Superheroes come in all kinds of packages these days: comedians like Chris Pratt and Seth Rogen, ex-little guys like Robert Downey Jr. The latest bro-next-door to transform into a man of steel? Ant-Man’s Paul Rudd. To which we say: If a goofball like Paul Rudd can do it, then why can’t we? Joel Stein hires the Hollywood trainer who whips these kinds of guys into shape, finds powers he never knew he had, and finally figures out…
Worlds are being saved by Chris Pratt, Seth Rogen, and Paul Rudd—men who, just a movie or two ago, looked like me, a guy who could probably be the guardian of his own lunch but definitely not a whole galaxy. Now, somehow, these funny schlubs have transformed into the shredded, shirtless muscleheads that guys like me are supposed to mock, fear, and envy, all at the same time. Hollywood’s new generation of superheroes aren’t so much entertaining me as shaming me. Enough, I was shocked to discover, that I felt compelled to do something about it.
Sure, I haven’t worked out in more than two years and eat like a person who hasn’t worked out in more than two years, but if Rudd—who has always appeared to be the same slouchy, undefined mass as I am—can play a six-packed Ant-Man, then I must be able to as well. I figured there must be a Hollywood trainer who specializes in the Geek-to-Superhero Workout. In fact, the transformation has gotten so common that there are several.
The best is Harley Pasternak. He played himself as Megan Fox’s trainer in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (he trains Fox) and was the inspiration for the Simpsons episode Seth Rogen co-wrote about superhero movies (he trained Rogen for The Green Hornet). He tells me he trained Tobey Maguire for Spider-Man,Halle Berry for Catwoman, both Ben Foster and Ellen Page for X-Men, and Robert Pattinson for Twilight, which, as a 43-year-old man, I have no idea whether that was a superhero movie or not. Before Harley even sees me, he tells me that three months will be plenty of time to transform my physique. He says he worked out with Halle Berry for just five weeks. Which means he assumes my body is only 2.4 times as bad as Berry’s. I’m guessing Hollywood trainers aren’t great at math.
I show up at Harley’s West Hollywood office, which is in a garage attached to his gym. It does not seem like a gym that a superhero would use. More like a gym at a boutique hotel where you look around and say, “Yeah, I guess this will work.” When he sees my surprise, Harley says, “Much of what we do is from an IP perspective.” Not only do we live in an age of nerdy superheroes; our trainers talk about intellectual property. I fear I’ll be struggling to finish my set on the bench press and he will get in my face and yell, “The optics on this rebranding project are not market-ready!”
Harley is a bald, intimidating linebacker-shaped 40-year-old Canadian Jew. He played junior hockey and dabbled in bodybuilding before becoming a trainer. Since then, he has co-hosted a daytime ABC show called The Revolution, written seven books, starred in a Wii fitness game, and created a gray camouflage sneaker with New Balance. Inside the heel is a quote inspired by his favorite book, Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning: “The process is the goal.” But he’s also drily funny. I’ve heard every New Jersey joke by now, but when I tell him I’m from there, he says, “I love the architecture.”
I fill out a medical form, and he tells me to leave the “Weight” field blank. No one, he explains, asks a superhero what he weighs. After reading that I drink wine with dinner every night, he tells me that my biggest change will be eliminating all alcohol. I am not happy about this. “When your body is metabolizing alcohol, it’s not metabolizing fat,” he says. “And when we drink alcohol, we tend to make poor food choices.” I am starting to think that when we accept magazine assignments, we make poor life choices.
I will be coming to the gym four days a week for a forty-five-minute session. This is a huge relief. I feared two-a-days in the hot sun plus a lot of running, but apparently this relatively light gym schedule is common to the new superhero regime. I read in People that Chris Pratt did the same thing. And if there’s one actor that most famously embodies the transformation from pudgy doofus (Parks and Recreation) to jacked action hero (Guardians of the Galaxy, Jurassic World), it’s Chris Pratt.
