A group of young Vietnamese fitness enthusiasts are trying to make their sport more mainstream. Barbara Adam investigates. Photos by Romain Garrigue.

Burly Nguyen Khac Hoan, who can squat 184kg, is looking to push his beloved sport of powerlifting to new heights in Vietnam.

Powerlifting as a sport is quite new in this country, and receives no government funding.

Hoan and his colleagues at Vietnam Powerlifting are in talks with the Global Powerlifting Alliance, and they anticipate their organisation will be recognised as an affiliate by the international body next year.

This will bring powerlifting one step closer to being recognised as a sport by the Vietnamese government. Such recognition could bring with it some government funding to help Vietnamese powerlifters compete at international events.

For now, Vietnam’s powerlifters must rely on friends, family and colleagues to fund any international competitions. At the moment, Vietnam Powerlifting is raising money to help a 20-year-old student compete at the Asia Powerlifting Alliance competition in Malaysia in November.    

Although many gyms in Ho Chi Minh City have powerlifting equipment, Hoan said the only “hard-core powerlifting” gym in town is the one he trains at, Oldschool Gym in District 10. Only a couple of foreigners train at the gym, he said.

Quite tall for a Vietnamese person, Hoan is 169cms and weighs 85 kg. He’s been powerlifting for three years, choosing the sport because it seemed “simple”, quite an ironic comment from a guy with an engineering degree.

“Right now I squat 184kg, bench press 110, and deadlift 185,” he said. “I am quite good at squat.” Such a modest comment from someone who can lift twice his bodyweight!

One of the founders of Vietnam Powerlifting, Hoan has sat on the judging panels of both national powerlifting competitions held in Vietnam so far.

Powerlifting competitions are judged on the combined weight lifted in three disciplines: squat, benchpress and deadlift. Lifting can be “equipped”, with the equipment consisting of squat suits, weight belts, wrist wraps and special footwear. However, in Vietnam, Hoan said all powerlifting competitions are all “raw”, or unequipped.

In competition, each powerlifter has three attempts in each lift category. Their final score is the total of their heaviest weight lifted in each category.

The closely-related strength sport of weightlifting, an Olympic event, has only two disciplines, the snatch, and the clean and jerk.

There are, however, international powerlifting competitions that attract a following world-wide.

The heaviest raw powerlift by a Vietnamese person so far is 210kg, at the 2017 Vietnam Powerlifting Meet in Hanoi in May.

The two-day competition attracted 86 competitors in seven weight classes, including 16 women and nine foreigners. The best lift at the competition was 255kg by Singapore’s Zeon Loh.

As impressive as those weights appear, the world record for raw squat appears to be held by Russia’s Andrey Malanichev, who lifted 470kg at a competition in October last year.

“At the moment we (in Vietnam) can hold no candle to guys like that,” Hoan said.

The next big event on the local calendar will be the 2018 Vietnam Powerlifting Meet in Hanoi next May. Hoan is hoping the event attracts even more competitors, including more foreigners.

Mariusz Steckiewicz, owner of Body Shape gym in District 2, Thao Dien, said his gym, like many in Ho Chi Minh City, has some powerlifting equipment, but the practice isn’t overwhelmingly popular amongst his clients. “We have only about three members who focus on powerlifting,” he said.

Like other methods of intense resistance training, powerlifting burns fat and builds muscle and bone mass.

“There’s lots of benefits of lifting,” said Phil Kelly, personal trainer and fitness expert with Body Expert Systems Vietnam. “The big focus for powerlifting is lifting as much as you can once. It’s a very narrow focus on increasing strength.”

Phil’s advice for anyone considering taking up powerlifting as a sport is to build strength slowly and concentrate on form. “The thing about powerlifting is when you start lifting at this intensity, it’s very dangerous,” he said. “You are pushing your body to the absolute maximum.”

Luckily, the sport of powerlifting does have a strong emphasis on form, he said. “If you lift correctly, there are added benefits in your everyday life. Your bones get stronger, your connective tissue gets stronger and your joints become stronger and therefore more stable.

Powerlifting also triggers the release of anabolic hormones in the body, Phill said, which further boosts fat burning and muscle development.

If these health benefits make powerlifting seem appealing, he said, make sure you get expert help when starting out in the sport.

For those already involved and interested in competing in the next competition in Hanoi, message Hoan and his colleagues through the Vietnam Powerlifting Facebook page for more information about the event, the date for which is yet to be determined.