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#BuroAList: 3 Fitness entreprenuers battle it out in a circuit challenge

Brains and brawn

Text: Wei Yeen Loh

Has the boutique gym scene in town reached peak saturation? We ask three fitness entrepreneurs their thoughts on the future of the industry along with what what it takes to run a gym — while they attempt burpees and kettle bell swings in our new episode of #BuroAList

 

The first episode of our new instalment of #BuroAList features three heavyweights in the fitness industry in Kuala Lumpur — Matthew Chong of District 13, Matin Fayzal of Fuel Athletics, and Christian Lee of Tribe Boxing Studio. Watch how fast they can complete a circuit while answering questions in the video above. Don't forget to scroll down to find out their thoughts on the local fitness scene and what the most common misconceptions people have regarding CrossFit and boxing:

MATTHEW CHONG
CO-FOUNDER AND HEAD COACH, DISTRICT 13

Matthew is one-half of the dynamic duo (co-founder Aidi Amin) behind CrossFit gym and fitness training facility District 13. Now in its fifth year, District 13 offers circuit training, private and group coaching in its sprawling space in Petaling Jaya. Formerly in recruitment, Matthew was working at a head-hunting agency before he went down the fitness route. He now is in charge of workout programs and daily operations at District 13. 

What made you decide to open a functional training gym?

Crossfit was pretty new four to five years ago, and gyms didn't really offer functional training or classes with barbells and weights. To me, I'd always wondered, "Why don't more people know about this? Why don't more people train like this?" We wanted to share this type of training with Malaysians and for them to get hooked on this as well.

How has the journey been thus far? 

It's tough, but I think functional training is here to stay. The program offers a broader spectrum that covers not just strength or weight training, but you also get to work on endurance, aerobic training, hand-eye coordination and speed. We think it's still relevant for today and we see ourselves as long term. A lot of gyms that come up these days are riding on a trend — we did too back then, but we when look at Australia, USA and Europe right now, CrossFit is still going strong in those countries. The only challenge is that the current generation is only interested to see quick results. Most of them don't want to commit long term, so it's a challenge to make people understand that it's not just about the results, it's how you get there. It's the journey that matters. 

Would you say that these were the same kind of challenges you faced from the start? 

We learned a lot from our struggles. The challenges are always there, but understanding and working our way around it has changed. We're very involved in this and we know what's going on everyday in our gym. We know all our members, and have good relationships with them. That's something that sets District 13 apart from fitness chains, for instance.

What does it take to run a CrossFit gym?

A lot of patience! It helps to trust the process. Also, you do need to question what you're doing and if it's the right decision sometimes. Try to stay objective as a form of check and balance. Always have a little bit of doubt as you can learn from that as well. Be prepared to get an outcome that's unexpected — that helps you improve along the way.

What misconceptions do people have about CrossFit?

That our workouts are hardcore and too intense for them. A common one is that girls are going to get chunky and big after doing CrossFit. That's actually dependent on many factors. I'd recommend the person to just go for it. A little bit of gains won't make you chunky, it will make you stronger, fitter, and healthier. You'd enjoy the benefits from that at the end of the day too.

What keeps you going everyday? Was there ever a low point throughout these five years?

To me it's all about the journey. I believe in how you get there, not just the results. There are parts of the business we'd like to improve on but we're not there yet. It's an ongoing process that we're working on still. I believe in the time invested in people. We want to invest in people at our gym. It's fulfilling to see constant progress (not just physical fitness) in our members, whether the changes in their character (for the better), their mindset, confidence or maturity. I know a married couple who had a kid when they were members at our gym — I actually met their son recently and they're expecting another kid. It's great that we are ingrained with the culture and commuity here [in District 13].

 

MATIN FAYZAL
CO-FOUNDER AND PERSONAL TRAINER, FUEL ATHLETICS

After finding out first-hand the positive benefits of CrossFit, Matin Fayzal, along with sibling Matin Nazir, decided to open a fitness studio that can offer sports conditioning workouts to individuals from all walks of life, be it beginners in the scene or elite athletes. After five years, Fuel Athletics now has two branches and 19 coaches under the helm of the brothers. Fayzal runs operations at Fuel Athletics, training all the coaches who instruct in the gym. 

