says Knight, who trained Hemsworth with a Draconian three-month workout to achieve the physique of a Nordic god. “But we’re working more and we have less time to do it. People are looking for a quick fix, but that will only leave people frustrated.’’

Strom, who is based in Los Angeles and worked with Reynolds to fill out the actor’s lanky frame for “Green Lantern,’’ reports that men quickly reevaluate dreams of looking like a superhero when told what’s involved.

“It’s a very strict diet,’’ Strom says. “I cooked all of his meals. We trained six days a week, 90 minutes a day over the course of several months. And this was a guy who was in very, very good shape when we started. Once I tell clients this, it’s a reality check for them when they realize what’s involved.’’

Making the task of achieving a superhero body a reality is even more difficult given the CGI effects used to enhance what nature and endless exercise have already provided.

“Don’t get me wrong, these guys work very hard,’’ says celebrity trainer Harley Pasternak, who has worked with everyone from Lady Gaga to LL Cool J. “But in some cases, each frame of the film is altered to take the body even further.’’

Despite my dreams, the Equinox class does not promise to deliver the body of a superhero, but simply a workout that’s made more interesting by incorporating the moves of big screen heartthrobs. During my second class (the one in which I don’t fall on my face), instruction includes commands such as “The bad guy is getting away, kick, then punch,’’ and “Now you’re Aquaman and you’re swimming.’’ I didn’t dare raise my hand to explain that I can’t swim well, even though I was lying flat on the floor.

“There’s a group of people who love to work, and then the majority of people hate to work out. They can’t stand going to the gym,’’ says Equinox’s DiScipio. “So this class really goes after the latter category. We can associate these superheroes with it and incorporate both strength and cardio.’’

Men’s Health editor Peter Moore is not exactly a fan of these classes or the idea that the latest round of superhero flicks are shaming men into impossible workouts.

“Here we are. Yet another example of men as the new women and being judged by their bodies,’’ Moore says. “Clearly, given the health risks of carrying a few extra pounds, exercise is important. As long as it’s not a deep psychological pathology of ‘I must be Chris Evans to be a worthwhile human being.’ No one is in favor of that.’’

Christopher Muther can be reached at Follow him on Twitter: @Chris_Muther.

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