GGS Spotlight: Melissa DiLeonardo


Name: Melissa DiLeonardo
Age: 39
Location: Chicago, IL

What does being a Girl Gone Strong mean to you?
So much. On the surface, it means I am a woman who loves to lift. Weightlifting has been a game changer in my life. I’ve worked in health and fitness for over ten years, but did not start actually lifting (powerlifting, Olympic lifting) until 2009. It was hard at first and required a lot of patience (it still does), but cultivating and realizing my own physical strength provided me with new levels of physical and emotional confidence. Within that emotional confidence lies the deeper meaning of being a “Girl Gone Strong.”

I am capable; I am independent; I am not perfect, but I am enough. I may fall down, but I get back up.

How long have you been strength training, and how did you get started?
I became a group fitness instructor in early 2007 and taught cardio kickboxing classes at several area gyms. Soon I was teaching weight training classes at these facilities to broaden my scope. My students kept asking if I was a personal trainer and telling me how much they wanted to work with me one-on-one. I figured it made sense to become a personal trainer and was certified by the end of the year. A few years later, my husband became interested in CrossFit and asked me to accompany him to a trial class. I expected not to enjoy the trial, but immediately fell in love with the vibe and community. Through CrossFit I started powerlifting and Olympic lifting. I eventually certified as a CF Level 1 Coach and coached for the next two years.

What does your typical workout look like?
These days, I work full-time in the corporate well-being field. My office fitness center is not accommodating to barbells, so I keep a 1 pood (~16kg) kettlebell in my office. I rely on swings for quick workouts during busy workdays. I create 15 to 20-minute circuits or AMRAP workouts (as many reps as possible) when I am short on time and use a mixture of loaded and bodyweight exercises. When I’m at the CF gym, I powerlift and then often perform 15 to 20 minutes of conditioning incorporating volume and speed. (I love squats: back squats, front squats, overhead squats. I. Love. Squats.)

Favorite Lift:
Overhead Squat

Most memorable PR:
It happened in mid-January. I am working on a new back squat PR – aiming for 205 pounds by my 40th birthday in June. Lo and behold, I did a 3-rep max at 185 pounds! Made me happy…and I feel pretty confident I can hit that one rep once I am mentally ready.

Top 5 songs on your training playlist:

  1. Wow, Beck
  2. Roses, The Chainsmokers
  3. F**kin’ Problems, A$AP Rocky
  4. No Problem, Chance the Rapper
  5. Pretty much any hip-hop circa the 1990’s

3 things you must have with you at the gym or in your gym bag:

  • Graphic print leggings and a racer-back tank top – preferably with a great graphic;
  • Lifting shoes
  • Rehband knee wraps

Do you prefer to train alone or with others? Why?
Lately, I have to train alone, and it’s OK. It’s kind of Zen. However, I love the energy I get when I work out in a group. I definitely push myself harder when I’m side-by-side with another athlete.

Most embarrassing gym moment:
I don’t know. I usually laugh at myself a lot. I often wish I had a highlight reel of my random acts of clumsiness at the gym. When I was pregnant, my boobs got bigger. I had always been relative small in that department, so having new upper body curves took some getting used to. Pretty sure the barbell and my new boobs collided at least a dozen times, when doing cleans. Embarrassing? Maybe. Funny? Definitely. Painful? A little.

Best compliment you’ve received lately:
A student thanked me for some coaching advice. She said I was a great teacher.

Most recent compliment you gave someone else:
I recently reminded my husband that he is an amazing father to our 14-month-old son.

Favorite meal:
Tacos al Pastor and the cheese and mushroom quesadilla from one of our fav Mexican spots…or bhindi masala from one of our fav Indian spots, or spicy tuna rolls from my fav sushi place…ugh, can I just say my favorite meal = food?

Favorite way to treat yourself:
Dark beer. A long shower. Peanut butter M & M’s. (Not necessarily in this order.)

Favorite quote:
I wish to learn what life has to teach, and not, when I come to die, discover that I have not truly lived. — Henry David Thoreau

Favorite book:
The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, Carson McCullers

What inspires and motivates you?
My husband, Dana, and my son, August (Gus)

What do you do?
For seven years, I was self-employed as a full-time personal trainer, coach and yoga teacher. Now, I am a wellbeing program manager for a recreational products manufacturing company. I just finished implementing a new company wellbeing program for over ten thousand users throughout the US. Now that the program is live, it’s time to get to work and drive user engagement. I believe in this program and think it can help people make positive changes in their lives. When I am not at the office, I teach a few fitness and yoga classes at some area gyms because I don’t want to give up teaching and coaching completely—it’s too much fun!

