Visitors to Armando Yera’s two-story establishment, Mandy’s Gym, in central Havana, are greeted by a brightly coloured sign that says: "This will increase your opportunity to be a success." In the entryway, there are before-and-after photos of clients whose sagging bodies Yera has helped turn into chiselled statues.

A woman is supervised as she exercises at a gym in Havana on May 17, 2016....

A woman is supervised as she exercises at a gym in Havana on May 17, 2016. © AFP Photo / Adalberto Roque

The bodybuilding craze started to grow in Cuba after President Raul Castro launched tentative free-market reforms when he took over in 2008. Last year he re-established Cuba’s diplomatic relations with its old Cold War enemy, the United States - a bodybuilding haven.

"The trend of wanting to look good arrived here a little late, because they never let you see the reality of what working out in a gym is all about," said Yera. He started bodybuilding when he was 18 and retired from competitions in 2008, but still has bulging muscles at age 56.

For years, the regime was suspicious of bodybuilders like Yera. His sport was seen as narcissistic and steroid-fueled, he said.

Yera had 20 clients when he started his business 16 years ago. Now he has quadrupled that number. Most of his clients pay US$30 a month to be members - more than the average monthly salary on the island.

Ironically, he owes much of his success to state TV, which invited him to speak about health on one of its programs. He brought along a woman he helped to "transform" her body, plus his before-and-after pictures. After that, famous Cubans started showing up. "I train most of the TV show hosts. They feel pressure to be in shape," Yera said. And state TV has continued to invite him back to speak about health.

Despite its much-vaunted state health care system, Cuba is not immune to the international obesity epidemic: nearly 45 percent of its 11 million people are overweight or obese.

But gyms tend to draw mostly healthy young people looking to meet a set "standard" of beauty. "People are more worried about going to the gym for aesthetic reasons than for their health," said Dayron Delgado, a 30-year-old bodybuilder who works with Yera.