BY ADINAWA ADJAGBODJOU
I sat down with L.A. based personal trainer Sydney Liebes, whose unique holistic approach is designed to improve her client’s quality of life physically and mentally.
Adinawa: Thank you for joining me, Sydney! I would love it if you could just start by introducing yourself and telling me who you are and what you do.
My name is Sydney. I live in West Hollywood, California and I’ve been personal training here for about 9 years. I started when I was in college because I wanted to be an orthopedic surgeon. I spoke to my orthopedic surgeon and he said that when you’re 18, you’re allowed to get certified to become a trainer and you can start working with patients in a clinical setting. That clinical setting can be the gym, eventually you can get a job at a physical therapy clinic and you’ll have something to talk about in your college interviews or your med school interviews. I thought it was a great idea, so as soon as I turned 18, for my birthday my mom got me the certification course. My mom bought me my first business cards when I was 12 years old. She’s always been advocating and she’s a huge feminist like, “Work first, education second,” and I obviously wanted both.
I tried my best to make it work. In my last year of college, I ended up getting an incredible mentorship down in West Hollywood. He offered me the super sexy position of personal training huge celebrities making what you’d make as a doctor, but without going to medical school. I thought to myself, “Well, this sounds like a really fun experience while I study for the MCAT.” I started working for him for nine years. I stuck with personal training because I love my clients and I couldn’t imagine giving them up to go to medical school. I’m so thoughtfully codependent and self aware that the thought of abandoning everybody made me realize how much of their fitness and health was guided by me – I couldn’t imagine. I know they can find anybody else but there’s something inside me that was burning. I couldn’t abandon my work, I couldn’t abandon my clients, and so here I am.
Adinawa: That’s an amazing journey. I think it shows how life can be a bit serendipitous in some ways, but you find what you are meant to do. So it sounds like with what you just described, personal fitness is a personal journey. I want to know what that journey has been? You mentioned earlier seeing an orthopedic surgeon – was there a reason you needed that, and what has been your journey with that personally?
I’ve always been really active: my parents, my grandparents, everybody. Every night, when we would finish dinner, we’d go for a walk on the weekends…we would always have to be outside. My mom would ask me if I was done with my homework and I’d say yes, of course, if you’re not going to check. She’d be like, “Great, get outside.” So just as kids, my sister and I were so active. I broke a million bones, just being silly kids. I started playing softball and sports. My parents worked full time so they just had to keep us busy and, of course, anything to be social. I was born a salesperson, a people’s person. I always wanted to talk and chat and be around everybody. So I just liked sports. When I was 12, my mom got a gym membership and I started going to the gym with her because I never let her go anywhere by herself. I didn’t want her to go to the grocery store because I didn’t want her to be alone. So I would go with her and the gym was no excuse. I got a trainer when I was 12 because my mom didn’t know anything about fitness and she was like, “I just don’t want you to hurt yourself.” So I did my introductory sessions with her and learned how to lift weights. I didn’t come from money so my parents weren’t going to keep me in training, obviously. I got another personal trainer when I was 16 through my high school softball team. I realized that I liked the off-season much more than the in-season. I didn’t like the competitive energy, I just wanted the camaraderie of my team without having to be better than anybody. I didn’t like the hierarchy system so I stopped playing my senior year and I committed to work. As soon as I turned 18 I became a trainer in that first clinical step. That’s about it!
Adinawa: I love that. So you talked about the relationship you have with your clients and how obviously they rely a lot on you. Can you describe what it means to you and how you’re able to help someone through that journey?
Every person is so different. Every client I have comes to me with a different goal, something new in mind. Sometimes they just want somebody to keep them company for an hour because working out sometimes is the worst part of your day. It’s something that you barely have time for. You just have to squeeze it in and then you sit around and sweat and be miserable. Trust me, I get it. So it’s just me being there in order to have someone take your mind off of all of the stress of programming and training and making it more efficient for my clients so that they get the most out of the time spent while they’re in the gym, but also just distracting them from the horror of fitness. It’s not fun to push your body to 70, 80, 90 percent of its maximum capacity, so what can we be doing together in that time?
I have other clients who come to me because of my background. I was pre-med in college and I studied Cell and Molecular Biology, so I have a different level of understanding than a lot of other trainers do. I look at the body holistically. As opposed to saying, “I want big biceps,” it’s, “How can we get the most out of anything with science?” With that clinical mentality that I have, I ended up meeting Dr. Ryan Cotton at Cedars-Sinai who is a rehab physician. He’s one of the very few people who oversees post operative care and a lot of spinal patients or post traumatic injury patients, anything in that regard. He trained me in pain management so I oversee a lot of his therapy clients.