Harley does give me an additional daily workout on top of the training sessions, but it’s for old ladies: walking. Confused, and expecting Harley to suggest a water-aerobics class next, I ask if I shouldn’t be cycling or interval training instead. He says that interval training is slightly better than straight-up aerobics but is basically pushed by people who need something to write about in fitness magazines. He thinks CrossFit is horrible. As are cleanses. He tells me to just walk. A lot.
I must accomplish four things every day: walk 12,000 steps (about six miles); sleep at least seven hours; unplug from all technology for an hour to reduce sitting, snacking, stressing, and sleeplessness; and eat three 400-calorie meals and two half-meals that will each consist of lean protein, fiber, and a little healthy fat. This was another revelation I had while reading about Pratt, who had starved himself to lose weight for Zero Dark Thirty: If you eat the right foods, you can eat almost as much as you did when you were a lazy slug. Just not the same stuff. Still, it’s not as restrictive as I feared: There’s brown rice, soba noodles, double-fiber bread, potatoes, bananas, grapes, and coffee (with skim milk). I’ll soon get two cheat meals a week. Every night, I have to e-mail Harley telling him everything I ate and whether I accomplished all four daily goals.
Harley says that about 70 percent of my results hinge on sticking to the diet. Looking like a superhero, it turns out, isn’t so much about effort as about restraint. (I’m sure some superhero has said that in a movie at some point.)
I will not get huge, but I will be defined, and if I’m lean enough, I will look huge on-camera. “Putting on ten pounds of muscle would take years without drugs,” Harley says. And since I’m “not naturally an NFL lineman,” as he kindly puts it, Harley is going to focus on making me proportional, which he says is typical for most actors. “Eric Bana is one of the rare big dudes,” he says. “And Chris Hemsworth and The Rock.” But he can make me look like a camera-ready Tobey Maguire or *Fight Club-*era Brad Pitt. After three seconds of deliberation, I choose Maguire as my goal. I believe I am the first person to do that.
On my way home, I stop at Whole Foods to buy all the ingredients for the recipes in The Body Reset Diet, one of Harley’s books. I spend more than $200, my cart overflowing with spinach, apples, pears, nonfat Greek yogurt, oranges, limes, quinoa, chia seeds, flax seeds, frozen berries, almond butter, tuna packed in water, chicken breast, flank steak, sliced turkey, smoked salmon, broccoli, protein powder, egg whites, freeze-dried peas, and very thin crackers made in Scandinavian countries.
When I tell my lovely wife, Cassandra, that I’m going to look like a superhero, she is not as excited as I would be if she told me she was going to look like a superhero. What she says is, “Oh, great. Now I have to get in shape.” Then she complains that we have to cancel all our social plans, which not only do we not have to do, but we don’t have any social plans. She says she’s tired and heads to sleep early, then gets in bed with my 5-year-old son. No superheroes, I realize, are married.
Other than a few CEOs and a couple of rich guys’ wives, everyone except me at Harley’s gym is very famous. I’m not allowed to name names, but there are occasionally paparazzi outside. There used to be more, until Harley put one in a choke hold.
Harley won’t be my day-to-day trainer, though. That task will fall to a guy named Dre Hudson. Dre is my height, but his muscles are four times as big as mine. He’s a fortysomething black man with a huge hipster beard and a collection of sleeveless hoodies.
The workouts are hard but not miserable. We use dumbbells and machines almost exclusively and never too much weight. There isn’t much resting unless I’m desperate. There are a lot of sets (usually eight per exercise) and a ton of reps (usually sixteen to twenty, but sometimes many more). At one point toward the end of the three months, in the middle of a set of one hundred lat pulls, I hit seventy and try to psych myself up by thinking, “Only thirty more!” I giggle when I realize how ridiculous that sounds. I always finish, though, even if Dre has to drop the amount of weight or push my arms for me.
