Real-life Wonder Women: Singapore's hottest fitness gals

5 local female fitness gurus tell us about their exercise regimes, their diets, and how they manage to work out regularly while juggling kids, careers, and their own businesses

Real-life Wonder Women of Singapore
Real-life Wonder Women of Singapore
13/06/2017

Real-life Wonder Women of Singapore

If you’ve seen Wonder Woman, you’ll know that Diana Prince's physique is major #fitspo: toned arms, legs for days, and abs harder than any Amazon warrior’s shield. But you don’t need to be a superhero, or even have privy to Hollywood trainers, in order to get fit. Just ask these five fitness gurus, who live, work, and raise children in Singapore while competing in bodybuilding competitions, running their own studios, or training clients.

There’s no one-size-fits-all model for getting fit, let alone an activity that everyone will like  – which is why we met a variety of fitness gurus, who range from a 37-year-old aerial yoga instructor, to a 24-year-old competitive bikini model, to a mother of two who owns a gym in the heartlands. Read on to see how these real-life Wonder Women stay in shape, and perhaps you’ll find something that inspires you to get moving. 

The yoga mum
The yoga mum
13/06/2017

The yoga mum

Dawn Sim, founder and head teacher, Trium Fitness 

While we’d usually feel a little grumpy at the prospect of a 9 am interview, it’s impossible not to feel cheerful after spending an hour with Dawn Sim, 37, the founder of Trium Fitness in Lavender. Upbeat, chatty, and energetic despite running a yoga studio AND mothering four daughters between the ages of one and 11 – while her husband is based overseas, no less – it’s no surprise that she favours aerial yoga, which you perform on a hammock above ground. It’s scary, it’s fun, and it’s perfect for people who, like Dawn, can embrace a challenge.

Tell me about your exercise routine
I train every single day. On weekends, I always have to involve my children. Mondays are an hour of yoga practice. In the late morning or evening, I go for a run if I have time because I also take part in marathons. I used to do triathlons. Recently, I did the Spartan race, and soon I’m going for the Beast version. I love this kind of stuff! And the mobility, flexibility, and endurance training here allows me to go through it and recover really quickly. Tuesdays, I do half an hour to an hour each of Pilates and aerial yoga. You have to be an example for students who are going through this as well! Wednesdays, I go for a run, an hour of Pilates, or Crossfit. Thursdays, I do yoga for an hour plus a 5 kilometre run. Fridays, I do aerial for now. Saturdays, I run, and I also play with the kids, I go for a swim, and I also run. Sundays, are for outdoor fun. I consider it a rest day but we still do activities like swimming, skating, or hiking. I usually put the youngest one in a hiking bag that the baby goes in, there’s even a seatbelt inside.

Why is yoga so important to you?
I spent some time in France with my husband, and then in the US. I gave birth to my two older girls in France, and I didn’t have anyone helping me out, so I ended up going through depression. The only thing that helped me was yoga. After seeing how it helped me physically and mentally, I was compelled to get certified. I took a nine day course in prenatal and postnatal yoga, my butt died being there from 8 am to 11 pm, but until today, I am still doing prenatal yoga, postnatal yoga, and doing workshops.

So this is what inspired you to become an instructor?
I first started yoga at 17, but I’ve been teaching since I was 21. Yoga is not just for aesthetics. The aesthetics will come, but it’s about how it helps you mentally that makes me want to teach yoga and pilates. Yoga styles are all so different and all have different benefits. There are different aspects and they can help every single person, no matter what your problem is, and I decided to share that with people as well. I noticed how it helped me – I’m not clinically diagnosed with ADHD (attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder), but I do have hyperactivity, and yoga helped me so much.

Why aerial yoga?
When you’re hanging on the hammock, there’s zero compression. If anything you’re decompressing the joints. It’s kind of like going to a chiropractor, except that you’re getting fitter.

