Dubai’s gyms are full of men and women on a mission to firm up their physique, but bodybuilders are in a league of their own. In a bid for competition-worthy muscular perfection, they spend hours working out muscle groups that regular gym-goers probably wouldn’t even know existed.
Building your body into a sculpted, rock-solid work of art isn’t easy – in fact, it’s a full-time job, as 34-year-old Dubai-based bodybuilder Zaher Moukahal well knows. It takes years of dedication to turn your body into a temple of muscle. Standing 180cm tall and weighing 118kg, Zaher is taking part in this October’s Dubai Fitness and Performance Classic’s open pro-bodybuilding competition. Bodybuilding runs in his family – Zaher’s father was one in Lebanon in the ’60s and ’70s, so with good genes and good training he turned professional in 2009.
‘To get to this level is very hard. You have to dedicate yourself,’ Zaher explains, when we join him in the gym. ‘A lot of people want to be in the best shape but without putting in the effort. They don’t want to diet.’
Zaher’s day is structured around food. To maintain his physique he has to consume 300g of protein a day – the recommended protein intake for the average adult male is 56g a day. He needs to be eating at least 60g in every meal – the equivalent of 15 egg whites at a time. ‘When you take out the yolk, it’s not much at all,’ he smiles. To fit in so much food, it’s an early rise for the muscle man, kicking off with a not-too-daunting 7am breakfast. However, by the time most mere mortals are thinking about grabbing an elevenses snack, Zaher has already done a cardio session and had two more protein-packed meals.
Zaher is also a businessman, so after his 2pm weight training session, he goes from bench press to behind the desk, from where he manages his fitness equipment businesses. The key to success, he explains, is organisation. ‘If you’re not organised, it’s so difficult. A lot of people struggle with the timings for eating, especially when they go out. Unless you take your food with you, it’s difficult to manage the meal plan.’
Zaher has a competed in 11 professional competitions, and considers himself among the top three in this region’s emerging pro-bodybuilding scene. Having lived in Dubai for 20 years, he is well known and connected in the community. ‘I’m like the leader of all the competitors because I grew up here. I help people out and give advice, they come to my tanning studio or the gym.’
Friday is a rest day, and when he’s not competing he’s free to enjoy other foods and relax, but as competition time draws closer he eats ‘clean’ every day of the week, eliminating sugar and fats from his diet.
Zaher is a gentle giant – beneath the bulk is a humble man who works hard on his body and business, and makes sure there’s time for his family too. As a married man with two sons and a third expected any day now, he explains that his family reap the benefit of his lifestyle. ‘For my wife it’s good, she’s always happy because I go to bed early and I wake up early. She encourages me, because I don’t go to parties or stay out late.’ At the end of the working day, he makes a beeline for home so he can take his sons to the pool, and enjoy another favourite pastime: cooking.
Before Zaher can turn in for the night he has another 30-minute cardio session in the evening. Surprisingly, he only spends two hours in the gym each day, split up into three sessions. Bodybuilders are judged on their body’s symmetry, Zaher says, but it’s also about the quality of muscle and even personality – when it’s showtime the judges score for big personas as well as pecs. ‘I have shyness,’ he says. ‘I like to pose, but I don’t like to dance and do crazy stuff – but I’m working on it. They mark you on symmetry and proportion, and that’s my strength. If I didn’t have that then I couldn’t compete with the guys with the bigger personalities.’
It’s not just competitors he has to keep up with, but the cost of his sport, too. Zaher spends around Dhs400 on food every day. ‘If I wanted to I could have sponsorships in the US, but I don’t want to live there. You can earn between US$150-300,000 [Dhs550,000-1.1 million] a year in sponsorship, but you have to work for them and do whatever they want you to do. I don’t need it – I have my own brands and business.’
At the age of 34, Zaher is well aware of the effects of ageing. While his body is still in top physical condition now, is the body he built for show built to last? ‘I know I’m not going to be this size forever, but you have to keep doing sport no matter what age you are. You can’t say “I’m over 50, so I’ll stop training”,’ he says. ‘I plan to reduce my weight gradually, and keep eating clean to reach the best level and then maintain it on a daily basis. But right now, I am happy with my size, and the thing about body building is that as you get older and your muscles mature, they look deeper cut. The best bodybuilders start over 36-37. The body reacts better and the muscles look more rounded and shapely. I still have time left in my career, some of the pros in Mr Olympia are 49, 50, and they are top three.’
Despite plans to continue his lifestyle, Zaher advises those considering bodybuilding to consider it carefully. ‘If you start this sport in the wrong way it will end fast and destroy your life,’ he warns. ‘But if you do it the proper way, with the doctors and proper supplements, train and eat right, you can have a good career.’
Ultimately, he explains, the key is to diversify the ways you make money and not allow the sport to be your whole life. ‘Don’t depend just on bodybuilding. Someday you may have an injury – then that’s it. How will you live? Bodybuilding is only for a certain time.’
The Dubai Fitness and Performance Classic
Expect four days of contests, seminars, product demonstrations and exhibitions, focussing on fitness, weight training, nutrition and the world of bodybuilding. It will host the first professional bodybuilding competition in the region, as well as a fitness challenge for men and women and an amateur bodybuilding contest.
Free general admission. From Dhs300 (Pro Bodybuilding Contest); from Dhs200 (Amateur Bodybuilding Championship); from Dhs250 (Fitness Men’s & Women’s Challenge). Oct 1-4. Dubai World Trade Centre, Sheikh Zayed Road, www.dubaifpc.com (055 154 8059).