There’s a rather distinctive sensorial experience to the gym. Sounds of metal on metal, a soft whir of machines, background EDM beats, the smell of rubber gym flooring… And maybe a good amount of newbie nerves. Not going to lie, but as we were setting up for our interview, we played an awkward guessing game amongst ourselves about how many pieces of gym equipment we actually knew how to operate (let’s just say we set a very low bar). Hui Min, founder and personal trainer at Unreal Personal Training, is well aware of the common phenomenon of “intimidating gyms”. Although if one thing’s for sure, she is also confident that all her clients can walk into the gym knowing how to use at least 50% of the equipment correctly.
At Unreal PT, things are done a little differently. Founded in 2018 by Hui Min, her fiancé Ben, and former-client-turned-business-partner, Gareth, Unreal PT is a personal training gym. You won’t be finding one-size-fits-all training here. Instead, Hui Min believes in putting laser focus on her clients’ unique needs and individual goals through holistic, well-tailored programmes. For this special career feature, we catch up with Hui Min on why personal training could be a game changer, what it’s like working in a male-dominated industry, and some of the biggest misconceptions about women hitting the gym (no, it won’t make you bulky).
*This interview was conducted and filmed during Phase 3, before the heightened alert regulations came into effect.
1. Tell us more about Unreal PT! What do you do and what is its backstory?
I started off at Unreal PT as a gym manager, but I’ve since taken on a full time personal training role. Unreal PT started because my fiancé and his then client, Gareth, found a gap in the market (for training gyms). So Unreal isn’t just about training. We focus more on the personal aspect of personal training. Every client who comes into Unreal is a unique individual, everything we do is customised to them. There is no cookie cutter programme! It’s all tailored towards their personal goals and targets.
2. What motivated you to take the plunge and start your own gym?
Being a personal trainer was never part of the plan actually! I have a degree from SMU in business, but even after three internships I still had no idea what I wanted to do. My fiancé (Ben) and his then client (Gareth) were really keen on starting their own gym, because they had been in many gyms before and the culture wasn’t there… And they weren’t getting what they wanted from a personal training gym, to be specific. So when they decided to start the gym, I was very supportive and excited. I think what really motivated me was that I really believed in the mission and vision of Unreal. I really believed that we could do it.
3. And how about yourself, what is your fitness backstory? How and when did you realise this was your passion?
I’ve always been quite an active kid growing up. My parents always sent me for swimming lessons, tennis… Later on, I was a competitive cheerleader in secondary school and also did water polo in JC. But I was never really aware of what fitness encompassed. When it comes to fitness, you should be educated on recovery, nutrition, how to train for performance in a specific sport etc… Which was everything I had no idea about then. I was still eating McDonald’s thrice a week!
It was only when we opened Unreal when I got very serious about my training, because I was in the gym almost everyday. Then in 2019 I took part in a strongman competition. It was a world championship and when I won, the feeling of winning and victory was so nice! I want to help people achieve their goals even when it seems really far off/something you can’t achieve. I want to help people feel that same feeling I felt (when I won)!
4. What sets personal training apart?
I would say there are two big groups of gyms in Singapore. One is a membership-style gym (the more common one), then there’s personal training. Personal training alone has a lot of different aspects: there’s weight and resistance training, there might also be CrossFit personal training, or weight lifting. We do a lot of resistance and weight training at Unreal. Besides that, we also educate our clients on nutrition, supplements, and spend most of the time working towards their personal goals. The first question we always ask is why are you here? What do you want to achieve?
Personal training is about guidance and having a coach who can look at the big picture for you. A lot of the items, it’s very difficult to be accountable to ourselves. Having to be accountable to someone else makes things easier… And could possibly fast track your journey to reaching your fitness goals.
5. What does a typical work day look like for you here at Unreal?
Unreal is my full time job. For me, personal training is what starts my day. A lot of my clients start at 7am! In the middle of the day we might have management meetings and I might be handling admin, operational matters on the backend too. I may have clients in the evening as well, so my whole day is pretty much spent at the gym. On weekends I try to take a step back from administrative work and focus on training clients, then take the rest of the time off (if I can). But yes, it’s like a 7 day work week!
6. How about your own fitness routine? Do you find time to train in-between work?
I try to train at least four times a week. Ideally, I want to train five times a week — it’s a sweet spot for me where I can recover in time and also train everything I want to train.
7. Since Circuit Breaker happened, there seems to be a growing (if not more apparent) interest in personal fitness, what do you think about the fitness culture in Singapore?
Well I think people are finally starting to accept that being healthy and fit really builds your immunity! A lot of times we see that our trainers don’t fall sick that often, because we’re watching our diets, doing resistance training etc. And I think when people are locked in their homes for 10 weeks, the one thing you miss most is just being active. Social media was also so prevalent (during circuit breaker), although I feel that a lot of times the culture that grew from circuit breaker was more about fitness fads… I think it’s quite sad to say that these people may not continue their fitness journey!