Then there’s a fun factor, and there’s a fear factor, that you would not see in a typical yoga class. With the fear of falling, you build confidence along the way, then there’s the fun that you can’t always get in many other classes – the swinging, flipping, the dangling. People get over that fear of falling really quickly. Oftentimes I just tell people pretend you’re five years old again, don’t worry so much, just enjoy yourself and don’t overthink it.

Dawn Sim, Trium Fitness
Dawn Sim, Trium Fitness
13/06/2017

Dawn Sim, Trium Fitness

At what point did you start thinking about opening your own studio?
Several times over the years, I’ve been asked by students if I wanted to open a studio. Twice I said yes, but before I could commit to finding a place, my husband would say we’re going overseas again, and I was like, “huh??” This time around, my students are my shareholders, and they’re the ones who made it possible for me to fulfill this dream this time around – it’s something I wouldn’t have done by myself, but because of the support I have from the community, this is possible.

What’s the biggest challenge of running your own studio?
Juggling family life and running the business while keeping to a fitness regime. Saturdays and Sundays are dedicated to family. But a lot of the time that’s when events happen, so I try as much as possible for kids to not feel neglected. I can work quite fast, but the time I spend with the kids, there is no shortcut. When we spend time together, we go outdoors. I don’t believe in giving kids the iPad – that’s why you see many kids with posture problems - I believe in movement and strengthening of muscles. And as much as possible, I try to bring them to work with me. I want to inspire them while making sure I don’t compromise family time.

How active is your husband compared to you? 
My husband and I married very early, at 21, and we’ve been together since we were 15. He was my first boyfriend! I was supposed to go to Australia for an exchange programme, I’d even paid for it, and at the very last minute, the school said they have an 11-day Outward Bound programme in Sarawak so I forfeited my payment, went for the thing, and met my husband there. He’s from a boys’ school and I’m from a convent school, and we met on a mountain in Sarawak. And since then we’ve been together. He pretty much stalked me for two years so I decided to marry him!

Sounds like he’s as outdoorsy as you are since you met at Outward Bound
He’s quite athletic as well. He was sailing on a national level. We actually got to spend a lot of time together when we were very young, when I was windsurfing and he was sailing, so we were spending a lot of time at the beach as well. We have our own boat also, and we take our kids out to sail when he’s in town. On the weekends, we run, we cycle, and when the kids are skating and I’m skating, he’ll usually be the one looking after the baby (laughs).

The bodybuilder in a bikini
The bodybuilder in a bikini
13/06/2017

The bodybuilder in a bikini

Serene Koh, WBFF Asia Diva Bikini Model competitor 

When it comes to achieving a beach body, Serene Koh, 24, is a pro. After getting fit for a NutriGirl competition back in 2015, Serene kept up an active lifestyle, going on to compete in WBFF Asia’s Diva Bikini Model competition in late April this year.

“It’s not about competing with other people but about competing with myself,” Serene, who just graduated from Republic Polytechnic, says. “How far can I push myself? It’s a challenge within the mind.”

“The journey is more on the dieting. Exercise is just one or two hours a day. Dieting takes an entire 24 hours, and it requires endurance because we need to restrict ourselves on certain foods. You need to cut off carbs, which means not having enough energy to do certain workouts, we need a kind of self-motivation and also preservation to push through.”

For WBFF, Serene “signed up quite last minute”, so she had to condense her dieting and training in two months, whereas contestants would typically start preparing a year in advance (and the “cutting” part of the diet usually takes about 12 to 14 weeks). Despite expediting the process, Serene encourages women to eat and live normally (albeit healthily), only undertaking intense diet and training when preparing for a competition.

What have you learned about diet and fitness since your first competition?
For my first competition, I didn’t have enough time for dieting. Dieting is a process where we need to bulk up and also to cut things like sodium, carbohydrates, and even water. The cutting phase takes place somewhere near the competition date. It’s a very crucial time. When you step onto the stage, the judges will know whether you are doing your cutting or not. I only had one week to do that. But I had a friend to guide me along so I could still cope. I also needed to prepare for posing in the swimsuit. So I registered online for a coach, then I went to learn and practise before going for the competition. WBFF is a bit different, the way of posing is different, but didn’t go for any posing class for that. I just learned on YouTube. Their style is more of a fashion kind, with a catwalk and posing. It sounds more relaxed but it’s more competitive in a way because the other competitors come from all over Asia.

