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Meet the men of steel

From left: Bodybuilders Vignesh, Senthil and Arun strike a pose Photo: R. Ravindran  

“The world’s weakest man is perhaps the bodybuilder who’s flexing his muscles on stage,” states P.R. Senthil Kumar. The slightest trigger could send him reeling to the ground. “Imagine, he’s been dieting for most of his life and hasn’t had a drop of water to drink for the last 48 hours.” In a skin-tight T-shirt that flaunts his muscles that he tends to like his baby, the 21-year-old shrugs, “But it’s worth it.” To the outsider, the world of bodybuilders seems forbidding. But to these men, the activity ceases to be a sport at one point. “It’s an addiction,” as Senthil puts it.

“Bodybuilding is the mother of all sports,” says M. Arasu, the secretary of the Tamil Nadu Amateur Bodybuilding Association. “It also is among the toughest, as it demands one to control the most difficult of senses — the sense of taste.” Men continue to be drawn to it, despite it all.

What is it that they find in bodybuilding? Why do they spend the most productive part of their lives obsessed over their body? “It’s all for a better life,” says S. Kumarananthan, eight-time winner of the Mr. India title in the 60-kg category, who is now the coach of the ICF’s team. “Most of these boys are from simple backgrounds. I’ve trained fishermen, construction workers… Doing well in the sport gives them a chance to get a Government job.”

The 46-year-old is from the village of Polambakkam in Kanchipuram. Kumarananthan’s father, who worked as a bus conductor in Chennai, brought him to the city during his school days. He happened to see bodybuilding competitions and enrolled casually; little did Kumarananthan know that he would grow to be a veteran in the field. Soon, he won medal after medal — he came fourth in Mr. Asia 2006 and stood eighth at the Mr. Universe championship in Cairo the same year. He got noticed by Government teams and landed a job at the ICF in 1994. A dream life, as a bodybuilder would call it. This is what most of them aspire for.

N. Arun looks up to Kumarananthan, his ‘master’. He too has his eye on a Government job. “I absolutely love what I’m doing,” says the 23-year-old. Arun is a big fan of Bruce Lee. What started as hero worship, now consumes his life. His father owns a small trinkets store in Kalpakkam and Arun initially managed his expenses with the Rs. 8,000 he made as an operator at the Atomic Power Station. “I spend a minimum of Rs. 20,000 a month on food and protein supplements,” he says.

His diet consists of chicken boiled with minimal salt, 30 egg whites a day, salt-less chapattis, plain rice and sprouts. “It’s absolutely tasteless,” smiles bodybuilder M. Vignesh. “I can’t even go out for dinner with friends. Even if I do, I carry my own food.”

Can’t they cheat, even a little bit? A spoonful of sambar or some harmless rasam wouldn’t hurt, would it? “No way! Masalas bloat the muscles,” says Senthil. “Even a slight change in the diet can affect the symmetry of the muscles. Maybe it’s a mind thing, but if I miss the day’s quota of chicken, I keep checking my reflection in the mirror to see if my body has lost its girth,” he says.

Arun adds that it’s been ages since he celebrated festivals, let alone his birthday. “Festivals are about having good food. What’s the point if we can’t eat anything?” he asks. Bodybuilders aged over 27 can afford to relax their diet when there are no competitions in the near future. “Off-season diets are for the seniors whose muscles are well-developed. Since our muscles are young, we live on a high-protein diet all through the year,” says Arun.

As competitions near, their diets becomes even more restricted. “Salt is cut off, entirely. And for two days before we hit the stage, we don’t drink water. This is so that our bodies look chiselled,” says Senthil. Stress-levels run extremely high at bodybuilding competitions. “We’re high-strung due to the lack of salt in our body. Our hands tremble since we hunger for food and our throats are parched,” he adds. And flexing the muscles on stage is not as easy as it looks. “It’s painful to hold the same pose till the judges arrive at the winner.”

Bodybuilders, however, are not the tough guys they seem to be. Says Arun, “We’re quite humorous. We’re always joking around when we meet fellow participants at championships.” But the situation changes drastically when the winner is announced. The first thing they do then is scramble for a drink of water.


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Printable version | Jun 19, 2021 5:45:05 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/metroplus/meet-the-men-of-steel-bodybuilders-in-chennai-share-insider-notes/article7784413.ece

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