Elite Trainer Gunnar Peterson Shares Secrets to Hitting Any Fitness Goal
Gunnar Peterson is happy to talk about his experiences as a trainer to some of the biggest names in TV, movies, and pro sports—just as long as you don’t mind that he’ll probably be finishing up his workout while he’s holding court. With clients to train, a gym to run, and a busy family life to boot, he’s more than adept at multitasking.
When I caught up with Peterson recently, he took the call from the treadmill, audibly moving and breathing heavy as he completed his morning session. Throughout the conversation, he was walking, stretching—then even swinging a mace at one point—but his ability to provide insights never flagged.
Think what you might about the trainer—and he knows there are people who hold less than charitable opinions of him solely because of his high-powered clientele—the man is committed to putting in the work necessary to accomplish his and his clients’ goals. You don’t wind up with as diverse a client roster as his, which has included Khloe Kardashian, Billy Dee Williams, and the NBA’s L.A. Lakers (where he served as the team’s Director of Strength and Endurance) unless you’re willing to hustle and adjust. You need range to be a coach on Revenge Body who also works with the best athletes on the planet. That drive comes from his philosophy to put his work in the gym first. “I think if gym is first, and it keeps getting better, I’m gonna get better,” he says. “Eventually, I’ll be able to take the crumbs of greatness from my gym.”
Peterson shared his thoughts on a wide range of subjects, from lessons he learned in his early days in the fitness industry to his thoughts on the label “celebrity trainer” to what he thinks could be the future of fitness.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
What was your first job in the fitness industry?
Somebody asked me to start training them. I used to work out with friends, and I always consumed more of the information slash misinformation that was out there. So I’d have friends say, ‘G, what’s this? What do you think about that?’ I was more up on things, just because I invested time. Then I had a guy ask me can I work out with you. I kind of looked him up and down like, can he hang, is this a guy I want to train with. Then I said yeah, I go early. He goes, ‘Yeah, no problem. What do you charge?’ And I’m like wait what—you want me to train you? Again, I didn’t understand that. It was very new. That was 30 years ago, right. The industry was still (if it’s not still) in its infancy, compared to other industries. So that was my first job. I never worked in a gym. I never did any of that shit.
At what point did you realize that you could build a career training people?
So I worked with that dude. Then he referred somebody and I started to push off my own morning workouts, so [I was] training two people before work, and then had to go back at night and train myself. Then a lady started training at night. I’m in the gym till 9:30. Then a fourth person asked.
I remember doing the math, you know—and not like a trainer counting on my fingers. I remember going, ‘That’s four people at this rate—shit that’s more about making it this job.’ I quit the job. I was working at a talent agency. I had a chiropractor friend who started referring me to people [to train] in their homes. So I’d zip around and train people in their homes, then go back to the gym. And then I was driving around too much. I realized I was spending way too much time in my car with all these in-homes that I started literally humming the news jingle on AM radio. I thought, holy shit, dude, you’re becoming weird. So I started looking at gyms and I found a place to park it. I thought man, I get really serious about this, I can crush this game. I started taking seminars, started accumulating certifications. And that sort of became a career. So probably three years in.
What is the best way you’ve found to evolve your practice as a trainer?
Consume everything. It used to be reading, but it’s not [just that] anymore. People joke about social media, and what I say is there’s a lot of great information on social media—if you know how to glean it and take deeper dives on the stuff that looks valid. I’m not saying out with the old because some of the old is great. But definitely out with the bad or in with the better, the more efficient, more efficacious. How do you stay relevant if you don’t keep up with what’s out there, and what’s better?
You use all sorts of cutting-edge fitness tools in your gym. At what point do you decide that a piece of gear works for you and your clients?
In the Roger Sparks book Warriors Creed he has a great line. And he’s talking about the military, but I take it into fitness. He said the techniques always transcend the tools. Clearly, the tools are cool, and they’re fun, and they help alleviate boredom, monotony, repetition. But you can do it without that.
I see the tools—I play on them, I go to trade shows, I always try different stuff at different gyms, and then I decide what I think my clients A. benefit from and B. enjoy. Because if I can keep the process fun, I’m going to keep the client.
What’s your favorite piece of gear in your gym?
It’s gonna always have to be the dumbbells. It’s just, it’s just a versatile tool. I love them. I love the Sorinex CMBs. For cardio, S Force by Matrix and CLMBR. That’s the piece right now I say that we’re probably all like, standing in line for.
What do you look for when you take on a client?
