Want to be your fittest ever in 2023? The STRONG Nation® Master Trainer, Ai Lee Syarief, reveals the workout wisdom and motivation secrets you need to know.
Words: Mary Comber
Workout guru, karate athlete, surfer, yogi…Ai Lee Syarief is a fitness force of nature with the body to prove it. Passionate about movement, the super-fit presenter has helped thousands of women worldwide become their strongest ever, with the power-packed, martial arts-inspired workouts she creates for STRONG Nation®.
The ultimate exercise-to-music experience, STRONG Nation® is a high-intensity workout blending a potent mix of cardio, muscle conditioning and explosive plyometric moves, all synced to thrilling, original beats. Fast-paced and challenging, each session blasts calories and strengthens your entire body and mind. Oh, and it’s amazing fun too…
‘OK team, let’s do this!’ whoops Syarief, as she leads an action hero-themed STRONG Nation® session. ‘You’re a Samurai – grab a sword and go!’ To the urgent beat of a Mission Impossible-style soundtrack (complete with swooping-sword sound-effects), Ai Lee Syarief bounds, ninja-like, through a sequence of kick-ass combat moves.
‘I love to create themes to keep people motivated and having fun,’ she says. ‘Rather than do push-ups and squats, I think, “Hey, wouldn’t it be cool to be a super spy from a karate movie?”. People love it, they say, “I feel like a Samurai, so strong and empowered!”.’
Juggling a hectic, international work schedule and busy family life (she has two boys, aged 14 and 11), Ai Lee Syarief is an expert when it comes to fitness hacks and motivation tips. We caught up with the star to learn her secrets and discover just how she gets that body…
Related: How to find time to exercise
Ai Lee Syarief: my fitness journey
‘My fitness mantra is “just move!”. Movement is life, right? Everything needs to move – humans, the planet, rivers, water. We’re built to move, and if we don’t, we die. So do a little bit of movement every day, even if it’s just a walk. It doesn’t have to be complicated or expensive, just move your body!
‘I’ve always loved movement and sport, ever since I was a young girl growing up in Switzerland. I started with gymnastics and tennis, then found my passion in martial arts. My Dad’s a tai chi teacher and took my brothers and I to a karate class. It felt so empowering, I thought, “I’m going to be a karate champion!”. I got on the Swiss national team, competing in World and European championships. Then, in my early 20s, I moved to Malaysia to become a professional karate athlete.
‘I wanted to share my passion for fitness with others. After a few years competing, I started teaching martial arts and kickboxing workouts, then discovered Zumba®. I’ve always loved dance and exercise to music – it’s such a motivator! I became a Zumba® instructor and education specialist. Then Zumba® asked me to create a strength and conditioning programme incorporating martial arts moves, all put to music. I was so excited to combine my passions. I flew to Miami and we created STRONG Nation®.
Music, martial arts and motivation
‘Exercising to music is such a motivator. When we create a new STRONG Nation® routine, we send it to our music producers [including Timbaland], and they create a soundtrack, like scoring a movie. Every movement has a beat and every beat has a movement, so when you do a tough move, we put in music that pushes you. So rather than thinking, “oh no, I’ve got 20 more reps”, the music drives you and makes you want to do it!
‘Martial arts moves are a fantastic full-body workout, good for the mind and self-esteem. When you do STRONG Nation® classes, your body feels stronger and more balanced. It’s so good to see people realise they’re not only physically stronger but, mentally, they can do anything. They say, “now I can do a push-up or jump, I feel really empowered”. Sometimes my job’s hard work, but when people tell me how the workouts have changed their life, that is everything!
‘My favourite exercises are anything martial arts with punches and kicks. I also love challenges such as balances and mobility work. We often go into our comfort zone and only do exercises we’re good at but, as an ex-athlete who did the same moves over again, I’m aware of the risks of overuse. For a healthy body, movement needs to be well rounded – for instance, working your shoulders and wrists as well as legs. This creates strong ligaments and tissues to keep you healthy and mobile into old age.
The importance of routine
‘The secret to a fit, strong body is having a routine. We all lead busy lives so it’s essential to make time for yourself. I’m a big believer in scheduling. I look at my week and plan in workouts. If it’s not in the schedule, it’s too easy to say, “I can do it tomorrow”. It’s all about having a practice in place. Consistency is what makes you stronger.
‘I wake up early while everybody’s sleeping to do meditation and breathwork. Then I do my own workouts, focusing on mobility and working on my skills. When I’m teaching, it’s for others, so it’s important I exercise for me, too. I have a late breakfast – usually a green smoothie with kale, cucumber, avocado and spinach.
‘The rest of my day may be travelling, teaching, presenting or working on the STRONG Nation® programme. I take the kids to school and do stuff like homework or dinner. My schedule can be intense, so I aim to do three things for myself daily, whether it’s listening to a podcast, reading or journaling.
