Ask 41-year-old Sterling K. Brown, who just took the Emmy for lead actor in a drama for his role in “This Is Us,” how he developed his awesome abs and a spectacular devotion to lifelong fitness, and he’ll point to his relatives.
The aunt who paid him to do sit-ups, a dad who died way too early, and an older brother who challenged him to keep what he had. The father of two, who stars in the upcoming biopic “Marshall”— out Oct. 13 — and the 2018 movies “The Predator” and “Black Panther,” talked to us about those abs, how he bans bad food from his house, and his crazy-hard workouts.
1. Your killer abs got a big buzz when you posted on Instagram earlier this year. How’d you get them?
I’ve had ‘em for a long time — since age 6. As a kid in St. Louis, I remember playing shirts versus skins at summer camp — and not wanting to be a skin because I didn’t like my body. So when my aunt bought us a sit-up board, it was an opportunity. She would always have competitions between us kids. She’d give 10 bucks to anyone who could do 100 sit-ups. For a 6-,7-, 8-year-old, that was a lotta money! So I once did 200 sit-ups without stopping — and got $20. From that point forward, I would watch music videos on MTV and try to do sit-ups for an entire song.
2. So you're not one of those actors who pigs out most of the time and then gets fit to play a certain role?
Right. I told my wife [actress Ryan Michelle Bathe], “You know, I’m thankful that most of these roles I get have very little to do with the way I’m built.” And she said, “Are you kidding me? I would love to get roles because people want to see my body.” So we have an inverse relationship to the way we see our fitness. But for me, it’s always been about being healthy.
I’ve seen the men in my family all start out young very fit and healthy and over time let themselves go. I always had it in the back of my mind: It’s easier to maintain it than to lose it and try to get it back. I was a good high school athlete, played football and basketball and always had a decent shape. I weighed 197 when I graduated and am 190-something right now. I just wanted to stay slim, stay fit and stay tough to show my family that there is another way of aging. That you can age without growing old — that you can maintain a sense of vivacity to your lifestyle. Age doesn’t have to keep you from being an active participant in life.
3. Did it work? Did you influence them to get healthier?
Maybe … to a small extent. The lifestyle in St. Louis, Mo., is not very active. Of my four siblings, my 54-year-old brother, a pharmaceutical salesman — former track star, martial artist, college football player — will hit the elliptical. He was built like an Adonis — not anymore — but he probably inspired me more than I did him.
He would always tease me. "By the time you hit 30, you won’t have those abs anymore. You’ll be going out to all these corporate dinners and you’ll see.” I said, “OK, we’ll see.” When I turned 30, I told him, “Hey, man, I still got ‘em.” Then he said, “Just wait until you turn 40.” So when I turned 40, I sent him a picture just to show him I still had 'em.
4. You're over 40, an age when some people start slowing down. Have you changed anything?
I still do something nearly every day. I want to hold on to what the good Lord has blessed me with — that’s my motto. I haven’t slowed down — still love basketball, running, working out. But now, instead of banging in the paint, I’ve become more of a perimeter player to reduce body contact. It’s a big change. Until age 38, I played with reckless abandon, or “RA,” as we called it in high school; go all-out, with total disregard for your body, and it will take care of you. But at 38, I noticed: Driving the lane and playing outdoors on the pavement instead of playing indoors on the wood, my body would tell me: “Hey, Brown, why you doing this to me? Stop beating me up.” I’d go for a 7-8-mile run on the street, instead of the treadmill, and every time, my body would say, “Hey, Brown …”
So a good rule of thumb: Beware of the pavement. The recovery time on a more forgiving surface like wood or dirt is much less. There is no sense, with the busy schedule I have now, to go through the day hurt. A little sore, OK; hurt, no.
5. Do you do any fitness activities with your kids, or are they too young?
Actually, I’ll take my 6-year-old son out and we exercise together. I’ll push him just enough to where he wants to come back and do it again. We’ll go a park with a one-third-mile track. He likes running. I’ll say, “OK, big boy, I’m going to give you a 30-second head start. Then, Daddy’s going to go all out to try to catch you.” And he takes off. He’s fast. Sometimes I catch him, sometimes I don’t.
Afterwards, we might do wall jumps, pushups, squats. At some point, he’ll go, “Daddy, my legs don’t work anymore.” And I’ll say, “You can take a break while I keep going.” I try to expose him to fitness at an early age — not just to sports — but what it means to live a healthy lifestyle. That way, although he may not be able to play sports the rest of his life or have the facility for it, he can always take care of himself. That’s of tantamount importance
6. What’s your diet strategy?
I remember at 16 doing a 7-mile run and was so proud of myself that I came house and made myself a pitcher of Kool-Aid. Now that doesn’t even make sense.
I began to get away from the fast-food lifestyle when I became an actor in college and grad school. There was an emphasis on your body being your instrument, and I began to understand the car analogy of thinking of food as fuel you put in your engine. If you want to go long and go hard, you have to give it the best gas possible. Then, about 10 years ago, I read a book, “Healthy at 100” by John Robbins, which follows pockets of centenarians across the globe and what they have in common. The conclusion: The longest-living ate a plant-based diet with lean meat and whole grains. They didn’t do hard-core, beat-your-body-up exercise but had built-in activity in their lifestyle that keeps them supple and mobile. That book sort of flipped the switch in me, made me think about the legacy I’ll want to pass to my children.
One big thing: Water. I’ll drink almost a gallon a day — great for my skin. Another rule: Keep out the bad stuff. No white pastas, flour or sugar in my house. We’ll eat brown rice, not white. Pop-Tarts used to be a regular thing, but if I opened the box, I’d probably finish it all. Keeping it out of the house is the key
7. Your father died when you were 10. Did that play any role in your health consciousness?
Yes — a big one. My dad had [Type 2] diabetes, smoked, drank and passed from a heart attack. So I’ve never smoked a cigarette. I enjoy a cocktail every now and then but have no need to have a drink every day. I’m very careful with salt. We sweeten everything in our house with brown rice syrup, agave and honey, but no sugar. My kids have never seen a sugar-frosted flake. My son wouldn’t know what Cap’n Crunch was if he looked at it.
I’m not just looking good for the sake of looking good. I want to live a long, healthy life. The life expectancy of the African American male is the shortest of all groups in this country, and I don’t wish to be a statistic. I want to be around to see great-grandchildren — and be able to enjoy them.
The secret to Sterling K. Brown’s Instagram-ready abs
Actor Sterling K. Brown’s schedule can be hectic, and his workouts vary week to week. “No week is the same,” he said. “I do a lot of muscle-confusion body-weight stuff, where I keep it different so my body doesn’t get used to any one thing.” He said he aims to balance it all by working out most weekdays and “taking the weekend off to hang out with the family.” Here’s what a recent week of workouts looked like:
Monday: “I did the one workout I love, the ‘50-40-30-20-10-10.’ A friend of mine told me about it. It means 50 jumping jacks, 40 squats, 30 push-ups, 20 butt-ups [a core workout move], 10 burpees and 10 pull-ups. Do three sets in a row. I did it in 28 minutes, with 24 minutes my PR.”
Tuesday: “Played basketball, my workout without thinking about working out. 90 minutes of fun.”
Wednesday: “Ran 4 miles on a treadmill, incline of 2% lowering to 1% as I sped up.” Done in 34 minutes, burn 1,150 calories per hour, according to the dashboard. “My PR is just under 32 minutes.”
Friday: The 50-40-30-20-10-10 workout.
Thursday: On a plane, traveling, so no workout.
Sunday: “Ran 5 miles in 42 minutes, followed by some ab exercises from P90X.”