Malaysia is slowly starting to flex her muscles in the competitive sport of bodybuilding, thanks to the likes of Lilian Tan.
I’M telling you, that’s a man.”
“Trust me on this, I know a woman when I see one.”
“It’s a ‘he’. How can you not tell?”
“You know what – I think ‘she’ is a transvestite.”
The two passers-by debate for another minute.
Lilian Tan grins to herself. As usual, strangers are gawking and whispering about her – and not very discreetly, too.
At 157cm with a body-load of well-defined muscles, Tan is a rare sight in the country.
At this moment, two ladies behind the reception counter are staring and whispering, clearly intrigued – and perhaps intimidated – by Tan’s brawny proportions.
“I have the humour for all the second-guessing about my gender. It’s usually women who are put off, but I don’t feel insulted. It just means that my hard work is paying off,” says the good-natured 38-year-old sports veteran, a broad smile lining her chiselled face.
When you meet a sportswoman of her calibre, perhaps you would half-expect a loud and brazen character – pardon the stereotyping – to match the robust physique. But surprisingly, Tan comes across as a soft-spoken athlete whose modesty and depth are rooted in an emotional journey that trails back to her childhood.
Looking at her current form, it is hard to imagine Tan as a frail kid who was constantly teased by her schoolmates because of her incompetency in sports.
“I was a sickly child, plagued by coughs and colds to the point where the doctor told my mother not to bring me in again!” Tan says. “At one point, there was something very wrong with my liver – I was too young to understand it then – and the doctor said there was little hope for me. Fortunately I pulled through but I was deemed a weakling in school, constantly taunted by the other kids. You know how it is at that age; unless you’re skilled at something, it can be hard to be accepted.”
Those formative years in Penang were tough on Tan until she reached secondary school, where she found a channel for her frustration and insecurity – she took up swimming.
Her interest developed into competitive swimming throughout secondary school right up to her sophomore year at Palomar Community College in California, where she obtained a degree in Business Management.
In the summer of 1995 when the campus pool was under renovation, Tan decided to take advantage of a two-week trial membership at the gym.
“When my free trial ended, I felt compelled to sign up largely because of the helpful gym attendant who went out of his way to assist me in operating the gym equipment. It was a good decision because the pool renovation took the entire summer.”
Initially, Tan’s workout was limited to cardiovascular activities such as running, cycling and utilising the stepper machine.
“One day, a chiropractor visited the gym to test body fat for members. Mine registered over 20% which was appalling because I’d just lost 9kg; I thought I was lean!”
Eager to trim down, Tan began incorporating resistence training into her workouts to develop lean muscle mass. Her body responded well to the new training regime and as her interest grew, so did her strength.
She recalls an observation that spurred her on: “One day at the gym, I watched an African American woman, who was about my size, curl a 35lb (15.8kg) dumbbell with ease.” It sparked off a desire within Tan to be able to do the same. To her delight, she soon progressed from 5lb weights to 15lb and 25lb within six months – excellent progress for a female.
‘You will never make it!’
When Tan left the United States for home upon completion of her studies in February 1997, she continued to train in weight-lifting.
“Where do you think you’re going with this? This is a man’s sport! Can’t you just find a job related to your major?” Incredulity was written all over her father’s face as he eyed his only child, shocked and disappointed.
Unfazed, she attended Mr Penang (a local bodybuilding competition) for inspiration in May that year.
Her defining moment came as she stood among the audience, marvelling at the bodybuilders’ physique. Tan decided there and then to pursue a career as a professional bodybuilder.
However, Malaysia had ceased promoting competitive bodybuilding among women since 1988 as it was deemed “inappropriate” for the gentler sex. This prompted Tan to return to California in June that year. She experienced another devastating blow the following year.
“On top of being financially strapped, I suffered a serious infection and had to put off training. I ended up gaining 40lb (18kg) over six months. In my depression, I lost sight of my dream which was a shame as I’d been told many times over that I was endowed with the genetics and drive to thrive in the sport.”
The turning point came when a nasty gym mate shot at the disheartened Tan: “You don’t have what it takes to compete because you will never make it through the diet!”
The sting had a positive impact on Tan. Her brows furrowed in grim determination, she resolved to pick up from where she had left off.
Tan’s US resident visa allowed her to participate in local bodybuilding competitions.
By the end of 2000, her excess weight shed, Tan took part in the San Diego Natural Bodybuilding Competition (Open category) and emerged second. A year later, she moved up to the top spot. Things were getting exciting.
In 2004, Tan won the Miss USA Overall Natural Bodybuilding and Fitness Competition (Open category) and earned her status as a professional natural bodybuilder. Then it was a silver medal in the Natural Olympia Competition (Open category) and a bronze in its Women’s Professional Category.