Hard work. Work ethic. And it doesn’t have to be fire and brimstone. I have about an 8.1 percent cancellation rate over 26 years [with my clients]. However, in the last three years, I have about a five percent cancellation rate. And this year, I’m running sub-four, which tells me that the people I’m committing time to are the right people.
What’s your first question for clients?
What have you been doing lately?
What’s the most important thing that you’ve learned from a client?
It’s gonna sound cliche, but it’s never stop. Ryan Seacrest—that dude is relentless. Sylvester Stallone has been in here for 23 years. It’s any one of those cliches: it’s not over till you say it’s over, never take no, be relentless blah, blah, blah. As trite or cliche as all that sounds, it couldn’t be more true.
If anyone has ever dismissed you for being a ‘celebrity’ trainer, what has been your response?
I think people in the industry have [done that], I think other trainers feel better doing that. Sometimes it’s strength coaches. I don’t know if it comes from insecurity. I don’t know if it comes from not understanding.
I was gonna do this little thing on Instagram, like a shout out of trainers I respect in the industry. I have a friend I poached from another team to join the Laker staff, so clearly I like him and respect him. But he said to me one day, very specifically, very pointedly, “I’m nobody’s trainer. I’m a strength coach.” I said, “Really? That’s how it is? That tells me a lot about you and your insecurities.” So I told him I was gonna do that little Instagram thing, but I wasn’t gonna put him in, because I know you’re not a trainer. He’s like, “Oh fuck you G, you’re holding that against me.” I said I’m not holding it against you, but you were pretty passionate about that, bro. You see yourself because you’re a strength coach as better than, and I don’t for myself.
What do you think of that label of celebrity trainer?
I think it limits you where you don’t need to be limited. If I trained any other demographic other than a celebrity, you wouldn’t use that to precede the word trainer, right? Like you wouldn’t say “Oh, he’s a housewife trainer, or he’s a little kid trainer, or he’s a lawyer trainer, or he’s a doctor trainer.” So why is he a celebrity trainer?
I just don’t understand the need to label that. Someone might go, “well that’s a good thing. It shows that celebrities could hire anybody. And they’re hiring you and that puts you in a good light.” And I don’t think it does. I think it implies form over substance. I think it implies gloss and glitz over grit. And I don’t think that’s necessarily the case. I’ve got some celebrity clients who you’d be hard-pressed to outwork.
It’s like saying the guy who’s on steroids doesn’t workout. I’ve never done steroids. But the people I know who do them or have done them are working. And I know a couple who’ve done them who don’t really train with any intensity, and they look like people who don’t train with intensity, not people who you think are on steroids.
Celebrity or not, they’re doing the work. Bruce Willis, you may say, “Well, he’s not shredded.” In the Die Hards, he’s in pretty damn good shape. Doing what he does, looking like he looks maintaining that schedule—that’s not by accident. Sylvester Stallone, Charlize Theron, Kate Beckinsale—these are all people who are putting it in regularly. That’s what it comes down to, is how consistent are they? That’s really what we’re discussing here.
Are there any particular challenges that come with training famous clients?
It’s always scheduling. I used to hear this all the time when I worked with Khloe Kardashian, and I work with Kendall and I hear that all the time. “Well, if I had her [resources]…” Shut the fuck up. You would not.
You have no idea what her schedule looks like, they’re being pulled in a thousand different directions. You’re being pulled in two directions and you can’t even make it to the gym. Their phones, their texts, their, emails, people at their door, people sending them shit— like, just unpacking their boxes. They’re in such demand. So that’s the hardest part, scheduling, and making sure they can get from wherever they might be to here. So hats off to them. It’s that old saying that everybody’s fighting some sort of battle that you don’t know, so be kind. I think that applies as much or more to the celebs.
How do you shift gears when you train different populations—say, an older person like Billy Dee Williams vs. your work as a performance coach for the LA Lakers?
The body is the same, right? It’s the head, a torso, four pentadactyl limbs, works in three planes of motion, X number of muscles, X number of bones, then you factor an injury history, goals… I do sit every night and write workouts.
We had an event at a friend’s house yesterday and I was in my car in front of the person’s house, writing workouts and tweaking my schedule. It’s not a cookie cutter workout—I can’t just go from Billy Dee Williams to [NBA player] JaVale McGee. I have to personalize. I shift gears very consciously because I have to. I’m aware when I’m doing it, I’m doing it on purpose, and if I didn’t, somebody would be shortchanged. You can’t just assume that the non-athlete is okay getting shortchanged. They are so serious in their world, sometimes more so. Not to take anything away from anybody, but let’s give credit where it’s due. Khloe Kardashian works as hard as any athlete I know. Period.