What else do you do?
A new baby has changed the “what I do for fun” answer, but when I can find the time, I enjoy dancing, reading, hiking, relaxing at the lake or the beach, riding my bike, cooking and savoring a dark beer or specialty cocktail on a relaxed Saturday afternoon. I love to travel with my family and am looking forward to some new destinations this year. Hopefully places that involve either the mountains or the ocean…or both.

Describe a typical day in your life, from waking up to bedtime:
I rise at 5:15 a.m. I am still breastfeeding, so I pump before my son wakes up. If it’s a workday, I get ready for work, eat oatmeal, drink coffee and pack my lunch. I am out the door by 7:30 and commute to my office via regional rail. I catch up on email and social media on the train. I am at the office from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Over the noon hour, I either teach a fitness or yoga class or do my own workout. I have a sit-to-stand desk, and I try to move throughout the workday. Back on the train by 4:30 p.m. and work while I commute back to the city. When I get home, I walk the dog and pick up my son from daycare. We eat dinner (thank goodness for the crock pot!), we play, and then it’s baby bath time, followed by baby bedtime. If my husband is not working (he trains clients at night), we hang out. If he is working, I catch up on chores around the house. I aim to be in bed no later than 11 p.m., but try for 10:30 most nights. Baby sleeps through the night 75 percent of the time, which is pretty great. Fortunately, I am only in the office four days a week, so Fridays are a bit more relaxed. I also get to lift heavy at the gym. Weekends are a mix of work, exercise, and rest…and with luck an extra hour of sleep in the morning both days.

Your next training goal:
As I mentioned, I am working on a new PR for back squat: 205 pounds by June 28, 2017 – my 40th birthday! I have never set a training goal before, and usually focus on professional and or personal goals in other areas of my life. This year, I wanted a goal that was all about me—not my career, not my family, just me! So far, so good. It’s tricky because I only have access to barbells once or twice a week right now. I am focusing on a Wendler cycle protocol and tempo squats when I have a barbell. On days when I can’t lift heavy with a barbell, I practice high volume kettlebell swings and heavy goblet squats.

What are you most grateful for?
My husband, my son, and for living in the diverse and wonderful Chicago neighborhood that is Rogers Park. (The RP community is amazing!)

What life accomplishment are you most proud of?
I have many professional accomplishments. However, the birth of my son, August (Gus), is what makes me most proud. I didn’t think I could do it. It was the strongest day of my life.

Which three words that best describe you?
Loyal, Grateful, Curious

Tell us about a time when you overcame fear or self-doubt.
Throughout my career, I have repeatedly accepted tasks that I was not quite sure how to accomplish. I seem to thrive in these situations as they force me to deal with my fears, learn new skills and figure things out. After my son was born, and much to my surprise, I was diagnosed with postpartum depression and anxiety. When my maternity leave ended and I went back to work, I was a mess. I knew that I needed to keep it together for my family and trusted the coping tools I had been learning in therapy. Within three months after returning to work, I was offered a promotion – my current job. It included greater visibility and responsibility.

I was scared and unsure I could handle it, but, like always, I took the plunge and trusted that I would figure it out. Initially, I kept thinking that I was not smart enough for my new role. When I would get overwhelmed, I relied on the mantra, “Just do the work.” Gradually, after a few small successes, I realized that I was being too hard on myself. That I had every right to own my new position. I am grateful I did not back away from this opportunity. I find my work challenging and rewarding. It gives me purpose and helps me continue to heal. The Lesson: Trust your gut. Tell the negative voices in your head to f--- off. Just do the work.

What’s the coolest “side effect” you’ve noticed from strength training?
Mental confidence. I know I can take on any challenge presented to me in both my personal and professional life. I feel capable. I also feel “swimsuit ready” 365 days a year, despite having cellulite, a postpartum midsection, and other things society has tried to convince me are “problem areas.”

I am not perfect…no one is. I’m over it. I love my body, what it can do, and all that it has done for me. (If only I had figured this out ten years ago.)

How has lifting weights changed your life?
In addition to making me stronger mentally and physically, it has also afforded me many exciting opportunities: working out at trade shows, a brand ambassadorship, an opportunity to travel domestically and internationally as well as presenting at a global fitness conference. Lifting has connected me to some amazing friends and mentors (male and female) as well as the Girls Gone Strong Community. GGS is a constant source of motivation, inspiration, support and camaraderie. Finally, lifting has allowed me to help other women discover their strength. Strength that empowers them in all areas of their lives. THAT. IS. LIFE CHANGING.