Tan is thankful for the mentorship of professional bodybuilder P.J. Bowen from Lancaster, California. Under Bowen’s watchful eye, she learned to improve on her workouts and diet, effectively enhancing her form, posture and physique as she followed a structured framework of conditioning exercises for different muscle groups during the week.
“You have to know your body and its limits. Once I hit the maximum amount of reps in a particular exercise, I walk away from it so that my muscles can recover,” Tan says.
Her training follows the principles of consistency, ample recovery time and sound nutrition. Once again, her hard work paid off at the South-East Asian, Asian & World Bodybuilding and Physique Sports Championship in Singapore last October, where she walked away with bronze medals at two levels of competition – Asian level and the World Women Model Physique 160cm category. It was an admirable feat for Tan who only had six weeks to train prior to the competition due to the lengthy approval process.
Like any conscientious student, Tan talks to the judges after competitions for their feedback on how she can improve. Judges want to see three elements: asymmetry, thickness and separation. Simply put, Tan’s body must be proportionate and her muscle tones well-defined rather than closely clumped.
“I want to get fitter but I don’t want to look anything like you!” female clients at the gym often tell Tan. Stifling laughter, the freelance International Sports Sciences Association certified fitness trainer would explain that a physique like hers requires a strict workout regime that goes beyond what most women are willing to put themselves through.
“I’m living proof that muscles like these are a result of hard work. They don’t just happen,” she says pointedly.
An hour of running in the morning and another hour and 20 minutes of intensive strength training later in the day, Tan keeps her energy level up by eating five to six high protein meals daily.
“Upkeeping my body is a full-time job. I prepare my own meals every day to manage my nutritional intake and keep my blood sugar level consistent,” she explains.
“So no matter how tired I am in the morning, I prepare the day’s meals before setting out.”
How does her body cope with all this, many wonder.
Yes, joint and muscle aches are common; in fact, they are a big part of muscle recovery and growth.
Yes, there’s temporary disruption in her menstrual cycle but only during the competition season when – through rigid diet and training – Tan’s body fat percentage drops to a mere 7%. Otherwise, she maintains it at 10%-12%.
Tan is strongly against the use of steroids to boost performance and enhance aesthetics.
“What is the point of experiencing quick gains only to lose it all just as quickly. Going natural is key, and you can keep the results much longer.”
Tan does not miss her feminine curves. In fact, she feels better than ever before. “This sport has saved me and made me a more positive person today. I’m going to cherish this look for a long time to come.”
An inspiration for all
Old friends who have not seen her in the last 20 years find it all too overwhelming.
They stare agape in disbelief before reaching out to feel her biceps. “Can you train me to look like this?” they chorus.
Many sports enthusiasts are equally impressed.
“I’d be afraid to get into a fight with you!” men at the gym jest admiringly.
Among Tan’s biggest fans is her boyfriend, Malaccan-born Terry Gallyot, a professional bodybuilder who clinched the Mr Asia title in 1999 and subsequently won the Mr Malaysia competition six times.
They met online when Tan, who was in California then, contacted Gallyot to enquire about the bodybuilding scene in Malaysia prior to her return. From there, they found a kinship with each other.
“My parents used to worry that I would never find a man. After all, men prefer their women slender. Now, with Terry, it’s more than just a romantic relationship. He’s a great sparring partner and we know that together, we can achieve so much in this sport.”
Tan’s eyes are fixed on the next Asia/World Bodybuilding Championship where she aims for gold this time.
Given her optimistic attitude and record of tackling challenges, victory is within her grasp.
Apart from setting new track records for herself, Tan is passionate about helping individuals, especially women, meet their fitness and health goals.
“I’m all for helping people achieve their full potential. You just need to have some faith in yourself,” she says, empathising with individuals with weight management issues.
“I’ve never been obese but I know what it’s like to be overweight.”
Despite her gruelling training and work schedule, Tan takes a break by allowing herself to eat out once a week with friends or simply to catch up on rest.
Her eyes grow misty as she reflects on her parents’ continual support.
They have put aside whatever objections they may have initially, to ensure that her happiness and success take top priority.
“At the end of the day, when they tell me that they are my biggest fans, what else could a girl ask for?”
Lilian Tan is available for regional media and public appearances as well as personal training in the Klang Valley. For bookings, e-mail her at email@example.com.
Big bodies of Asia
Bodyubuilding as a sport has been gaining popularity in Asia, with Thailand, China/Hong Kong and South Korea taking the lead. Nongyao Kosinam of Thailand lifted the gold medal in the 49kg category at the Asian Women’s Bodybuilding Championships in Pattaya, Thailand, in 2009.
Due to a 1988 government ban on bodybuilding for women, professional women bodybuilders are virtually unheard of in Malaysia. Enthusiasts such as Lilian Tan have only recently begun to enter competitions such as the Asia/World Bodybuilding Championship – the most renowned bodybuilding competition in Asia – held in Singapore last year.
