Hard-hitting and time-efficient exercise regimes are taking over Cambodia, ensuring plenty of options for those looking to boost their health and get fit. Writing by Joanna Mayhew; photography by Charles Fox.
Before sunrise, at Phnom Penh’s Vietnamese Monument, a small group equipped with mats, water and towels gather in a semi-circle on the rusty red tiles. At a time when most are sleeping, save the monks chanting over the nearby wat’s loudspeaker, the seven members—led by a trainer and motivational music from a smartphone—begin planking and two-step dashing in quick succession. Ponytails fly, grunting steps up a notch and breaths shorten, as the moves pile on at a manic pace.
This is Metafit bodyweight training—a 30-minute metabolic workout designed to last a full day. The class is part of a growing number of niche fitness offerings invading the capital that focus on high-intensity interval training (HIIT)—involving fast-paced, short periods of intense anaerobic exercise interspersed with less-gruelling recovery periods. The interval training regimes have become a global craze in the last few years, and the trend is now catching on in the Kingdom. This includes CrossFit, Insanity and Metafit training–all new to Cambodia–along with upgrades to traditional high-intensity workouts like boxing.
Experts argue these workouts are superior to extended, steady cardio work on a treadmill or bike and improve fat-burning potential. The regimes also offer exciting potentials for long-term health. “Research nowadays is showing that bringing this type of workout into anyone’s fitness program is able to help reduce the onset of chronic diseases, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, stroke and arthritis,” says Metafit and Insanity trainer Andy Wenhlowskyj.
The science behind the magic? In short, exercising at maximum levels results in anaerobic conditioning. When oxygen intake is limited, muscles are depleted of glycogen, which sets in motion a process to increase oxygen for replenishing it. So for 24 hours after the workout, metabolism increases, which burns calories, aids in fat loss, builds lean muscle mass and improves fitness, claims Wenhlowskyj.
At Wat Botum Park, the exercise group moves on to the dreaded “burpee” move, a term now synonymous with the world of high-intensity workouts. It is a full-body movement combining a squat, jump, straight-arm plank, and often a push-up—and described by attendees as akin to torture.
The participants grunt their way through and are rewarded with a mere 10-second break. Then the whirlwind of action continues, advancing to skaters, commando crawls and explosive jacks. From a nearby bench, two women with paper facemasks gape at the moves, and a young passer-by emulates them from a safe distance. When not participating himself, Wenhlowskyj provides gentle corrections and a steady stream of encouragement.
The beauty is in the pain, according to the 31-year-old trainer. “This program isn’t designed just to be a walk in the park,” he says. “[It] teaches you that your body’s capable of more than you think, and pushes you to those maximums.”
As the founder and operator of HIIT Fit Phnom Penh, Wenhlowskyj was the first to offer Metafit and Insanity in Cambodia. The sessions focus on bodyweight exercises, with cardio conditioning involving jump training, strength work and core conditioning. “If you’re time poor, like a lot of us, then you can rock up to a class, and in 30 minutes walk away and know you’ve done the exercise your body needs for the day,” says the Melbournite.
Metafit participant Lauren Della Marta says she prefers the short, hard-hitting exercise to an hour-long jog, as well as being outdoors to gym-bound. “You feel like something’s happening right away; it’s like instant results,” she adds.
But the appeal stretches beyond the physical impact. Though a plethora of online, at-home workouts exist—particularly catered to high-intensity training—many fitness-seekers still opt for group classes to form community.
“Because everyone is in the same boat, you’re suffering together and laughing about how hard the exercises are, it’s definitely a chance to meet people and go for a coffee afterwards,” says Della Marta.
This is particularly true at the country’s first CrossFit gym, CrossFit Amatak, which opened in August. “The community is what pushes you further,” says founder and owner, Corbett Hix. “When you go through shit together, it brings people together. Everyday we put people through an hour of shit, and that creates bonds, even if they’re coming from completely different tracks of life.”
As the mid-day heat sluggishly settles in, 11 people gather for the hour-long session at CrossFit Amatak. While a soundtrack of Cee Lo Green and Red Hot Chili Peppers competes with whirring fans and surrounding Toul Tom Pong construction, the gender-balanced participants practice Olympic-style snatch lifts using blue PVC pipes, with prompts such as, “drop and drive,” from head coach and manager Mike Titzer.
“CrossFit is constantly varied, high-intensity functional movements performed in a community environment,” explains Titzer, emphasising the conditioning program promotes both endurance and strength in short packages. Workouts can move from pull-ups to deadlifts and sprinting for power, speed, accuracy and balance.
“All of our work is meant to have a real-life analogue to it,” adds Hix. Each exercise relates to daily movement, with a deadlift comparable to picking up a child, and a push press to storing a piece of luggage in an overhead bin, says the 38-year-old Texan. “We want to prepare the body to be able to do that over the course of its life.”
With the gym—or box, as CrossFitters call it—decked out with bumper plates, a pull-up rig, kettlebells and large tractor tyre, it’s easy to see why Hix says his first impression of a CrossFit gym was “a playground for adults”—or “superhero training”. The equipment is a distinction of CrossFit, which has grown in popularity since being established in 2000, with about 11,000 affiliates now operating worldwide.
