Meet Stella Lee, a powerlifter on a mission to encourage people to aim for their best

Stella Lee is dedicated to dispelling myths about women lifting weights and is passionate about driving body positivity.

Welcome to the Spotlight series by TMS, where we highlight businesses and people around Hong Kong making waves. This week, we’re speaking with Stella Lee, a powerlifting athlete, coach and founder of athletic performance wear brand The LFG Squad.

Stella Lee is a Hong Kong Powerlifting Team athlete and the founder of athletic performance wear, The LFG (Let’s Fucking Go) Squad. She is also a strength coach at Asphodel Fitness in Central and offers one-on-one personal training and carefully curated small-group strength programs.

However, Lee isn’t just a powerlifter, coach and entrepreneur; she’s also dedicated to dispelling myths about women lifting weights and is passionate about driving body positivity. She does this by shifting the focus from aesthetics to performance when it comes to fitness and women’s health.

As part of TMS' spotlight on the #WomenWithMuscles series by Onside Sports Group, Stella caught up with us to talk about her athletic journey, the challenges she faced at the start of her powerlifting career as well as the motivations behind her athletic wear brand.

Stella Lee Hong Kong powerlifting
Source: SBD Apparel

Q: How did you get into lifting weights – specifically powerlifting?

I first got into lifting weights through Strongman (another strength sport) and later transitioned to powerlifting. I was lucky to start my fitness career and journey in a gym and under a mentor known for strength training in Hong Kong and learned a lot there (Strength Culture). I was also encouraged to enter into lifting competitions, first Strongman and later started venturing into powerlifting.

That was when I entered my first powerlifting competition that would kickstart my journey.

I love the feeling of lifting heavy weights – specifically conquering a weight I could not do before and the high that comes from overcoming that – over and over again. It's an ongoing challenge where you grow through the discomfort. Hence, I find the process of training to be at my strongest quite therapeutic.

Besides maximal strength itself, powerlifting is also about playing the long game. It’s not going to be feasible to max out all the time and lift as heavy as possible every session; hence the challenge of peaking at the right time, and finding that balance in training, adds to the lure of the sport for me.

With powerlifting, the aim of the sport is not only to lift the heaviest weight possible but also to get the biggest total in your weight class across three lifts (back squat, bench press and deadlift) on meet day.

As a strength athlete, though, I think what keeps me driven in the game is the combination of constantly challenging your own limits – both mental and physical. There’s nothing more empowering and rewarding than that for me.

The dedication to training for these three lifts can also often mean saying no to other things; it might get monotonous over time, but staying on track really does make a difference when it’s time to show for it.

Q: How do you push past your mental and emotional limits?

Every sport has its difficulties and challenges. In strength sports, you basically try to get as strong as possible, and it's something that you need to train for. You're not gonna be able to lift 200kg straight off. On the physical side of things, it’s about prioritizing progressive overload, having a solid base to start building strength from and setting smaller milestones along the way.  With the mental side of things, in these little milestones, you have to keep pushing yourself because both strength and muscle building only grow through pressure.

So if you don't push past that barrier where you're like, “Okay, this is it. It’s getting a little hard now, I think I'm done. I can't get any stronger than that.” That's where a lot of people tend to give up. But if you keep pushing each time, then it's where you start to reap the benefits and see the effort pay off.

For me, I think that’s one of the reasons why I enjoy this sport so much. I’ve learned early on that growth only happens with discomfort and pushing your own barriers. This commitment to growth, stepping out of comfort zones and never settling leaks over to other aspects of my life and helps me constantly strive for better.

Q: What misconceptions are there about female powerlifting?

I think the biggest misconception is that powerlifting is often confused with weightlifting (weightlifting is the Olympic sport where they do the snatch and the clean and jerk (overhead movements)). For powerlifting, it's the back squat, bench press and deadlift.

But if we’re talking about females in strength sports, the biggest misconceptions are:

  1. People always think we’re much bigger (in size) than we actually are! You don’t have to be massive to be strong.
  2. Other popular misconceptions are that lifting heavy weights is dangerous (which it really isn’t if done properly or under reliable guidance.
  3. That there are certain criteria to start. You can start any time at any stage of your fitness journey.

Q: With powerlifting being a predominantly male sport, how have you coped, and what struggles have you had to face starting out?

To be honest, I think the powerlifting scene in Hong Kong is quite balanced between the sexes.

The biggest struggle I have going into powerlifting is probably with my parents, who are still very traditional. They think that strength training is not appropriate for women. It is actually the opposite, and having muscle mass can be very beneficial for your body – but with the older generation, their mindset is very much stuck in the old ways.

