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The Most Innovative Man in Fitness Wants You to Think Outside of the (CrossFit) Box, Too

There’s nothing trainer to the stars Gunnar Peterson won’t try (or invent) in the gym to get the gains that mean most to him — shaking things up and having fun

One of the more interesting features of celebrity fitness trainer Gunnar Peterson’s Instagram feed is the uniqueness and peculiarity involved in a lot of the movements and equipment pieces he incorporates into his training sessions. I mean, where else could you go to see someone of Olympic gold medalist Lindsay Vonn’s caliber performing elevated single arm snatches from the opposite side of what appears to be an incline chest press machine?

To help creatively Vonn-ify your own workouts, I recently had the chance to talk to Peterson about the methods behind his madness, why atypical movement patterns appear so frequently in his training videos and how you, too, can eschew the typical exercise standards (and scripture) for something a lot more inventive — and fun.

You do a lot of outside-of-the-box thinking when it comes to exercises and movements. Do you put a lot of effort into developing exercise variations, or does it just come naturally?

I don’t go out of my way to try to be hokey or corny, or to come up with things that will look cool. I think about the movement — the movement in sport or the movement in life. For example, there are a number of seated overhead press machines. When I sit in those and I do that overhead press — especially if I take a pronated grip — it doesn’t feel great on my shoulder. It kind of pinches. Maybe it’s just that my glenohumeral joint works like that. But when I turn around in those machines, scoot my butt back a little and have my chest on the pad, it becomes a great overhead press movement. It naturally drives my elbows just behind my back, and it feels way more effective from an overhead pressing standpoint. 

If I program that for somebody, it’s not me trying to be cute by turning around in the machine. I find a lot of machines aren’t one-size-fits-all. We’re not all one size and shape, and we don’t have the same joint lengths and injury histories, so you’ve got to keep your mind open and say, “Hey, this might not be perfect, but if you do it this way, it’s closer to perfect.”

I don’t go looking to make everything unique, but if something feels right, I stay with it. If I can’t tap into what I’m trying to feel or emulate from a sports standpoint, before I write something off, I’m going to try to find a way to make it fit.

Do you ever find value in classic strongman type movements, like macebell swings and Hindu push-ups? Do you ever incorporate anything like that into the training of your clients?

I worked with my mace this morning! There’s a company named Acme Sledgeworks, and they make beautiful stuff. I do tons of swings and halos and plate rotations. But if you use a mace, the weight is at a distal point where it’s a very different challenge. I would build you up to that. 

If you’re crushing the halos with 25, 35 or 45 pounds, I may take you to a 20-pound mace and have you do that, and I’d have you choke up at first depending on the length of the mace. You could also use steel clubs by Onnit, but then you progress to the mace, and you have a longer lever arm, so it’s a completely different challenge.

But yeah, I program all kinds of different movements into my training. There’s value in a lot of different movements.

When you’re out in public doing unorthodox stuff, do you ever get the regimented fitness types coming up to you and trying to correct you?

No. First of all, I’m older, and they’re not going to approach me. Second, I’m in shape, so I don’t look like I’m about to hurt myself. I’m also not doing Cirque du Soleil stuff; it may just be an unconventional stance or a different position on a machine, but I’m not crazy with it. If you look like you’re in shape, a lot of people will give you the benefit of the doubt that you know what you’re doing.

The crowd seems to think there are really only three things you can do to get efficient results in each muscle group, and that’s the extent of what you can do. The reality is that there is a wide range of things you can do to actually achieve results in your muscles, right?

The two movements I did today that are “chest” movements were floor flys with Y bells made by this guy in Australia. It’s a chest fly with the floor stopping me from going back too far, so I had safe shoulders. Then I used speed sticks — they’re by the guys who make Tsunami Bars — so there’s give to the bars, and then you can put weights on each end. If you do a step and a popping motion like a snap, they go out and flex back at you. I did those two movements back-to-back for “chest” today. Tomorrow, I’m doing Iron Chest Master push-ups for my chest. Those aren’t conventional chest days for a lot of people.

I’ve been training for 40 years. I just told you what I did today in my workout, and part of what I’m going to do tomorrow for my workout, and I’m fired up about that. I want to know if the people doing the same three movements for every muscle group and in every training session are going to be just as fired up and passionate in 40 years. I’ll give you the answer: They won’t be. They’re shortsighted. They’re going to get locked into that stuff, and that’s a shame.

To say nothing of overuse injuries. If you’re only doing three movements at three angles, you’re gonna get hurt. At some point, something is going to give. You can heal from an injury, but I don’t know if I’m going to get my mojo back to the point where I want to go do it again. So play around with your training and make it a fun day. 

My brother and I were just out on the road, and we went to a Planet Fitness. He asked me, “What are we gonna do?” I told him, “I’m totally good with this being ‘machine Saturday.’” He said, “What’s that?” I said, “Where we just use all these fuckin’ machines in here and try not to hurt ourselves with the dumbbells.” 

He laughed and asked, “Is that cool? Can we do that?” I said, “We can do whatever we want. What are the fitness police going to do? Arrest us?” 

I got on fitness machines that I’ve never tried before, and I loved doing that. I’d recommend that the guys who are trapped in the forums take their blinders off. There’s a lot of fitness stuff to be consumed out there. Try it and spit it out if you want, but at least try it.