When Athiyah Abu Bakar, 26, first started powerlifting three years ago, there were usually less than five other women at powerlifting meets.

At the 2015 Malaysia Powerlifting Alliance (MPA) Championship in March, there were 12 female lifters. Athiyah won the women’s under 52kg category.

“People have this common misconception that female powerlifters can’t lift as much as men. But we can do squats with weights double our body weight and deadlift triple our body weight!” said the primary school teacher.

The runner-up in the same category, Fiona Ho, 27, said when she first picked up the sport, she was worried her muscles would get too big.

“It depends on your definition of an ideal body. For me, I like an athletic physique and I think there’s an increasing number of girls who are okay with being a bit more muscular,” said Ho, who trains at District 13 in Petaling Jaya, one of several gyms in the Klang Valley now offering powerlifting.

Powerlifter Fiona Ho used to be underweight and struggled with an empty barbell. Ever since then, she was determined to be strong and never gave up on strength training. In March, she came second in the Malaysia Powerlifting Alliance Championship 2015 women category under 52 kilogram. ― AZHAR ARIF/The Star

Powerlifting enthusiast Ho said the sport is great for women who want a more athletic physique. ― M. AZHAR ARIF/The Star

While Ho credits the growth of the scene in Malaysia to the popularity of CrossFit (a fitness programme which has elements of powerlifting), brand manager of clothing company Pencil Produce Lim Feixiang, 26, added that the increased exposure of the sport internationally has led to an appreciation of raw body strength.

And FYI, weightlifting and powerlifting are two different sports.

According to Lim, a weightlifter has to have a good balance of strength, speed and flexibility to complete the two lifts – snatch, and clean and jerk. And they have to know the technique of moving the barbell from the ground to above his/her head.

Powerlifters, on the other hand, train their bodies to move the heaviest barbells through the three lifts – squat, bench press and deadlift.

“They are both barbell sports but it’s a different ball game altogether,” said Lim, who started powerlifting before getting involved in weightlifting.

Though powerlifting is physically demanding, it also helps with the lifter’s overall well-being.

“I like how powerlifting challenges you. You need to be mentally and physically prepared to do this. To achieve your goal, you’ll need a positive mindset. If not, your training will be wasted,” said Athiyah, who trains five days a week.

Ho added: “There’s always a lesson to be learned. If I fail my squats, I’ll analyse to see what’s wrong – my technique or whether I’m physically or mentally tired.

“That gives me a sense of accomplishment and happiness.”

"It takes a lot of perseverance because you'll need months or maybe years to build your body strength. You'll need a dedicated regime, where you'll spend hours and hours in the gym. a lot of mental strength and tenacity at the same time to push yourself to greater limits," said Lim.

“You don’t gain body strength overnight. It takes a lot of perseverance and a dedicated regime because you’ll have to spend hours and hours in the gym. That requires a lot of mental strength and tenacity as well in order to push yourself to greater limits,” said Lim.

But that’s not all that you’ll get from the sport. For Lim, it’s also about the people you meet.

“You’d think that the lifters are rough because they’re big, but they are some of the nicest people I know.

“They are really dedicated to the sport and are always willing to teach and learn from others. That’s how the community grows.”

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