These hard-hitting offerings also challenge traditional perceptions of gyms, fitness and beauty. “I think a lot of the ethos started as a reaction to the global gyms, which have become more spas than anything else,” says Hix.
The new trainings bring it back to the basics—stripping away air conditioning, televisions and mirrors. In the case of Metafit and Insanity, even equipment is shed, allowing workouts to be performed anywhere.
“We try to challenge people’s traditional perceptions of why they might come into a gym, to take it away from the aesthetic,” says Hix. “Don’t live by the scale. Come in and say I want to be a healthier version of who I am currently.”
These workouts are well represented by females, and in the case of CrossFit are often women’s first exposure to weightlifting. “I think it’s quite empowering,” adds Hix. “To me, if a woman can throw me across the room, she’s a badass. I would love to help challenge those perceptions of beauty.”
By catering to small groups, programs provide a cross between a gym and a personal trainer, and eschew the commercial gym trend of making money from members who stop coming after New Year’s resolutions fade. This approach limits memberships, and therefore a two-way commitment is central to CrossFit.
The regimes also place responsibility on participants, and coaches act as motivators rather than drill sergeants. “When people rely on someone yelling at them, then when they try and maintain fitness themselves, they can’t,” says Wenhlowskyj. “It’s a better holistic view adding this program to an overall fitness lifestyle.”
As the sun sets, similar fitness takes place across town, but this time in cages. Set in a large, dome-roofed warehouse near Aeon Mall, Prokout gym offers high-impact training through boxing, kickboxing and cardio conditioning classes. The space boasts battle ropes, boxing bags, monkey bars, speed balls and a cubby hole stacked with boxing gloves and shin guards.
“Boxing is good for fitness because you use your whole body—arms, legs, knees, abs. It’s very, very high intensity,” says French owner Théodore Bitcheff, 24, who has fought professionally since the age of 17. “Now a lot of people do boxing because they want to get fit, not just because they want to box.”
Near Bitcheff, who sits beside a life-size dummy in an octagonal black-and-white cage, two men spar in the opposite ring, jabbing and crouching while rotating around the well-branded rectangle. “They motivate themselves,” he says of the participants. “Because they see the result.”
Opened in December, Prokout—the Khmer word for fighting—now has more than 100 members. Bitcheff, who grew up in Cambodia and speaks fluent Khmer, has been particularly successful in drawing Cambodians, who represent 65 percent of the gym’s attendees—with female Khmers making up 30 to 40 percent of fighters. He says local interest has grown “step by step”, and attributes this partly to social media, where interval training videos are widespread.
For Wenhlowskyj, exposing Cambodians to new regimes has been an opportunity to present more general information about the delayed onset of soreness, and distinguishing good and bad pain.
“I had no idea what it was like; your body is in pain [because] of moves you’ve never experienced,” says 35-year-old Insanity attendee Channa May. “Cambodians are more interested [in the workouts] once they understand the impact—telling alone may not work, but proving results to them [will].”
Challenges remain in language barriers, trainer certification procedures, which usually require leaving the country and testing in English, and economic realities. “Fitness, in all truth, is a luxury,” says Hix. The programs are seeking to enlist more Cambodians, and anticipate interest will increase as the country develops.
High Risk, High Reward?
But with workouts promising everything from lean muscles to increased energy and endurance, they could prove, for some, too good to be true.
“High-intensity training comes with fast adaptations, so you can become strong very fast,” says physiotherapist Mark Chen, of Physiotherapy Phnom Penh. “It also comes with a higher chance of getting injured.” As a result, Chen sees overuse injuries such as tendonitis and inflamed muscles. Though these can occur from traditional workouts, increased impact brings higher risk, he says.
Often the root issue is muscular imbalances resulting from behavioural and postural problems, particularly from desk jobs. “If you take those into a high-intensity setting, it can create problems,” he says, adding many people jump from a sedative lifestyle to advanced training. “If you haven’t been doing anything for 10 years and eat a lot of crap, and you’re looking at complex movements with weight, you might want to take a step back,” he adds. “High-intensity training is not for everyone.”
However, there are safe ways to participate in these workouts, according to Chen. Being under the guidance of a properly trained instructor reduces injury risk, along with education about diet and injury management. “You have to know what kind of limitations you have and respect that,” he says, referring to genetics, age and experience. “If you know how your body works and have good technique, you can keep going for a long time.”
The long term is key, as those who swear by the workouts say high-impact training is here to stay. “It might sound like a fad because it’s a buzz word, but this type of exercise has been done by athletes for decades,” says Wenhlowskyj “If you were doing this 20 years ago, [or] in 20 years’ time, you’re still going to get the same benefits, and no one will ever disagree with that.”
Trainers recommend starting slow and mixing workouts with other regimes, such as resistance training, running and yoga, as well as allowing for recovery time.
But the top recommendation is not to let the intensity intimidate, and to give it a go. With attendance up, current offerings look set to further expand, and new places are sure to follow behind—the perfect time to dust off New Year’s resolutions, and tackle fitness afresh.
“And don’t be scared of the word burpee,” says Wenhlowskyj. “Learn to love it.”