Amna started weightlifting to shed the pounds, but it became her passion. Image Credit: Dennis B Mallari/GNM

She is dwarfed by the huge weights she is about to lift, but Amna Al Haddad, the Emirati weightlifter and CrossFit enthusiast, does not seem intimidated. She adjusts her hijab, rubs chalk powder on her diminutive palms, then takes her position behind the barbell. A slight smile plays on her lips as she contemplates the bar that holds the iron plates, together weighing 40kg.

Fixing her gaze, the smile vanishes and a look of fierce concentration takes over as she grips the barbell. Then with a smooth movement she lifts it, a slight grunt escaping her tight-set lips as she propels it upwards.

Beads of sweat break out on her face as her arms go taut balancing the weight over her head for a few seconds. The strain is evident although her body hardly quivers. But she's done it - lifted almost her own body weight.

She drops the barbell down, grinning. The words on her T-shirt say it all: ‘Real women lift heavy weights.' A champion CrossFit trainer, Amna, 22, marked a milestone in her fitness journey and the global CrossFit community when she became the first Emirati woman and GCC National to participate in the Reebok CrossFit Asia Regionals held in Korea in May.

CrossFit is the principal strength and conditioning programme for many police academies and tactical operations teams, military special operations units, champion martial artists, and hundreds of professional athletes worldwide. "It includes a lot of the strength, skill, and conditioning exercises that are beneficial for general fitness that I enjoy doing," says Amna. "I was all the more interested as it includes Olympic weightlifting."

Amna, from Dubai, was introduced to CrossFit in April 2011 and by October she had started training with Candice Howe, the co-owner of local franchise Reebok CrossFit LifeSpark Dubai. Candice is also the winner of the Reebok CrossFit Asia Regional competition where she was crowned ‘fittest woman in Asia'.

Amna began weight training at 17, when most girls her age were busy trawling the malls. The reason? At 157cm and tipping the scales at 55kg she was 5kg overweight according to the BMI charts. But there was more to it. At a TedTalk event held in Ajman on April 23, 2011, she said she used to spend many hours lying, depressed, in her bed. "I was disgusted with myself, almost loathed myself…" she said. 

Changing one step at a time

When you meet the now radiant, energetic sportswoman it's difficult to believe she ever felt so bad about herself. In mid-2009 she decided she just had to shake herself out of her lethargy and depression. "It got to a point when I told myself, ‘This is not who I am, who I want to be'," she told the TedTalk audience.

So, one morning she dragged herself out of her bed and decided to go for a walk to clear her mind. "Every single step I took was a life-changing one," she remembers. "Every drop of sweat that was released from my body was a release of negative thoughts from my mind."

That's when Amna realised that "obesity is not in your body, it's in your mind".

Once she managed to get rid of the negativity she was harbouring, Amna took up weight training, a sport very few women - even those desperate to lose weight - resort to.

Amna says, "I wanted to lose weight, and looked for some form of exercise that interested me, and surprisingly found it in weight training. I started training when I was 17, and did weight training on my own for about two years. The idea was to get healthy and reduce body fat."

It helped her to do more than just reduce her weight. "It helped increase my self-confidence, my self-esteem, energy levels, and I learnt that it can help protect women against osteoporosis," she says. "There are so many benefits to weightlifting."

The more she got into it, the more Amna realised that weight training was her passion. Initially, she was apprehensive about how her family would take it.

"When my mum found out she was a bit shocked. But when she saw how passionate I was and when I told her I wanted to compete, she told me she was OK with it as long as I kept my hijab on and stayed covered. In fact both my parents are very supportive although they wish I had chosen some other sport!"

Her friends knew Amna was training, but didn't realise how serious she was about it. "When they did, they came out to support me at the local competitions I participated in," she says. Amna's big inspiration came from another weightlifter who had to struggle to chase her dreams. "I look up to Kulsoom Abdullah whose story inspired me to come out and start weightlifting publicly. She's a Muslim-American woman who fought to compete in a weightlifting event while wearing her hijab," says Amna. "I talk to Kulsoom quite often online to share our experiences and progress." 

Making her mark with CrossFit

Amna says she was hooked as soon as a friend introduced her to CrossFit. The high-intensity workouts in short bursts were punishing but she was determined to make her mark in the sport.

Less than a year later she was proficient enough to compete in the Reebok CrossFit Games Open, her very first competition. It was the qualifier for the Reebok CrossFit Games Asia Regionals 2012. "I came 77th out of 170 women in Asia," says Amna. "I also contributed to a team score by placing among the top three women in the last workout."

This qualified her to participate in the Reebok CrossFit Asia Regionals held in Korea in May this year as part of the Reebok CrossFit LifeSpark team. But CrossFit is an expensive sport and money was a problem. Luckily, Amna was sponsored by two Emirati philanthropists, Sultan Saeed Al Darmaki and his business partner. "Without them I wouldn't have been able to compete," says Amna. "Finding sponsors was very difficult. When Sultan came forward to support me, he took a huge load off my shoulders and made me believe I could make it.

"The whole experience has been just amazing, rewarding, and humbling. Seeing all of these athletes neck and neck, their strength despite their sizes, their beautiful technique, and hard work, was just beyond inspiring," Amna wrote on her blog.

It also gave her the impetus to quit her journalism job and train for the next competition.

Amna feels young people, especially Emiratis, have to be motivated to take up some fitness routine. "A lot of people don't stick to exercise because they want a quick fix, instead of doing an activity they enjoy.," she says. "So I recommend people to go out there, try different sports and find the one they can make part of their lifestyle."

She gives talks at universities and public forums to urge the youth to take up a healthy lifestyle but also has other goals. "I'm training for the CrossFit competition next year," she says. "One of my ultimate goals is to compete in the Olympics in 2016 or 2020 in weightlifting.

"But my dream is to open my own gym for women where I can teach them about weight training," she adds.

With Amna, anything is possible.

What is CrossFit?

CrossFit is a constantly varied, high-intensity, functional movement, strength and conditioning programme with the goal of improving fitness. Workouts are typically short - 20 minutes or less - and intense. They combine movements such as sprinting, rowing, jumping and climbing rope, weightlifting, and carrying odd objects; they use barbells, dumb-bells, gymnastics rings, pull-up bars, kettlebells, medicine balls, and many bodyweight exercises. These elements are mixed in numerous combinations to form prescribed "Workouts of the Day" or "WODs". Hour-long classes at affiliated gyms usually include a warm-up, a skill development segment, the high-intensity WOD, and a period of individual or group stretching. Performance on each WOD is often scored and/or ranked to encourage competition and to track individual progress. CrossFit programming is used by many fire departments, law enforcement agencies, and military organisations around the world including the Canadian Forces and the Royal Danish Life Guards, as well as by US and Canadian high school physical education teachers.