No two sessions are alike or predictable, and I have no idea when they’re going to end, but after a while, I figure out that basically we do two or three muscles a day, about 160 reps for each one, along with some form of sit-ups. Most of the exercises are for my legs and back, which I never bothered with before, since people rarely see those parts of my body. I lunge up and down the driveway leading to the gym, often with dumbbells, careful to avoid Harley’s Tesla and hoping his neighbors don’t see me.
Dre doesn’t do any stereotypical trainer screaming or “C’mon, one more, dude!”-ing. Usually he just claps to get me to hurry up or rolls his eyes until I do the exercise correctly. But when I can’t figure out how to do a core exercise that involves lifting my torso and legs into a V and passing a giant yoga ball between them, he says, “Picture yourself as a backup dancer for Pink. You and three other men are dressed as waves, in just Speedos. You have to go up and down with the other two, and you’re the only straight one, so you have to represent or Pink is going to throw you off the tour.”
I finish the crunches.
How to Get Abs Without Ever Doing Another Crunch
Even in the second grade, when I was in the best shape of my life, I hated crunches. I stared up at the sky while the rest of my soccer team flailed in the AstroTurf and made my peace with my one-pack.
I’ve always known crunches were bullshit, and finally the rest of the world is coming around to my Truth. I still see the occasional dude doing 200 crunches on the mats at the gym, but Rocky poseurs have dropped off dramatically in recent years. Now, all the cool kids are planking, squatting, and eating right.
Be the plank “Traditionally, you would crunch your way to training your abdominals. But the phenomenon of the core has become more and more popular, and the core is more than just the six-pack in the front,” Harley Pasternaksays. Pasternak knows. He’s the author of 5 Pounds, and he’s the guy the beautiful people go to when they want to get more beautiful (including GQ’s Joel Stein.) Pasternak says doing a lot of crunches can actually give the illusion of a belly and create an imbalance in your midsection that leads to postural problems. Instead, he says you should work your whole core by planking.
Abs are created in the kitchen
Joe Lazo, six-pack-haver, personal trainer, and star of the new Bravo show Work Out New York, is in favor of moves that require you to stabilize yourself, like squatting. Lazo suggests doing squats simultaneously with other compound movements, but he says that ultimately it comes down to diet. “Your abs aren’t going to bulge out of your body by doing more and more crunches,” he says. “Abs are created in the kitchen. If you’re still eating candy, you’re never going to see your abs.”
That’s the meanest thing anyone has ever said to me.
You’re already doing things that work your core—do more of those things
David Kirsch, a fitness expert whose new book, Ultimate Family Wellness, hits shelves in December, is gentler on the crunch but still no great fan: “I’ve found much more effective ways to tone, reduce, and strengthen your belly,” he tells me. Kirsch suggests planking or working with a stability ball. He says even push-ups work your abs, allowing you to hit pretty much all your beach muscles in one move.
Crunches are still better than nothing
If for whatever reason you actually enjoycrunches, well, that’s fine, too. When I call up trainer Gunnar Peterson, it’s 5:30 A.M. in L.A., and Peterson is already mid-workout. (I am mid-muffin.) I ask Peterson if crunches are still relevant. “Of course they’re still relevant.” Dang. “I don’t think crunches are the one and only, but crunches are still working your core. You’re doing a crunch when you get out of bed, and when you get out of your car.”
So, bottom line: Crunches are probably still better than a belt that may or may not jiggle fat away. But there are other—arguably better—ways for those of us who hate them to get similar results.
Dre has no doubt he can give me enough muscle to look like Maguire did in Spider-Man. He just worries about me sticking to the diet, which many of his clients fail to do. “You walk out of here, I don’t know what happens. Is your 5-year-old going to call you a fuckhead and you’re going to get angry? And wonder where he learned the word fuckhead? And go eat a cheeseburger? Or have a drink?”
