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Self-Improvement & Hobbies

Top of their game

Fitness trainers are becoming more common, with top ones commanding big bucks and a following
The Straits Times - February 10, 2012
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Top of their game Mr Hisham Musa -- ST PHOTO: ASHLEIGH SIM

You are more likely to bump into or read about a fitness trainer these days than five years ago.

While there are no official figures on the number of fitness instructors and personal trainers here, some estimate there are about 400. Industry experts say the number has risen by as much as 20 per cent in the last five years.

Going by figures from the Singapore Sports Council, the drive to enter the fitness world is still going strong. The two certification tests - Basic Exercise Course and Fitness Instructor Course - launched in 1995 have seen steady participation figures of 500 to 600 each year since 2008.

There are many reasons for this, say industry players. One is a rising awareness of the importance of staying healthy and fit. With lifestyles becoming more stressful and demanding, more people are also now turning to workout sessions as a way to destress and gain stamina.

Plus, the growing affluence of Singaporeans in the last decade means more people can now afford gym memberships or personal trainers.

Popular culture has also spawned a whole new breed of celebrity fitness trainers and entertainment programmes, lending more awareness and marketing sizzle to the idea of keeping fit. The reality television show The Biggest Loser, now in its 13th season, has a wide following; Oprah Winfrey's personal trainer, Bob Greene, has become a star in his own right, as have other trainers linked to celebrities.

Flip the pages of most magazines and you are likely to come across workout secrets of the stars, dished out by their personal trainers.

Some fitness gurus have even become online sensations. Take Prague-born bombshell Zuzana Light of Bodyrock.TV. The former nude model started posting her workout videos in 2008 and now draws more than 25 million YouTube views a month for her exercise videos.

Critics, however, point out that the main draw of her workout videos might be the hefty display of cleavage and loud grunting.

But Mr Dave Nuku, 31, regional fitness director of Fitness First Asia, says having more trainers in the business gives people more workout options.

Mr Nuku, one of the resident trainers on reality show The Biggest Loser Asia, says: 'Traditionally, fitness has been largely perceived as something you do to lose weight. But today, it is about so much more. Elite trainers specialise in different types of fitness training, which include martial arts and triathlons.'

In this competitive environment, one needs to stay ahead of the pack, which is why some trainers here have taken their profiles online to Facebook and Twitter.

Mr Jonathan Wong, 32, who runs Genesis Gym in Mountbatten Square, has a blog on his website, which includes topical issues from how to enjoy bak kwa the healthy way to the different ways of measuring body fat.

Coach Jon, as he is called, has written fitness columns for Men's Health magazine and describes himself as the 'most trusted personal trainer in Singapore'.

Another trainer spreading the message of healthy living is

Mr Jonathan Chew, 30, who set up fitness consultancy, Absolute Living, in 2004. He has supervised the development of 20 gyms, including the one at the Four Seasons Hotel. He also coaches six clients each month in his 3,000 sq ft gym in Beach Road.

Last November, the former software engineer launched a social group on Facebook called LiveFitter, which has since garnered more than 30,000 'likes'. Mr Chew fashions himself as a motivational speaker and updates the page with slogans like 'You may not be there yet. But you are closer than you were yesterday' or 'Earn your body'.

He says: 'We can give as much information as we can to people, but the main thing is to make them want to exercise. It's like giving a child tuition. You need to make him focus on the subject before bombarding him with worksheets.'

Ms Joan Liew, 35, bodybuilding champ and founder of boutique gym Fitness Factory in Boat Quay, charges an average of $120 per hour for her sessions, with at most eight clients a day. She also conducts weekly training sessions for clients in Norway and France via e-mail, Skype and phone.

The high profile of some trainers, she says, is a positive thing.

'At the very least, someone out there could be inspired in some way to start some form of exercise instead of sitting on the couch all day,' she notes.

For the top trainers, helping clients stay fit can also mean big bucks.

According to the Manpower Ministry's Report On Wages in 2010, the most recent figures that are available, personal trainers draw an average of about $2,300 a month. But several top trainers that Urban spoke to say they can take home as much as $20,000 a month and train as many as 4,000 clients in group classes.

While a trainer's skills are important, personality also plays a big part in drawing and retaining students.

Mr Alexander Salihin, 30, personal training manager of UFit in Amoy Street who has more than 10 years of experience, says good interpersonal skills help trainers to forge a bond with clients.

'Our trainers make it a point to create a social bond with our clients by attending birthday celebrations or festive parties. Such events enable us to understand our clients so we can then push the right buttons to maximise their training potential,' he says.

In some cases, the clients show their appreciation in memorable ways.

