Lessons from a Cambodian Bodybuilding Gym - Phil Hawksworth

Lessons from a Cambodian Bodybuilding Gym

Travelling and training in different places around the world will open your eyes to some things you might not have realised in your normal home environment. Here’s 7 observations I made from a month in a Cambodian body building gym.

    1. Your genetics are better than you think: I’ve never been especially blessed on the genetics front. I’m not freaky strong, I have to work to stay lean and it took a long time, and a lot of dedication and consistency to really get in shape.I’ve trained around pro bodybuilders and talented athletes that do things that astound me. Effort and mindset will take you a long way – and it is what has allowed me to continue to progress – but I’ve still seen people do twice as much, with half the effort.Now, having been in Asia for a while, I am suddenly the biggest and strongest guy in the gym. No matter how bad you think your genetics are (I don’t claim mine are bad, they’re average), there are people who have it worse.There was a lot of guys in this gym who were ripped and clearly trained hard, but were still tiny and relatively weak. They just didn’t have the genetics for packing on the weight and really getting bigger.Wherever you fall on the genetic spectrum, just do the best with what you have. Yes you need good genetics if you intend to be a pro athlete, but every single one of us can make the best of what we have and improve on where we started from.(This goes for any other quality too; I’m not the most intelligent person I know, but I read a lot and I am constantly growing (I am, however, the best looking person I know)).


    1. Be lean, or be big – being in the middle doesn’t do much for you: There were 3 types of guys in this gym.- The little guys who were ripped to shreds and looked great with their shirt off; which is 100% of the time in this gym
      – The big guys who were clearly on gear and looked good. Being short and tanned, they probably look bigger than they actually are, but they looked good either way.
      – The middle guy. You could see he trained, but he was a bit fat and not massive. He just blended in to a giant sea of average.Nobody wants to be average. Do you want to be ripped or big? Choose one and pursue it until you look great. Or choose both and smash some steroids, if that’s your prerogative.


    1. Vanity is alive and well in all corners of the globe: Cambodia is an extremely poor country. Some of these guys have next to nothing and I wouldn’t be surprised if some of them were ripped because they simply can’t afford to eat properly.Yet they still got great joy out of preening in front of the mirrors. Every single person, whether in shape or not, spent the entire set staring in the mirror and most of their rest periods flexing in the mirror.I want to say, vanity is OK.Indeed often it is helpful in learning to develop a proper mind muscle connection. If people think you are a dick for staring in the mirror all of the time, they are probably just insecure about their own image. You’re there, at least in part, to make your body look better. Looking at it is only going to help.Here’s to vanity!
      Cambodia Bodybuilding Gym

      Clothes not allowed (apparently).


    1. Mirrors and no clothes help you train better: I mentioned this in the previous point, looking in the mirror with no shirt can help you develop the mind muscle connection. To actually get the most out of training, you need to be contracting the working muscles as hard as you can and minimising momentum and assistant from other muscle. One of the best ways to do this is to see the muscles flex in the mirror as you work them.This will likely be especially helpful for activating the deltoids in lateral raises or dumbbell pressing – something that almost everyone I see in the gym sucks at; using momentum for the former and triceps for the latter. Also the lats in pull ups and on the pull over machine, which again most people are not good at, favouring biceps and momentum.I am good at activating my muscles, because I’ve worked hard at it for a long time, but I still use the mirror when possible, it just makes it easier and stops me slacking off when the set starts getting hard.


    1. Old equipment is usually the best equipment: There was no shiny machines in this place. Everything was old and rusty and it was damn good stuff. Equipment from a time when lifting weights was still a bit niche and equipment was designed purely for function – not to look appealing to the middle aged woman in her air conditioned ‘health club’. I have never been in a bodybuilding gym as good as this outside of the UK (and they’re always ‘spit and sawdust’ places, which are also old and rusty).


  1. You won’t die of sweat: It was about 40 degrees Celsius and there was no air conditioning or even a fan. It was HOT. At first, it really sapped my strength. I would last about 20 minutes and be done; feeling sick and losing any sort of strength endurance I had. But over time, I adapted and I got better, I could train harder, for longer. I’m of the belief that it doesn’t matter what you do in numerical terms, only how hard the body works.So, you will do less than normal – less weight, less reps, less sets – but your body will work just as hard, if not harder.Your body working harder means…more results. I really think I stayed lean despite drinking a lot of beer that month, predominantly because of how challenging the heat made training.
    Phil Hawksworth - Lessons from a Cambodia Bodybuilding gym

    This is actually in Thailand, but it’s outside and just as hot. I don’t take many selfies so it will have to do

  2. They were better educated than the ‘typical’ westerner: The ‘typical’ westerner doesn’t have a clue, to put it bluntly. They tend to sit safely on the exercise bike reading a magazine and then do a few sets of chest and biceps because that’s what Men’s Health recommended this month. In Cambodia, I didn’t see anyone really doing anything ineffective or stupid. They kept things simple, stuck with the proven strength lifts and trained hard.Why this is the case? Probably simply lack of access – they don’t have the media marketing bullshit down their throat, so they stick with the simple stuff that is passed down from the successful guys.Something else I noticed, was the camaraderie – the sort that you find in ‘hardcore’ gyms in the west. This ran through the whole place; everyone would help everyone out, work in with each other, offer a spot and encourage. Unlike the ‘health clubs’ and ‘big box’ gyms at home where people are scared of catching some sort of airborne disease if they dare open their mouth to speak to someone else.

I had a lot of fun at this gym and kind of miss it now I am back at an air conditioned ‘health club’.


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