Egypt’s musclemen are frustrated with working out at home due to COVID-19 restrictions and are raring to get back to grueling routines at their gyms, where they also earn a living.
With massive biceps and a gleaming six-pack, 33-year-old Mohamed Ali — who goes by his nickname Asab, a reference in Arabic to his bulging veins — is a personal trainer and veteran participant of several bodybuilding championships with Egypt’s national team, which has a history of garnering gold medals on the world stage.
However, at his home in a gated community in eastern Cairo, Asab said that he was not in top shape.
“I’ve taken it upon myself ... to use the lockdown to start competing again at the end of the year, since I have a lot of time on my hands these days,” Asab added.
Egypt has been under a night-time curfew for the past three months to stem the spread of the novel coronavirus.
Gyms have been shuttered as part of nationwide restrictions, but he has been hitting his home gym hard.
Asab is resculpting a taut physique through an extremely demanding workout, in the hopes of competing in Mr Olympia — the world’s premier bodybuilding competition, tentatively scheduled for December in Las Vegas.
However, more than his competitive aspirations, Asab is worried about his business and livelihood.
The owner of 16 gyms in Cairo said that he was paying several hundred staff out of his own pocket, while the lockdown shuttered his facilities and cut off his only source of income.
The government earlier this month said that gyms would partially reopen, without saying when.
“I have a whole team who depend on commissions from memberships... I really don’t know if we’ll be able to go on living like before or not,” Asab said, surrounded by dumbbells on his living room floor.
Mohamed Nassim, a 33-year-old Syrian who fled his country after war broke out in 2011, was also shy about showing off his muscles.
He said that when competing, he trims his body fat down to a lean 3 percent.
“I started getting into bodybuilding in Syria back around 2003 and it was only to bulk up initially because I was really skinny,” he said.
“The first championship I competed in was around 2010, and I actually won in 2011, taking first place in a national competition — but after the events we headed to Egypt,” Nassim added, referring to the start of Syria’s civil war.
His Facebook account boasts an impressive gallery of images of him oiled up and flexing in regional competitions.
“I had plans to go up on stage again, but all that stopped with the coronavirus,” he said, as he worked out in a Cairo park.
Nassim said that he has been trying to stay in shape “using dumbbells at home and maintaining the physical form I had built up over many years.”
Several champion Egyptian bodybuilders such as Big Ramy — lauded by Arnold Schwarzenegger — have turned into social media celebrities, heading overseas to compete professionally or even dabble in acting.
However, Nassim has developed more modest, short-term goals since his bodybuilding career has taken a hit.
He is eager to return to being a hands-on personal trainer at his local franchise of World Gym, the US fitness behemoth, where he used to coach budding bodybuilders and those looking to stay in shape.
“The shutdown has affected us financially and psychologically,” he said. “I really don’t see any reason for gyms to be closed because it [working out] is actually good for people’s immunity, as long as they take all the necessary precautions.”
His friend, Mostafa al-Rouby, also a Cairo gym owner and bodybuilder, said that he had similar frustrations.
“The coronavirus has completely wiped out the field of bodybuilding,” the 27-year-old said, adding that he still needed to pay rent as he waited for the green light from the authorities to reopen his gym.
“If we really want to control this disease, then we should open up the fitness world, so people can get healthy,” Rouby said.
Chen Jifang hits the gym for at least two hours every day and has the physique to prove it. At nearly 70, she is being held up as a shining example as China orders its vast population to get fit and lose the bulge. The grandmother from Shanghai has become a minor celebrity in in the past few months after her newfound and unlikely love for working out made national headlines. After becoming a gym regular in December 2018, Chen lost 14kg in three months, and now sports the kind of flat stomach and toned muscles that people decades younger aspire to. She
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