Instead of a cheeseburger, I am eating a lot of lean protein: eighty grams a day of fish, shrimp, chicken, pork loin, buffalo burgers, or flank steak. I am eating so much nonfat Greek yogurt in smoothies and snacks that I fear that when this ends, Harley is going to hold a tub of Fage up to my face and cackle, “It’s made of people!”
Except for the first two days, when I was mistakenly using the girl-size recipes on the left-hand pages of his book instead of the superhero-size ones on the right, I never feel like I need more food at the end of a meal. But I do get hungry two hours later, even though I’m eating five times a day. I used to be able to eat something in the morning and go all day without eating if I was busy. Now, instead of being the background player to my brain, my body is running the show. If I don’t eat, I get cranky and have trouble concentrating. My body is a demanding bitch.
And since it’s going through so much change so rapidly, I can’t stop thinking about it and looking at it. I’ve only been training for ten days when I notice a muscle between my neck and shoulder that I’ve never had, and a rippled line between my chest muscles.
On Valentine’s Day, a month into my training, I drink a couple of glasses of champagne and eat a quarter of a cupcake with Cassandra. When I send my e-mail to Harley that night, I consider lying. I realize this is idiotic: I’m the one who wants to get into shape; he’s just helping. Then again, avoiding confrontation is exactly why I lie all the time. Still, I decide to confess my minor drink and cupcake transgressions. His response: “Was it worth it?” I tell him it totally was.
Harley is gentle in his e-mail tone, but the level of detail he provides is suffocating. Store-bought hummus has too much oil; I need to make my own. After I have soup, he e-mails: “re the soup…was there enough chicken?” When I’m 3,000 steps shy of my goal one day, he asks why I’m so busy that I can’t walk. I go out in the rain at 11 P.M. and walk up and down my block for thirty minutes, piling up 2,000 more steps. Walking 12,000 steps, it turns out, is almost impossible to fit into a normal life.
Eventually, however, I figure it out and even grow to like it. To my shock, the supermarket I always drive to is only a fifteen-minute walk. The great coffee place is ten minutes from my son’s school. As I see my neighborhood on foot, I see it in a new way. I start to recognize constellations for the first time in my life. I call my parents and sister a lot. I run into friends. I listen to audiobooks, including Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, and at least momentarily believe that I have found meaning in walking. When I walk by restaurants and see people eating fries and drinking beers, I am surprised not to feel envy. I feel something far worse. I feel superior. These, I think, are weak people. They’re not even trying to try.
About halfway through my training, I show up at the gym and Harley yells, “You look fit!” Dre tells me I have guns. I also have a real six-pack, which I flash at Dre, who tells me that I need to buy a groomer for my excessive body hair. I go on Amazon, spend twenty minutes figuring out what a body groomer is, and buy one. I also have amazing new fitness gear, since Harley has a partnership with Fitbit, and they sent me their high-end smartwatch and their fancy scale. Harley isn’t thrilled about me having the scale, but luckily no man can deny another a free gadget. Including the pile of hair I groom off, I have lost fifteen pounds. I now weigh less than 165, the lightest since I first became five feet eleven. I have to wear a belt not only for my pants but also for my workout shorts.
“You’re so little,” Dre says. “You’d be in jail and they’d just pass you around.” This does not sound very superhero-like to me.
By the seventh week, I’ve developed those weird indentations by my pelvic bone. Basically, I look like an Abercrombie & Fitch model’s dad.
You’d think all these new muscles would be great for my sex life, but this project has actually been disastrous for my marriage. Women don’t care what men look like nearly as much as they care if men are turned on by how they look, and I have made Cassandra feel self-conscious.
“This has really backfired on you,” Cassandra confirms. Not only is she angry about my self-focus and all the time I spend walking, shopping, cooking, eating, and lifting—she doesn’t even like the results. “You have a ripping six-pack, but it’s a little gross. You ever see those pictures of Madonna? She’s like 50 and made of sinew. You look like that.” My head looks big and my wrinkles look deep, she adds. “Plus you’re in a pissy mood because you’re working out and hungry all the time.”