Malaysian women bodybuilders are currently opting for “physique” rather than bodybuilding competitions since the latter has been banned. Although both categories are almost similar, the physique category requires a more proportionate body and essentially, less bulk.
Ultimately, the nature of physique competitions allows for the women to look more feminine.
So when you see a physique contestant like Lilian Tan, you will notice that while her body is well-sculpted and toned, she is not necessarily hulky compared to global competitors.
On a global level, there are many organisations that actively encourage the participation of women bodybuilders.
One of these is the Arnold Amateur competition in the United States which attracts contestants from Europe, Asia and Canada. Many aspiring bodybuilders start here.
Then there’s the famed Universe Championships organised by the US National Amateur Bodybuilders Association (NABBA). Arnold Schwarzenegger won the Mr Universe title in the professional level, for three consecutive years from 1968 to 1970. A number of competitions such as the NABBA Mr Universe (amateur and professional), Miss Physique and Miss Figure, are organised by this association.
Effects of bodybuilding on women
Female health and wellness expert Datuk Dr Nor Ashikin Mokhtar talks about the effects of bodybuilding on women.
THE sport of women bodybuilding can be quite baffling. For one, many do not understand why these women would train to the extent where they lose all traces of physical femininity although some may argue that professional and extreme bodybuilding goes beyond such triviality.
After all, the sport is all about pushing the body to its limits in search of that “perfect image” that tends to vary from person to person. Others might claim that it’s an addiction that can’t be helped, a habit that must be continuously fuelled and supported.
While personal motivation can be curious and subjective, the health aspect of such training can be startling to the layman. Issues like breast reduction, amenorrhoea (cessation of menstruation) and ultimately, the abnormality for the female physique to be put through such “stress”’ are frequently raised.
The core of the matter lies in the composition of fat in the body. Take breast size, for instance.
“Breasts are mostly made of fat. Female bodybuilders often have low fat; anything under 12% body fat will make breasts smaller,” says Datuk Dr Nor Ashikin Mokhtar, consultant obstetrician and gynaecologist.
Lean athletes who manage to maintain sizeable breast cups are the exception, and this is attributed to genetics.
Similarly, sportswomen who train themselves into levels of low body fat for periods of more than three months usually suffer from secondary amenorrhoea which occurs when fat levels fall below 20%. (The optimum body fat percentage for athletes is 15% to 20%.)
However, athletes with fat levels of between 20% and 25% are likely to experience an intermediate problem known as oligomenorrhoea in which the menstruation cycle is irregular.
Fortunately, not all athletes experience this problem. Secondary amenorrhoea is typical of athletes who resume a more “normal” lifestyle after the competition season.
“While intensive exercise has been blamed for ovulatory problems among sportswomen, it would be useful to understand that the maintenance of the period cycle is controlled by several complex factors: gonadotrophin-releasing hormone (GnRH), a regulating factor released by the hypothalamus in the brain; stress; and body weight and body composition, in which the percentage of fat plays a pivotal role in the body.
“Thus a woman who maintains her body fat level, may proceed with strenuous exercises without compromising her monthly cycle,” Dr Nor Ashikin assures.
“The good news is that exercise-induced amenorrhoea, whether primary or secondary, is normally reversible, with most women resuming regular menstruation within three months of easing their training load. Fertility rates of former athletes are no lower than the average – and physically fit women tend to have easier labour and healthier babies.”
Now the bad news is that women who have not menstruated for six months or more are susceptible to accelerated bone deterioration. While the link is not entirely clear, one theory suggests that this is due to an increase in blood calcium levels, which suggests parathyroid hormone secretion and this, in turn, impairs conversion of vitamin D to its active form which reduces the body’s capacity to absorb calcium.
This also sheds light on why increasing dietary intake of calcium does not seem to compensate for bone mineral loss.
To put things into perspective, there is nothing wrong with pushing and conditioning the body to outperform itself from time to time – if done within all that is reasonable and natural.
So what is deemed natural? Progressive strength conditioning with ample recovery time.
Taking steroids is unnatural and dangerous. These steroids, particularly anabolic steroids, are hormones which are directly related to the predominantly male sex hormone, testosterone, which increases the synthesis of protein within cells to build muscles.
“The side effects associated with steroid abuse are particularly negative for women, resulting in a whole range of problems and unwanted effects such as deepening of the voice, increased body hair and clitoromegaly (an abnormal enlargement of the clitoris),” says Dr Nor Ashikin.
“Women should never be discouraged from training or competing at a high level because of the potential effects on their menstrual function. But they should be aware of potential problems and give their bodies a chance to recover whenever possible.
“The best advice I can offer all athletes is: listen to your body, and train safely and intelligently.” – Stories by Cheryl Poo