In turn, I’ve opened my world up so much more by being able to provide people with preventative health, not just aesthetics. I started with the celebrity world. Actually, I started in a corporate gym just trying to build my business. Then I went to the celebrity world where it was all aesthetics. It was how fast can you get somebody in shape? How could you make their body look a certain way, even if it wasn’t a certain way. I really didn’t like that relationship with training because I thought it set really unrealistic expectations for a lot of people, especially women. I would come into the gym and I’d be surprised that some of these people looked the way they did. Not judging them, it was just that they appeared so different on television and in magazines and on their Instagram with editing and camera tricks. Even now knowing training tricks, there’s a lot of ways that I could make somebody look 10 pounds thinner than they actually are and that’s what makes me valuable in that world, but I don’t think it’s a great way to live your life.
Most of my clients are pain management based at this point, postpartum, postnatal, all that stuff. Then just people I’ve seen for years. I have incredible relationships with them. They just really trust me and trust that I keep them safe.
Adinawa: That’s wonderful – I think what you do is important. Given all of the pressures of society, but also the social media age that we’re in, are there approaches you take to help people focus on the holistic or balanced side of fitness?
Honestly, it’s hard not being a psychologist to sit around and help people kind of think about why certain things make them uncomfortable. I have this really weird relationship with social media, cell phones, internet, and TV. When I grew up my parents monitored everything I did online. I would be on the computer trying to instant message people to be cool and my parents would be like, “Who are you texting?” I just didn’t want to have that conversation and I just really didn’t have this social media thing.
As I got older and I started being on Instagram and Facebook and watching more TV (I never watched TV as a kid), I got into movies and all these things. I realized that people spend so much time looking at their phones and looking everywhere else because they’re so uncomfortable in their own skin that they want to acknowledge and look at what everybody else is doing. And you know, what everybody else is doing is probably great, but that’s for them. So at what point do you internalize and say, “Well, how do I make it for me and about me, and not about them?” So, with every session that I do with my clients, I try to kindly remind people to be kind to themselves and not to use the poster behind you, but it’s hard for people.
I do have a lot of celebrity clients still, like some of the biggest celebrities in the world that you think are so cool and so confident and they struggle with the same insecurities that we all do. Every single day when I go into a session, it’s actually more than just physical work. We do a lot of mental work as well but it’s focusing on how we can be nicer and more accepting of ourselves. How in this one day, not every day, but today, can I make a difference to myself and feel better about being me? Sometimes it’s just as simple as a workout and other times it’s something bigger but I love unlocking that. One of the most liberating parts of my job is that I don’t have to be on the phone and I don’t have to be on my computer. I am with my client and we are absorbing one another, feeding off of each other’s energy and bringing out the best in one another. That’s the goal of every session of mine. How can I make you a better version of yourself today? Or at least make today a better day than before you stepped into the gym?
Adinawa: I’m getting chills. That’s a really great way of phrasing it. you touched on a lot of important things that are key to wellness overall. You just talked briefly about helping other people achieve their own inner personal strength, whether that’s mental or physical. I want to talk more about ways in which you feel empowered or if there are moments you remember that really sparked inspiration or empowerment within you.
I always say to my clients that first of all, I’m like the dentist – nobody wants to see me but you have to. I tell them all the time that I don’t really like myself as much as you might like me and my clients really empower that in me. A really great example of that is I used to work for a mentor for seven and a half years and he really suppressed me. He didn’t want me to succeed because he didn’t want me to exceed his own success and a lot of his clients liked me – they preferred me. I ended up getting a call from one of the biggest celebrities in the world and I offered him in on the deal and he threw a fit. In that fit, I realized that I was actually doing a huge disservice to myself. He basically told me to choose him or her, and I chose me.
I had just spent seven and a half years with a man working under him and giving him all of me. I was an independent contractor for him and I would say no to my own clients to accommodate his because I wanted to prove to him how loyal I was, how appreciative I was for this opportunity and how much I cared about his clients. I realized that I was the only one who cared. This woman that came into my life, as well as many others, told me, “Sydney, you’re better and you can do this on your own.” I knew I could do it on my own, I just didn’t really believe that I could or maybe I was just too scared to take that step. My client sat me down and said, “Sydney, you empower women every single day and this man steals that from you. He makes you look like you’re not a feminist.”
