After the film "300" hit the screen in 2006, Google trends showed a threefold increase in searches for "six-pack abs." And every magazine with the word "muscle" in its title shared a version of a "Secrets of the '300'" workout.
But there are no secrets to seeing your abs. Methods vary, but they sum up as: Train hard. Eat fewer calories than you burn. The end.
The sequel, "300: Rise of an Empire," is now in theaters, and the actors recently gathered at a Century City hotel to talk about their physical transformation from ordinary humans to chiseled glory.
Considering the effect the rippling midsections of "300" had on popular culture, it might be surprising to learn that aesthetics took a distant second to developing the actors' physical performance. Mark Twight, the trainer for the movie and owner of Gym Jones in Salt Lake City, said, "Appearance is the consequence of fitness. We very rarely work from anything but a performance-based perspective."
And the actors echoed that. The roles are physically demanding, and that's what they were trained for. The physiques would come as a result of developing the strength, stamina and skill for mock battle.
But still: those abs.
"With '300.' I said everyone needs to be buff," screenwriter and producer Zack Snyder said. "When you look at the drawings from the graphic novel, that's what they look like."
"It's very hard," said Eva Green, who plays the female lead Artemisia. "It's scary at the beginning to do all the squats and lunges, and it's painful, but then it helps you for the fights."
She learned to move quickly and smoothly and to get "into lower fighting stances, because it looks cool."
Green learned to run, and to cleave heads while doing so. Unlike the first film, "Rise of an Empire" has two lethally efficient female leads.
The other is Lena Heady, who reprises her role as Gorgo the Spartan queen.
"I'm a masochist," she said. "I love Mark. I would say, 'I can't,' and he proves that you can. He designs the program in such a way that you can do it, and afterward you say, 'Wow, I did 900 of those, and I feel great!' "
And Twight pushed Heady to the wall. "The harder the workout, the better she liked it," he said. "I kept dialing up the intensity. She loved punching and kicking and wrecking stuff. She was always willing to get down and dirty and work hard in the gym."
That may be because Heady was waiting for her turn to kick some butt. "In the first movie I didn't get to do what the boys did, and I was envious of that," she said. "I love physical work. I respond to it."
That doesn't mean it wasn't challenging.
"If you're not getting hammered, you're not working hard enough," said Callan Mulvey, who plays Greek soldier Scyllias.
Mulvey, who nearly lost a leg in a 2003 car crash, emphasized that the training was designed to keep the film's cast from harm. "They were so safe, and we warmed up so thoroughly. I never had to worry about any injuries."
Twight also pushed the cast with resistance training.
"It was barbell squats and box jumps and kettle bells and pull-ups and push-ups — and you have 25 minutes to complete it all," Mulvey said. "I did it in 22 minutes, and I was stoked!"
Rodrigo Santoro is reprising his role as Xerxes and looks leaner than in the first movie. "Mark has the ability to make the training incredibly hard but fun at the same time. It's a total combination of suffering that needs to be endured," Santoro said.
Green said she especially loved the fight training. "It's so graceful, and I saw how much I improved. You get to the point where you don't have to think about it anymore."
"The combat training was incredible," Mulvey agreed. "You need to learn to hold your wrist back so you get up close but not actually hit them."
He showed off his form by rising from his seat and pretending to slash at my neck with an invisible sword. In real battle, the objective is to separate the enemy's head from his torso, but Warner Bros. prefers to keep cast decapitations at zero.
Workouts were just part of the equation.
"The majority of the trainees came to the project carrying too much fat," Twight said. And so diets were controlled.
"No ice cream, no chocolate, no pasta; not fun," said Santoro.
"Some actors don't realize how hard they're going to have to train," producer Deb Snyder said. "They're amazed at what it takes."
And what it took was about four hours a day: a couple of hours of exercise, plus a couple of hours of fight training. Plus physiotherapy, massages, diet and a lot of sleep.
Nevertheless, all that fight training made the cast members feel tough. "You have those moments where you think: If something happens, I can deal," Heady said. "Or maybe I'll just go start a bar fight."
Snyder said he wanted the cast "to look like they could wrestle an animal to the ground and eat it."
"It was my family that said my arms and legs looked a lot different," Green said.
Alas, the changes don't always last.
"I think everyone went straight to fat camp when we stopped filming," Mulvey said. Santoro said he looked forward to such a day: "I had this vision in my head of a beautiful table full of delicious food and a big bucket of ice cream that I would dive into."
But Twight insisted that sustaining such a physique is feasible. All it takes is good nutrition and consistent hard work. "There is no magic in any 'training regimen' despite what the fitness industry tries to sell," he said. And I once interviewed a crew of trapeze artists with amazing bodies whose entire fitness regimen was "doing trapeze."
But what about the movie? What I was mostly interested in was watching lean-muscled death dealers cleaving the invading hordes in twain. And I got what I wanted to the point where it felt like my Y chromosome would have a meltdown.
Fell is a certified strength and conditioning specialist and founder of sixpackabs.com.