When did Fuel open a second branch?

The second one opened two years ago in Shah Alam, and our first branch in Bukit Damansara opened five years ago. I'd say this year is our breakout year. For the first three years, we worked really hard to incubate ourselves and get to know our community. Last year was a good year, and this year we were finalists of Fitness Best Asia Awards for Best Specialised Boutique Gym — we didn't win it but we were in the top three category, so that was really exciting.

What made you decide to open a CrossFit gym?

My brother and I knew that it worked from the start. We actually tried CrossFit ourselves before we decided to open a gym, so we know that this sort of training is truly beneficial to the body. It is the fastest way to lose weight, gain strength, improve stamina and pretty much most aspects of the body. When we first opened Fuel Athlethics, it turned out that people liked the idea as well so that was great.

What sets Fuel apart from the rest?

I think it's the service we offer. When someone pays us RM50 a class, we try to give them better value for their money — the same type of training and education that they can find in a RM300 class. That makes us different from the other boutique gyms in town that offer specialised classes.

What does it take to run a CrossFit gym?

You need to not want to work for someone else. I used to be in advertising and was working crazy long hours at an agency. When I started Fuel I knew that I didn't want to work the typical 9 to 5 desk job and now I'm loving it, five years down the road.

What were some of the challenges you faced five years ago?

The challenges get tougher through the years. There's a lot more competition out there and it means that we have to constantly up our game. And if you up your game every year, it gets tougher to get better consistently every year. The fitness scene is still growing in Malaysia and I'm excited for what's to come. What we are doing right now hiring potential coaches with a background in sport science — we have fresh graduates, national athletes, a professional dodgeball player, a downhill cyclist and more. The idea is to train this community to allow them to interact better with our clientele.

How do you keep Fuel Athletics relevant despite strong competition in the scene?

Every year, I travel to Phuket for both work and leisure. I found this place called Chalong where there are 12 world-class gyms situated in one street. All of them are successful in their own ways, and the funny thing is that there aren't any gyms like that elsewhere in Phuket. They have Muay Thai, CrossFit, and so many more just on one street. And it always makes me wonder how do they survive with the competition? So recently I made a trip there, trying to study what they do that is different from what we do here.

I found that you won't see any bars along that area. In fact, you'd see shops selling protein shakes, chicken meals by the gram and the like. Here in Malaysia, it's only the urban areas that have gyms like that. But what if we had more hotspots as such? For me, I've been in the industry for more than five years (which isn't that long, to be honest), but I think it helps to share my experience with other people in the industry who are interested in opening gyms as well.

What are some misconceptions people have about CrossFit?

The general assumption about CrossFit is that it costs a lot of money to be part of a program as such. But what most people don't know is that outside of Malaysia, it will probably cost twice the amount per class. In Thailand, it's easily double the price for a class, and same goes for Jakarta and Australia. Here we offer a two-class per week plan that's great for those who don't have time but still want to work up a sweat and learn something new. 

 

CHRISTIAN LEE,
CO-FOUNDER AND INSTRUCTOR, TRIBE BOXING STUDIO

It's perhaps an understatement to say that sports has been a major part of Christian Lee's life. The budding tennis professional started out young, dabbling in football and tennis before heading to USA to complete his studies. After realising that there weren't any studios in Kuala Lumpur that offered boxing as a form of workout (sans the intimidation), he — along with co-founder Mark — decided to introduce a space solely focused on boxing. Now in its fifth month, Tribe Boxing Studio is tailored for those who want a workout that packs a punch with twice the fun.

What made you decide to open a boxing studio here in KL?