As soon as I left his business, my revenue quadrupled. My schedule was packed, I work 15 hour days, sometimes I travel all over the world with my clients – it’s amazing. The one thing I learned is that you really have to do things for yourself. It’s really hard for me to do…it’s something I really struggle with every single day. I do therapy every week for it. I find that the things that empower me are showing up to work every day being the best version of myself, always putting my work and my clients before myself (sometimes to my disadvantage) but I’m an extrovert and people really give me energy and power. I’ve been very lucky that I’ve weeded out clients and people in my life who brought me down and I just surrounded myself with mostly women, to be honest, and they really lift me up. So I couldn’t say it’s one specific thing that empowers me but I could say there are moments throughout my day when I get to see, even during COVID, six to seven people a day and each one of those people are really making a huge difference in my mental health.
ADINAWA: along that thread, what do you think is the importance of spaces for women and spaces for uplifting women in whatever form that might be?
I struggle with this question because as a woman, it took me a really long time to figure out where my place was. I’ll keep bringing up my mom, she’s my role model – she’s everything. Growing up I just watched her suffer so much and she overcame so much. She is so successful and wonderful and I wish she could embrace that as opposed to just being hung up on her trauma. She empowers me to go back to that. Her mentality really motivates me to be better, to be confident and to be happy. Just for a backstory, my mom married a con man and she had two, very wonderful children. She met my stepdad when I was two, so my relationship with men has always been not to trust them and it is what it is. I’ve gotten through a lot of it and I’m not scarred by it, but I had this relationship where men used me. My dad used me when I was a child as a prop to get him through other cons. Then when I became an adult, men would use me for my sexuality. Then my mentor said some incredibly derogatory things towards me, that’s probably the first time that I stopped, stood back and said, “You know what? I’ve watched my mom in a male dominated industry really become one of the top two people in her branch. Why do I let men walk all over me?”
The first time I bought myself a really beautiful handbag because I worked so hard for so many years to be able to afford one nice thing for myself and I remember being so offended when somebody asked me who bought it for me. I was like, “I bought it myself and how dare you even insinuate that somebody else would have bought this for me?” It left this really bad taste in my mouth and I realized that a lot of people have given me advantages in my life because of the way I look because, “she’s a cute young girl.” Meaningless things, right? Like, “She can get into the club…She can go on this date…She can be in this dating app…I’ll follow her on Instagram.”
All these things are so meaningless and every time I spoke to somebody it became, “Your friends aren’t hot enough, so you can’t come here.” Is that so? I don’t know how to break the stigma besides removing yourself from it and starting anew. I do think that for women, it’s our job to not use our looks and our sexuality to our advantage. Men don’t always use their sexuality to their advantage. Obviously being a white man gives you tons of privilege but they’re not having sex with their boss in order to move up. I’m not saying that that’s what women are doing, but that’s what they want and that’s what they tell people and it’s so disgusting. There are so many of us women who are just trying to do their best. We can try to be respected and not sexualized, and men exploit that and bring that out of us. It’s our job as women to just hold our own and when men call us bossy or nagging when we’re trying to be leaders, you just hold your own and be the leader. Be the boss, be the nag, be whatever it is, that’s their problem. It’s our job to be who we want to be and really embrace that.
ADINAWA: You spoke about your mom and she seems like such a badass. I want to know if there are ways in which you try or hope that you can be a mentor to other women like that in the future?
I love that question. For every single one of my clients, I’m a mentor to whether it’s their nutrition, their diet, ways that they can improve their life that aren’t related to fitness and that aren’t related to nutrition. Also helping people shift their perspective. Outside of that, I consider myself a mentor, I consider myself a friend, I consider myself a sister, a daughter, and I am a trainer. Those are the ways in my life right now that I’m being a mentor.
In a perfect world, I would love to somehow speak to young women and girls who were basically like me. I was an introvert and an extrovert. I show everybody who I want them to see and I engage with people because I want to see them but you don’t really know that I’m so uncomfortable talking about myself. It’s hard to be that person and I didn’t know that I was like that – I thought that I was just being myself and it took a lot of years. You don’t have to be who the world tells you you should be. You don’t have to be shy, you don’t have to be quiet, you don’t have to be cool. I would spend so many years dating guys trying to be who I thought they wanted me to be, or who my clients thought they wanted me to be and it just led to this endless hole of unhappiness and constantly filling this void with shopping or partying with friends.
