In weightlifting, some women find a lightness of being.
At an age where many women prefer to cover up, housewife Fuzuki Mitchell, 49, has no qualms about flaunting her figure in a skimpy bikini — which she wore for the first time only at the age of 46, for her competitive bodybuilding debut in Australia.
Active in sports like football and basketball in her youth, Mitchell fell in love with weightlifting and bodybuilding four years ago after her personal trainer, a former bodybuilder, introduced the sport to her.
It made her feel stronger and more energetic.
“With bodybuilding, it’s easy for me to come to the gym or do it at home. But as a 50-year-old, can I still play basketball? Even if I can still run fast, it’s very difficult to continue with these sports, make my own team and another team (to play against),” said Mitchell, who is Japanese and has lived here for more than two years with her American husband.
Pumping iron helps her to maintain a healthy metabolic rate and weight, she said. Tipping the scales at 52 kg, she is able to lift a 110 kg barbell off her back and do 110 kg dead lifts.
More women here are forgoing Barbie-thin beauty ideals in favour of more muscular physiques, and many of them have also taken to social media to document their physical transformation using the #girlswholift
hashtag, which currently boasts more than 20 million posts on Instagram.
Although industry players said the trend is still in its infancy in Asia, local gyms are seeing more women at their free-weights areas and in their muscle-building classes such as CrossFit, body pump and weightlifting.
It is increasingly common to see female gym-goers lifting weights of significance, such as those above 2kg, said Henrik Olofsson, head of fitness at TripleFit.
Women currently make up about half of TripleFit’s members who have taken on some form of weightlifting training, up from 35 per cent when the fitness and retail outfit at Millenia Walk first opened in late 2016.
TripleFit recently launched a Barbell Club class, which teaches intermediate to advance weightlifters the principles of Olympic weight lifting. About 35 per cent of participants in the class are women.
At Fitness First Singapore, where women make up at least 75 per cent of its group class attendances, strength and conditioning-related classes such as body pump have seen a 10 per cent growth in the last two years.
More women are now realising there are more benefits to being strong and shapely than “just being skinny”, said Alex Michael Betts, president of the Singapore Federation of Bodybuilding and Fitness (SFBF).
“Not so long ago, most women would be terrified of the idea of building muscles as there was a misconception that they would become manly and look bulky when, in reality, women do not have the natural hormone levels required to get so big,” he said.
Men tend to be able to build more muscle than women because of the male hormone testosterone, said Dr Lim Lian Arn, an orthopaedic surgeon at Gleneagles Hospital.
However, women’s bodies can also become muscular because the natural response of an appropriately-stressed muscle is to strengthen and grow in size.
Some women go into weight-training because of convincing evidence that it builds strength and changes body appearance, said Dr Lim.
Weight-training has been associated with health benefits such as better cardiovascular fitness and bone strength, as well as lower risk of cardiac conditions and osteoporotic fractures.
“But there are probably also underlying social and philosophical reasons why women go into such programmes — this may be an expression of them breaking free from traditionally-held notions of what women should look like and what they do for exercise,” said Dr Lim.
Taking it to another level
With their new-found physique and strength, some women like Mitchell and 22-year-old Tyen Rasif have gone a step further to take part in fitness competitions.
Rasif is one of the youngest in Singapore to be ranked on the international bodybuilding stage, while Mitchell bagged fourth place in the Women’s Body Fitness category of the Show of Strength in 2017 organised by the SFBF and is currently bulking up for her next competition at the end of the year.
The number of women participating in fitness and bodybuilding events organised by SFBF, an International Federation of Bodybuilding and Fitness-sanctioned organisation, has doubled in the last six years.
“In 2011, one in five of the total participants for our fitness and bodybuilding events were female. Last year, they made up two in five of our total participants for similar events,” said Betts.
This has spurred SFBF to introduce more categories for women in the competition scene — such as the Women’s Physique category in 2013 and the Women’s Wellness category in 2017.
The Bikini Fitness category remains the most popular category among women here as participants are judged based on a balanced, healthy and athletic-looking body that is not excessively muscular or super low in body fat, said Betts.
Having met teenagers as young as 14 and women pushing 60 expressing interest in competing, he said most women take part not to compete with other women, but to prove their mettle.
“It can be a very addictive process as the routine gives many people a sense of control over their bodies and lives, and stability too. They know what they’re going to eat, when they’re going to eat it. They know which muscle groups they are going to focus on each day and which exercises they will be using to sculpt those muscles,” he said.
All in moderation
Experts and women bodybuilders caution against going overboard in the pursuit of a perfectly sculpted body.
“Anything when taken to the extreme, even sports, can become obsessive and unhealthy,” said Rasif, who is also a freelance personal trainer. She has seen her fair share of women who succumb to eating disorders when they start gaining weight after they stop their training.
Unlike the filtered images shown on social media, the reality of transforming the body takes a tremendous amount of discipline and determination, said Vyda S. Chai, a clinical psychologist at Think Psychological Services.
“Some people can become so anxious to succeed they may resort to taking performance-enhancing drugs. This, coupled with intensive workouts and restrictive dieting, may then lead to an obsession and compulsion and can become quite addictive,” said Chai.
Overdoing weight training could be counterproductive to physical health too. Power lifting may lead to growth disturbances in girls who have not undergone puberty while excessive lifting can lead to injuries and accelerate wear and tear of ligaments, tendons and joints across all age groups, said Dr Lim.
He has treated women who suffer injuries — commonly ligament tears in the shoulders, wrists and knees — when they jump into such fitness regimens without an adequate base, train more than what their bodies can handle or carry on training in spite of minor injuries.
“Weight-lifting done with the wrong posture, technique and weightage can cause more harm than good,” said Dr Lim.
Without medical intervention, ligament or joint cartilage injuries can sometimes become irreversible, he added.
When done in moderation and with supervision, Dr Lim considers weight-training healthy and would encourage it.
“If everything was balanced and in moderation, not impeding function and not resorting to consuming performance-enhancement drugs, then it would be considered a healthy lifestyle choice. But when (training for a sport) gets the better of you and starts to impede function such as your ability to work and take responsibility for your family and causes health concerns, then your dedication has become an obsession,” said Chai.
A guided programme is important in order to learn proper lifting techniques that are both effective and safe, said Kester Lim, national group fitness manager of Fitness First Singapore. It may also motivate individuals more to work towards their goals.
Mitchell also advises women who wish to pick up weights for the first time to get a trainer, at least for the first few sessions.
While the process of training for a competition requires sacrifice and immense discipline, she will not give up her hard-earned muscles anytime soon.
Currently in the midst of “bulking up” for her next competition, she spends six mornings a week slogging her guts out in the gym, pumping iron and doing other muscle-building exercises like squats and deadlifts.
“I’m also looking forward to get a new bikini for my next show,” she said with a laugh. — TODAY