Getting to Know: Gunnar Peterson
On May 24, the Lakers announced the hiring of Gunnar Peterson as the new Director of Strength and Endurance Training.
Well known in the training world due in part to his many celebrity clients over 28 years in the fitness industry, Peterson has, for many years, trained anywhere from six to 15 NBA players each offseason, in addition to numerous other athletes across various professional sports.
We sat down with Peterson for an extended conversation to try and better understand exactly why he took this job with the Lakers, what he intends to focus upon and to dig into his methodology for his new role.
Below is a transcript of the conversation:
MT: What’s your mission with the Lakers?
Gunnar Peterson: I was brought in to change the programming to help these players. The goal is: strongest, best-conditioned team in the league, which I’m sure is a lot of people’s goal. But if you see the people behind this one, it’s focused and it’s guys that have been before. When you talk about Magic (Johnson), he’s seen this movie. He knows what this looks like, and that’s good. There’s no convincing. There’s no, ‘Hey would you mind if we try this?’ They are letting this fall under the jurisdiction of the strength coaches, and I’m going to work with the (rest of the strength and conditioning/training staff) to make sure we deliver (players) that are stronger, faster and better all around. Not only that, there’s a mindset that is birthed in the weight room. I’m already feeling it today. These guys were already in the gym, and if you’re watching, they still have pop in their step, they’re still driving and they’re fired up. There’s a lot of fist pumping going on.
MT: You’ve known both Magic and Rob Pelinka for a number of years now; how did that evolve into their bringing you in to work for the Lakers?
Peterson: I’ve been around a long time. I’ve lived (in Los Angeles) for a long time, and done this for 28 years. I’ve worked with NBA guys for probably 23 of those years that roll through my gym. Maybe I was a logical call? Who knows why, but I’ve known Rob, and when he was an agent worked with a number of his clients. I’ve known Magic for 20 years, as well.
MT: NBA athletes need a particular set of traits, often depending upon the position or positions that they play, as to how their bodies should be built up and out. How does that impact what you’d do in this role as opposed to if a non-professional came into your gym?
Peterson: Everybody comes in with a certain goal. Some are performance, some are aesthetic. Even athletes have aesthetic goals, but first and foremost they have performance goals, and those need to be addressed. They have weaknesses that need to be shored up. You have to manage expectations sometimes. They’re not going to go from a month off after the season of doing very little physically and dial it back up to All-Star weekend performance. They may say, ‘I have a shoulder issue,’ but you also notice a hip issue based on the way they rotate. You can communicate it with them or not – some want to know, others just want to get the work done and get out.
MT: Like Magic and Pelinka, you built a successful business for yourself and did not need a new job. Yet you took this one. Why?
Peterson: I wanted this job. I’ve worked with a ton of athletes in a number of different sports, both individual sports and team sports. But there was something about being part of this group. I think it’s a special group, not just from the players and pieces they’re putting together on the court, but as well the pieces that are behind the scenes: Rob; Magic; Jeanie (Buss); Linda (Rambis). There’s a shift going on, and it’s taking on what I think to be a really interesting look that I was eager to be a part of from the ground floor. If I can contribute to (the players) being better … it’s nice to be part of a group, of a team, of working for a common goal.
MT: Are you going to be able to keep up with your business outside of the Lakers?
Peterson: My responsibilities outside of here are my wife and (four) kids, and making sure I earn enough to provide for my family. So I’ll do what I have to there, but my focus is the Lakers now. It has to be, and I want it to be. That’s easy.
MT: Do you know how you’ll build out the rest of the staff here?
Peterson: They’re interviewing to fill (a few spots), and I’ll weigh in as requested of me, and we’ll go from there. I want to know what tools we have, and we’ll make it work. I don’t have any special requirements. Just show me what we’ve got and let’s get it done. Same thing with a gym. If there are two cinder blocks and a broomstick, we’re going to get a work out.
MT: What have you noticed specifically while training NBA athletes, and all the natural talent and physical ability that comes with it?
Peterson: It’s a performance-based demographic. These are the few that will sacrifice aesthetic for performance. If you say to a guy, ‘Your body is going to look unbalanced, but you’ll be able to get 20 and 10 every night.’ They’ll take that. Versus the general population, where there’s a different focus and thrust. These guys now understand that it’s a year-round job. This is not, ‘Let’s roll into training camp and use it to get into shape.’ The Finals haven’t even started yet, and I think there were nine guys in today. That speaks volume about the players as well as the organization. There’s a drive. There’s a mission. And I like that.
