All photos by Reem Saad
For many, feeling pain is a sign to hit the stop button.
But for American expat Stephanie Chung, sometimes it means you just have to keep pushing.
Chung is a seasoned member of Qatar’s CrossFit community, one whose strength and conditioning regimen focuses on weight lifting, high-intensity training and gymnastics.
The 24-year-old is one of many female weight-lifters in the country.
However, Chung recently became the only person in Qatar to rank regionally in a CrossFit Games competition.
That tournament is a stepping stone to a larger competition for the “Fittest on Earth” title.
For Chung, who recently spoke to Doha News, the allure of CrossFit has a lot to do with putting mind over matter.
As a coach, she said she also enjoys helping women gain confidence as they gain strength:
“You’ll have people come in and say ‘oh, there’s no way i can lift that weight,’ or ‘there’s no way I can jump on top of that box.’
Once they try and achieve something, they get this incredible sense of power in themselves. That’s my favorite thing about CrossFit specifically, it shows people that your physical ability is really only limited by your mind…and I think that is very evident in women in particular.”
Picking up steam
As Crossfit becomes more popular globally, several “boxes” have opened locations in Qatar over the past four years.
They include Crossfit Quwwa, Black and Yellow, Oryx and Erada, where Chung trained for several years.
Her workouts consist of interval training with several repetitions, testing an individual’s strength, cardiovascular endurance, agility and balance.
Chung had been a gymnast since the age of three, but during her senior year at Weill Cornell in New York, she decided her body “needed something different.”
“I love Crossfit because of the variety. I loved gymnastics for that reason. You were always striving to do something better and there was always another skill you could learn.”
After completing her undergrad in biology with a specialty in nutrition, Chung moved to Doha in August 2014 and taught Premedical Biology and simultaneously assisted with human genetics at Weill Cornell Medical College in Qatar.
Since moving, Chung mostly trained at the Grand Sheraton’s Erada Crossfit box.
Currently, Chung works as a full-time crossfit coach and a personal trainer.
She is still riding high from her victory at the CrossFit Games regionals, in which she placed 20th in the “Africa” category.
Speaking to Doha News, Chung said:
“Qualifying for regionals was my goal for two years. It took a lot of training because they narrowed the fields. They used to only take 60 (competitors) from the Africa region, now they only take 10.
It became very competitive, and I had to spend a whole year training specifically for that. It was everything I wanted in a single competition.”
On average, Chung spends at least three hours a day on training, five days a week. But she splits this up into morning and evening sessions.
Between 6am and 7:30am, Chung is either on a rowing machine or going for a run.
In the evenings, the athlete spends another 90 minutes strength training by lifting heavy barbells from the ground and bringing them up to her shoulders or over her head.
Terms used to describe the lifts include cleans, jerks and snatches.
Today, Chung can lift some 82kg (180lbs) during a snatch and 95kg (210lbs) on cleans and jerks.
“That’s most of my day – lifting a barbell,” she said, cracking a smile.
For Chung, the strength and discipline she’s gained through training has helped her cope with other aspects of her life.
“When I do self-talking in the gym and tell myself I only have five more minutes or 10 more reps, I find myself doing the same when things come up in real life and it feels like the end of the world. It helps you get over things easily.”
She added that it’s a rewarding feeling to dispel rumors that lifting makes women look “bulky.”
“When I train, people tell me they don’t want to lift barbells because they don’t want to look bulky. I then ask them, ‘do I look bulky? Because I lift a barbell seven days a week.’ And I love seeing the change in people’s mentality once they latch onto weightlifting. It’s very gratifying.”
With Chung’s workout routine comes a regimented diet known as Zone-Paleo, where she weighs and measures each of her meals.
Typically, a paleo diet consists of types of foods presumed to have been eaten by early humans. This includes mainly meat, fish, vegetables and fruit and excludes dairy, products made with grains and processed foods.
Part of Chung’s job includes offering her clients tips on eating healthier and putting together meal plans for them upon request.
A bad rap
In recent years, CrossFit has been criticized as dangerous and for causing a serious and potentially fatal condition known as rhabdomyolysis.
The disease results in the catastrophic breakdown of muscle cells due to an increased buildup of lactic acid from excess exercise.
But Chung said that the condition is very rare and does not usually affect the average CrossFitter.
“Rhabdo only affects people who are super-fit but have been out of it for a while, or de-conditioned, and then they go on vacation and come back to doing the same workouts with the same intensity they were doing before for a long time, which is very wrong. And those are minor cases,” Chung told Doha News.
For those dipping their toes into CrossFit, Chung advices staying safe by ensuring that one’s form and technique are correct, and by checking with a trainer about how much to lift.