It’s Friday morning, and Gunnar Peterson is cruising in his 1993 Land Rover Defender—rebuilt with a new engine—en route to the UCLA Health Training Center, where he’s going to link up with “the guys.” This is, without question, the most casual mention of the players on the Los Angeles Lakers…ever. As the team’s director of strength and endurance training, Peterson is at the facility on game days between 8 a.m. and 1 p.m., then back again at 4:15. On this particular day, he’s been up since 3:45 a.m., having already breezed through his own workout and also trained two other clients.
Peterson’s client roster extends beyond the red-hot Lakers. He’s a household name in the health-and-fitness industry, and has put everyone from the Kardashians to Sylvester Stallone to Kate Beckinsale through the wringer at his Hollywood gym—which is where you’ll find him when he’s not deadlifting with Dwight Howard. Although he’s coaching a host of A-listers, he’ll cast away anyone—yes, anyone—who doesn’t commit to his program.
“I’m at a point where I really just work with people that I like to work with,” he says. “Not that it has to be ‘fun’ for me, but I have to get something back. I put a lot into my prep, the way my gym looks, the presentation, and the overall experience.”
Peterson’s dedication to fitness dates back to 1989, when he was a production assistant on the sitcoms A Different World and My Two Dads. A morning regular at his local gym, he was approached by another guy who, having observed Peterson in action, wanted some tips for getting in better shape. “When he asked me what I charged, I couldn’t believe it,” Peterson says. Thirty years later, he’s amassed a celebrity roster and is in his third season with the Lakers.
“What I love about what I do is that it’s not a cookie-cutter job, and I’m not trapped doing the same thing every day,” he tells me. “Even if I’m working with the same people, the workouts themselves are different and everyone’s energies are different.”
For the purposes of our interview, however, I flipped the script on Peterson, asking him about his own wellness routine. As it turns out, he wakes up freakishly early, is still figuring out how he feels about plant-based proteins, and cannot get enough of his evening dessert.
GQ: What time does your day get going?
Gunnar Peterson: 3:45 a.m., which means I have to handle my sleep differently than other people. It’s an ongoing thing, right? Some people have a problem getting their training up to speed, some people have a problem locking their nutrition in, and some people just can’t drink enough water. My problem is my sleep and my other forms of recovery. Starting about three years ago, I got really diligent with recovery protocols. NormaTec massage, Headspace [a meditation app], all of those things.
I love that you just grouped Headspace into the recovery suite. Do you track your sleep?
Yeah, I use SleepScore. I try to think of it like this: I’m trying harder, and I’m not perfect at it, but I’m doing better. If I’m keeping tabs on myself and I’m holding myself accountable and I’m not doing it in a stressful way, then I’m already way better off than I was. Sometimes the knee-jerk reaction is to be angry at the app when it tells you that you’re not sleeping well, but I can’t be angry at it. It’s like getting the test back when you know you didn’t study. You can’t be pissed that you got a D, you know? You earned that. You didn’t do the work.
Do you eat before you leave your house at the crack of dawn?
I eat a Split, which is essentially nut butter and jam. That way, I don’t train while fasting. I used to do that for years. I talked to my nutrition guy and told him, “I just feel like I come in flat all the time.” So he told me to try this routine. The nut butter slows the absorption of sugar, so you don’t spike and then fall off. I feel like I get more out of my workouts with this.
I also drink 25 ounces of water first thing when I wake up. We know so much about hydration, especially if you read some of the stuff that comes out of the Gatorade Sports Science Institute. Guys are making way better choices on that front nowadays. Some of the guys I work with are drinking, like, six liters a day.
Whoa. And after you drink all that water?
I get in workout clothes and get to the gym by 4:30. I answer any e-mails, then I’m on the bike or doing another form of cardio by 5:00. I do 30 to 45 minutes of cardio unless, God forbid, I have a cancellation, and then I’ll knock out an hour. But cancellations are rare.
Are you a post-workout-protein-shake kind of guy?
Yeah. I use Transformation protein powder and water. It’s egg and pea protein.
Do you have any feelings on the whole I only eat plant-based proteins trend?
I think you have to go with what works for you. I watched the movie The Game Changers[a film about the benefits of a plant-based diet], and of course you’re swayed right out of the gate. But then you’ve got to pump the brakes and look at it for what it is. It’s interesting, there’s definitely some take-home information, but it’s not going to swing me all the way.
So what happens after the protein shake?
At 10:30 a.m. I have another Split, and then around 1:00 p.m. I have lunch, which is typically salmon and a carb. The carb is usually a yam or rice. Sometimes quinoa. I also like eating spinach and sliced tomatoes.
And for dinner?
I get home and I usually have something right out of the gate, maybe some chicken. And then I’ll have dinner with the family, but I eat my own stuff. They’ll do Taco Tuesday or get pizza. And of course, who doesn’t like that stuff? I just don’t like the way it makes me feel, so it’s not worth it for me.
I respect the honesty. For anyone who wants to be better in the gym, what kind of input would you give them about how they should be eating?
Shoot for foods that are as close to their natural state as possible. Stay away from deep-fried, stay away from processed. Stay away from words you can’t pronounce and foods that have more ingredients than there are digits in your mortgage payment. Every small step makes a difference, so if you can’t get all-natural, perfect stuff, that’s fine. But see if you can get close. If you get close on a regular basis, that’s going to net out pretty well.
Can you leave me with one more piece of advice?
You have to be honest in your evaluation of yourself. Give yourself credit where it’s due and be critical when it’s needed. Look at the different components that make up health and wellness. Look at training, nutrition, hydration, rest and recovery, managing stress levels, and to a smaller degree, supplementation. Put some time into that and try to have each of those aspects balanced out. Sometimes you’ve got to take it easy on your strengths and really focus on the weaknesses. And I would say do that not just with your body, but with your overall wellness—it’ll yield better performance in every aspect of your life.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Real-Life Diet is a series in which GQ talks to athletes, celebrities, and everyone in between about their diets and exercise routines: what’s worked, what hasn’t, and where they’re still improving. Keep in mind, what works for them might not necessarily be healthy for you.