As bodybuilding’s popularity gains weight in the Kingdom, Marissa Carruthers meets a champion team to find out why more Cambodians are taking up the sport. Photography by Charles Fox.

Beads of sweat run down 22-year-old Vibol Neem‘s ripped torso as he pushes his body to the max on a bench press. At the other end of the gym, the faces of two young men contort as they come to the end of a grueling session on exercise bikes before hitting the running machines, while others flex their muscles in the mirror.

This snapshot of activity is just a fraction of the daily slog experienced by Team Fitness Life, a group of five amateur athletes, in the run up to the country’s biggest bodybuilding contest in Siem Reap. The third annual Angkor Body Building Association (ABBA) competition, held last month, saw more than 50 bronzed bodybuilders from across the country battle it out over five weight categories to be crowned king of the stage.

“It’s really tough because you have to train your body, especially in the run up to a competition. One day you have lots of energy and feel happy, and the next you can be so tired,” says team member Sela Angkor, who placed second overall in the nationwide competition. “That’s why we work together in a team, to motivate each other.”

The 26-year-old is one of a growing number of Cambodian youths being drawn to bodybuilding contests in a country that has traditionally lacked health and fitness education. Experts say that awareness of leading a well-rounded lifestyle is on the rise, while a young generation is being influenced by greater access to the Internet and international media, and the pictures of perfection portrayed within them.

“I started body building because I wanted to be a model and models always have really nice bodies,” explains team member Vibol, who has been body building for 18 months and placed third overall at ABBA. “I feel so much better for it now, both in my health and in myself.”

The woman behind the team’s success is trainer Maria Ahlberg, who co-runs the Intercontinental Hotel gym, where locals make up 50 percent of clientele. The nutritionist believes that the internet is opening up a “whole new world” to a young generation. “They see other people in good shape and want to be like them,” she says.

Having competed in bodybuilding contests herself since 1996, Swedish-born Ahlberg was determined to continue with her passion when she moved to Cambodia in 2009. But faced with a country where the supplements essential for bodybuilding were non-existent and good quality training facilities were a rarity, the nutritionist
initially struggled.

“It was impossible to get protein powder or anything like that. I used to have to beg people coming from Europe or America to bring it with them,” she says. “Now there are a few small protein shops popping up, so it is becoming more popular.”

Wanting to share her passion with enthusiastic young Khmers, Ahlberg decided to form Team Fitness Life when she first met Sela at the ABBA competition two years ago. She was so impressed that she relocated him to Phnom Penh and gave him a job in the gym. Since then, the team has gradually grown as Ahlberg spots future talent.

“I can see something in them; they have potential,” she says. “I’m very happy to help them be in the best shape possible, especially when you’re a beginner because there’s so much to do. There’s the actual fitness, the body building, the nutrition and the timing of when is best to eat and drink.”

In the run-up to any competition, the athletes need support while their bodies endure a grueling regime, hitting the gym twice a day for an hour of cardio. Additional stints of lifting weights five days a week are essential, and competitors must eat six to seven meals a day.

“It needs to be very clean food with a lot of protein and slow carbs, like sweet potato and brown rice. This is hard to teach Cambodians because rice is a staple to their meals and they eat a lot of quick carbs with no protein,” says Ahlberg, who helped the team persevere and trade in the bad for the good. They now tuck into plenty of healthy foods, such as chicken, fresh fish and broccoli.

As well as being able to pump the iron, looking your best is another vital part of the competition.  The evening before a major contest is spent carrying out a preening process. Competitors will spend the evening slathering themselves in a special bronzing cream to colour their skin and they will cut down on their salt and water intake. These measures help to make their muscles look more defined.

In the competition, contenders in the five separate weight categories line up on stage and strike classic poses, including shapes that show off front double biceps and triceps. This is followed by an onstage pose-down before the winners are announced.

Team Fitness Life’s hard work paid off, with team member Ravy Tek named overall champion, with Sela and Vibol following close behind in second and third. “I’m a very proud trainer,” says Ahlberg. “My team did so well and I’m really happy for them. They deserve it after all of their hard work.”