When did you start the Moms Gone Strong? Why did you decide to start and what helped you make the decision to start?
I started the program when I was approximately 17 weeks pregnant.  I had met Molly at a ReebokONE event years ago, and followed GGS from early on. I assume Molly saw that I was expecting via social media and reached out to me about the pilot program. Around the time she contacted me, I was really struggling.  I felt miserable during my first trimester and was feeling lost about how to move safely while still feeling challenged at the gym. Being “fit” and pregnant was a lot harder than I expected. I jumped at the chance to work with Girls Gone Strong and be a part of a program designed for pregnant women.

What has been your biggest challenge in the Moms Gone Strong program?
The biggest challenge for me was acceptance.  It was hard to transition into my pregnant body and its limitations. A year later, I look back and am so proud of myself for sticking to the program and for trusting that it made sense. That said, there were days where I missed my pre-pregnant body and its abilities — days when I feared I would never feel “strong” again. I know now how strong a pregnant woman is, and I am grateful for the commitment I made to the program, because it motivated me to keep going on days when I could barely look at myself in the mirror, much less muster up the energy to work out.

What is your “BIG” goal you’d like to achieve by the end of Moms Gone Strong?
The BIG goal was the healthy arrival of my son, Gus — and he was almost nine pounds…so he was a big goal, indeed!

What has been your biggest success in the Moms Gone Strong program?
I worked out throughout my entire pregnancy. I was fortunate and did not have any physical setbacks or conditions that prevented this. I worked out the morning of my scheduled induction. (I was 10 days past my due date.) I believe the endurance and stamina that the program helped me maintain throughout my pregnancy allowed me to navigate a scheduled induction, a failed epidural, Pitocin contractions without pain management, back labor, and ultimately look back on the day my son was born as the best (and strongest) day of my life.

What do you like best about the Moms Gone Strong community?

I gained a new friend via the MGS community.  A very good friend who I lean on for advice and support regularly. She became a close confidant while I was treated for postpartum depression and anxiety. She is a person a really admire. So…I guess the thing I like “best” about this community is the shared bond that moms have with one another and the tremendous support provided by that bond.

What is the habit you’re currently working on most?
Making time for self-care…I am not good at this. I take small steps…even if it’s taking just a few minutes to close my eyes and breathe or listen to my favorite songs.

How has Moms Gone Strong changed your life? 
I know how to help other women navigate a healthy and fit pregnancy.  I now also have an additional support system for the many ups and downs of motherhood.

What would you tell a woman who’s nervous about starting Moms Gone Strong?
That there are no gimmicks and no judgements; that the MGS program is designed to make you feel confident physically and mentally and that you will be surrounded by women who are ready to lift you up when you are down.

What do you want to say to women, in general, who might be nervous or hesitant about strength training?
There is nothing to lose and so much to gain. Whether your goals are aesthetic or functional, whether you use dumbbells or a barbell, strength training is one of the best things you can do to feel better over time. Find a good community or coach—a place or person who make you feel supported—and be patient with yourself. Strength has no uniform appearance or weight requirements, and knows no age or background. Strength is for all of us, Ladies. You already have more than you realize so get started and don’t give up.

Get in the best shape of your life—for good.

With Girls Gone Strong Coaching, you’ll get the support, accountability, and expert coaching to eat and exercise in a sustainable way — without restrictive diets or spending your life in the gym.

Whether your health and fitness goals are to…

  • Get stronger
  • Gain muscle
  • Lose body fat
  • Improve your pull-ups
  • Have a safe and healthy pregnancy
  • Return to exercise safely postpartum
  • Heal your relationship with food
  • Increase your confidence

... or anything else, we’ll help you achieve them. You can experience life-changing results while eating and exercising in a way that actually fits into your life — instead of controlling it.

Throughout our 12-month program, you’ll get a simple, step-by-step plan for developing nutrition, fitness, and mindset habits that will lead the way in reaching your goal.

Your coach is available 5 days a week to answer questions and help you navigate situations — like eating while you’re on vacation, exercise substitutions so you don’t aggravate your knee pain, or planning a workout with limited equipment options — so you always have support when you need it. And together, you'll find the best path toward long-term results in a way that works for you.

You’ll learn how to:

  • Improve your nutrition without giving up the foods you love
  • Exercise safely and effectively so you’re getting maximum results from your workouts without burning yourself out
  • Increase your confidence, love the way your body looks, feels, and performs — and enjoy your life more than you ever thought possible

And you’ll become the happiest, fittest, strongest version of yourself, one step at a time.

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GGS is an organization dedicated to empowering women. We do this by creating world-leading resources, and educational materials that help women, and health & fitness professionals who work with women, take their skills and knowledge to the next level.

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