MT: Analytics have made a rapid rise both with actual basketball, and more recently, from a medical standpoint in monitoring and anticipating or dealing with player health. How does that intersect with what you do?
Peterson: Especially in the strength role, you have to have an open line of communication with your athletic training staff. They’re so solid with their job, whether it’s diagnostic or observational. They’re going to tell you that, ‘You can load his knee, for example, but de-emphasize the eccentric. Watch out for landings and focus more on push than on pull.’ Whatever it’s going to be, they’re going to give you information. And we’re all on the same team here. Everybody is working towards a common goal, so whatever problem arises, we’ll handle as a group. The staff here outnumbers the injury, so we’re going to win that every time.
MT: How do you get professional athletes, who make a lot of money and have had a lot of success in their field and thus can be very strong-minded, to listen to you?
Peterson: That’s funny, I do a presentation for trainers, actually, that just happened (at an event) in South Carolina. We talked about how to get a toehold in this field. The analogy I always use is a restaurant. I assume the food is good. If someone backed you, funded you, you decided to commit your life to having a restaurant and feeding people, and I’m assuming the food is good. What it comes down to is, what’s the overall experience of the person dining? How’s the parking? How are they greeted? How are they seated? What’s the ambiance like? Is there music? Is it loud? Was the service good? Did they remember your name from the other day? It’s all that overall experience and bedside manner, that’s what makes you unique, that’s your take. When someone says, ‘How’s the restaurant?’ it’s not, ‘Oh, the lobster was terrific, but the service was awful.’ It’s the whole thing. I think it applies to what we do too. How was the workout? How do these guys feel when they’re coming? How are they greeted? How are they treated? Is it a good workout? Are you engaged the whole time or walking away all the time? I’m a believer, in the world that I come from, in terms of one-on-one training, I can bring a lot to this by way of personal attention. By letting Brandon Ingram know, for example, that I know he has X going on in regard to his core, so when we do something I’m gonna start him here, I’m going to progress or regress this way. For Larry Nance, Jr., I’m dealing with (other specifics). You’re just gonna see each guy getting personalized attention that he should get.
MT: Speaking of new facilities … the UCLA Health Training Center, which opens very soon, will have just about everything you could think of for a strength coach and training staff to utilize.
Peterson: From what I’ve seen of the facility, and what they put together, is probably what most people think every pro team has. But in fact, this is head and shoulders above a lot of facilities. It’s state-of-the-art. It’s exactly what I would think the Los Angeles Lakers should have. I think it’s management’s way of telling the team, ‘This is who we are, this is what we stand for, we’re top shelf, across the board.’ Players know that. There’s cachet to becoming a Laker. There’s an honor that goes with that, and I think these guys know and feel that, and the new facility is going to drive that home in a way that will carry over to their performance on the court.
MT: Google can show people some of the athletes you’ve worked with over the years, like Tom Brady, Russell Wilson or Kevin Love. And before you get to those names, you’ll see the high-profile actors, entertainers and entrepreneurs. I wonder what you’ve learned from working with all different types of people, who have different goals, different bodies and different professions, that could influence how you do this job?
Peterson: I think you look at them as people, not as their vocation. You don’t say, ‘I’m training a lawyer so I’m going to do this, or a retail maven so I’m going to do that.’ Now, the physical demands will definitely impact things, from injury history they come in with. But I try to train everybody like an athlete. Not to sound corny, but if life is a sport, if you’re moving to dive on a fumble, or pick up a basketball in transition, or pivoting to grab your toddler so he doesn’t fall into a pool … those are real life movements. There are 800 some muscles, 200 some bones. Your body works in three planes of motion: arms; legs; pentadactyl limbs. That’s what we’re working with. So I’m not saying, ‘OK, she’s just an actress.’ What if she’s in an action film? She’s moving in ways that are not dissimilar from the movements of a safety on a football team. So I’d train the person athletically and what comes of that from the body is probably what they’re wanting from an aesthetic standpoint.
