Almost Famous: Working Out With Gunnar Peterson

by: Ed McGrogan November 28, 2009

TENNIS.com

“Do you have to call me that?” asks Gunnar Peterson when I refer to him as “the trainer to the stars.” What else should I call a man who has made his living sculpting the killer bodies of celebrities like Angelina Jolie, Jennifer Lopez, Matthew McConaughey and Penelope Cruz? But Hollywood actors aren’t the only VIPs he’s worked with; he’s also trained some pretty big-name tennis players, such as Pete Sampras and Monica Seles.

So how is it different to work with celebrities who are seeking impossibly beautiful bodies and athletes who are looking to improve performance? It isn’t, Peterson says. “I try to take the approach that everyone really is an athlete at some level,” he says. “I mean we were all on the playground in the beginning. Some of us just stayed there.” So while he designs a different workout for each time he meets with a client, all his sessions integrate elements of total-body strength training, flexibility, agility work and cardio.

Despite his “everyone’s an athlete” approach, Peterson admits that one of the best athletes he has worked with was Sampras. “I mean, the Slams, that’s a given,” he says of 14-time major champ’s evident physical gifts. “But this is a guy who can train the way he trains at the gym, hit a tennis ball the way he hits a tennis ball, dunk a basketball, and also hit a golf ball 300-plus yards.”

As for Seles, Peterson was most impressed by her work ethic. “She’s phenomenal. She has a great disposition and she’s there for the right reasons,” he says. “People who are at the top have no problem being vulnerable and putting themselves in a position to fail. That’s why they have the success that they have.”

Peterson’s training style is intense, but also light-hearted. “There’s no surprise that it’s work. Work is in the word workout,” he says. “But I try to put some levity to it because you’ve got to want to come back.”

I did want to go back after my own tough personal training session with Peterson, in August at a gym in New York City. But I imagine making regular appointments with him would require a celebrity-sized bank account. Because many of us lack those, here’s a look at what Peterson had me do in our session. But be warned, these moves are hard, so be sure to work up to them gradually and do a proper warm-up.

Abdominal Extension
Abdominal Extension

Abdominal Extension: If you want a core challenge beyond crunches or stability ball work, Bandit’s Loops (available at artofstrength.com) are a great option. Once you secure them to the ceiling properly, you can do a variety exercises. This one pushed me to capacity. Start by holding the handles by your waist and, keeping your body straight, bring your arms straight out in front of you while leaning into the handles so your body goes to about a 45-degree angle. Then the hardest part: When your arms are all the way up so they’re directly in line with your body, reverse the motion and pull your arms down and your body back to the starting position. It requires tremendous core and shoulder strength to stay stable the whole time.

The Beat Down
The Beat Down

The Beat Down: In no way does this photo do this move justice (I like to think I was doing it so quickly that the photographer wasn’t able to catch it). Using heavy ropes that are about 2½ inches in diameter (also available at artofstrength.com), grab the ends like you’re taking the reins of a stagecoach and move them like you would if you needed to get somewhere really fast. In other words, you bring them both up above your head and pull them down as quickly as possible. As you repeat in rapid succession, the motion causes the ropes to form waves across the floor. The waves look cool, but it’s hard to notice given how difficult this exercise is. It’s a great core and shoulder workout, but more than anything it’s a quick cardio challenge, almost like running a sprint. Apparently Peterson gave this move its name because of the psychological toll it exacts on his clients. “If we were doing this in the gym I would circuit it in somewhere in the workout and we’d come back to it two, three, four times,” he says. “And by the second time you would cue up differently. You’d be like, ‘Oh yeah, the ropes,’ and I would see the beat down.”

Wave
Wave

Wave: This exercise is like the Beat Down, only slightly less intense and more dynamic because instead of moving your arms in unison, you move them in opposition. It’s kind of like banging a drum: While one arm goes up and then down, the other one goes down and then up. It’s difficult to stay coordinated as you get tired. Notice how the waves I’m creating along the floor aren’t as big or as well shaped as they could be. That’s because I was exhausted.

Kettlebell Lunges
Kettlebell Lunges

Kettlebell Lunges: For this exercises Peterson handed me a kettlebell and said, “Can you do some lunges for me?” It was a trick question. I instinctively stepped straight out to the front and bent down so my legs were at 90-degree angles. This type of lunge, which Peterson calls the “cheerleader lunge,” wasn’t what he was looking for. “It doesn’t mimic any of your movements on a court,” he says. Instead he had me step to all sides without bending so deeply and reach in all different directions with the kettlebell, as if I were going for a ball. In this photo, I was stepping to the side and reaching down to my feet.

Goblet Squats
Goblet Squats

Goblet Squats: Peterson doesn’t like to work just one muscle at a time, and this exercise engages the legs, core and arms simultaneously. Holding the kettlebell on the sides of the handle, you squat all the way down while keeping your heels on the floor. Once you’re down, you pry your hips open with your elbows and you do a curl with your arms. “If you think of that curl from a tennis standpoint, it’s a ton of forearm,” he says. “Instead of being supinated with the palms up, which hits the biceps, with the palms this way you’re going to hit the forearm, which is major for tennis.”

Sarah Unke is TENNIS magazine’s managing editor and fitness guru. She’s still sore from this workout.

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