You said on Instagram that maintaining a bikini body “is unsustainable in terms of health and it's dangerous if pursued for an extended period” – tell us what led you to write this
The reason I say it’s not sustainable because there’s a bulking and cutting phase. We only look good during the cutting phase. And it’s not good for our body because we will have a lack of nutrition – our body needs carbs to function, but we deprive ourselves of that and water, so it’s not very good for us mentally and for our body, and that’s why I say it’s not sustainable. We can look good, but we need to go back to our normal diet and eat like normal people. We won’t look as slim as we do on stage. Crash-dieting is not very good.

Don’t just compete last minute. It does not work that way. We need a period of time to get our body ready. I will try to build up my muscles, then next year I will do the cutting so I can go for a competition. If we just cut, we won’t have the toned lines, and our muscles won’t be defined – it’s not good also.

Photo: Cheong Jia Sheng

Serene Koh, WBFF Asia Diva Bikini Model competitor
Serene Koh, WBFF Asia Diva Bikini Model competitor
13/06/2017

Serene Koh, WBFF Asia Diva Bikini Model competitor

Tell us about your exercise regimen
If there is a competition, I will work out five to six times a week. I’ll do two or three sessions of cardio in one week, afterward I’ll do weights exercises. If there is no competition, I’ll just do weights. I’m not really a person who is into cardio. I work out in the gym or will do it at home with body weights or weights. Sometimes I am just lazy to get out of the house!

Nowadays, especially in Asia, there is still a stigma about female bodybuilders. Are you ever afraid of what people will say or about getting “too bulky”?
It doesn’t bother me much. As a female, I know our testosterone level is very low. We won’t develop as much muscles as males. Or it might take a longer time. Lifting weights helps us to look more lean. The reason I got into weightlifting is that I used to do yoga, but I found that I didn’t have inner strength for certain poses. I am just flexible. That’s why I went for weights to build up my strength. Lifting weights helps me be more confident in how I look, so I prefer weights. And anyway I don’t become very muscular.

Sometimes women feel self-conscious lifting weights in the gym. Do guys ever approach you while you’re trying to work out? 
I’ll usually go to the gym by myself. Sometimes I encounter guys coming to talk to me. But usually those are fitness trainers!

How does your boyfriend feel about your passion for bodybuilding?
He’s not into bodybuilding but he encourages me to do it. He’s also supportive of me joining competitions or will accompany me. He’s supportive but said, don’t grow bigger than me! (laughs)

The Herculean trainer
The Herculean trainer
13/06/2017

The Herculean trainer

Gladys Leong, personal trainer and owner of Hercules Fitness Gym

Gladys Leong, 36 and a mother of three, owns and is a personal trainer at Hercules Fitness Gym. She has also participated in eight bodybuilding competitions and is already preparing for next year’s WBFF Asia competition despite having just participated in WBFF Asia’s Diva Fitness Model in April. In other words, she’s a beast when it comes to fitness. But beneath all that brawn and muscle lies the heart of a trainer who feels most gratified helping friends and clients.

“I guided friends for post-natal workouts before officially becoming a fitness trainer three years ago,” Gladys says. “It is my passion. What motivates me is helping people and having them see results.”

Photo courtesy of Gladys Leong

In fact, one of the main reasons Gladys and her partner opened their own gym was so that their clients could get more personal attention. At the public gym where she and her partner were at previously, the clients were often stuck waiting for machines or felt rushed while doing weights. Meanwhile, some female clients felt self-conscious at a gym surrounded by so many men, who could potentially judge them for working out incorrectly. Today, Hercules Fitness Gym, which is located in the heartlands of Bedok, does not allow walk-ins, giving priority to team members and clients, who benefit from generous amounts of 1-on-1 with Gladys and the other trainers.