Hence, unfortunately, I am not able to share this passion of mine with my family.

Q: Is that tough for you? Not being able to share that with them?

Of course, it's hard. Especially going for major international competitions to represent the country, like in the recent World Championships. It's a big thing for me, but I choose not to share these things with them now because it really upsets them. We don’t get enough time together already as we all live separately, so I’d rather spend our time together more pleasantly and just be present. We don’t have to enjoy the same things, just each other’s company.

I am incredibly lucky, though, to have a very supportive fiance by my side, who has been with me every step of the way on this journey. He was one of the reasons why I was inspired to leave my job to pursue my passions and turn it into a career by becoming a coach.

I think it’s really important to have at least that one person in your corner, especially when things get hard.

Q: You have mentioned before that you took on strength training as a way to protect yourself; could you elaborate on your meaning? Protect yourself from fears of body image issues or self-confidence?

Growing up, I battled with a negative environment where I was put into an overweight club in school, and as English wasn’t my first language, I was faced with bullying in school. At home, as we were going through some tough times then, I also had to put up with a different kind of abuse (we’ve since worked through that hurdle). But at a young age, I scared easily. I put up a lot of walls and found it hard to express myself. I cried a lot, went through depression, had very low esteem and never felt like I was in control.

It wasn’t until I changed my environment when I got older that I slowly “found” my identity and a clearer perspective on the person that I could be away from it all. As a young child, when you’re constantly exposed and subject to people’s negative thoughts about yourself, espeically those in your immediate circle,  it is very difficult to form any sort of positive thoughts that are self-inflicted.

When I removed myself from said environments, I started to develop my own identity that is free of that judgment and influence. I first started pursuing martial arts (Muay Thai, MMA) and then moved on to strength training as an outlet to not only deal with my internal frustrations but also to get strong, so strong that nobody could touch me.

I wanted to regain control of my life, and it was in this sort of training that I found liberation from everything that was affecting me by simply strengthening my resolve through my training my body. Being strong was my escape and slowly became my armor of choice, but now I simply just enjoy it after all these years of lifting.

Q: HK National powerlifter, strength coach and owner of your own apparel company – where do you find the time to train on a competitive level?

It’s hard, for sure! But these are all my passions, so I try to manage my time to the best of my ability to make sure they never overlap or compromise the other.

I make it a point to be fully present in whatever I am doing at the moment and focus on one thing at a time. That really helps to ground me when things get a little crazy. The biggest thing I’ve learned from this journey is to take things one step at a time - and to really take that first step no matter what because it’s so easy to get overwhelmed when looking at things from the bigger picture.

This little lesson has gotten me through many obstacles where I would have otherwise chosen just to give up (be it new projects, ideas, designing new collections, or anything really.) To be honest, there are a lot of things I don’t know – especially when running my own business. But without starting, I would never have learned this much through experience.

With training, when it comes closer to competition or when I am deep in prep, I try to block out specific times in my calendar for it and make it an uncompromisable priority to ensure that it does not get affected by my other responsibilities. In the “off-season,” or when I am further away from a competition, I try to work my training around my other responsibilities.

However, I’m only human, so I still struggle with the occasional burnout. Hence, I am always grateful to have a supportive partner by my side to encourage me through when the going gets tough.

Q: During COVID, how much harder was it for you to maintain training?

It is hard to maintain strength with inconsistent training, especially if it was as long as COVID lockdowns in Hong Kong! Even worse when it is also my job to coach others in the gym. So … my fiance and I, we built our own rooftop gym! It was a great alternative to have, albeit subject to weather conditions.

Q: Please tell us more about your brand LFG.

LFG stands for Let’s F*cking Go! For the longest time since I got into fitness, I’ve wanted to create high-quality, affordable gear with athletes in mind. As an athlete, I found that we require a different approach to activewear that is more than what most other local brands provide.

From a branding perspective, I also wanted a brand that is inclusive and represents a new wave of performance-focused training – especially in Asia. I wanted to showcase a more diverse look in fitness, especially when promoting activewear. Today, I am very proud of the community we have created. Regardless of the sport, it’s about the mindset of always striving for more and never settling.

Also, this particular target group has different requirements when it comes to activewear. The fit and size have to be more forgiving to muscular bodies, sweat-wicking, squat-proof and allow for a wide range of movement while still being snug and comfortable to wear.  

Most other activewear brands in Asia are more mass-market in their branding, i.e., with either a huge focus on yoga/pilates or a more traditionally accepted/celebrated type of physique. I wanted to create something that is less packaged, for lifters to feel like they belong – in a welcoming community where grit and strength overpower the ideal for uncompromising beauty standards in our society.