But it’s very hard to generalise “fitness culture”. I think you cannot really look at it as the “fitness industry”, because within the industry there are a lot of different sports. Within these sports, the cultures are really good — everyone knows each other and there is a shared understanding (of the sport). But if you look at CrossFit vs. bodybuilding for example, it’s likely that they won’t understand each other’s culture, even though they are both in the fitness industry. So the culture can’t be generalised in that sense.
8. We know that fitness gyms and personal training gyms aren’t the same. What do you think is the general perception in Singapore towards personal training?
They’re either very keen to have a personal trainer, or they feel it’s unnecessary. It’s two completely opposite perceptions. Obviously the clients we meet belong to the first category. A lot of times they come in with goals that are mainly health related. As I mentioned, after COVID-19 happened, a lot of people realised they needed to boost their immunity and they look towards us as a coach/guide to help them with not just training, but also the rest of the hours they’re not in the gym. Our clients spend at most around three hours in the gym in a week — so it’s really about all the other hours when you’re at home! You could be coming to the gym, but if you were like me and still eating McDonald’s three times a week, that’s not going to help you.
On the flip side, there are people who think they can do it on their own and feel they don’t need a guide. I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad perception towards personal training. Just that they might look to YouTube or websites to find their own information, rather than going to a personal trainer…
9. Do you think there’s a lot of misinformation out there then?
Definitely. Like I said, with Tik Tok and Instagram being so prevalent… There are just so many things that are not good with these videos. Some of the exercises are really not safe and not effective at all.
We focus a lot on education at Unreal — how to do it, why and how it helps. We know that most of our clients will not personal train forever. But we want them to be able to go into a gym, be comfortable with the equipment there, and think about what their trainer taught them. It’s really about empowering our clients with information so they can have longevity in this lifestyle.
10. What are some of the biggest misconceptions about gymming (especially among/towards women)? Why is going to the gym so intimidating?
For sure! When someone first walks into the gym and sees all these metal pieces of equipment that they have no idea how to use, that can be intimidating. But that’s also where the positives of personal training apply, where you’ll have someone there to guide you and you don’t have to do it alone. I think a lot of times — women especially — feel intimidated because they go to the gym alone and see that the cardio session is where all the ladies are and the gym section is predominantly male. The intimidation for them is that they’ll go into the weights area and use them wrongly, it’ll be embarrassing etc.
That’s why one of the things I train most with my clients is I want you to understand how to use the machines, to be able to look at a machine and say oh this trains my hamstrings. I am confident that all of my clients can go into a gym and be able to use at least 50% of the equipment. I think that’s the first step for a lot of women! To be able to comfortably step into the weights room without feeling shy or unconfident.
11. Will going to the gym make you bulky?
I think another common misconception among women is that going to the gym might make you big or bulky. We live in a society where often, your grandmother or mother will tell you you can’t train, you need to be small, skinny etc.. Or that men won’t like women who gym, if they train too hard, lift too much. Ironically, that could also be that guys might be intimidated by girls who lift heavier than them (laughs)! But that’s just my opinion.
Will going to the gym make you bulky? Definitely not. If you look at some of the ladies [who lift] on Instagram, especially in Australia and America where the world record for powerlifting is so high, not all of them are large girls. They’re muscular but lean at the same time. So I would say the thing that makes you bulky in that sense, is if you train without proper knowledge of nutrition and recovery. Then you’d be trying to lose weight/put on lean muscle in the gym, while outside-gym hours are still spent consuming so many calories — which is what ultimately makes you bulky.
12. Gym culture is arguably quite male-dominated. Do you think that’s true of the gym scene here?
I definitely think the majority of society still views gym culture as male-dominant and maybe even not okay for a woman to be in. But I do feel that in the last couple of years, there has been growing acceptance of women being in the gym scene. (Also because of social media’s influence!) When I was starting out [in the gym scene], traditionally I would have a lot of people in my ear saying this was for guys not girls. I really hope that will change. I hope that we will continue to lean towards being more accepting of women in the industry. Just because a woman trains in the gym, doesn’t mean she’s masculine. I think people have to be more accepting of girls having muscles and still being feminine!
Gymming is a way of relieving stress for a lot of people and I don’t think it’s fair to take away that outlet just because it’s viewed as “male-dominant”. When you’re in the gym chasing weights, chasing goals, it’s something that’s earned. It’s not given and this applies to both men and women. It’s a fair sport. I feel that this outlet can be very empowering for a lot of people. When you set a goal and achieve it, nobody can take it away from you!
