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Secrets of a Khmer bodybuilding trainer

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Sok Sopheak at the Sofitel Phokeethra gym.

When he’s not entering international competitions, Sok Sopheak is training expats and Khmer at honing the perfect body

When I entered the gym for the first time, I heard people criticising anyone who had huge muscles

Cambodian bodybuilder Sok Sopheak – aka Polo – returned from the 45th annual Asian Bodybuilding Championships in Thailand last weekend with the fourth place trophy in his beefy hand.

The 31-year-old, who is 1.64 metres tall and weighs 70 kilograms, competed in feats of strength against bodybuilders from 32 Asian countries.

“Before I left Cambodia, I expected I would get at least second or third place. But after I met my competitors, I lost some hope. I knew some of them had experience with international championships before,” he said.  

Polo worked as an air-conditioner and fridge mechanic before going to gyms and styling himself as a professional bodybuilder in 2002.

“This career happened to me by chance. I saw some people with big muscles and strong bodies, and they inspired me to go to the gym. In the beginning, I just exercised normally to get a good body like them – I never dreamed about competition,” he said.

After a few years hitting the gym, the workouts began to show, and when the Cambodian government organised a bodybuilding competition in 2005, his friend persuaded him to enter. His first entry into a professional competition earned him a silver trophy.

Fresh off the contest, the Sunway Hotel in Phnom Penh offered him a job as a trainer in its gym. From there, he embarked on a new career path, switching to a different hotel in 2007 and the Sofitel Phokeethra gym last year.

Polo has also built a reputation amongst private companies and Cambodian national sports committees, participating in bodybuilding competitions in Singapore, Hong Kong, Iran and Thailand.
But the only time he has tasted the gold is 2006, in a Cambodian comp – the rest of his efforts have seen him lower on the pedestal.

“Bodybuilding is not like boxing, in that we have to push someone down in the ring. It’s a kind of sport that requires us to perform with only our muscles. We have to harden ourselves to show off our muscles, but it’s not easy to do that. I feel exhausted every time after flexing,” he said.   

For the most recent competition in Thailand, Polo had to do three trials: bodybuilding, fitness, and modelling.

“To build a good, muscled body, we have to eat specific amounts of specific food like fish, chicken, egg, vegetables, and beef. If we don’t have those foods, I don’t think we could do it,” he said.

While Polo’s body may be the envy of many pasty-fleshed expats, he said it fits somewhat jarringly into the Khmer ideal.

“When I entered the gym for the first time, I heard people criticising anyone who had huge muscles. They said that bigger muscles looked ugly,” he said.

“But later on, that idea has changed. I see more and more people, even our film stars, come to the gyms. Maybe our people have watched Hollywood movies and saw how handsome the foreign film stars look.”

Polo said that gyms weren’t just about building muscles – it’s all about health and fitness.

“It doesn’t matter if you do exercise on the yard or in a gym; they can both make you healthy. But in case you do want to gain muscle, only gyms can help you because they have the right tools.

“Exercise will make you healthy, give you a strong body and better cholesterol levels. It can also protect you from stroke or diabetes.”

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