Voted best personal trainer in the Chicago Reader’s Best of Chicago Poll for two years running, Melissa DiLeonardo lives up to the hype. Muscular and energetic, DiLeonardo is dedicated to helping her clients dig deep to discover their best selves. She spoke with Our Town about how she caters to her clients and her own fitness regime, plus she shared an exciting announcement.
Our Town Growing up, how active were you?
Melissa DiLeonardo Not very. I took dance lessons for over ten years and always enjoyed moving to music, but I equated sports to gym class and gym class was…traumatic. I was chubby and awkward - the last kid picked for most teams. I steered clear of physical activity (outside of dance) until high school. I tried playing lacrosse, but again I was the slowest on the team and found my coach a bit of a bully. After college I constantly struggled with my weight so I would go the gym a few times a week, but didn’t have a clue about what I should and shouldn’t be doing. When I went to The Theatre School at DePaul for my MFA, we took a ton of yoga and movement classes. Things just clicked. I started teaching fitness classes, got certified, started training, and here I am.
OT What drew you to personal training?
MD Other people. I was teaching group strength and kickboxing classes and students would approach me after class and ask me if I was a personal trainer. It made me think, maybe someday. Around that time, I had a gig at a small gym on the far north side. The owner basically told me she would give me a few clients if I got certified in the next six months. In theatre, I always felt I had to beg for work and here someone was basically handing me a job and the chance to prove myself. It was an offer I could not refuse and I am so happy I took the risk.
OT How do you go about tailoring a workout to a client’s specific needs?
MM I do my homework. Before meeting with a client, I learn about their health and exercise history. If they have injuries or chronic conditions, I research them. If they require additional support (counseling, nutritional consulting, etc.), I confer with reputable colleagues to make sure I can provide proper information and referrals if necessary. Once I meet a client, I watch and listen, and watch and listen. All the homework in the world can become useless if you don’t pay attention to how a client is moving, progressing, and feeling. Some clients want a drill instructor; others need a safe space in which to take their time. You have to gauge it – know when to push and know when to back off.
OT You say “The goal is not only to perform an exercise, but to understand why and how a given movement can affect the big picture.” Can you expand on that?
MM Ultimately, my goal is create a lifestyle change for my clients. Yes, some people want to lose 20lbs…but then what? Nothing is wrong with weight loss, strength gains, or better mobility, but typically, you can’t maintain these things unless you learn how you attained them and how you can sustain them over time. Learning how to squat properly can help give you a nice butt, but it can also prevent you from injuring your back the next time you move a piece of furniture. Most people know more about what’s under the hood of their car compared to what is in their body. I like teaching people. It empowers them over the long haul.
OT How does your yoga training inform your work as a personal trainer?
MD Yoga has made me a better trainer in many ways. Not only am I able to help clients improve their flexibility and move better, I can help them counter anxiety and tension. Stress is not good for your body and can often hinder success at the gym. Proper breath mechanics and meditation techniques can make life feel more manageable. Yoga has taught me how to slow down and recognize what is truly important.
OT What’s the biggest misconception about getting fit?
MD That it’s easy. Let’s admit it. If you are not used to working out, making it a habit can be hard. (Same deal about eating right.) Most fit people love working out and eating healthy because they value the results they have achieved via hard work. It takes time and effort, but it is worth it. You have to be patient and recognize the importance of good health.
OT What does your own workout schedule look like?
MM I love cross-training. I do a lot of different activities to avoid burnout and prevent injury. I run or cycle twice a week and CrossFit 2-3 times a week. I practice yoga (different from teaching a class) and bike commute in between. I listen to my body and make sure I have adequate recovery days and enough sleep to prevent overtraining.
OT Take me through your meals on a given day.
MD We are all different. Our genetics and hormones play large role in how our bodies process food. I feel everyone needs to explore what foods work best for them and thus do not feel comfortable listing my meals. In a nutshell, I am working with a fantastic nutritional consultant and follow a high protein/low carb diet, loaded with vegetables. I take fish oil, magnesium and vitamin D. I have flexibility to enjoy birthdays and celebrations so I do not make food my enemy, keeping a healthy body and mind.
OT If I only have 20 minutes and I want to get a workout, what would you recommend?
MM You can do a lot with a little. Start with a 3-5 minute dynamic warm up, using various mobility and agility drills. Use single and multi-joint movements that loosen up the body, increase your core temperature and ready your body for exercise. Then perform a body weight exercise routine following a modified Tabata protocol. Intervals of 20 seconds of work followed by 10 seconds of rest. (This allows you to work hard, but also listen to your body when and if you experience fatigue.) Your first 8 intervals are squats, the second 8 are push-ups, the third 8 intervals are lunges, and the last 8 intervals are sit-ups or bicycle crunches. Finish with a 60 second plank hold and take your remaining time to stretch out. Don’t skimp on your warm up or mobility work.
OT How important is it for a trainer/group fitness instructor to have an online presence?
MD I adore having the ability to interact with my clients and students outside of the gym. Social media helps me get information and advice to clients and permits them to share their work with me when we are not together. My work as a ReebokONE brand ambassador is helping me foster online relationships with other industry professionals and I learn a lot from them. Finally, I am discovering that my work online is helping me inspire others who I do not work with directly. That. Is. Amazing.
OT You’re a finalist in a personal training competition. Can you talk more about that?
MD I am one of ten world-wide finalists in Life Fitness’ 2013 Personal Trainer to Watch contest. I applied for the contest earlier in the year and was delighted to learn I have been selected as a finalist. I am still waiting for more information about the final event (held outside London in September), but don’t doubt it will be fun and a great opportunity to learn and meet new people. It may sound corny, but my success consists solely of my clients’ progress and achievements. I love my job and I am so honored to be able to share it with others on a global stage. Follow me and stay tuned.
Follow Melissa DiLeonardo on Facebook.
A writer with an MFA in Creative Writing from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Sarah Terez Rosenblum freelances for sites like Pop Matters and
afterellen.com Her debut novel, “Herself When She’s Missing," was called “poetic and heartrending” by ALA Booklist. Sarah is also a figure model, Spinning instructor and teacher at Chicago’s StoryStudio. Inevitably one day she will find herself lecturing naked on a spinning bike. She's kind of looking forward to it actually.
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