Bodybuilders are often the target of memes and stereotypes, frequently depicted as arrogant and unintelligent individuals. They are commonly portrayed as villains in films and often endure beatings from Fernando Poe Jr.
When my interest in bodybuilding emerged, the first Filipino bodybuilder I connected with was Alexislee Aznar Abule, a former teacher in Bangkok and an experienced bodybuilder.
Lee participated in the annual Thailand Muscle and Physique Championships, organized by the Thailand Bodybuilding and Physique Sports Association (TBPA) in Bangkok from September 16-17. The competition primarily featured local bodybuilders who might later join the national team, and it was at this event in 2018 that Lee claimed first place.
While backstage, Lee decided that I would handle his tanning, as he was unable to reach his own backside. Even after completing the drying stage, he adhered to a diet consisting of minimal carbohydrates and occasional sips of water to maintain his vascular and ripped physique, boasting approximately 5% body fat.
I was immersed in the competitive world of bodybuilding, where athletes, nearly naked and glistening with tan and oil, proudly display their muscles in public.
Thin to ‘thicc’
Given his current physique, it’s difficult to imagine that Lee was once bullied for being thin – so thin that friends jokingly warned him not to get too close to an electric fan, fearing he might be blown away.
This experience spurred him to embark on a fitness journey. He discovered a nearby gym in Cainta, Rizal, where he initially worked out for three months without significant results.
“I didn’t have a trainer. I was self-taught. But it wasn’t enough. I realized the importance of rest days in whatever we do,” Lee explained.
Subsequently, he received training from Jonathan Casimiro, the 2014 Mr. Universe and a multi-awarded bodybuilder. After Casimiro, Roman “Dondon” Cortuna, a two-time Mr. Universe and the first Asian to win the 2012 Arnold Classic, became his trainer and coach.
Since then, Lee began participating in local bodybuilding competitions. In 2016, he secured third place in the Nabba Singapore Physique Championships.
This was followed by various international competitions in Russia, China, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand, where he consistently claimed top honors. He also holds the title of four-time Southeast Asian Champion in his weight category.
Lee is a member of the International Federation of Bodybuilders (IFBB) Elite Pro Classic Bodybuilder.
An addicting and selfish sport
Due to his unwavering passion and dedication to bodybuilding, Lee made the bold decision to leave his job at a chocolate company in the Philippines.
“Bodybuilding is addicting. It’s also a selfish sport because it demands a significant investment of time for training. During competitions, meal preparation is time-consuming,” Lee explained.
However, success in bodybuilding isn’t solely attributed to hard work and training; nutrition plays a crucial role in his regimen. While Lee maintains a diverse diet, he places particular emphasis on reducing sugar and sodium intake, emphasizing the importance of moderation.
Outside of competitions, Lee consumes nearly 3,000 calories daily, comprising carbohydrates, proteins, and healthy fats. He believes that although winning competitions may not guarantee financial wealth, it can open doors to numerous opportunities.
Lee’s journey took an unexpected turn during a competition in Shanxi, China, where he caught the attention of Chinese bodybuilders and entrepreneurs who offered him a position as a trainer.
Together, they established the Holder Hongdao Group of Companies. In the Philippines, Lee trains politicians, actors, entrepreneurs, athletes, and fellow bodybuilders. Additionally, he provides preparation training and coaching services for bodybuilders in various countries.
Bodybuilding and fitness in the Philippines
With the surging popularity of fitness, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic, many Filipinos are flocking to gyms. However, a significant number of them discontinue their fitness journeys for various reasons, with some women fearing they might appear “too muscular.”
According to a 2019 report by Ken Research, female fitness service usage in the Philippines is projected to experience a compound annual growth rate of nearly 13% from 2019 to 2023. This surge is attributed to increased health awareness and evolving lifestyles. A Statista survey also revealed that between July 2021 and June 2022, 38.6% of adults aged 20 to 59 in the Philippines were diagnosed as obese or overweight, putting them at risk for conditions like hypertension, stroke, and type 2 diabetes.
Lee noted that most of his clients are women, and he always inquires about their fitness goals to design tailored programs.
“Women’s bodies undergo daily changes due to hormonal fluctuations. Unlike men, who possess testosterone and can therefore build muscle more rapidly,” Lee explained.
Rommel Miranda, owner of Airah’s Gym in San Jose, Occidental Mindoro, himself a bodybuilder, observed that many female clients discontinue their training after just three months or less, often due to a lack of awareness about the benefits of strength training.
However, his Zumba sessions have attracted more regular attendees, both women and men, primarily because they are offered free of charge.
Rommel no longer seeks profits from his gym; instead, he hopes that the local government will promote fitness and support aspiring athletes in local competitions.
Although fitness trainers and coaches are recognized as in-demand professions abroad, the Philippines lacks formal certifications for them. In 2021, the Australian Fitness Academy Asia Philippines (AFAA) began offering courses and certifications for individuals in the fitness industry.
A promising sport
Despite the continued popularity of basketball in the Philippines, powerlifting and bodybuilding have showcased the nation’s prowess.
In addition to Cortuna and Casimiro, Filipinos have left their mark in bodybuilding. In the 1960s, Tomas Ortega, founder of the Philippine Bodybuilding Federation, collaborated with the Weider Brothers to establish Mr. Olympia.
In 1969, international actor and martial arts expert Roland Dantes finished as the third runner-up in the Mr. Universe competition, which was ultimately won by Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Simeon Ayochok, a five-time Mr. Asia, placed second in Mr. Universe and third in the 2001 Mr. Olympia. Bodybuilding was first included in the SEA Games in 1987-1993, with the Philippines securing the first gold medal in 1987. However, there were no records of Filipino bodybuilders participating in subsequent Games until 2013.
Luzviminda McClinton achieved the distinction of being the first to win a world championship in figure bodybuilding. In July, Myra Golloso claimed victory in the bikini PRO category at the Global Classic held in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
Nevertheless, bodybuilding remains a contentious sport, often marred by the use of steroids or performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs). The Philippine Bodybuilding Team, of which Lee was a part, was unable to compete in the 2021 SEA Games due to the inability to submit doping test results on time.
Subsequently, the Cambodian SEA Games Organizing Committee removed bodybuilding from the list after two players failed a doping urine test.
Despite the controversies and the lack of support from the national government, Lee still holds hope that bodybuilding will soon be recognized as a significant sport, akin to basketball.
At the age of 39, Lee remains at the pinnacle of his career, asserting that he will retire only upon securing a gold medal for the Philippines in the upcoming SEA Games.