Gyms in Malaysia

Let’s talk a little about gyms in Malaysia. Okay, currently in Kuala Lumpur and surroundings, we are spoilt for choice when it comes to gyms. We have big commercial gyms, such as Fitness FirstCelebrity Fitness and to a lesser extent, Jatomi Fitness, Chi Fitness and True Fitness. We also have a new franchise chains, Anytime Fitness.

We also have the small shoplot-type of gyms, run by the small businessmen, together with Gym Rakyat, our local municipal form of gyms. And then there are more niche type of gyms, such as Muay Fit and Crossfit boxes, as well as numerous personal training studios. We are actually spoilt for choice.

Perhaps the cities outside of the Klang Valley are not so fortunate but, from my understanding, fitness is a sunrise industry in every town in Malaysia while it innovates in the Klang Valley.

In the 1980s & 1990s

It wasn’t always like this though. I began working out in the 1990s, when I was in university. At that time, most gyms were in shop lots, with very few cardio options, mainly treadmills and possibly one rower.

Most of the equipment will be free weights, both dumb bells and barbells, with squat racks and smith machines. You might also find plate-loaded machines, but probably not stack machines. These gyms still exist because there is something raw and primal (I even used that word!) about these gyms. I think it brings images of Arnold Schwarzenegger and other bodybuilding legends to mind.

Photo courtesy Solid Gold Gym, Malaysia
Photo courtesy Solid Gold Gym, Malaysia

I remember I used to cycle to a gym in Damansara Jaya along what is the LDP now in the afternoons. The cycle there and back was my warmup and cool down. The gym was run by a friendly Chinese bodybuilder guy, I think a one-time Mr. Selangor. He was helpful but I kinda preferred to do my own thing.

I continued to workout at my university gym, which was entirely machine-based, both plate-loaded and stack machines, with no free weights at all. Later on, after my studies in the late 1990s, I looked for a gym in KL city centre. There was only one, Gold’s Gym (which I think is now called “Samson’s Gym”) in the Golden Triangle area. Yes, you might not believe that, but it is true!

Photo courtesy Thistle Hotels, Clark Hatch Fitness
Photo courtesy Thistle Hotels, Clark Hatch Fitness

At this time, there were only two big names in fitness in Kuala Lumpur: Clark Hatch Fitness (which is now one-half of CHi Fitness) and Phillip Wain (which is only for women). Being an apprentice of sorts, I definitely could not afford Clark Hatch. But I did manage to get in my workout at that time, not at Gold’s Gym, but somewhere else (and because of age, I really cannot remember how and where!).

Then came Fitness First & other chain gyms

Fitness First changed the fitness industry in Malaysia. It was probably a combination of factors. The first three Fitness First outlets were in a somewhat upscale commercial and yet residential area (Damansara Heights, KLCC and Subang Jaya). Secondly, I think also that the market was ready for a chain gym to open up.

Photo courtesy wenghonnfitness.com
Photo courtesy wenghonnfitness.com

Thirdly, the quality of service offered by Fitness First was definitely way above other gym offerings I had experienced (no comment on Phillip Wain – as an aside, why is a women only gym having a man’s name as it’s brand? Tell me your thoughts below). All the machines were were nice, new and shiny. The cardio machines were also better quality than those I had experienced and they constantly upgraded (at this time, I was a member of Clark Hatch).

Fourthly, Fitness First was the first gym chain to offer Les Mills™ fitness programmes that kind of revolutionised the way people enjoyed fitness, in my opinion. Soon, people were jamming their bodies, balancing their bodies, combatting their bodies (!), jamming their bodies etc. Anyone who is familiar with Les Mills programmes would know what I’m talking about. Their programmes, choreography and instructions changed how people viewed group fitness.

Les Mills trainers do their stuff at the Reebok Les Mills One Live tour. Photo courtesy the Star newspaper
Les Mills trainers do their stuff at the Reebok Les Mills One Live tour. Photo courtesy the Star newspaper

Finally, the service, including the personal training offered at Fitness First, was probably the best that the masses had experienced so far in the Klang Valley. This

So at this time, around maybe 2005, we found many people really getting into fitness.

The Landscape Now

By around 2009 onwards, new kinds of fitness experiences started to infiltrate the Klang Valley.

  1. Firstly, boot camps were founded and began to grow in popularity. A few years following, people began to start running seriously.
  2. Secondly, more and more smaller personal training studios began to pop up, beginning with Body By Design and Activ Studio (stay tuned for more on this soon!).
  3. Muay Thai and MMA (Mixed Martial Arts) burst into the fitness scene, inspiring many hardcore martial artists into fitness, and many fitness aficionados into martial arts. Win-win situation.
  4. Crossfit® came to Malaysia and began a whole new fitness craze. You might find many gyms that are a fusion of numbers 1, 3 and 4 nowadays.
  5. Thirdly, Fitness Innovations Malaysia was founded and that created more fitness and allied-health professionals available for the growing market. I mean, this is where I learnt for my ACE Personal Trainer certificate.
Original photo courtesy of the Borneo Post
I have a kick / I have a Boxing! Ugh, Muay Thai Malaysia! Original photo courtesy of the Borneo Post

Because of the thriving growth of fitness in Kuala Lumpur and surroundings, we began to see a growth in major urban areas as well, such as Penang, Ipoh and Kuching. Chain gyms, such as Fitness First and Celebrity Fitness (it coulda been California Fitness – which was bought over by Celebrity) tried their hand in Penang but somehow things didn’t work out. Still, these urban areas are growing.

And there you have it!

Of course, bodybuilding and simple fitness is still the staple and foundation of the fitness industry. Many trainers still use bodybuilding as their base to train their clients. However, with many different modalities are also included, including “functional training” (which somehow most people take to mean “Crossfit”, for some strange reason) and sometimes some mind-body elements, such as Pilates or Yoga.

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