Strength Class: Peloton’s Jess Sims on Power, Taking Up Space & (Donut) Catchphrases

Peloton trainer Jess Sims and a glazed donuts illustration for a catchphrase she's known for.

This profile of Peloton instructor Jess Sims is part of Street Meet, FLEETSTREET’s series, where we meet up with trailblazers and thought leaders to deliver unique insight and inspiration into issues we all care about.

There I am. On the floor. Limbs splayed. Body tired. But my mind is wired, as I hear the words, “never easy, always worth it” from Jess Sims on my workout room TV. This was the hardest at-home workout I’ve ever done. That’s what it’s like to take a strength or bootcamp class led by Sims (although, getting stronger makes it easier). My chat with her is very similar. She doesn’t shy away from sharing the tough stuff, but I feel energized after. The former teacher and basketball player, now Peloton trainer, fitflulencer and ESPN reporter, chatted with FLEETSTREET and left no question unanswered. Check it out. 

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FLEETSTREET: If “Peloton University” existed, I would think it would include mimicking your background, and reap the skills of a teacher, principal, broadcaster and athlete. Do you use those skills at Peloton?

Jess Sims: For sure. When people ask me if I miss teaching, my answer is always no, because I’m still teaching. It’s just in a setting that I really enjoy more. My mentor, Mr. Ridley, one of my assistant coaches for AAU (Amateur Athletic Union) basketball, helped me in so many different ways. When I got into education, his biggest piece of advice was to ask the people how they’re doing before asking anything from them. I’m always still asking, how are you? No matter what subject and what kind of person I’m teaching, I treat people as people first. After that, it’s about giving specific directions. 

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As a former French teacher, I’ve found that adults ask about obstacles whereas kids often just dive in. Do you notice any differences? 

There are some big differences, but there are also nuances. But, I say all the time in class to be a little kid again. Feel the feelings. Some people don’t want to admit how they’re feeling. But that can hold you back. 

If you’re going to work out and you’re feeling crappy. Keep feeling it. Feel it all the way through. If a little kid’s having a temper tantrum, they don’t stop mid-tantrum and think, “I’m going to put this in the back of my mind.” They scream bloody murder, they cry, and you offer them a popsicle and, then boom, they’re good.

So, I also say be a little kid again in terms of your fears. When I taught kindergarten, the kids were fearless. They move with an absence of fear of consequence, which can be good and bad, right? They don’t give a shit for putting an effort for the “wrong” thing. They don’t overthink it. 

Basically, being a kid is feeling your feelings and not being afraid of trying new things.

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It seems a lot of fear around fitness is self-induced; for me anyway. You talk a lot in your classes about “taking up space.” What does that mean for you? 

For me, taking up space means that you’re not minimizing yourself and who you truly are in order to fit in. I’m an empath. I can walk into a room and absorb what’s going on: the good energy, the bad energy and everything in between. I just try to remind myself to walk into a room and not match the energy, but walk into the room and be as I am. You know, be that light when you’re bright and ask for help when you’re feeling down. Taking up space doesn’t mean you’re cocky. It just means that you own who you are, regardless of who’s next to you. 

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Do you feel that about yourself?

Let me give a huge disclaimer, Lisa. Let’s run it back. Every single thing I say comes from a place of experience and struggle. Nothing that I say in class comes from off a pedestal. All my mantras and the things I say in class resonate with people because they come from a very real place for me. I’ve worked with a life coach for four years now. I’ve had therapists my whole life. I always work with coaches and mentors.

And I’ve always been a quote person. I like those things because they’re something tangible I can hold onto when my mind is going in different directions. It’s an anchor for me. 

Everything I say is about me being vulnerable and letting people into what I’m going through. I try to do this without airing out my dirty laundry that no one cares about. I’m not going on the tread to say something like, well, I had a really good day yesterday. But I do lead from a position of vulnerability and invite people in to do the same. 

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Speaking of quotes. How do you come up with your catchphrases? Is it something that Peloton tasks you with? 

This is literally the life of saying. Are you ready for this? 

With the majority of us [at Peloton], it’s not scripted whatsoever. There might be some that come into class thinking, “Oh, I might want to say ‘this’ because it’s a theme resonating with me right now.” But for the vast most part for everyone, we say something off the cuff. We are doing the workouts with y’all. We are struggling. We are trying to keep our minds centred. And we know the audience we have. 

After class, I’ll go on my Instagram and see what people post about the class. Often it’s word-for-word posts about what I say in class. Just over time, it’s our members that make them mantras. Otherwise, it’s just random things we say in class. “You don’t have to, you get to.” “How you do anything is how you do everything.”

“Whenever I had a bad game, my dad would be like, ‘What would Kobe do? You can’t stop shooting if you miss five in a row’.”

—Jess Sims

And, “the glazed-donut look” – that was never something I thought would be my tagline. Never in a million years. I just said it. Now, Hailey Bieber has it as her tagline for skincare. The number of members that messaged me saying, Hailey Bieber stole it! I was like, it’s not my saying, I just said it in class, and you all thought it was hilarious. So, I kept saying it. 

