The actor’s martial arts guru and trainer, Peter Lee Thomas, shares his fitness philosophy and smart workout tips.
When it comes to origin stories, Peter Lee Thomas’s is classic. The 37-year-old mixed martial artist, stunt coordinator, and trainer to Halle Berry has his older brother to thank for introducing him to the likes of Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan—not in person, but via posters plastering the brothers’ shared Orange County childhood bedroom walls. These ’80s icons were potent stimulation, catapulting Thomas into the world of martial arts that would become his passion and career. Other sports never compelled Thomas as much as being in the dojo, which was regularly flooded by stunt actors working on shows like 21 Jump Street and the Power Rangers and Mortal Kombat franchises. His education is ongoing, with mentors including martial arts master Dan Inosanto (Bruce Lee’s training partner); Rob Kaman, who Thomas calls “the Muhammad Ali of kickboxing;” and revered boxing trainer Billy White. “Each one of them has a very special place in my heart that’s almost a manifestation of what they taught me,” says Thomas. Thomas’s encyclopedic knowledge of and devotion to martial arts—from Muay Thai and Filipino kali to Kyokushin karate and Krav Maga—is profound, informing his every move.
“My theory on teaching fitness, martial arts, wellness, and longevity is that there’s not one thing that has all the answers. It has to be a constellation of everything,” says Los Angeles-based Thomas of the magic potion he applies to Berry and clients like Sean Combs and Rebel Wilson. His own fitness regimen “changes like the tide,” and that same improvisational approach guides sessions with Academy Award winner Berry, whom he connected with six years ago.
The common denominator is methodical madness. “She never knows what the hell is going to happen that day,” says Thomas. Dependably, the training focuses on resilience and confidence. He incorporates everything from strength and plyometric training to calisthenics and, yes, martial arts.
Berry’s training for each of her films is equally unique, from John Wick: Chapter 3—Parabellum (which Thomas says she “was born to do”) to Bruised, her recent directorial debut, in which she portrays an MMA fighter. “I look at the script as if I’m observing another person’s life and circumstances,” says Thomas. “How would they think? What are the moves in between the moves? What’s the emotional content? When we train, I bring that. It really is 80 percent mental, 20 percent physical.”
In John Wick, Berry had all the “cool guns, dogs, and cinematic movements,” says Thomas. But the MMA fights in Bruised had to look authentic. Berry approached the challenge ecstatically. Over the course of nearly one year, they practiced pad work, jujitsu, wrestling, and judo takedowns, “relentlessly working the reps to where it’s second nature.”
This is where the mental part comes in. “When we feel like we have nothing left, we’ve only reached 40 percent,” says Thomas, adding that if you decide to do 10 pull-ups, cerebrally, you’re defeated by eight or nine. “If you say, ‘I’m gonna do 12,’ you can do 10 no problem. I’ve noticed it’s really a realignment of how you think.”
Case in point: “If I know Halle Berry is watching me do pull-ups, I can always do five more,” he says. “I don’t sit there with a clipboard and say, ‘Do this many reps.’ I actually physically do the workouts with Halle.” She often bests him. “And I love that because it makes me better.”
Beyond their training, the pair also hosts a series called #PHITTalks on Instagram, in which they answer followers’ wellness, longevity, and fitness queries.
Thomas advocates everyone trying martial arts. “It brings balance to moving the body in ways that you really can’t fixed to a machine. That’s the beauty of it—you take it wherever you go.”
Because equipment isn’t required, Thomas says now is the time to dip a toe in at home. Where to start? “It’s being a kid again,” he says, “learning how to cartwheel again, do a handstand, a forward roll.” Next, use video tutorials or simple playfulness to mix patterns.
Need more inspo? In 2020, Thomas launched his PLT App, featuring programs he uses with his celebrity clients. The dynamic movements—from animal-inspired flows to HIIT-style workouts—can be performed with minimal space and equipment.
The A-list trainer also encourages shadow fighting. “Work your sprawl, the MMA version of a burpee. As you stand up, throw a cool knee strike or kick and then, boom, hit the sprawl, throw a jab and a cross, sprawl, then another knee or kick. Do that relentlessly for 40 seconds and take a 20 second break.” After 10 minutes, “You’ll be drenched,” says Thomas. “Smoked.” Even more so with light dumbbells in your hands.
Thomas finds an individual can achieve more advanced fitness by nurturing their relationship with themselves. It’s okay to discover that the practices of influencers or celebrities don’t work for you. “Find your own path through trial and error—nothing ventured, nothing gained,” he says. In fact, “The more fear you feel towards something, I find that that’s the direction you should go. It’s the stuff you avoid that has a lot of those answers you may be looking for.”
Pushing outside your comfort zone can unlock progress, even if it doesn’t feel that way. “Never feel dismantled if you have to put the white belt on again and again and again,” advises Thomas. There’s excitement in being a beginner again with fresh eyes, both in fitness and in life. Ice baths weren’t fun for Thomas initially, but “I always feel better afterwards; like, I can’t believe I almost said ‘no’ to this,” he says.
Breathwork—from yogic “breath of fire” to his favorite, the Wim Hof Method—is a key element in Thomas’s training for its ability to enhance endurance. Nutrition also harmonizes. Like Berry, Thomas practices intermittent fasting, but he adapts it each morning. “I like the unknown and not being so regimented always,” he says.
“Extreme views create extreme problems,” says Thomas. “Like the Buddha taught, pick the path in the middle. Pick balance.” To this end, the trainer’s top tip for working out smarter is actually the opposite of working out: “chasing rest.” He admits to previously believing “more is more” and “faster is better.” But being kind to himself led to greater gains.
His parting advice? “Mix it up and make fitness fun. Switch the way you think about it. You don’t have to work out today. You <get> to work out today.”
Do two to three rounds (with short breaks).