Mr Nuku of Fitness First remembers a client who was a producer on The Lord Of The Rings movies. When Mr Nuku mentioned that his father was a huge fan of the books that the movies were based on, the client organised a private tour of Weta Digital, the digital visual effects company that produced the film.

But as trainers strive to keep clients happy, there is also the danger of overstepping boundaries.

Mr Aquilino Asuncion, 38, group fitness manager for training development at Amore Fitness, has had female students trailing him.

'Sometimes, even a small smile can be misinterpreted,' he says.

A former physical trainer, who does not want to be named, says he knows of a number of clandestine relationships between clients and their trainers in his eight years in the business.

For instance, it is common for male trainers to provide 'massage and relaxation' to female clients after training, he says.

Former actress and pilates instructor Wong Li-Lin, 39, says both student and teacher must know where to draw the line.

'Just because I have to move your leg doesn't mean I am having or need to have any sort of clandestine relationship with you,' she says.

'Similarly, I don't have to fall in love with my trainer because he smiles so sweetly at me during training.'

Freelance yoga instructor Yvette Tee, 41, who has been teaching for more than eight years, says there are other ways to show appreciation.

'The best gift is to see them turn up for class,' she says.


The doting father has his two young tots to thank for changing his workaholic ways.

Had it not been for his five-year-old boy and two-year-old girl, Mr Hisham Musa would still be clocking seven-day work weeks as a personal trainer and fitness coach.

'My wife was a little unhappy with my work,' the soft-spoken trainer reveals. His wife, a former teacher, is a stay-at-home mum.

'When I first started out as a freelance trainer, I would wake up as early as 4am to train my clients.'

But the birth of his daughter in 2009 made him rethink his priorities.

'I want to spend more time with my kids. They are young and I don't want to miss out on their childhood,' he adds.

Today, he works 51/2 days a week, which also means he earns 'significantly less', he says without revealing figures. But it is a sacrifice he is glad to make.

Mr Hisham first worked as personal trainer at a commercial gym at the age of 21 after completing his national service.

In 2002, he joined a secondary school in the western part of Singapore as a physical education teacher. He left after six years because he wanted more flexibility and time for the family.

Mr Hisham, who holds a master's degree in exercise and sports studies from the Nanyang Technological University, set up fitness outfit in 2008.

The company has since expanded from a one-man show to a team of 20 trainers. It has also made a name for itself for its outdoor bootcamp training sessions.

To date, Mr Hisham and his trainers have worked with more than 4,000 clients, including individuals who want personal training sessions and companies looking for team-building activities.

In 2009, the Health Promotion Board (HPB) approached

Mr Hisham to develop workouts for its Lose To Win project, a three-month public programme which offers weight-loss training.

Now in its third year, the HPB exercise programme has benefited more than 1,500 participants.

To help spread the fitness message to new and wider audiences, he also has a Twitter account where about 240 followers receive regular fitness tips and news.

These days, he can earn at least $10,000 in a good month and about $5,000 in a bad month.

He also often receives gifts, such as gym gear, chocolates and red packets, during his birthday and on festive occasions like Christmas and Hari Raya. An expatriate client, a vice-president of an American bank, once gave him a $500 hongbao for Chinese New Year.

Mr Hisham has also received unwanted attention, he says, recalling a proposal some years ago from a 'very beautiful lady' to be her boyfriend.

But women do not make such advances any more.

'When I talk to my clients about my kids, they know I'm a serious family man,' he says.


In 1997, Ms Suharni earned the nickname Sue Power when the male members at the gym she used to work in spotted her doing pull-ups.

'Some men standing behind me exclaimed, 'Wow, power'. They were impressed by my muscular back and how easily I managed the pull-ups,' she says.

After 19 years, she still has the power.

She started working as a fitness instructor in 1993 at the now-defunct Fiscal Fitness Centre in Raffles Place. Four years later, she joined California Fitness as a personal trainer and left in 2002 to start her own fitness training company, Fitness 247.

Besides personal training,

Ms Suharni also conducts group or corporate training and teaches classes such as BodyCombat and BodyPump at several mega gyms.

She has 50 clients in her personal training and corporate sessions, most of whom got to know her through referrals.

Ms Suharni says her muscular physique is her calling card. 'My physique makes me stand out and I am approached by potential fitness clients because of it.'

She picked up bodybuilding in 1993 after seeing a ripped Linda Hamilton in the movie Terminator 2. Since then, she has bagged the gold medal at the Asian Women's Bodybuilding Championships in 2000 and several bronze medals at regional competitions.

In 2000, she was nominated for the Sportswoman Of The Year award by the Singapore Sports Council but lost out to former national swimmer Joscelin Yeo.

Most of her clients are women, she says, because they are more comfortable working with a female trainer to whom they can be open about everything.

