It’s not often that you meet a female gym owner, let alone one who looks as well put together as Filza Dorah Sim. While a toned physique is a given, I wasn’t expecting the makeup, complete with lip gloss and false lashes. “The way I see it, this is my place of work. It’s like when you go into the office and you put in effort to look professional.”
Sim first stepped into a gym when she was only 19 years old, fresh out of junior college. “I remember signing up at California Fitness because it was the hippest gym in town back then, and everyone wanted to go to that gym,” the 42-year-old recalled.
Unlike many people who sign up at a gym because they want to lose weight, Sim did it purely because she felt naturally inclined to do so – she did track and field in primary school, netball and basketball in secondary school, and touch rugby in junior college.
Sim started with once-a-week sessions, but by the time she had graduated from university, had progressed to almost daily visits. She would commute every day from Woodlands where she worked as a teacher, to Orchard Road to get her workouts in. “It was my lifestyle. I was that gym rat.”
I really wanted to achieve that athletic and toned body. I wanted to be strong.
So what got Sim so hooked? “At that time, I really wanted to achieve that athletic and toned body. I wanted to be strong. I really don’t know where this desire came from. For sure, none of my family members or friends were interested in that. I wanted to be different.”
She started out with the elliptical machine, then graduated to weights because she wanted to become stronger.
She admits that she learnt most of her workouts either by referring to magazines, such as Men’s Health, or observing what the gym trainers were doing. “At that time, there was not much you could find on the Internet, so I learnt what I could from flipping through magazines, and by trial and error.”
And each time, she would spend one to two hours in the gym. “I really enjoyed it so it didn’t feel like I was wasting time.”
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TURNING HER INTEREST INTO A JOB
Sim said her desire to become a personal trainer stemmed from the years she spent at the gym.
“I remember doing my workouts and noticing an influx of new trainers coming in. As I was observing how they were training people, I found myself thinking that I could do it and probably do it better. And that’s when it hit me that, ‘Hey, I should do this!’”
Sim turned her thoughts into reality when she joined Fitness First in 2009 as a junior trainer. “I wanted to join a mega gym because I wanted to learn the whole system. It really helped me build my foundation as a trainer.”
To become a certified trainer, she took a basic course that covered everything from nutrition for weight loss to the human anatomy and how the muscles work.
And to build up her profile further, she went on to take courses on specific workout machines like the TRX, as well as exercises to help with sports injuries and even pre- and post-natal training.
DOING IT ON HER OWN
After spending four and a half years at Fitness First, Sim decided to go freelance. But that proved challenging – while there were perks to working for yourself, she recounted that she had to constantly look for gyms where she could train her clients.
“At that time, there were maybe two or three gyms in Singapore which freelance personal trainers could use. So facilities and rental-wise, it wasn’t very concrete.”
Sim had to either go to her clients’ houses or use their condo gyms if they had one, or conduct training sessions outdoors. “It was hard not only for me as a trainer, but for my clients too,” she recounted
There seemed to be one problem or another. “Sometimes the facilities aren’t good, like it’s a really old gym or a super small space, or sometimes management isn’t efficient.” But more importantly, Sim said that the biggest worry was that being a freelance trainer would not be sustainable in the long run.
The final straw came when one of the gyms Sim was training her clients at closed without notice. “When that happened, I told my husband that we should open our own gym. I knew that it would be difficult because neither of us had done business before, but I was really confident of my plan.”
Sim, along with her personal trainer husband, roped in another partner and opened Bold Fitness in 2019.
Bold Fitness is a gym not only dedicated to personal training, with its staff of in-house trainers, but is also a space for freelance trainers to train with their clients. About 40 freelancers currently use the space.
“Think of Bold Fitness as a co-working space. We provide the space and facilities, and the freelance trainers pay rent for using the space and facilities.
“Between my husband, our business partner and I, we have over 50 years of personal training experience. We’ve worked at different gyms and we’ve a lot of experience with different clients and management, so we use that knowledge to serve our trainers now.”