During COVID, I finally decided to take a leap of faith to go through with it. I met up with a friend who told me that she just started her own business. So I decided that it was time. Let's just do it. Hence, LFG.

Q: How was the overall process of setting up and launching the brand?

Not going to lie; it was very stressful in the beginning. I think in merchandising there are also a lot of upfront costs that you have to put forward. So there's a lot of money going into it, which I have poured my own savings into.

It’s definitely hard to keep it afloat and moving forward, but the feedback from our community has been incredible.

Most of the groundwork that went into getting this set up was well out of my area of expertise in the beginning; I had to learn and fast. It was a lot of trial and error, as well as endless research to get things done and moving forward. As I don’t have a co-founder, it was very hands-on. Besides designing, sourcing, fitting and testing the products, I also had to learn about fulfillment practices, website design, get good with numbers, and especially good at creating content and social media marketing (which is always a work in progress).

Q: Do you feel sportswear nowadays does less for powerlifters or athletes in your field?

In Asia, I feel like there’s definitely a gap here, whereas brands in the US or Europe have more offerings designed for athletes.

The goal that I want to achieve with LFG is to not only make its wearer look good and move well (functional) but also feel incredibly good in terms of its fabric and proud to represent what the brand stands for.

Q: How do you prepare for a competition?

I have set time slots in my schedule for training (four times a week), and I try not to let my other responsibilities clash with the time that I’ve set aside for it. Nutrition-wise, about two months out, I will start to track my diet diligently – this I do with a food scale and MyFitnessPal. I love food, though, so this is always a challenge for me, but off-season, I don’t restrict my diet, so that makes it more tolerable!

Personally, I’m not a big drinker, so I’m fine with not drinking alcohol closer to competition. I also try to get my sleeping habits and stress levels dialed down so I can prioritize recovery.

Q: How difficult is it for a powerlifter to cut weight? How sustainable would it be for an everyday lifestyle?

There are a couple of factors that will influence the difficulty in cutting weight for a competition. It depends on how much weight there is to cut, how far away from the competition you are, where your experience level is and other physiological factors. Some lifters do a drastic or fast drop with measures like the sauna, water cut or even both.

I try to avoid that with a slower, more sustainable cut in order to preserve my strength. This I do with my coach by keeping a close eye on my macros, increasing my daily step count, etc.

I wouldn’t recommend this for an everyday lifestyle, as it is simply not sustainable in the long run. I bring a portable scale with me to weigh everything I eat while on prep, and while this is fine for a short period of time (one to two months), I think it is definitely too much commitment for an everyday person they don’t need to do so, or if there isn’t an end date in sight. It’s also not healthy mentally to not be able to eat intuitively or enjoy social nights out.

As a coach, though, for clients who do want to lose weight, I don’t think it is a bad idea to do a few weeks of tracking just to be aware of what is on your plate and how much or how little – (especially protein, which most people lack ) you are actually eating.

Q: “Train for performance, and aesthetics will come.” Could you elaborate on what you meant by that?

I believe very strongly in training for performance over aesthetic goals.

Clients have come to me before to help with their weight loss goals, and they mostly have a bad relationship with food or an unhealthy body image. And when a person starts their fitness journey with a certain look in mind, nothing ever seems enough, or they get frustrated when they don’t see results quickly. Another extreme is someone trying to get “toned,” but they are too anxious about lifting weights or gaining muscle (which is what getting ‘toned’ really is).

When you train with performance goals in mind (moving better, lifting heavier, etc.), the physique you want will automatically come with the effort you are putting in. This, I think, is more sustainable and healthier than the reverse in the long run.

Q: As a strength coach, what advice would you give to someone trying to start out?

Just start. Don’t overcomplicate how you start; you just need to start somewhere.

Get a coach to help you get started with the basics, and once you master them, you can continue by yourself. Also, don’t reach for the sky in the beginning; prioritize progressive overload and take it one step at a time to avoid early overtraining or training injuries.

Q: What is a cheat day or a day to relax look like for you?

On a beach somewhere, getting some rays! I don’t really have cheat days – when I’m not in comp prep, I eat pretty much whatever I want to, ideally in moderation. Even in comp prep, I try to adjust the quantity of the more indulgent foods, but I try not to completely cut out anything as it will be counterproductive for me.

If you're looking to give strength training a go, get in touch with Stella @coachedbystell. You can also follow Onside Sports Group for a pulse on more up-and-coming sports happenings at @get_onside.