How YouTube Star Sydney Cummings Persevered Through Tragedy to Forge a Fitness Empire

The former collegiate athlete lost her brother and survived a shooting. Now she’s a pro at finding gratitude in everyday life and is spreading that joy to her millions of fans.

How YouTube Star Sydney Cummings Persevered Through Tragedy to Forge a Fitness Empire
Photo: Royal Change

Covered in sweat and trying to catch her breath after an intense 30-minute cardio and abs workout, Sydney Cummings looks straight into the camera, addressing her 1 million YouTube subscribers: "Progress is not perfection," she says with sincerity. "Progress is persistence." And FTR, Cummings basically has a master's degree in persistence.

At 30-years-old, the NASM certified personal trainer, fitness nutrition specialist, and founder of Royal Change Fitness has proven her resilience through unfathomable challenges — some of which her legions of fans may not even know about. "For my age, I've gone through a lot more than other people," she says during a Zoom call, fresh from filming a daily workout. "[My husband] Dustin [Houdyshell] calls me 'the eternal optimist.' It's not necessarily oblivious or naive optimism, but gratitude — there's so much to be grateful for that I felt was almost stripped away from me."

Tune into any one of Cummings' hundreds of free, expertly produced YouTube workouts, and you'll be hard-pressed to find evidence of any baggage from hardships in her upbeat personality. Consistently bubbly, unconditionally supportive, and beyond relatable (she's not afraid to admit when she needs to modify or take a breather mid-exercise), Cummings comes across as someone you'd love to call your workout buddy and coffee date friend IRL. But if you continue to scroll through her impressive catalog of content, you'll find one video that's unlike the rest.

Sydney cummings

"There's so much to be grateful for that I felt was almost stripped away from me."

— Sydney cummings

Titled, "I Got Shot (THIS IS NOT CLICKBAIT)," the nearly 20-minute clip features Cummings and then-fiancé Houdyshell, recounting the horrific night in September 2018 when four men ambushed them outside of their Charlotte, North Carolina studio and shot Cummings in the ankle as the couple jumped in their car to escape. The police never established a motive as the shooters never asked for any possessions, and law enforcement called it a "crime of opportunity," she explains in the video. Cummings, a lifelong athlete (she was a former track and field, high-jump competitor at her alma mater West Virginia University), spent the next four months virtually immobile as she recovered from the wound. The bullet shattered Cummings' calcaneus (heel) bone, caused nerve damage to the bottom of her foot and toes, and to this day, she has a limited range of motion in her ankle.

As if being shot wasn't harrowing enough, this wasn't the first traumatic event Cummings has gone through. In fact, the incident came just more than a year after what she calls "the biggest heartbreak of my life." In June 2017, Cummings' younger and only brother, Zach, was involved in an ATV accident. For three agonizing weeks, she and her family stood by, hoping for the best, but were ultimately faced with a devastating loss when he passed away from his injuries.

For most, living through two life-altering tragedies in the span of 18 months would be more than enough reason to hit pause any personal or professional plans. But for Cummings, the unexpected events only strengthened her resolve to move forward in a meaningful way. And in her case, that meant creating free, accessible fitness content to help as many people as possible live their healthiest lives. (

Born in Charleston, West Virginia, Cummings was always active. Cummings started high jumping in middle school and continued on through all four years of high school. She recalls being "fairly decent" at the sport but her talent was clearly beyond that, as she was ultimately ranked nationally in the event and was recruited by several colleges before landing at West Virginia University on a full academic and athletic scholarship.

Cummings admits that she wonders now how her athletic background may have laid the groundwork for her future resilience. "There's so much mental adversity that you have to overcome, especially being a Division 1 athlete — you don't get the choice to keep going, you just do," she says. "So on the days when everything hurts or you've got 17 tests and you also have to travel the next day, you don't get the choice to say, 'I just don't feel like it.'" Cummings says being on full scholarship also meant constantly juggling her health, grades, and travel schedule. "You don't question it; you don't have the option to swerve. I think that's subconsciously where it came from, just knowing no matter what, you keep going."

After graduating from college, Cummings followed her passion for health and wellness by pursuing a degree in nursing at WVU.But between her first and second year of school, she lost her job at a nonprofit and was left scrambling for a way to make ends meet. Houdyshell, who she had met in college and started dating in 2011, took a CPA job in Charlotte, North Carolina in 2014, and encouraged Cummings to join him there. She packed her bags and began personal training as a way to pay for school; she loved the new path so much, she quit school and started coaching clients full-time.

Despite her excitement, for the next three years, Cummings says she struggled to create a sustainable business. "I worked really hard with Dustin's help taking pictures and videos, just trying to market myself and get myself out there to as many people as possible," she says. "I was doing free boot camps in the park, working at three or four gyms, going to people's houses." Still, by 2017, Cummings had built enough of a client base to rent her own studio space and establish her company, Royal Change (an homage to Charlotte, "The Queen City," and a nod to her goal to help clients of all genders feel regal).

