When he is not working out at the gym, M Saravanan is in his kitchen, boiling eggs and chicken for his next meal. The 27-year-old bodybuilder spends 12 hours at the gym when preparing for a championship, and on regular days, eight to six hours. He is the title winner of the South Asian Bodybuilding Championship that was held at Maldives last month. Saravanan, who is from Namakkal, shifted to Chennai in 2019 chasing a dream: a ripped physique, medals, fame, and eventually, a Government job. Many others like him from smaller cities across Tamil Nadu move to the city to pursue the sport that is among the most demanding of them all. What drives them?
“It is love for the sport in my case,” says Chennai-based M Arasu, team Indian Railways’ and team India’s coach. The 53-year-old, who won the Mr India title six times, has mentored many young men from the State, and continues to do so. “I got into bodybuilding since I grew up seeing my father work out every day,” he says, adding that it was this sport that secured a job at the Indian Railways for him.
Back in 1994, Arasu was the only player from Tamil Nadu to be selected to train at a camp for the Nationals in Punjab. “Those days, there were only three bodybuilders from Tamil Nadu who had won medals at the National level: G Ekambaram, J Nageswaran, and J Muniappan,” he says, adding that back home after the camp, he decided to train more bodybuilders such as himself and share what he learned from coaches. “Premchand was the National coach then,” he points out.
Saravanan is among the bodybuilders Arasu identified. He started training from his teen years. “I got into this sport just to achieve that toned body,” he says, adding that he was eventually drawn to its competitive side thanks to gym trainers who motivated him. Bodybuilding is an expensive sport to pursue: players spend ₹1000 a day on food alone. “But the State Government is now providing high-cash incentives for champions, which helps them a great deal,” says Arasu.
R Karthikeswar, who won the Mr Universe title in 2022 in the 90 kilograms category, received an incentive of ₹10 lakh last year from the Chief Minister, that took care of a major chunk of his financial issues. “I got myself a decent mobile phone for the first time,” says the 26-year-old who recently secured a job with the Income Tax Department through the sports quota. Until then, he barely made it through the month with the little he made as a gym trainer at Valasaravakkam.
Karthikeswar’s first coach was Arasu, and he got into bodybuilding due to the motivation of his trainers back home in Kumbakonam. “When I first came to Chennai, I stayed at a small room near the gym where I worked,” he recalls. With minimal resources at hand, Karthikeswar chalked out a strict workout regimen, that included late night sessions. It all paid off when he won the Mr Chennai title in 2017, followed by Mr Tamil Nadu in 2018. He won gold at the 13th Mr India Men’s Senior National Bodybuilding Championship in 2021 and at the 54th Asian Bodybuilding Championship in 2022.
A bodybuilder’s meals consist of boiled eggs, boiled chicken with a little salt and turmeric, fruits, and sometimes, brown rice. “I adjust the quantity of rice according to the weight category I train for,” explains Karthikeswar, adding that it ranges between 100 and 300 grams a day. Along with this, Saravanan has oats porridge three times a day. These men stay away from masalas and spices, and Saravanan says that his body got so used to this diet that he recently fell ill eating dosa and sambar after a long time.
As competition day approaches, bodybuilders cut down on their water intake. “Water content brings down the sheen in muscles, so I start reducing intake gradually a week before the big day,” says Saravanan: “After 6pm, the day before the event, I do not take even a sip.”
Karthikeswar does not make a big deal of these sacrifices. “These are just small alterations to our lifestyle that will help us achieve that perfect body, and eventually, medals,” he says. Contradictory to the common perception that bodybuilders are tough guys, they are actually “quite gentle and soft at heart”, points out Arasu. Saravanan, for instance, has a nook at home where he nurtures a collection of plants. “I sit there whenever I feel stressed,” he says: “I love to admire buds when they are just a day or two from blossoming.”
Arasu says that people often ask him why he leads such a calculated life. “They cannot understand why I measure every meal I take,” he says. “But I love my body, and see nothing wrong with this obsession over it. My body is something that will come with me till the very end, and I will take good care of it.”