MT: We’re sitting here on the practice court as some of the young players workout, looking at Ivica Zubac … is that red meat for a strength coach? A 19-year-old big man who clearly has room to change his body for the better, and really wants to do the work to get there*?
*Zubac led the Lakers in 2016-17 in total workouts at the team facility.
Peterson: I’m always going to look for explosive movement. At his size, can he not get smoked and be left standing there? You don’t want somebody to do that to you. So, first-step quickness. Keep him strong down low and keep his confidence up. It’s not forgiving out on the court. Nobody’s going to (take it easy on him) as a 19-year-old. To me, the goal is to keep him strong and let him know that he is strong. Keep him capable and let him feel capable, and always shore up the weakness.
MT: With the way the NBA has changed in recent years, many true centers have increasingly been played off the court if they can’t switch onto perimeter players and defend laterally. How can you work with Zubac on that end?
Peterson: We’ll do a lot of resisted runs laterally in all directions. A lot of steps and opening up his body, so if he’s in the center of a clock face with 12 straight ahead, I’ll have him open up to 4, 5, 7 and 8 so he can get that movement and feel comfortable in that transverse plane of motion. And I’m a big fan of doing it all against resistance, whether it’s a resisted run trainer, manual resistance against a band or whatever, so that when he’s able to break free on a court, he’s unencumbered.
MT: Do you anticipate having to consult more closely with the training staff on certain players? Perhaps those with size, who put more weight on their extremities? Or are you more evenly spread out?
Peterson: There’s always (consultation). I look more at limitations and places they say they don’t want (the player) to go. If they say the rest is open, it’s on me to get there. But if a player has a shoulder injury, I have to find out if they can bring it up to 90 degrees, or wherever. Tell me where I can’t go, and I’ll handle it from there.
MT: There was a plethora of talk last year about Ingram’s body, mostly centered upon what kind of weight or mass he “needed” to put on. Isn’t it possible his body is of a certain type – like Kevin Durant – where he’ll always be on the skinny side? Does that matter to you in your position?
Peterson: He just worked out with me 15 minutes ago. He’s not weak. He comes out of Duke, where I know the strength coach because that’s where I went, and I spoke to him. Brandon is young, just made the transition from the college schedule to the pro schedule, and he carried a big load last year*. I don’t ever see him showing up at 250 (pounds). He could be between 180 and 190 his whole life. Some guys don’t have that body type to get really (bulky). If he’s active, moving and playing, he’s never going to be Karl Malone. I’d rather have him be the best Brandon Ingram he can be than a knock off of Karl Malone. The second-best of that is always going to be worse than the best of himself.
*Ingram played 28.8 minutes per game in 79 games, second only to Jordan Clarkson.
MT: And while he won’t be Malone, of course you want him to get stronger, like every player. What are some key exercises you’ll use specifically for Ingram?
Peterson: Lower-body strength, so he can dictate when he’s out there. He’ll be dead lifting. Doing a lot of weighted carries, like he’s been doing already. Weighted lunges in different planes of motion to different targets so he’s strong when he goes left, right or straight ahead.
MT: What’s your understanding of how much you’ll be involved in the nutritional aspect of the training?
Peterson: It’s my understanding that there’s going to be a nutritionist on staff, which I’m a big fan of. I think it’s going to be somebody who looks up their blood, because if not, to a degree it’s throwing darts. Not that you can’t hit a bullseye when you’re blindfolded, but it’s so much easier if you know what you’re looking at. You give them the knowledge of what they can eat, what things will help their body perform better. If you eat this, expect X, Y and Z in terms of how your joints feel, where your energy levels are and how it affects your sleep and they’ll make the right decisions. If you give them the right information, at least they can’t say they didn’t know. ‘Oh, I thought chicken wings were protein.’ Well, they’re not, but good try.
MT: Finally, just making sure you listen to hip hop…
Peterson: Of course I do. I’ve worked with a ton of guys in hip hop, and have a big country star who’s a friend of mine … I listen to everything.
MT: Because you may have to cede control of the stereo to Luke Walton and the players, who go about 95 percent rap for the training room.
Peterson: They can do whatever they want. I couldn’t care less. I don’t hear it. Honestly. I’ve had people in my gym ask if they can change the music, and I’ll say, ‘I’m not even hearing it, go ahead.’