But when Zach passed that same year, Cummings says she saw an opportunity to do more. "I felt like the days were coming and going — I would wake up and fill all my time and then go to bed and have nothing to show for it," she says. "That's when I felt called to actually leave a legacy instead of just saying, 'yeah I filled up a lot of time and I was busy a lot.' It came from reflection — how my brother lived was full out. Everyone knew he was there. He was always making people laugh. He was full of love. I just kept thinking, 'I'm not building anything,' and 'complacency' was the word I kept coming back to." (

Inspired by her brother's vigor for life, Cummings redirected her energy. "Dustin knew my brother for about six years, and was pretty struck by the loss as well," she says. "He was also reflecting and thinking, 'if this were my last day, I wouldn't be super happy with the risks that I took or the impact that I made,' so about two months later, he quit his job as a CPA and went all-in with me." The couple set out to expand Cummings' reach, creating workout videos and uploading them to YouTube in hopes of establishing an extended fanbase.

"We decided, 'we're going to give it a year and see if it pays off, and if it doesn't, we can pivot, but we can't say we didn't try,'" explains Cummings. Come March 2018, the duo was posting workouts every single day, and eight months later, they were approved for a YouTube partnership, which essentially means creators on the platform are able to monetize their content through ads, premium subscriptions, and other potential earning channels available on the video network.

"We knew we were going to have to grind it out for a while in order to make it something bigger that could catch traction outside of people who knew us in Charlotte or our friends and families," she says. "We also did a lot of analytics to learn what the [YouTube]community liked and just showed up in that way."

Cummings spent the next few months of 2018 riding the wave of YouTube success, but she and Houdyshell were still struggling financially, despite the influx of fans. "Dustin and I still had to work full time to make ends meet as we were renting a studio space, filming, and producing a new video every single day which was about an 8-10 hour process, and had only been approved to be YouTube partners the month before the shooting," she says. "Our YouTube payout for that first month wasn't even enough to cover half of our studio rent to film. I was personal training 60 hours a week and filming a full workout every day as well as creating media content for fitness equipment brands. Dustin was working as an accountant and doing freelance photography and videography on his own, so we really had no free time and were really stretched thin financially." (

The violent shooting abruptly halted the momentum Cummings had hoped would grow her audience and help generate a sustainable income from her passion. "That was really tough," she says. "Somehow, I had never experienced any sports injury, so this was my first big 'you're out of the game, sit on the bench' experience." Cummings was unable to put weight on her foot for four months while she relied on crutches, a boot, a scooter, and — her nemesis — a vacuum-assisted closure (VAC) machine. "It's this little suction cup they put on my foot, and there was this big hose attached to a battery pack that I had to wear around my neck like a satchel, and the hose was like seven feet long," she recounts. "The intent was to suction the tissue up to the surface because it was like a ping pong-sized hole, and they were trying to get the tissue to heal up to the surface. I caught the cord on everything — it would wrap around my leg, I would get it knotted up at night when I was sleeping; I think that was the worst part of it."

Impressively, even during her recovery, Cummings was able to continue to cultivate her growing fanbase by posting previously filmed workouts while she was healing. Then, the moment she was cleared to start exercising again, she jumped in front of the cameras. "I kind of explained where I was starting from and encouraged people who were just new to start with me," she says. "I think it made me a better trainer to start all over again. It helped me acknowledge all levels of fitness — people who may be coming back from an injury or who have never worked out in their lives, or women coming back from pregnancy. Everyone is in a different place when they work out with me, and before the shooting, I don't think I acknowledged that as much. Being an athlete, I was like, 'just go hard, wherever you're at.' But now I take the time to break it down a little bit more, I talk through technique a lot more, and we've included modifications."

Tapping into the diversity of her fanbase also gave Cummings a deeper understanding of the messages so many people — particularly women — receive around fitness and body image. "I don't think I realized how hard women were on themselves until I became a digital trainer," she says. "Being from an athletic background, no one cared if you had a six-pack if you couldn't win a race. No one cared if you had the best legs if you couldn't jump over a bar. I was never taught, 'you need to look this way to be a great athlete.'" In turn, she began to thoughtfully focus her dialogue around non-scale victories in hopes that her followers would also begin to shift their perspective on what "success" in fitness really means and that their weight or jeans size doesn't dictate their health or happiness. (

Today, Cummings continues to create original workouts that she offers entirely free for her million-plus YouTube fans — a decision that was initially risky but has paid off. "Dustin and I grew up not really having a lot of money for personal trainers or gym memberships — we come from super humble backgrounds," she explains. "We know that a lot of people out there are like that as well — moms and dads don't have child care all the time to go to the gym, not everyone lives close to a gym or can afford a gym. So it came from the mission to make sure everyone could have access to fitness, no matter if they could afford six studio memberships or none. The mission behind it was accessibility and making sure that access got to as many people as possible."

Since initially devoting herself to that mission, Cummings has remained consistent in her delivery — posting workouts every single day, cracking jokes between reps, and ending each video with an inspirational message largely inspired by her experiences in sports and in her personal life. "As a track athlete, we competed individually but we trained as a team, so I view it in that way — everyone is technically working out by themselves right now, especially right now, but they're not alone in doing that," she says. "I think the most empowering thing for people is knowing there's a trainer who's going to show up each day trying to figure it out along with them. But at the end of the day, you're responsible for showing up for yourself and then figuring out how to stay consistent with that." (

As for what motivates Cummings to always show up as a motivator for others: "There's so much to be grateful for," she says. "If I were to dive into anger and frustration, I would just waste another day. I've got this day — that I know for sure. I can stand up and put two feet on the ground, which I couldn't do for a long time, and I still have a life where I can write a whole story and hopefully leave a legacy where people feel inspired by seeing someone else go through stuff and still create something out of their life. When something like that happens to you, and then [another thing] like that happens to you a year later, you just kind of figure out that life is such a blessing."

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