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Freestyle hip-hop is to dance what boxing is to sports. It’s physically grueling, improvisational and artistic, and most of all, exciting to watch. Right now, Stephen “tWitch” Boss is its Muhammad Ali.
Born and raised in Montgomery, AL, Boss got his start as so many other young hip-hop dancers do—honing his craft in his room, on the street, or any other place he could blast music and move to it. But unlike the case of so many aspiring dancers, Boss saw his dogged determination pay off in the form of ever-escalating opportunities. First came Fox’s hit reality TV show So You Think You Can Dance, where in 2008 he was the Season 4 runner-up. That success turned into leading roles in Stomp the Yard 2 and three of the Step Up franchise movies. More recently, Boss put his winning moves on display in Magic Mike XXL, where he acted alongside this issue’s cover guy, Joe Manganiello.
But while it’s Boss’ dancing that put him in the spotlight, it’s his physique that’s catching the attention of filmgoers, producers, and Muscle & Fitness magazine alike. “It’s been a process,” says the 32-year-old, “but it really started coming together when I began training for Magic Mike XXL.”
As in competitive sports, making it in dance requires more than just fancy moves; it also takes focus, strength, and a commitment to staying in peak physical condition, all of which made serious weight training a natural transition for Boss. “I enjoy hitting the gym, and I’m not the ‘chill in the gym’ type. I come in and I do what I need to do,” he says. “That’s something I used to talk about with Joe [Manganiello] on set. It’s about efficiency. I have a 45-minute playlist. I get in there and superset. I don’t really socialize in the gym.”
For freestyle dancers like Boss, the focus of training is mostly on maximizing explosiveness and building core strength. “It’s all about the box jumps. If I can get to the highest box it’s really fun. The little boy in me loves running and jumping off of things.” And much like bodybuilders who work toward sculpting their bodies into works of art, Boss executes his workouts with precision to make sure he’s building the muscle for what he needs.
“I get big pretty quickly, so I have to monitor how much muscle I put on,” says the dancer, whose physically demanding rehearsals are leg workouts in themselves. His lower-body training consists of box jumps, plyometric squats, single-leg squats, and training with TRX straps. “That combined with my dance training is enough.”
Lower-body strength and upper-body flexibility are key for Boss, along with maintaining a lean, strong physique that allows him to get airborne explosively without being weighed down. “If you’re trying to do a wave with your arm and you have to pass by this big ol’ rock in the middle of your chest it kind of interrupts the flow,” he says. So Boss sticks to training with high reps and very low weight so as not to overdevelop his chest. “Dynamic stretching has also made a world of difference for me because when you’re doing explosive moves like jumps, jumps out of turns, and drops, it really helps to be flexible.”
Some dance routines can be as long as 16 minutes, during which he has to jump high and land in difficult positions with seeming ease, or support his entire body weight on one hand while turning, lifting, and pulling his limbs in various directions, all in time with music. But beyond his gravity-defying dance skills, one of Boss’ greatest strengths is his commitment to eating right—a direct result of his prep for Magic Mike XXL.
“It’s just like my focus at the gym—I come to work and I come to get down,” he says. “With eating right, my body has everything that it needs.” Finding the proper diet was the only way Boss could maintain his stamina and perform at his peak throughout the day when he had a rigorous schedule of cardio in the morning followed by long hours on set dancing, and then lifting at night.
“Of course I knew what they were saying about diets, about how much salt you should have, about needing to avoid processed carbs—I knew about it, but I still dabbled,” he admits. Of course, knowing what’s best doesn’t make it easier to do, especially when the results aren’t immediate. But with the proper mindset and determination, even the toughest routines and regimens are sustainable. “The moment that I started training for Magic Mike and I was strict and actually felt the difference, that’s when I started to take dieting seriously.”
For Boss, it took feeling the response in his body to become a true believer in the importance of eating right. “I’ve been looking into Paleo. I’m not fully Paleo yet, but a lot of my diet consists of lean proteins and I’ve cut out most carbs that are not smart carbs,” Boss says. “When I would eat processed carbs in the past I would die out—or leave myself so depleted that my body would be shaking. But now my body has everything it needs.”
Now that his body has adjusted to his diet, he finds that it reacts negatively to the kinds of foods that were once staples. Processed carbs, sugars, and fatty foods are a thing of the past for Boss. “I’m from the South—I have a sweet tooth built in!” he says with a laugh, as he admits to his one weakness.
Boss’s greatest ah-ha moment relating to his conversion came during a trip back to his hometown in Alabama, where his newfound dietary habits were put to the test. “Trust me, I tried. I thought there was no way I could be in Alabama and not have sweet tea. But my stomach took revenge on me and it was awful.”
The dancer can now rely on his body to perform at its best no matter what the circumstances, because he’s laid a strong foundation for strength and endurance through his training and dietary habits—knowledge he now passes on to Team Street on So You Think You Can Dance. “My job is to make sure that they have the best experience possible, since I know what the stress is like between rehearsals and I know that all the things they put in their bodies are going to be key. The further you go in So You Think You Can Dance the more mental stamina you have to have, and you can get that from what you eat.”
As for Boss’ future projects, there are many, but regardless of whether they’re in TV, film, or onstage, the lessons he’s learned in reforming his body for Magic Mike XXL are ones he’ll be taking with him every step, and hop step, of the way.