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Fitspiration: Flipping tires with Santina Philips of Ursus Fitness

Pulling full-sized trucks, carrying Atlas balls and flipping tires are just a few of the things Santina Philips — one of Hong Kong’s most tenacious female proponents for Strongman training — is capable of. Apart from being the co-founder and owner of Ursus Fitness, she’s also known as a professional Strongman athlete, having just completed her sixth competition at the Arnold Classic Australia multi-sport festival, where she smashed three titles, including: the fastest to load five Atlas stones up to 90kg each onto a platform, and the heaviest log press achieved in three minutes.

Philips flexed her muscles to pull a 8.7 tonne truck as part of the promotions for Arnold Classic Asia, a multi-sport festival which took place in Hong Kong last August.

Growing up in England, Santina Philips played rugby throughout her formative years, and sport was always part of her life. After completing a Russian and German Politics degree in university, her family moved to Hong Kong, where she worked in a few gyms before deciding to start a Strongman training group on Lamma Island together with Muay Thai expert Gary Manwaring, who later became her business partner. “It was fun, but it wasn’t sustainable doing it outdoors. Imagine taking all the equipment outside — it was a logistical nightmare,” Phillips said. In 2015, together with Manwaring, Ursus Fitness was founded as the first dedicated Strongman gym in Hong Kong.

We took a moment to chat with Philips about her passion for the sport, what motivates her to lift heavier, and the growing popularity of Strongman training for Hong Kong women.

I became a trainer… because I think I’m good with people, and at recognising how to push people to reach their potential. Some people like to be shouted at, others like a more quiet and focused approach. Also, I tried to do a job where you sit down in front of a computer all day, and it doesn’t work. I like being free, and I like being my own boss as well. It’s a nice feeling to know that clients come in every day with a smile on their face, and they love all the cool workouts we get to do. It’s good encouragement.

“I’ve always liked lifting weights — one of my strengths is being strong. I wasn’t much of an endurance athlete.”

What I love about Strongman training is… the huge amount of variety. There’s about seven different events at each competition, whereas with something like Powerlifting, you only get three events, which can get mundane. You can make up as many different events as you want, you can make medleys. There are rules, but you can bend them a little bit, or you can use your strengths, figuring out techniques to hold weights a certain way. It tests you to the limits. Events only last about a minute, but it destroys you. 

More and more women are lifting weights because… it’s still a growing trend. There seems to be more and more women coming in here. At first they were worried that it would be too much of a guy’s gym, that it would be intimidating, but it’s been the opposite. It’s about 70% women now — most classes have only got about two guys and like 10 girls. I love it.

Especially when we do the Strongman class, some of the girls are so strong that the boys get shown up, because the girls weigh a lot less and they’re lifting the same. The women here all seem to get along quite well, they all love lifting weights, they all strive to lift heavier all the time, and they’re all getting really fit and strong. It’s very impressive.

“I know a bit about Olympic weightlifting, but I’d like to know more. It’s just one rep, but very powerful and explosive — whoever lifts the heaviest, wins. It’s also a very technical thing, it takes patience — if you’re good at it, respect.”

On combating the stigma of girls building muscle… Lots of people think that the face of a Strongman gym wouldn’t typically be a woman. I’m one of the main trainers here, and the fact that they see that I lift all this stuff, they see that it’s not just for guys, that’s why a lot of women come here. I did start to think, am I going to have to look really butch to beat other girls in competitions? But as long as you have good quality muscle, I don’t think it has a negative effect on you. I am also considered to be in the lightweight category. Other women can be bigger than me, but I still think they have great bodies. They can lift a hell of a lot more weight than I can as well. A lot of ladies who do Strongman here like the way their bodies have changed. And in turn, guys have made positive comments to a lot of us, which is nice, saying we look powerful, fit and athletic.

My fitness philosophy… is that people should just view it as fun. Once you do it as a chore or something you have to do to be healthy, that’s not a great way to be fit. You should view it as staying healthy, having fun, taking care of your body, not obsessing with scales or food — of course you can’t eat doughnuts every day — but it’s all about balance.

At the recent Arnold Classic Australia, Philips achieved three first titles out of five events despite an injury, qualifying her for the next Arnold Classic event in the US.

The hardest part of working as a trainer is… waking up. I wish that everyone else didn’t have a normal job! Even if you all train every day at 8am, that would be great. But right now, it’s 6am every day. People get in from around 5:45am, so we all get in by 5:30am to set up.

The key to staying motivated… is to reach a goal. I need something to train for, I don’t like just training for the sake of training. Personally, I focus on my strength — I’m quite goal-oriented so I entered different competitions to drive myself to get stronger. Otherwise, just change it up. If you keep doing things that you’ve adapted to, of course you’re going to plateau. Our Strongman workouts are never the same. Sometimes if you feel a bit glum, the worst thing to do is to be up on yourself. Instead of fixating on it and worrying about it, take a step back, have a few rest days, and then take it from there, because you can only do so much.

When I workout… I love to do crazy dynamic warm-ups, I’ll lay on my back, flip my legs over my head and walk in semicircles with my head under my feet. We have those big wooden staffs and I like to move with them in all different ways. Coffee is an absolute must before I work out otherwise it won’t go anywhere.

“Lifting lots of weights when you’re hungry is not fun.”

I believe in eating… Protein. I eat eggs all the time, I eat a lot of eggs for breakfast. Oats as well, they keep me full, so I make these little oatmeal protein cookies and put oats in my protein shakes. I like blueberries for post-workout, and I love avocados in general. I try to make a lot of my own food. I believe when you go out to eat, you can do it really smartly as well. If you exercise a lot, you do need to fuel your body. I try to find good carbs like brown rice, oats or sweet potato. I definitely love food. I do have a sweet tooth, which I’m trying to put a stop to, but I’m human!

The best five-minute exercise for weight loss is… interval training with weights. If you had a barbell and you did a Tabata interval of thrusters (a combination of a step up and a press with weights) for five minutes — that’s 20 seconds on, 10 seconds off — that gets your arms, your legs, everywhere.

My workout playlist includes… heavy rap. I have to have good, loud music. I like Drake, A$AP Rocky, Nicki Minaj, Fetty Wap — I like trap music. Yeah, you see where I’m going with this.

Try a class at Ursus Fitness with Santina at Unit 2-4, 64-68 Pok Fu Lam Road, Sai Ying Pun, Hong Kong, +852 2803 2774, ursusfitness.com

Photography by Today Tomorrow Photography

Evelyn Lok
Managing Editor
When not trying out the latest beauty and wellness trends, Evelyn is likely enjoying a perfectly balanced negroni or exploring some of Hong Kong's best new places to eat and drink. At Lifestyle Asia she covers everything from the biggest events in town to interviews with Hong Kong specialists, with topics spanning art, food and drink, health, tech, and travel.
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