Do you have any red flags in the gym? As in, is there anything a client might do that would make you stop a training session and send someone home?
No, I would control the pace. I would take a breather. My mother-in-law just gave me this great thing, I was gonna bring it to the gym to hang it. It says something like “Don’t quit, just rest for a second instead.” I love that. I don’t need to stop the workout. I don’t need to abort the mission. I need to pivot and amend and tweak and all those little words—everything’s a yellow light, nothing’s a red light.
I had a client who said to me, she was in a terrible place, mentally, emotionally, and she goes, “Can we just talk today?” I said absolutely not. She goes, “I’ve just got so much going on.” So I said, “Okay, come over here. Let’s get on this. Tell me about it.” And I’m gently guiding the workout. So we got it done. Did we set any personal records? No. Was it fire brimstone? No. Did she feel infinitely better when she left the way she came in? Yes. And that to me means as a trainer, I’m successful.
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She would never have forgiven herself had she not done it. She would ultimately have held me responsible as well, as well should, if she had not done the workout. The first time you quit’s the hardest, every time after that it’s easier. Somewhere along the line, someone in her world would have said, why do you even go there. Why do you waste your time? Why do you waste your money? Then that would plant the seed and that’s the beginning of the end.
Are there any exercises that you avoid programming on principle?
There’s nothing I don’t program. We used to hear two things: pull downs behind the neck or pullups behind the neck and duck walks were two things that we just don’t do. We don’t allow the knees to go out over the toes.
But if you look at sports, I worked with Pete Sampras for 13 years. I have a great picture of Pete diving for a forehand and he has his knee so far out over his toe. That ankle mobility—damn, why would I not program like that? I’m not saying it’s for everybody. I’m not saying it’s for everybody every time, and I’m not saying it’s for everybody every time under load. But I’m saying let’s work backwards from there.
I play with it person to person—somebody wants it rare, somebody wants it medium, somebody wants it medium well, somebody wants it well. But I base it on what I see, not what they say. I reserve the right as the trainer to make that decision either way.
What’s the most surprising trend in fitness right now you would never have envisioned?
Years ago, when spinning started, the guy who created spinning Johnny G. tapped me to teach it. I taught it for seven years. It was hard to get people to try it, it was always like, “This hurts my balls, this hurts my groin.” I said to the guy who owns the gym where I was, “Hey, I like working with people where we do the set and then they do something like cardio right after—not necessarily contrast training, but like bang bang.” It keeps the heart rate up and I always hear them complain they don’t have time to do the cardio and the strength. After enough badgering, he finally allowed me to put a couple of spinning bikes in the strength training area, and that became the way I trained. I’d have people do a set of squats, and then get on the bike and do 60 seconds, 90 seconds out of the saddle on a heavy climb.
I’m not claiming anything, but I’m saying I would never have predicted that kind of training modality to be as widespread as I see it now. I never would have pictured interval training being as widespread and popular, or HIIT training.
Do you have any prediction for the direction of the fitness industry going forward? Where do you see yourself and your business/practice in 15 years?
I consulted for an equipment company a few years back, we sat in a room and they literally just drained my brain. I said I think gyms are going to be more individual.
If I were starting from scratch and not open to a big box gym I would do it where the gym had pods for lack of a better term. You can go in and you book it online, and you choose your cardio, and they could substitute that whether it was a treadmill, bike, rower, climber, and a bench or a ball, a set of Power Block dumbbells because they’re adjustable, a screen, and in the corner of the screen was your workout. you went in and you’re not your shit out new left. It’s like the showers in the airports in Europe or the train stations or something. You go to your stall, it gets done, you leave, it gets cleaned, you’re out.
What do you use as motivation to train and keep working on your own fitness?
My kids. Indirectly [to serve as] a model. But I want to be that dad. I have older kids and younger kids. When they’re younger, I want to be the dad who is on the field not on the sidelines. When they’re older, I want to be the dad who’s still active with them, even when they surpass me. I want to be the dad who when they say “Hey, Dad, I chartered a boat this summer. You want to come on it?” And I go yeah, and I can still jump off into the water. When it comes grandkid time.
My mom is a fitness nut. I would put her work ethic up against anyone. She’s 83 years old and she’s whooping ass daily. So I I know what fitness does for my quality of life. I know what it does for my psyche, for my mental acuity, for my patience. I’m a better husband, a better father, a better friend, a better trainer by working out. So I do this so that I can enjoy my kids even more, even longer, and even more intensely.
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