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DARING TO BE DIFFERENT
Having always wanted to be different, the petite fitness enthusiast started competing in bodybuilding competitions at the age of 35, taking first place in the Women’s Athletic Physique Open category at the WBPF National Bodybuilding Championships in 2015.
“It stems from me wanting to be different. Since young, I’ve always challenged myself. And I was wondering how I could level up as a trainer, so why not compete because I could be one of the very few trainers who could add this to my portfolio,” Sim said.
It was a difficult journey, which saw Sim having to train three hours a day, six days a week, and going through an extremely strict diet for five to six months in the lead-up to a competition.
“I did a lot of very intense weight training and cardio as well. I did a lot of dieting as well, but it was not starving yourself … I had to eat chicken breast, lots of fish, vegetables and brown rice. The only seasonings I could have were salt and pepper. I couldn’t even have chilli sauce. It was hard, I even cried while dieting at times.”
But due to her late start, Sim only did two rounds of competition before stopping. “About seven years ago, there weren’t many female bodybuilding competitors, but these days there are more, which is really good for the sport.”
WOMEN POWER: THE IMPORTANCE OF STRENGTH TRAINING
Currently, 95 per cent of Sim’s clientele is made up of women. “I do enjoy training women. It’s always more fun to chit chat about shopping, makeup, motherhood, boyfriends and husbands.”
If there’s one thing that she would like to educate women about when it comes to exercise, it would be to encourage them to strength train.
“It’s not about lifting heavy weights to bulk up. The misconception is that if you do strength training, you’ll be really muscular. But that’s not true. It actually takes a really long time to build big muscles.”
Strength training, she said, is about being able to function well. It’s also been scientifically proven to increase bone density, which is important as women age.
“If you’re in your 30s or 40s and you have weak knees or ankles, it’s not a good sign. You should be able to climb four flights of stairs without feeling like you’re going to collapse or having any pain in your knees. You should be able to carry your kids or groceries, or even your luggage off the baggage carousel without feeling a strain in your back,” she added.
Plus, strength training also helps with fat burning as it increases your metabolism, she said.
I do enjoy training women. It’s always more fun to chit chat about shopping, makeup, motherhood, boyfriends and husbands.
One of the common strength-training exercises Sim gets her female clients to do is deadlifts – where you lift a barbell or bar off the ground to the level of your hips.
“The movement of lifting the bar off the ground and placing it back down is an important exercise for women because it is very functional. It works on your strength and helps shape your legs and butt.
“And at least 90 per cent of the women I work with always tell me that they want to pay more attention to their behind,” she said.
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WHEN THE GOING GETS TOUGH
Sim says it’s important for her to have a body positive mindset – and even more so when she’s in the business of helping women achieve their body and fitness goals. She added that she has been body-shamed for her physique.
“It hurts to hear people going ‘Eee… she’s so muscular’, especially when I’ve put in hard work to achieve the body I have today. And it’s not just men, sometimes I hear it from women too,” she said.
She’s also seen men start flexing when they see her. “It left me amused, but also uncomfortable because I felt like I was being somewhat shamed for the way I looked.”
Sim added that it’s sad that she, or any woman, should be made to feel this way.
“While you can’t stop people from passing judgement, it is equally important to remember to celebrate your achievements, especially knowing how hard you’ve worked to get there,” she emphasised.
And this is something that she imparts to her children as well. “I want to show them that it’s normal for women to want to be strong, to go out for a run and to be sweaty,” said the mother of two step-daughters and a son.
Ultimately, Sim said that body positivity to her simply means having a strong and healthy body. “Accept your body the way you want it, and be confident in knowing that what you’ve achieved is from all the hard work you’ve put in. It’s something no one can take away from you.”
CNA Women is a section on CNA Lifestyle that seeks to inform, empower and inspire the modern woman. If you have women-related news, issues and ideas to share with us, email CNAWomen [at] mediacorp.com.sg.