I never got to spend enough time with myself until recently. I wish that women would get off of their social media, get off of the internet and just be with themselves. That’s all I wish for myself and it’s all I wish for other people. Since I’ve been able to be with myself, I’ve really grown so much more intellectually, emotionally, and I’m just a better woman overall. I’m a better trainer to my clients, a better friend to my friends, a better daughter to my mother and a better sister to my sister – all of those things. I think we’ve lost a lot of humanity by constantly swiveling our heads and looking at everybody else. True happiness is on the inside.
My boyfriend always says to me, “You never tell me that I look good.” I don’t tell anybody that they look good, even my clients and it’s because that’s not what I’m looking at. That’s what they’re looking at but it’s not what interests me. I’m interested in the things that make you unique, what makes you different from everybody else. I spend a lot of time laughing with my clients and at my clients because their eccentricities are what make them amazing. I’ll go online and look at everybody’s posts what makes them normal but I want to see what makes you different. I want to embrace that and I think that’s what other people should focus on as well.
Adinawa: I think we all need to practice that a little bit more. You touched on self love and I want to know, how do you define self love?
I think self love is just having a good and accepting relationship with yourself, whatever that means to you. It’s completely subjective. For me, it’s being kind to myself. I think I’m really hard on myself. I said in the beginning, I don’t really like myself. Most of the time I think I’m annoying or I’m whatever it is in that moment. Every day it’s something new that I don’t like about myself. So how can I do something nice that takes care of me, that’s not something consumption based?
Lately, I’ve been very into acupuncture. I schedule myself most days 7 AM until 9 PM so I’ve been trying to schedule my calendar a bit lighter and taking hours for myself so I could focus on my fitness, on my diet, spending time with my friends and things that make me full. That’s really what self love is about – what can you do to fill up your tank?
Therapy is also a huge version of self love for me. Most of the time, I’m just screaming at my therapist about everything that annoys me and then every few sessions, I dig deep and I find something that’s really important. Just remembering that I’m working on it every day and trying to be the best version of myself that I can be.
Adinawa: I want to know how you tried to express yourself or present yourself in the world? I know we’re in COVID now and no one’s really seeing each other too much but in general, if you have a way you would define how you try to show up in the world?
I thought about that question even before we got on the phone. I don’t know why but I’m not very creative spatially or aesthetically. I think that’s why I don’t really care what people look like, I’m more interested in who they are and what they’re doing. I think (selfishly) about how they almost help change my perspective and make me a better person. That’s what I’m trying to pull out of them because I know they’re amazing and they can help me be better.
Honestly, the only way that I found as a creative outlet is writing but for the most part it’s talking. Having meaningful conversations with people and also fun conversations with people…I hardly take myself seriously. I love to laugh and have fun. I express myself in comedic relief more than a creative outlet. I love gardening. I like music. My boyfriend is a musician, so he gets to help my palate and I get to be creative with him in his music.
Writing workouts help me. My job is in itself probably the most creative part about me only because every single person is so unique and every day is so unique that I have to constantly come up with different things. It’s not just about doing bicep curls and squats like most people think of when they think of personal trainers, it’s about hormones and physiology and all of the external environmental factors. A lot of my brain power is used towards thinking, “Hey, what’s Jerry doing today that is making him feel this way? What can I do? How can I be creative in this moment to shed a new perspective on Jerry’s life? Or what new activity can Jerry do that might make him feel better?”
ADINAWA: My next question is about the lessons you take from training others and how you incorporate those into your own life, if you do?
Every single one of my clients is so incredibly interesting. I train CEOs, celebrities, stay-at-home moms, children… so many different types of people. I learn so much from every single person that I get to come into contact with. Every relationship is really specific and really unique.
The biggest lesson I learned is just pave your own way. It’s really easy to follow other people but trust yourself and pave your own way. I followed in the footsteps of somebody and I thought it was an incredible opportunity, which it was, until it wasn’t. It took a lot of courage and more time than it should have for me to finally pave my own way. No pun intended…to use the “Pave” like the jewelry but you know what I mean!
Adinawa: if you had to think of one thing that mattered to you the most, what would it be?
Family and all of that aside? And my cats? Well I know it sounds really generic, but really what matters the most to me are people. I am obsessed with people. My boyfriend’s family is very involved in multiple charities so figuring out how I can be involved in things that I’m not currently involved with that help people outside of me. Even though I want to give myself more self love, I always think that there’s so much more love to be given and that feeds my soul. So I just want to make people happy. Every single day, that’s all I want to do. Make them happy, support them, whatever it is in that moment.