When Cassandra and I do have sex, which is far less often, it’s in the dark. There are no fun outfits. When I tell her that all the women at the gym are interchangeable in that skinny and no-curve way that I don’t like, she thinks I’m telling her how hot they are. I fear my training might lead to a divorce. At least if I were to get divorced, this would be the best possible time for it. I’m in divorce shape.
My post-divorce dating problem would be that I’ve become boring. I am so excited to talk about my transformation and the details of my diet that it makes me a lousy lunch date, especially because that lunch is always sushi. I tell Cassandra that I can find something to eat at any restaurant she wants to go to, but that doesn’t help. “I hate those women who are like, ‘It’s okay. I can go out to eat,’ ” she says. ” ‘I’ll order a salad with no dressing, and I won’t drink.’
I don’t want to go out to eat with that person. That person isn’t fun. That person makes me feel bad for eating steak frites. You make other people feel gluttonous.”
Chris Pratt was on the cover of GQ two months ago, and in the article he said his wife liked it better when he was heavier, because he was more fun. Being in shape, apparently, has downsides I’d never had to consider. Harley said the spouses of some of his clients get so jealous about the new imbalance that they start baking desserts for them. Seth Rogen was once asked about his Green Hornet-era physique, and his advice was, “Stay fat, people. That’s my motto. It’s no picnic.”
Harley declares me superhero-ready at the ten-week mark, two weeks ahead of schedule and only five behind Halle Berry.
Dre says I look just like Tobey Maguire in Spider-Man, maybe better. He is particularly impressed with my shoulders. “Your shoulder cap looks yummy,” he says. “Like I want to eat it.” He asks me if I took any steroids or testosterone. It’s the nicest thing he could say. He often wonders if some of the huge superhero actors do.
For my GQ photo shoot, Harley wants me to have the same advantages as an actor—maybe not digitally enhanced abs, but at least a tan and a professional body-makeup person—but my editors want me to look natural. Which makes it even more important that I follow Harley’s advice to watch my salt intake the day before the shoot and eat no dairy the day of. He tells me to do push-ups until exhaustion right before the photo session. That morning, I weigh 160.5 pounds.
When the shoot ends at 5 P.M., I drive straight to a barbecue restaurant where I buy $90 worth of ribs and brisket, pick up a $30 bottle of Burgundy, and spend $35 at a local ice cream place; I finish the meal with a $15 bar of Spanish dark chocolate and a glass of twenty-one-year-old Macallan. I am like a released prisoner who has done time for insider trading. Over the next week, I eat every type of dessert, a dish called “duck in a can,” fried nuggets of foie gras, and an egg-and-bacon sandwich where the bread is replaced by pancakes and the eggs and bacon are replaced by extra eggs and bacon. I stop weighing myself and looking in the mirror. I have left the land of male vanity, and it’s a relief.
But to my surprise, I also work out three times the next week. And after two months, I still am. My Fitbit is still on, and I’m still trying for 12,000 steps a day. When I get hungry, I eat an apple with almond butter. And those freeze-dried peas. I avoid bread and pasta. It’s not that I want to try to keep this six-pack—though it’s somehow not completely going away—but doing the healthy thing no longer seems so hard or like so much of a sacrifice. Other than the desserts, none of the fatty, carby food is quite as good as I remember. My willpower isn’t quite superheroic, but it’s a lot stronger than it used to be.
I once interviewed Jim Carrey, and he told me that he hadn’t worked out in a long time or watched his weight, but that he could get in shape in two weeks. That sounded cocky and ridiculous, but now I know it’s true. “You know how to do this now,” Harley tells me. “You could get back in that shape in two weeks if you needed to shoot gay porn.” It’s true. But I’ve also learned that if I do it, that’s the only kind of sex I’ll be having.
By Joel Steins