Have you always been active?
I only started becoming really active when I was 21. Before that, I was pretty overweight and I had binge-eating issues, which I developed when my mom passed away in 1997. I was bulimic, so whenever I over-ate, and felt guilty, I would force myself to vomit. There was a point of time I vomited blood, which was when I decided I should not do this anymore and should go about it the correct way. That’s how I started exercising. 

Since then, I’ve been active. I was a swimming instructor, and my workouts were more of things like crunches, pushups, things you can do at home. Swimming used to be the only sport I could excel in. I was more into cardio. I didn’t like weight training at first because the soreness was quite intense and it lasted for quite long. But after I saw the results from weight training, that inspired me to continue.

Tell us about your exercise regimen
I train six times a week, for about an hour a day, targeting major muscle groups per day: arms, shoulders, chest, legs, and glutes. Every day a different body part. I add cardio to it either morning, or evening, or on off days. This is how I burn off my fat.

As a fitness trainer, what are some common misconceptions you’ve come across about exercise?
Many women think that weights make them bulky. People think I am this size and lean because I lift very light, which isn’t true, I lift pretty heavy, but I do proper dieting. That’s why I have lean muscles. But if you eat hard and train hard, then the muscles overlap and you become bigger than before and look very bulky. 

Gladys Leong, personal trainer and owner of Hercules Fitness Gym
Gladys Leong, personal trainer and owner of Hercules Fitness Gym
13/06/2017

Gladys Leong, personal trainer and owner of Hercules Fitness Gym

What would you recommend for someone who wants to get fit? 
Brisk walking for circulation, planking for the core, sit-ups at home. Don’t do everything in one go, otherwise your body will crash and you’ll never take it up again. I’d say three times a week is good for starters.

The most important thing to think about is health rather than just how you look. A good daily diet improves your health and not just your image. Many, when they want to diet or slim down, just starve themselves and that’s really not the right way. There are no shortcuts.

Tell us about the type of people who come to your gym
They are as young as 14 and as old as 84 – my partner trains an 84-year-old uncle who does golf all the time, he trains to keep fit and improve his swing. He drives over here about twice a week.

You’ve had the opportunity to go overseas. How does Singapore’s fitness culture compare to other countries?
The fitness industry in Korea is very big, with a lot of ambassadors everywhere, and competitions happen every two to three months. People look up to these fitness ambassadors a lot, unlike in Singapore. In Singapore we need more time because not everyone appreciates the look of a toned woman yet. Many women do not like to look big, especially when we have a lot of Asian men judging. Even when you are out, you will hear a lot of things like “she’s more toned than me, she looks like a man”, so Singapore needs more time.

Do you and your partner train together?
My partner and I train on our own. He was my trainer before, and he got me into weight training, so we do pretty similar stuff, just that the weight difference is pretty big. He has his own style of training because he is into bodybuilding, whereas mine is more of physique. His style is more of a man’s style. Some exercises like trap exercises are not suitable for women because we do not want to lose our necks!

As a trainer and as someone who competes, have you ever seen people get together at the gym?
It does happen – we have many pageant girls and guys get together after a competition. It is good, especially if both of them are competing, because they can push each other more. If one is dieting, the other can diet as well and they don’t feel so grouchy about eating well. Because if your partner doesn’t compete and starts eating in front of you, it gets a bit annoying when you are in your last phase of competing!  

Photo courtesy of Gladys Leong

The overachiever
The overachiever
13/06/2017

The overachiever

Joanna Tang, Senior Director at Visa and WBFF Asia Diva Bikini Model participant

Joanna Tang: wife, mother, Senior Director for Visa, WBFF Asia Diva Bikini Model participant, and soon-to-be M.B.A. student. Talk about a full plate, especially when you’re cutting out the deliciousness that is carbohydrates. But Joanna, 39, handles it all with aplomb, crediting her supportive family and kind colleagues for helping her get through the rigorous Diva Bikini Model diet and training regimen.