13. What is it like forging a path through a traditionally male-dominated industry?
I wouldn’t say forging a path (laughs)! But it feels really good to be able to represent the female population in a traditionally male-dominated industry. For Unreal, we have three female personal trainers and nine male personal trainers. The ratio could possibly carry over into the entire personal training industry, it’s about 1:3. Most of my clients are actually female and when they ask about my personal experience, being able to share with them how good it feels to earn a win/hit a goal from training harder, it’s really nice! As I said, this is a fair sport. It may be traditionally male-dominated, but women definitely have a place in this industry too.
14. What are some of the biggest challenges you have faced in your career thus far and how did you overcome/are you overcoming them?
My career only began last November so it’s been quite a short period of time! A big challenge for me is helping clients achieve their goals in a specific amount of time. There are so many factors that come into play beyond just training and nutrition. Things like hormones, sleep, recovery… So it’s very tough for me to give clients a specific timeframe e.g. if they want to know how long it will take them to lose 10KG. I wouldn’t say it’s a huge challenge, but it’s something we constantly have to explain!
There were certainly more challenges with starting and running Unreal. I think the biggest challenge in any organisation is finding like-minded individuals, retaining them, and forming a family and community. Hiring is a huge challenge for us, but we’re so grateful for such a good team!
Psst: Get to know Hui Min and the rest of the female trainers at Unreal PT, Brenda and Nicolette in our latest Work: In Progress episode here!
15. And what has been the most rewarding?
As a personal trainer, it’s seeing my clients get stronger and achieving things they never thought they would be able to! And as the gym manager at Unreal, it’s being able to create this community with our clients and trainers, creating jobs, and sustaining a business we truly believe in — never straying from our mission and vision.
16. Best advice for anyone who wants to start their own fitness journey (with gymming in the picture)? And do you think more people should consider personal training?
Don’t be intimidated. Don’t let anyone get to your head and just start. If it’s something you really want to do then go for it! All you need to do is believe in yourself and surround yourself with people who believe in you. Take it day by day!
For me, I think everyone should have some form of weight or resistance training. If the gym intimidates you or weights intimidate you then for sure, I think everyone should start off with a personal trainer. Not just to get familiar with the equipment, but to learn how to use them properly and how to have proper form. The worst thing that can happen is to start, get into the groove of things and then get injured! We see that happening a lot — a lot of clients only come in when they’re injured and we have to do rehab before we can start the training. Whereas if they had started with us in the first place, the progress would have been much faster.
*Following the new P2HA regulations in Singapore, we reached out to Hui Min again for some much needed staying-in fitness advice!
17. Unfortunately, we’re back in Phase 2 again! We’ve heard about the gym closures, how have things been over at Unreal PT?
It’s been tough. This has and will continue to affect our business financially, but also the morale of our employees, our clients and of course, us as business owners. We were also planning to unveil our brand new location on 1 June, so being caught between 2 lease agreements during a closure is definitely worrying to say the least. We’ve had to adapt and move equipment outdoors, but the conditions under which we’re training our clients is extremely exhausting and we definitely feel it takes a physical toll on our bodies. Resistance and weight training done outdoors in Singapore’s heat and humidity is not easy, especially when you’re used to the comfort of an air-conditioned and well-ventilated gym indoors.
Nonetheless, it’s a privilege to be able to train right now and we are grateful to be able to operate in whatever limited capacity we can. I would say we are currently operating at under 25% of our regular capacity (if we’re lucky). Ultimately, it’s just a matter of time before we are able to re-open. We hope it’s sooner rather than later, but we keep the faith, keep pushing on and do the best we can with what we’re given. We believe in staying positive, looking at the silver linings and remembering how blessed we are!
18. Advice for staying fit (and motivated) now that gyms are closed?
Believe me, 4 weeks will fly by. A true sustainable, healthy lifestyle is one that you’re able to integrate into your everyday life. Educating yourself, making better choices, developing small but good habits, it all goes a long way. For example, instead of ordering food in, cook your own meal. You’re more likely to use less oil, portion control better, and meat (protein) is much cheaper at a grocery store than on a menu. This will drastically improve the quality and quantity of your diet (‘input’).
Now, what about output? Try this — get a watch that is able to track your steps (you can even use your phone or get one online for $20). It’s extremely easy and tempting to go a day walking under 1,000 steps. I recommend getting in at least 8,000 to 15,000 steps a day. Walk around when you’re on phone calls, take a walk first thing in the morning or after dinner. Get moving! Thinking about your health and fitness as ‘input VS output’ these 4 weeks might help you develop some good habits that go a long way. It only takes 2 weeks for something to become a habit!
Psst: Unreal PT has brought their community online through WhatsApp and Facebook, with workout videos, nutrition tips, recipes, and for a support system during this time. Drop Unreal PT an Instagram DM for the links join (it’s completely free)!