Of grit, steel and sacrifice—a quick peek into the world of female competitive bodybuilding
Deepika Chowdhury’s tryst with sweat and iron wasn’t just metamorphic; it was cathartic. “I had a very disturbed childhood, was a weak child and grew up with an inferiority complex,” she says. Bodybuilding changed everything for her says the Pune-based Chowdhury, the country’s first figure athlete to hold an IFBB (International Federation of Body Building) pro card.
She began working out in 2014 because, “I was getting tired and stressed at work so people told me to join a gym,” says the 33-year-old, who also holds a day job as a molecular biologist. It was uncomfortable at first, she says, weaving between weights and machines, feeling like an absolute novice. Then the gym manager suggested that she complete a basic fitness trainer and sports nutrition course. So, she applied for one and got certified. “Once I started learning, the knowledge spurred me to do better,” says Chowdhury, who recently stood 7th at the Arnold Classic, the second-biggest bodybuilding championship in the world.
Toned and fabulous
Welcome to the world of female competitive bodybuilding. There are few women from India who are entering this testosterone-laden sport, but the ones who do seem to be gathering laurels.
“I think Indians are genetically very gifted in this sport: if we train well and our diet is good, we are usually in the top five when we compete internationally,” believes Bengaluru-based Sonali Swami, all of 42, and the mother of two young children. Swami, a group fitness class instructor, began training with weights at the age of 38. “I was sore all over, but I loved the experience,” she admits, adding that she soon decided to take it to the next level by participating in an international physique competition for women. She was a little nervous that first time, she remembers. Not only was she competing with much younger women, but she also had to wear a bikini and step on stage. However, she went on to win that contest and participate in several more, including the Asian Bodybuilding Championship last year, where she won a bronze.
For Yashmeen Chauhan Manak, who won the Miss India bodybuilding championship twice and a bronze at Miss Asia, it began with trying to lose weight, “through cardio and a strict diet”. But she lost all her curves in the process, she says, and began lifting weights to regain them. There was no looking back from there, says Manak, owner of Gurgaon’s Sculpt Gym. “I didn’t choose this sport, it chose me.”
What lies beneath
Spangled bikinis, six-pack abs and posing is all very well, but getting there is a hard journey marked by tremendous discipline, consistency, and let’s face it, sacrifice.
Ask fitness athlete, Karishma Sharma. “I wake up at 5.30 am, have my black coffee, pack all my meals for the day and head off to the gym near my office,” says the 36-year-old, who competes internationally in the Bikini category. She holds a corporate job, but still manages to train 5-6 times a week for at least 90 minutes, and eats extremely clean, toting around a mini-fridge filled with food to ensure that she sticks to her eating schedule.
Sixty-five per cent of her food is protein — chicken, eggs and fish, mostly — while the remaining consists of complex carbohydrates like brown rice and oats and good fats like nuts, peanut butter and olives. Also, socialising is often almost impossible, especially during competitions as, “one has got to really watch the macros and micros and salt intake at that time,” she says.
But she believes it is worth it. “Bodybuilding requires three things — dedication, consistency and passion. You cannot do this if you do not enjoy the process. I enjoy the process and now this is my lifestyle,” she says.
Making the cut
Typically, an athlete goes through two phases: a bulking phase and a cutting phase. “Bulking is a more relaxed phase,” explains Arunava Bhattacharyya, a certified sports nutrition expert and personal trainer. You still train hard and eat clean, but it is not as intense as your cutting phase, where you end up training several times a day, reducing carbohydrates drastically and increasing the amount of supplements and protein you ingest. “That is how you get that fine detailing where every single (muscle) fibre is defined,” he says, According to him, athletes stop consuming salt, carbohydrates and water, as they edge towards an event, to get that superbly toned look.
1. Bikini: You need to have curves at the right places, and are toned, but you remain slightly softer. Performed in stilettos.
2. Fitness: You get a short time to exhibit all your flexibility, endurance, strength etc.
3. Figure: You have some curves and muscle, but are not intensely defined. The “X” body shape is desired. Muscle separated, not striated. Performed in stilettos.
4. Physique: More hard-core. More shredded and muscular. Performed barefoot.
5. Bodybuilding: Hard core. Muscles and striations clearly defined, almost androgynous in shape.
Sounds formidable? It is, confirms award-winning sports nutritionist, Ryan Fernando. “Extremely competitive diets cannot be sustained long-term,” says Fernando, pointing out that this could impact your organs in the long run. Another more frightening aspect is the use of steroids and hormones. Since women do not have testosterone, they cannot bulk up as much as men do, and so are often forced to resort to harmful chemicals. “The vanity factor coupled with the desire to win are two very powerful heady cocktails and you want to push boundaries to achieve your goals,” he says, adding that he does not endorse steroid-driven bodybuilding.
And it isn’t just what they undergo physically. They struggle to get sponsorship or proper coaches, are mocked for being part of a sport that challenges the norms of femininity, and have to spend large amounts of money on nutrition and supplementation. “You are talking about lakhs here,” explains Bhattacharyya. Food, stay, travel, supplements — it all adds up, he says.
Chowdhury, who is trying to garner funds for her next show, agrees that it is not an easy path she treads. But she continues to do it, day after day: training, preparing her food, balancing her passion and profession. “The physical transformation is what people see, but there is so much more than that. I wake up with something I look forward to every day and I love it.