“I was worried, thinking would my husband be okay if I wore a bikini in public, but he was really supportive and said go for it, why not, you’re doing great and working out hard, just have fun! He was very supportive, during the show. My husband and two kids were there, and when I was on stage, I could hear my daughter calling out, Mummy! I couldn’t have done it without them. They gave me time to exercise, and they accommodated me when food options were limited.”

Her colleagues also helped her watch her diet. “Some colleagues knew, and they were cheerful. Normally, colleagues will put snacks out, but my colleague would say, not you! You’re trying so hard, get over this stage, you’re doing great. It was really touching.”

How does your husband feel about your active lifestyle?
My husband exercises more than me, five to six times a week. We both go in the morning. He does what I do, weights training. He’s not the sporty type, he’s a gym person. We go to the same gym, sometimes together if our schedule allows for it. Both of us love fitness  - that’s a very common thing in our family. We talk about calorie intake, which food increases metabolism, and proteins!

Diva Bikini Model was your first competition. What made you decide to join?
I got into this competition fairly late. My dance studio said there’s a competition going on, it was about a month before the date, and they said it’s easy, you just need to walk. Then I realised there are a lot of professional trainers competing and they are really, really fit so I decided to give it my best shot. I got a personal trainer and went on a strict diet of chicken and fish all the time, with no carbs, and would sometimes work out twice a day to catch up. It was tough but fun. When I look back, I think I can do much better if I had more time, but I made it to the top 10 of the competition, so I feel I can give myself a bit of credit.

Joanna Tang, Senior Director at Visa and WBFF Asia Diva Bikini Model participant
Joanna Tang, Senior Director at Visa and WBFF Asia Diva Bikini Model participant
13/06/2017

Joanna Tang, Senior Director at Visa and WBFF Asia Diva Bikini Model participant

How often do you exercise?
When not competing, I exercise four to five times a week. I will do cardio, weights training, and go for Zumba classes. I used to do rock climbing as well. I go to the gym about five times a week. When training, I was more intense, totally strict on diet. I needed to eat a lot more protein for the competition. The intensity of workouts was much higher. If you lift weights, you need to lift heavier. I needed to get more muscle definition, so it was more about weights than cardio, because if you do too much cardio you lose your muscle.

Tell us about a meaningful experience you had while trying different types of exercise
I did the Standard Chartered half marathon one year. I started trying to chase a pacer to achieve my time, but I kind of lost them in between. I’m a solo runner, so I felt like I lost my motivation when I lost my pacer, but along the way, you see other people, you make friends, people will tell you go forward they will share a banana with you. I saw someone who was also struggling with me and we told each other, let’s keep going. In the last one or two kilometres I was able to dash through the finishing line, my fastest speed was in the last two kilometees. It’s a complex journey, and it’s a long time, two hours, for your mind to be made about what you want to do and how you want to achieve this.

What I like about running a half marathon is that it’s not so much about training your body, but about training your mind and your spirit to be tough. When you tell yourself you want to give up, you tell yourself, what about one more kilometre? You keep pushing yourself to move and it’s a really amazing journey.

What would you say to someone who wants to be as fit as you are?
Don’t be afraid of lifting weights. There’s a misconception, I used to think this myself, that I shouldn’t be lifting weights, because it will make me bulky. But I’m not bulky, I’m just toned and defined with muscles. Don’t get me wrong, it’s very hard to get bulky, you’d need certain drugs and lots of protein shakes to do that, but if you’re just training like a normal person, the weights would give you a defined body shape. 