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I know your idol is Kobe Bryant. I feel, when we pick a role model, we choose someone we can mirror. What part of you is like Kobe?

I love Kobe Bryant so much. I named my dog after him. I’ve always idolized him, but I never met him… But, I guess it would be his work ethic, just his Mamba Mentality of going “above and beyond” and being a great teammate by leading by example. If he said he’d be at the gym at five in the morning to shoot, by five o’clock, he’s already been there for 45 minutes, putting up shots. 

My dad and I loved him. And I played basketball myself through college. I grew up in Boston, but we were Lakers fans – then Celtics fans. That’s how much we loved Kobe. He was a connection to my dad for me. Whenever I had a bad game, my dad would be like, “What would Kobe do? You can’t stop shooting if you miss five in a row.”

And a third thing is what he for women’s sports, being a girl dad of four daughters and how magical their relationship was. I found myself in that father-daughter duo.

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Do you miss basketball at all?

I work at ESPN and I work in basketball. I’m a huge supporter of the WNBA. But, playing basketball? Yes, I do miss it. But I’m too afraid. Now, my body is my job. So God forbid if I got hurt. I tore my ACL my junior year of college, so God forbid that happens again. I need my body for Peloton, so it’s best to just play host for now.

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You love teaching to show women their own strength. How do you see that in someone? 

There’s no greater compliment than when a woman says to me, I never lifted weights in my entire life and now I’m doing snatches with 40 pounds. Nothing makes me happier. Generally speaking, for us, as women, we need that physical proof that we’re strong. 

That’s why, when you’re deadlifting, I say to put the 10 pound weights away. We pick up bags and children hundreds of times a day that are at least 40 pounds. Go heavier and trust yourself.

That translates off the mat. You go to work, walking a bit more proud. You talk a bit more assertively. You start to realize, wow, I’m really pretty powerful. That’s the ultimate compliment I get with Peloton. 

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If you could invent a new technology for Peloton, what would it be?

I wish that I could click on a leaderboard name and see them working out in real-time. Of course, you would opt into it. But, it would be cool if I could press “Lisa,” and then you pop up doing the workout and I can have a conversation with you. 

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How do you create workouts? What’s the process?

It depends on the class. They’re all so different.

Today I had a music-themed run – R&B. So, I chose different songs to fit the class, and then I’ll choose what I want to do for each song. For a rolling hill, it might be chorus pickups, where we do sprints or walk faster.

If it’s a walk, I might do listening games. Whenever there’s a repeated word, you add either incline or speed. 

“Be a little kid again in terms of your fears. When I taught kindergarten, the kids were fearless. They move with an absence of fear of consequence, which can be good and bad, right. They don’t give a shit for putting an effort for the ‘wrong’ thing. They don’t overthink it.”

—Jess Sims

There’s structure essentially. For example, every interval has to be under two minutes. For HIITs, they’re shorter intervals. And there are different ways to make a class challenging: the duration of an interval, incline, the speed, combination of both.

And you can also play with recoveries. You might start off with a 60-second recovery, then a 45, then a 30, then a 15. It’s harder to innovate running and walking, but it’s playing with those variables and obviously supporting it with a great playlist.

Bootcamps are a freaking puzzle. Those take me hours of planning. I teach two a week. My Sims 60 has six 10-minute segments. I am very, very particular about having the music end after each segment for a nice clean cut. I just think about all the movements. For the strength portion, I usually teach full body. I think about the basic movements, so push-pull, hinge, squat, plank, locomotion. Let’s keep it interesting and science-driven, so you all hit the main things. 

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You’re ensuring that the entire body is covered with the different types of movements?

Exactly. The reason I say it’s a puzzle… I could do heavy squats in the first section on the floor, but you have 40 more minutes of working out after that, including sprinting. I’m not going to burn your legs out, because that just wouldn’t be good for your body. But at the end of the class, I would as an all-out effort. And if I’m doing a ton of uphill posterior chain movement, that’s all hamstrings, calves, achilles, so I’m not going to crush you with single-leg deadlifts either. The cool thing about bootcamps is that [the moves are] complementary. 

We get the question all the time: “Why can’t I do a 20-minute strength and then a 20-minute run?” And you can, for sure, but those were not made to go together. That’s not as great for your body as a cohesive boot camp. 

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How do you stay creative in creating the workouts? Is it for the music for you? Is it putting together the puzzle pieces? 

I utilize the instructor team. We go to each other for inspiration. We shared the same greenroom. So, like Selena [Samuela] came in this morning and was like, “I have a 20-minute glutes and legs class in two days. What are your thoughts on blah, blah? We talked back and forth, and she finished her program. For me, it’s other instructors, by taking their classes and being reminded of moves. 

I love learning, and it goes back to me being a teacher. I love doing workshops, reading newsletters. I have Instagram accounts I follow for inspiration. I’m constantly learning. 

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Do you follow Hailey Bieber for inspiration? I’m kidding!

The number of DMs I get… She was on The Kelly Clarkson Show, and Kelly Clarkson asked her about the glazed donut look. And do you know what her response was? That she didn’t make it up.