A Sydney Cummings YouTube video is an exercise in fitness meets form meets function.
Her videos are designed to be an aesthetic and moving experience — specifically, to keep each of her dedicated followers moving in high-intensity workouts.
This following isn’t small. Her videos have been viewed millions of times, and she has upwards of 640,000 subscribers to her YouTube channel. Women’s Health magazine recently named her one of their “Action Heroes.”
Cummings, a Sissonville native and West Virginia University graduate, is making an impact in people’s lives in a time when some say staying fit is more important than ever.
Even in the crowded fitness industry, her videos stand out. Clothed in colorful, high-waist yoga leggings and matching sports top, she stands out against a gray, futuristic-looking studio set. She doesn’t just move through the routine. She engages her viewers. She coaches.
“Let’s go! We can do this.”
“I’m with you, I feel it!”
“Whew! I felt like I was on fire on that one. How about you?”
What comes through is that she’s working with you — not just talking at you. The end result for those following at home isn’t much different from participating in a group workout at a neighborhood gym. When she struggles through an exercise circuit, viewers see it. The camera frequently zooms in for a closeup, filling the frame with her body as she pushes herself harder.
“I’ve got sweat rolling off of me,” she says with a laugh at the end of one video. “Remember, it’s about the intensity and the time that you work, not in how long you work, but in how efficiently, how well, how hard you work with the time you have ... in workouts and in life.”
During a time when the COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted many people’s routines, exercising at home has been a way to stay active. Workout videos show people how to exercise with minimal equipment, and they also simulate the camaraderie one would get in a group setting.
Cummings has capitalized on this trend. Unlike other fitness gurus, she posts a new video every morning at 5 a.m., and each video (made the day before) is her only workout for that day. This openness and consistency helps her connect with fans.
Tracks, gyms, boot camps
How did Cummings go from Sissonville High School track star to YouTube sensation?
“I’ve played sports my whole life. I did volleyball, basketball and track and field in middle school and high school,” Cummings said. “Track started to stand out for me as being my best possibility for a college scholarship, so I began doing track during summers as part of the Striders.”
The Capital City Striders are a youth track and field club. Joining the club allowed Cummings to train on Laidley Field in Charleston, which offered improved facilities for track and field competitions.
As she neared the end of high school, Cummings accepted an athletic scholarship at West Virginia University to compete as a high jumper. “I was recruited by a lot of schools, but I always saw myself going to WVU,” she said.
At WVU, she qualified for the NCAA national championship’s first round her last three years.
“I set some records, and was blessed to stay injury free,” she said. “I learned how to prioritize things, train with a team and push myself. I carried a lot of those attributes into my life as a person and business owner.”
After graduating from WVU, Cummings eventually gravitated to Charlotte, North Carolina, where she “fell in love with the fitness industry,” and began her career as a personal trainer.
“I worked with as many gyms as possible, offered free boot camps in parks, went to people’s houses and worked at group fitness gyms. Coming from West Virginia, I had to grow my client base,” she said.
She teamed up with her fiance, Dustin, to help get her name out there on social media. “He’s very artistic with photography and videos. He handles the digital end of the business.”
The videos started as highlight reels from her boot camps. “We would share them to let people know what was happening, then invite them to the next boot camp.”
Going full digital
This went on for a couple of years. Then, in 2017, something happened that changed Cummings’ life. Her brother in Charleston was killed in an ATV accident.
“When I lost my younger brother, Zach, it clicked for me that I don’t have forever to figure this out,” she said. “I can’t take life for granted and wait for the right time to start.”
Her brother’s death ultimately inspired Cummings to take a risk and go online full time.
“He was the driving force for us taking it from in-person to a digital experience,” she said.
In partnership with YouTube, she launched the Sydney Cummings Channel. At first, she posted new videos sporadically.
“We tried to figure out what people liked. From the feedback we got, we learned people were wanting longer videos and full workouts. We also knew we had to differentiate ourselves — the online fitness industry is pretty saturated. No one else was doing a workout every single day. So, in May 2018, we began doing daily videos.”
The daily videos — each 30 to 60 minutes long — proved to be critical to her success.
“People learned they could trust us, they could depend on us coming back the next day. They don’t have to wonder when they’re going to get another workout.”
Her videos aren’t amateur productions. “Dustin and I put a lot of emphasis on the quality of the experience. We have professional lighting and audio. I do the whole workout with you, and I’m also coaching you, giving you technique cues. People are learning about their body, learning how to get stronger.”
Cummings said that, to date, she has posted close to 1,000 workouts, and her goal is to reach one million subscribers. “We already have viewers from every country in the world,” she said.