Photo courtesy of Joanna Tang

The barre pioneer
The barre pioneer
13/06/2017

The barre pioneer

Anabel Chew, co-founder and director, WeBarre

Up until a week ago, Anabel Chew, the 30-year-old co-founder of WeBarre, had an alter-ego: she was a piano and flute teacher at Stamford American School. When she and her business partner first started WeBarre, Singapore’s first boutique barre studio, Anabel kept her full-time day job. For the first six months, it was manageable. But as WeBarre opened a second studio and expanded to 90 classes, Anabel began feeling the strain. So when the school year ended in June, Anabel bid her employer adieu so that she could focus on her studio. 

“Previously I would go to school and my mind was here and I was trying to focus on my work, and it was not fair to my day job that I’m not 100 percent. This is my own business, so naturally i would be more invested in it, and to be honest, I really enjoy both, I just don’t have the energy or physical capacity to do both.”

As Singapore’s first boutique fitness studio dedicated to barre, WeBarre has paved the way for locals to try the trendy (and effective) workout, reportedly a favourite among Victoria’s Secret Angels. By combining elements of pilates, yoga, strength training, and ballet, barre provides a fun, challenging way for people who want to get lean without necessarily bulking up.

How did you find out about barre?
I had to go to New York for an exchange programme. I wanted to check out all the yoga classes or whatever’s hip, and my friends said yoga’s great but try barre, that’s the thing that’s in now. I did one whole week of barre classes in NY, and I thought, this is something out of this world. Yoga challenges me but not in the way barre does. I get a sweat out of it, my heart rate goes up, and at the same time it’s fun.

You started WeBarre in January 2016 and since then it’s grown so much. What is it about barre that people love?
People see results really quickly. So many of us, both instructors and regular clients saw results quickly. It’s appealing to people because you get the aspects of strengthening and toning and you also work on cardio. A lot of women don’t like the idea of lifting weights and bulking up, but the good thing about barre is that we encourage the lengthening of the muscles, to lean out, and tone, which is what a lot of people are after and they see the results in their body. We have HIIT classes where we lift slightly heavier weights, but it’s not heavy enough for them to have big gains.

Anabel Chew, co-founder and director, WeBarre
Anabel Chew, co-founder and director, WeBarre
13/06/2017

Anabel Chew, co-founder and director, WeBarre

Tell us about your exercise regimen
Ever since starting WeBarre, I’ve had no time to do anything else. I train the instructors, which keeps me active. I take their classes and vet their classes. When I have a pocket of time, I go out for a yoga class because I like the grounding and the mind-body principles of yoga. From time to time, I take a HIIT class or check out other studios for ideas.

What are some of the most gratifying experiences you’ve had sharing barre with people?
There was this particular client, she’d just given birth, and had abdominal splitting. She felt really out of shape after her pregnancy, but she became really regular and committed here, and within a short span of time her abdominal splitting closed up so she didn’t need surgery anymore. Barre is about strengthening core muscles and pelvic core muscles, and in the end she felt she could get halfway through the class without wanting to give up.

I also have a client with really bad scoliosis. She told us that all workouts hurt so badly she can’t move afterward, so we took it slowly with her, and now she is taking regular classes in addition to private sessions with us. I also met a housewife who, in her own words, says she hasn’t exercised for 30 years since giving birth. She started in her 50s, now she can do a lot of full pushups with no problems and she’s one of our strongest clients.

I love watching people who really struggle in the first class, but don’t give up. A couple of months later, they have a sense of achievement because they have gotten stronger and more flexible, and they’re really committed into making this work. That kind of reward is something I have not experienced anywhere else

In our previous feature on hot fitness guys, we talked to some guys who received a lot of attention from their female clients (one even met his wife through his student). Can you ever see yourself dating a client? Do looks matter when you’re a fitness instructor?
I think that’s a really hard question. I don’t see myself dating a client because it hasn’t happened before and I haven’t thought of any of them in that way. In any industry, you don’t need to be drop dead gorgeous but having a pleasant disposition always helps, as it is a people business. When you are teaching, it is almost like being on stage – music’s on, show’s up, you need to be very comfortable in your skin and that confidence adds to your attractiveness. 

Photo courtesy of Anabel Chew

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