These girls with muscles may inspire more than the muscular men out there.Read article
But most fitness icons have one thing in common: They originate from the Western world. It’s difficult to think of anyone, with the notable exception of Bruce Lee, who appeals directly to guys from further afield. Shamsul Ali is on a mission to change that.
Ali is aiming to become the world’s first IFBB men’s physique pro with ancestral ties to Bengal (a historical region in Asia that spans two countries, Bangladesh and India). He wants to inspire hundreds of millions of South Asians to hit the gym—and he’s off to a promising start by winning a national title.
As a result, he’s begun to acquire an international following from guys who, like him until recently, weren’t totally convinced someone from their background could build a cover-model body.
“When I was growing up, I was in awe of wrestlers, bodybuilders, and big movie stars, but I never saw any South Asian role models with that kind of muscular physique,” Ali says. “Some Bollywood stars are starting to get in great shape, but they are only scratching the surface. There is still so much untapped potential, and I want to be the one who achieves the breakthrough.”
The potential is undoubtedly huge.
There are some 250 million Bengalis in Bangladesh and India. That’s the equivalent of about three-fourths of the population of the United States. Many are poor, but there is an emerging middle class with money to spend—and increasingly they want to spend it on improving their physiques.
Knowledge, however, is thin. Diet is a particular problem. “Traditional Asian cuisine includes a lot of sweet and deep-fried dishes that will never help us look the way we want, no matter how hard we train,” says Ali, who also says this problem, along with a lack of self-belief, is why many South Asians are either obese or skinny.
Until recently, Ali also admired Arnold and “The Rock,” but was thin and never imagined he could have a muscular physique, let alone make money from it. He initially joined a rec center in Tenby, South Wales, just to keep fit, but when he graduated to another spot in Tenby called the Dungeon, one of the most hardcore gyms in Britain, his eyes opened to another world. Former IFBB pro bodybuilder Neil Hill, founder of the Y3T training system that Ali now endorses, owns the Dungeon—which is plastered with posters of famous bodybuilders, including giant British-Asian Zack Khan, who was born in Pakistan. Ali had never seen anyone like Khan, and it blew his mind. He knew he could never attain that much mass, so he began to think about developing a more mainstream muscular look.
Men’s physique was beginning to take off. Devoid of Asian role models, Ali found inspiration from fellow Brit Ryan Terry, who was emerging as his country’s first men’s physique superstar. “At the time, I was still drinking twice a week and eating whatever I liked,” recalls Ali. “Then I saw Ryan and thought I had found something achievable.” There had never been a British-Bengali men’s physique champion, so the challenge was on.
Ali planned to compete in 2014, but lost his nerve. When he finally got onstage at a slender 159lbs in 2015, he suffered a rude awakening. “I couldn’t believe the level of conditioning, size, and aesthetics of the guys I stood onstage with,” he recalls. Instead of quitting, he buckled down, knowing the problem was more about greed than genetics. “I was still eating pastries two weeks out,” he says. He trained solidly for the Welsh Championships, and clinched the win. He still wasn’t the biggest guy, but he won because of his taper, conditioning, and abs.
Suddenly, Ali was waking up to 300 friend requests a day on social media, mainly from Bangladesh, where many members of his family still live. At this point he realized he was tapping into something. “I couldn’t believe how many people I had inspired,” he says. “They had never seen a man from Bangladesh excel in this kind of competition. I received loads of messages saying I was doing Bangladesh proud. That still gets to me now.”
In 2016 Ali defended his title to become a two-time Welsh champion and also won the USN BodyPower Classic, and recorded top-six finishes at the British Championships in 2015 and 2016. By next year he hopes he can win a British or international event to become an IFBB pro, by which time he plans to have bulked up to a solid 176lbs (80kg).
Winning trophies is only part of Ali’s ambition—he’s equally excited about the impact he can have on Bengalis. “A lot more gyms are being built in Bangladesh, and the men’s physique look is getting popular,” he says. “I want to make sure that when it explodes I am the first name on their lips. I want my poster to be the one on their walls.” Ali has even started making videos to educate others about training and healthy eating.
His dad is a chef, so he plans to tap into his father’s culinary knowledge to encourage Bengalis to cook with healthier oils and low-fat ingredients. “I want to help people be healthier, feel better, and get the results they deserve from putting the work in at the gym,” he says. Sounds just like Arnold.
Ali hooked up with trainer Neil Hill after Ali won the 2016 USN BodyPower Classic. Hill, who trains some of the world’s best bodybuilders and physique athletes, like five-time Mr. Olympia 212 Champion Flex Lewis, was so impressed he offered to make Ali part of his Y3T team. “To be noticed by such a big name in the industry has given me so much more belief and confidence,” says Ali.
The Y3T training system is a three-week rotating cycle that begins with heavy compound exercises in Week 1, followed by moderate weight compound and isolation exercises in Week 2, and finishing with high reps in Week 3. It keeps training varied and reduces the risk of injury by not constantly overloading the muscles.
Ali follows a modified version in which he does Week 2 twice in consecutive weeks because he enjoys training in mid-rep ranges, and finds he gets the best results this way. So he does a heavy week, followed by two moderate weeks, and then a high-rep week.
He’s a firm believer in the rotating system, but Hill’s influence on Ali’s diet has been equally significant.
“I was shocked by how much I was undereating,” Ali says. “When my diet plan came through, I could not believe my eyes. I’ve been with Neil just over a year and have seen massive progress.” Ali hopes to add another 10lbs of muscle—by which time he thinks he’ll be ready to take on the pros.
“I only train my abs when I start competition prep, which is usually 12 to 14 weeks out. I do fewer reps in the first couple of weeks and build up as I increase my cardio and lean out,” Ali says. “Everyone has abs, even if they have never seen them. They’re thin muscles, and will only start to appear when your body fat comes down to around 10-12%.
“Focus on cardio and your diet. Once I am at that level, I train abs religiously three times a week after my morning fasted cardio [see workout box, below]. To get abs, you have to be consistent. And don’t stop.”
Born: Swansea, Wales
Lives: Weymouth, England
Career highlight: Two-time Welsh men’s champion and 2016 USN BodyPower Classic winner
Ambition: To be the world’s first Bengali IFBB pro and be on the cover of a major fitness magazine (like this one)
Training advice: “Too many guys stick with too-low reps of 5 to 8. Try including some lighter weights with higher reps. Y3T is good because it mixes things up.”
Sponsors: USN and Udo’s Choice