A location in Charlotte serves as their studio. Originally, she worked out on a white set, but, this spring, they had the set redone to an austere battleship gray.
Cummings selects and purchases her own outfits, most from Nike.com. The bold colors serve to set her apart from the stage.
Cummings’ videos are free to view on YouTube (to find them, go to youtube.com and type “Sydney Cummings” in the search bar or download the YouTube app on a smartphone). Likewise, there is no fee for subscribing to her channel. So, what pays the bills?
While YouTube pays content providers a portion of their ad revenue, Sydney and Dustin also use the videos as marketing tools for their own online company.
“Some people can’t afford personal trainers, don’t live close to a gym, or can’t afford child care to go to the gym. We started the workouts to give people access to fitness every single day at no cost to them. Outside of the videos, we have a membership community people can join,” Cummings said.
Their fitness company is called Royal Change, and the website is royalchange.fit. People who want more engagement can go to the website, pay a monthly fee and become part of the Sydney Squad.
Joining the Sydney Squad takes members through a program that includes nutrition plans (with recipes), programmed workouts, Q&A sessions with Sydney and other extras. Members can stay in touch with a private Facebook group where they post messages of support and share information.
“In the membership community, we have an accountability checklist, where people can record their weight and body fat percentage each day,” Cummings said. “At the end of each month, a lot of people post pictures of their completed checklist and progress. It reminds people they’re not alone in their journey. I know we’ve had at least 10 people who have lost 100 pounds or more. We’ve also had people recover from eating disorders.”
The website also has a shop with Royal Change-branded merchandise such as shirts, hats, glute resistance bands and water bottles.
A close call with gun violence
Just when her YouTube partnership was taking off, Cummings became a victim of a shooting in an armed robbery attempt.
On a September night in 2018, Sydney and Dustin were leaving their Charlotte studio when they were approached by four men in hoodies. Cummings gives an account of what happened next on her website:
“I looked back over my shoulder and saw the flicker of a gun in the street light. ... I thought they would threaten us, take our backpacks. I never thought they would shoot. I said, ‘Dustin, get in the car. They have a gun.’ We get in the car, and right as I’m pulling my leg into the car, they start shooting. There were eight shots fired. One of them hit Dustin’s car, bounced, and went through my foot. I didn’t realize it had happened until we were out of there. I reached down and noticed my hand was wet. We were in flight mode, and I felt no pain at all. I said, ‘Dustin, I’ve been shot.’”
At the hospital, Cummings had emergency surgery. The bullet shattered the top of her heel bone, damaged nerves and hit a branch of an artery.
“It almost hit my Achilles tendon, but didn’t, thank goodness,” she said.
After time in a cast and ankle boot, Cummings had to basically rebuild her foot. “I have a friend who’s a physical therapist, and he put me through a lot of mobility work, just trying to get my ankle to work. Getting my balance back was also tough.”
She was out of commission on the YouTube channel for about four months. During that time, she received a lot of support and well wishes from fans. She was determined to come back better than ever.
“It helped me be a better coach and trainer, knowing how mentally and physically tough it is to come back from an injury,” Cummings said. “It helps me relate to people in a whole different light.”
She still works with the foot, just to ensure it stays mobile.
“It functions a little different. Not all of the muscles work, but I can do squats, run in place, leg lifts. ... I’m just thankful to have the ability I still have with it.”
The shooting incident reinforced the lesson she took away from her brother’s death.
“You don’t have forever. You don’t know how grateful you should be for your life until it’s almost taken away from you.”
Earlier this year, the COVID-19 pandemic forced the closure of gyms, many of which have only recently opened back up (with restrictions). Social media jokes began popping up about the dreaded “Quarantine 15,” referring to a 15-pound weight gain some people could face after binging on junk food and being less active during lockdown.
During all this, Cummings continued to focus her energy on her videos and the Sydney Squad online community. The timing was right. Her viewers and subscribers have shot up during the pandemic. While her following includes people of all fitness levels, she has a special appeal for beginners and those struggling to begin a lifestyle change.
Her advice for beginners is to start slowly and build gradually.
“Just starting is the hardest part for people,” she said. “Start with the small things, with habits you know you could improve. Maybe eat more vegetables, or add a daily walk. Then jump into one of my videos. Think less about all the things you have to get rid of, and more about the things you can add to your life to make you feel better.”
At the end of an intense New Year’s Day workout video, Cummings said this to viewers sweating along with her:
“Think about what you just accomplished. I want the number one word in your head right now to not be ‘crushed’ or ‘defeated’ or ‘dead.’ I don’t want it to be negative. I want it to be positive. I want those words to be ‘proud,’ ‘excited,’ ‘accomplished.’ I always want you to leave my workouts feeling better than you did when you came in.”