Ai Lee Syarief on diet and nutrition
‘Diet is everything. What you eat determines how you perform, so I try to give my body the best fuel. I’m plant-based and listen to my body’s needs, avoiding stimulants like coffee and energy supplements which make your blood-sugar levels rollercoaster. Instead, I’m a big believer in vegetables like beetroot which helps improve circulation.
‘If I’ve got a big workout shoot, I drink lots of vegetable juice, for energy. Most days, I’ll eat a big lunch with veggies, carbs (rice, quinoa, sweet potato) and protein – maybe a salad with tofu, chickpeas or lentils. I avoid carbs at dinner unless I have a shoot the next day and need energy to perform. I do love bread, pizza and chocolate, though – I’m from Switzerland and my mother’s Italian!
Rest, recovery and relaxation
‘I’ve learned to schedule daily “out” time. If I don’t, I get stressed and can’t function. I take a 30-minute walk in nature and breathe. To relax, I use a foam roller, massage gun and have a monthly massage. I dry body brush to detox, and take hot/cold showers for a boost. The day after a workout shoot, I do cold water therapy to speed muscle recovery. I love switching off with a movie but I prioritise sleep so my body recovers.
‘To reach your goals, you need to know your “why”. You might want to lose weight or look good but if you do a workout and diet you hate, it won’t be sustainable. You’ll push through for a few weeks, then give up. Ultimately, we all want to feel good, but people forget that. Find something that makes you feel good and you’ll stick to the plan. We may want to look good but, at the end of the day, it’s about how you feel. If you feel good, you look good!’
Ai Lee Syarief: my favourite exercises
Want a taste of martial-arts-inspired workout STRONG Nation®? Try Ai Lee Syarief’s top moves! ‘What I like about all these martial arts moves is that they encourage a focus on mind-body connection,’ she says. ‘Self-control and body balance are key. When you combine that with power, it leaves people with a great feeling of accomplishment.’
The Cross Punch
Syarief says: ‘The cross punch is one of the basics of the martial arts fighting elements movements. I incorporate it everyday in my workouts because I love the combination of speed, power, strength and explosiveness. The cross punch utilises the full body, and you need to engage your core with the rotation, so you take your bodyweight and build it into the punch. It’s a very empowering move.’
How to do it: Start in a staggered boxing stance, with the rear foot a half-step behind the front one. Pivot on the ball of the back foot as you punch forward with the rear hand, rotating your back knee, your hip and torso as you do so. Try to do this action in one smooth motion. Reverse the move to return to the start, then repeat.
Syarief says: ‘The push-up is one of the best bodyweight exercises for the upper body. It is easy to do anywhere and you don’t need any equipment. I also love push-ups and planks because of the full-body engagement, including the core.’
How to do it: Lie on the floor with your hands under your shoulders. Push up with your arms and legs so your body forms a straight line, with your weight supported by your hands and toes. Keeping your hips down, your back straight and your abs tight, lower your upper body towards the floor, keeping your body in a straight line. Use your arms to press back up when your chest is near to, or just touching the floor.
Syarief says: ‘The hook is similar to the cross punch. It incorporates full-body engagement and works the arms, shoulders and back. It also works the obliques through the rotational movement in the transverse plane. I love that this move makes me feel strong.’
How to do it: Start in a staggered boxing stance, with your rear foot a half-step behind the lead foot. Maintain a high guard with your hands to protect your face, then rotate left, firing out your right arm at chest height. Retract your right arm and repeat, then switch arms.
Syarief says: ‘The swivel kick is a favourite of mine because I love movements to flow. The swivel kick focuses on improved mobility, increased range of movement and better co-ordination. It builds lower and upper body connection with stability, mobility and flexibility, through the push motion to the floor.’
How to do it: Start in a high plank position. Turn your body to the left, bending your right knee and raising your right hand. Kick out the left leg as you move to the side. Return to high plank and then repeat on the right side. Continue alternating.
6 motivation secrets from Ai Lee Syarief
We always feel better after a workout, but it’s easy to forget it! Here are Ai Lee Syarief’s top tips for sticking to your new year goals.
Motivation doesn’t come knocking on your door, so once you’ve set your goal, put your workouts in your schedule like an appointment.
2. Join forces
Ask a friend to be your accountability partner or create a WhatsApp group so, when it’s time to work out, you can say, ‘I know it’s been a tough day but let’s do this!’.
3. Make a fitness jar
After you’ve exercised, write down how you feel on a piece of paper, fold it up and pop it in a jar. If you’re tempted to skip a workout, reach into the jar and read a note. It will push you to do that workout!
4. Find an activity that you love
Then, even when you’ve have a bad day, you’ll want to exercise.
5. Have a plan B
It could be your favourite 20-minute YouTube workout. That way, if you can’t make your usual workout, you can do your Plan B.
6. Take baby steps
Achieving a goal takes time but, these days, everyone wants immediate results, and when they don’t get a six-pack in a week, they get demotivated. Set realistic goals where you’ll see results – and be patient!
Sabrina Ferro is the UK Master Trainer for STRONG Nation® . You can train to become a STRONG Nation® instructor with her, or try one of her live or virtual classes. Find a class at strongnation.com