“Hi Big Gal, come for practice again?” Wong Man-ting has become accustomed to hearing this greeting from the staff as she enters Wai Hang Sports Centre. With a height of 1.58 m and a weight of about 54 kg, Man-ting looks actually no different from a regular girl.

“A person’s muscle mass can be increased by training but it also hinges on genetic factors. Lacking male hormones, it’s difficult for a female to become truly muscular unless she puts in a hundred per cent painstaking effort,” explains Man-ting with a laugh.

A vibrant girl in her early 20s, Man-ting is nicknamed “Big Gal” simply because she is a powerlifter.

“When I was in Year 2, I learnt about resistance training and found the theory really interesting. I then tried it out.” Man-ting, now a Year 5 student of Physical Education and Recreation Management, has already broken four records at the Hong Kong Powerlifting Championships 2016, though it’s been only two years since she took up the sport. Her performance in the Female 57 kg Junior Group – squat (102.5 kg), bench press (50 kg) and deadlift (110 kg) – won her the overall championship title in the female junior group.

Although the free weight area in the University’s gymnasium is not exclusive to male students, female students are seldom seen there. At first, Man-ting was reluctant to enter the “restricted area” without the company of a male classmate. “Female weightlifters are rare, and as a beginner, I did worry that my substandard postures would put me in the spotlight.”

Since first picking up a barbell, she has fallen in love with lifting weights. “Weightlifting is a sport with many variations. It involves ergonomics as well as the leverage relationship between muscles, bones, tendons and joints. What’s challenging is that each movement is a perfect combination of technique and strength, requiring a very high level of physical coordination. I now practise for about two to three hours a day, five days a week, in order to keep up my skills.”

Uncommon in Hong Kong

Strictly speaking, there are two types of weightlifting. In the Olympics, the sport is weightlifting, which includes categories of snatch and clean and jerk, while Man-ting’s expertise is powerlifting, which includes three disciplines which are squat, bench press and deadlift. Relatively speaking, the level of difficulty and the coordination required in powerlifting is lower than in weightlifting. According to Man-ting, neither weightlifting nor powerlifting is popular in Hong Kong, and so finding a coach has been hard. Her daily practice routine is facilitated by online videos. Besides, she asks fellow students in her department to observe and correct her postures.

While gymnastics, figure skating and synchronized swimming are the sports that can showcase feminine grace and aesthetics, weightlifting is at the other extreme. People may recall a frightening episode in the Rio 2016 Olympics when an Armenian weightlifter’s face was contorted in agony after his left elbow was seriously dislocated probably due to an error in posture. “There’s the risk of accidents in every sport, but as long as you practise carefully, sport, even weightlifting, is absolutely safe. When I started practising the sport, my parents disapproved of it as they deemed it too masculine. But as I’ve been able to keep myself from getting dwarfed by this sport and have been improving my figure and becoming more energetic, they came to understand that weightlifting is admirable in many ways.”

Apart from aiming to go “faster, higher and stronger” as the Olympic motto urges, Man-ting also strives to be “heavier” as well as “lighter”. Before every competition, not only does she train intensively to gain the strength to lift heavier weights, but she also controls her body weight by following a strict diet plan so she can compete in the lightest body weight category and deliver her very best. The weight of a barbell can be measured, but the effort of the athlete lifting it is hard to quantify.