I've always been sports-oriented — I played football and tennis since I was young. When I met Mark (co-founder of Tribe) back then, we were talking about starting a boxing studio that people can feel comfortable in, but at the same time, those who don't know much about boxing won't feel intimidated in. I thought it was a good opportunity that I could dabble in after my tennis career. I've been in fitness my whole life, and I felt that it was a great idea to stay in sports and with the community.

We felt like boxing was the way to go after seeing results in the USA and UK. It gives you great physical benefits — you burn anywhere between 400-1,200 calories a session, depending on your level. But it also works as a form of mental stress relief. Boxing is a different aspect to the table, and not everyone is exposed to it just yet. People always think they have to be a fighter or be strong to box, but we don't want you to do it for that. People should box as a form of a workout.

How did Tribe started out?

So we started purchasing the equipment in October, and we officially opened in February. Initially, we wanted to open by December! Everything happened so quickly and it was intense. It has been good and we are really excited with the progress. We have yet to target the morning work crowd so that's something we are working on. That's a huge market to tap.

What sets Tribe apart from the rest of the boxing studios and gyms here?

In terms of boxing studios, we have a warm and welcoming atmosphere. People are more inclined to come in. We are trying to quell that "Oh, I have to be a pro to box" stereotype. We are trying to make it more accessible, mostly for people who want to do it but don't know how to, or those who feel intimidated with boxing. We try to make it more fun. Our studio is designed in a lighthearted fashion too, from neon signs to Stormtrooper graphics. But the workout is serious and enjoyable at the same time. In terms of boutique concepts, we've noticed that the more successful ones are usually more concentrated. To me, if you have too many concepts in your gym, you'd lose your focus. What we want to do was build that boxing brand and be the best at it. So when people come to Tribe they know that they want to have a boxing workout.

What are some of the challenges when you opened Tribe?

There were plenty at the start, from getting investors and a good team to securing the best location and equipment. Back in December we realised how difficult it was, but fortunately for us, it worked out well altogether.

Do you think the gym scene here has reached peak saturation? What are your thoughts on the fitness growth here in Malaysia?

The scene here is good, and the growth here will be great for everybody. It will widen the market and more people will be exposed to boutique concepts. Later on, I think people will be spoilt for choice when it comes to different types of workouts.

Is that a good pace, you think?

I think so. But those that would lose out would be fitness chains — they have yet to build their awareness for one specific thing that people should go for. I think that community is so important. People don't have time to workout and socialise, but we're trying to offer all of that in one. We always suggest people to come in earlier to hang out and relax before the workout. They can mingle with customers and bring family members too. And I think that's why boutique gyms are growing. It's more than just a workout — there's a social aspect to it.

What do you think it takes to run a studio like that?

It takes dedication and hard work. You're definitely going to go through tough times whether at the start or later on, but it's important to stick it out and find ways to work past it. The good times will come, you just gotta be patient. It will take a month or a year but just believe that what you're doing is right, then everything will work out.

What keeps you going everyday?

I was quite stressed out these few months, but I felt very driven at the same time. I'm passionate in things that I do. I'm also an instructor at Tribe and the feeling I get when people come up to me and say "That was an amazing workout, it was fun!" — that's the kind of satisfaction that keeps me going. When I ask the other instructors in my studio, they say the same too. Tennis is different in that sense. It's individualistic; you play for yourself, your team, and/or your country. But there's also a sense of fulfillment in that, especially when I show people that I can reach a certain level and inspire them to work harder — that keeps me going too.

What's next for you?

Currently, my focus is on Tribe. I'm hoping that everything works out smoother and better. Hopefully, I can balance Tribe and tennis altogether. The perfect scenario would be to train for tennis four to five times a week, and not spend 24/7 at Tribe (now I do). Also I hope to reach a level in tennis on a more professional level as well. 

 

Stay tuned for more Buro A-List in the next few weeks.


Credits:

Videography: Octopost Studio

Styling: Loh Wei Yeen

Art direction: Rachel Au, Loh Wei Yeen

Styling assistant: Tan Su Fen

Hair and makeup: Taisu

Location: Fuel Athletics

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