And they are not afraid that she would train them to be buff like her.

'You don't end up looking like a man if your physical instructor is a man, do you?' she asks.

Ask her if she has any admirers among her male clients and the bachelorette says the only attention she gets is from fans who ask for her autograph at bodybuilding competitions.

Some of her clients do shower her with gifts, but she will not say which was the most memorable one.

'I cannot single out one favourite gift. I will not be fair if I didn't mention all those who have made the effort to present me with gifts. I appreciate and am thankful for every single gift I receive.'


When he was four, Mr Copper Crow told his father he wanted to be a Shaolin monk.

He did not get to travel to China, but he did end up studying martial arts for 12 years in the United States until he turned 16.

'When I turned 16 and had my own car, I discovered girls,' he quips.

Today, the American feels a stronger link to another Asian discipline - yoga.

He was hooked after a friend introduced him to the Bikram style of hot yoga in 2002.

Years of being stuck in a desk-bound job as a corporate trainer in a financial company had seen him put on 20kg, so he joined the class to shed weight.

He went on to learn the yoga style from the founder himself, Mr Bikram Choudhury, in California in 2003. That same year, he quit his job to become a full-time yoga instructor.

The job has taken the bachelor places. He taught in Thailand, South Korea and Hong Kong before moving to Singapore in 2008.

As the country manager of Pure Yoga, he overseas the yoga operations at the company and teaches about 10 sessions of hot yoga per week.

His classes, which comprise about 50 students, are always fully booked. But this was not always the case.

'My first hot yoga class was in a Houston garage in 2003 with my mother and eight of her friends, with the heaters on,' he laughs.

When it comes to his students, Mr Crow prefers to downplay his popularity. He does say, however, that he received cards and four oranges during Chinese New Year.

During his one-year stay in South Korea in 2004, he helped a female client shed 46kg and managed to get some other clients, who had Type I diabetes, off their insulin dependence. But he shrugs off their gratitude.

'I tell them I'm just a tour guide. If we're on a safari in Africa, I would point out the giraffes and lions, the same way I point out to them the right postures and moves,' he explains.

Like most yogis, Mr Crow is a vegetarian. One of the hardest things he had to do when he began teaching yoga was to stay away from his mother's cooking.

'I'm from Texas and my family members are cowboys, hunters and big steak eaters. My mum makes a great steak. Saying no to that was tough,' he says.

There are other temptations he has learnt to resist.

'Yogis take vows to follow a code of ethics and personal restraints, which include celibacy or being faithful to one partner.'


It helps to be quick on the button if you want a spot in Mr Aquilino Asuncion's group classes.

When online bookings for his classes at the Amore Fitness chain open a week in advance, the slots are usually snapped up in 10 minutes.

The Filipino, who joined Amore in 2004, is better known by his nickname Bong, which means 'young boy' in Tagalog.

And, boy, is he a hit with the many women who talk about his classes on online forums such as Cozycot and Flowerpod.

The City Square branch, one of the four Amore Fitness outlets where he teaches, has received complaints about the space crunch.

He leads five types of classes - each with about 40 students per session - and his kick-boxing one is, by far, the most popular. 'I guess the pumped-up energy during the class makes people come back for more,' he says.

All this attention has the karate black-belter and trained boxer tickled. Mr Asuncion, who is single, says of the rush for his classes: 'I guess that's what you call kiasu.'

A physiotherapy graduate from Our Lady Fatima College in Manila, Mr Asuncion came to Singapore hoping to find a job in that field. But the higher pay in the fitness industry convinced him to change his plans. Amore had offered him $400 more than what he would have taken home at the hospital.

Working in a fitness club made up mostly of females - 90 per cent of Amore's members are women - does have its challenges.

'Women talk,' he says, adding that he has been the subject of gossip. One rumour had him having supper in Bedok with an unidentified woman even though he has never been to there.

He has to turn a blind eye to the skimpy outfits some women wear to his classes.

'It is very distracting. Sometimes, I would get off the instructor's platform. That way, I can take my eyes off those women and check on the progress of other students,' he says.

Some women have stalked him after class and one even managed to get his mobile number.

He is afraid to take the lift in the gym with a student alone and always makes sure someone else is with them so that he has a witness in case anyone hurls an accusation or starts a rumour.

While he acknowledges it feels good to receive thank-you letters, he did not quite expect one student to write him a letter, offering to leave her husband for him. He passed the letter to the management and the woman left the gym after her proposal was ignored. Still, he treasures the letters.

'Teaching classes day in and day out is very taxing and, sometimes, you wonder if it is all worth it,' he says.

'The cards remind me of how fulfilling my job can be in helping people reach their goals.'




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