On April 4, 2021, at the end of a rigorous national-level competition held under every safety guideline imaginable, Geeta Saini from Haryana stood victorious with her second national-level gold medal around her neck. She had won the title in 2019, too. The year between her two victories might have been marred by the COVID-19 pandemic, as it was for everyone around the world, but Saini is focused on the future.
Her goals are to make it through the selection trials to be held in July-August 2021, compete for the Asian-level competition later this year, win glory for her country, and put Indian female bodybuilders on the national and global map. “Nothing inspires change like a success story,” she says, “and the discipline and dedication bodybuilders bring to their sport prepares us to face any challenge life throws at us.” Her own life is a true testament to this fact.
Not just brawns and bulk, but brains, balance and beauty tooSaini believes that Indian bodybuilders aren’t getting the spotlight they deserve, and at the crux of this problem lie misconceptions. “Many assume that we just consume tonnes of protein and go to the gym to get bulky bodies. The lack of awareness about this sport makes people think it’s only about brawns and bulk,” she explains. “They don’t know how much brains this field requires.”
If you too held this misconception, then here’s what Saini wants you to know. “Every aspect of our lives, including our diets, is calculated on the basis of scientific parameters,” she says, insisting that professional bodybuilding is purely a science game. “We have to study the human anatomy, understand our own anatomy, and then tailor a training regimen that helps us achieve the body we want.”
Take Saini’s own regimen, for example: Approximately five to six hours each day are spent on a gym-based training schedule, which gets more intense around four months before the state and national competitions. Every muscle group is focused on during the week with the motive of achieving perfect symmetry and muscle definition. Her diet consists of boiled and measured meals with a 1:2 ratio of carbs and proteins. To make the diet more balanced, she also consumes healthy fats, vitamin and mineral supplements. This apart, the fact that a woman menstruates, and needs to go light on rigorous training when she does, is also taken into account. She also has a cheat meal once a month (only during the off season), during which she likes to eat home-cooked, vegetarian and indulgent dishes like shahi paneer, kheer, and parathas.
The life of a professional bodybuilder, Saini insists, is beyond the normal, utterly balanced, and requires commitment to consistency. “There’s a symmetry, proportion and aesthetic sense to the sculpted body we achieve after years of work. Symmetry is what we’re judged on. We can’t go into any excess or dearth. Tilt towards either extreme and you will lose the symmetry. Maintaining this tight balance requires plenty of brains. And that’s why not everyone who goes to the gym can become a professional bodybuilder.” So how did she, a girl from Gurugram who worked as a graphic designer in her past life, become a pro bodybuilder? She started her journey where many women do.
The journey of a girl who just wanted to lose weightIn 2009, Geeta weighed 110 kilos and started going to the gym with the sole purpose of losing weight. “I was only 23, but looked much older than my age, and this led to a lot of bullying. It used to pinch a lot when people called me ‘aunty’ or ‘behenji’ at that age,” she says, explaining that she also made the same mistakes many women do: go into starvation mode and strain the body with excessive exercise. Saini lost 45 kilos in a year, but accepts that her method was anything but right.
That’s when her elder brother, Sachin Saini, a hobby bodybuilder, stepped in. He asked her to focus on a balanced training regimen and soon introduced her to her guru, Yatinder Singh, a pro bodybuilder who won the silver medal at the 7th World Body Building and Physique Championship in 2015. Once she started strength training, she realised she’d made an instant connection with the dumbbells. “I started this as a fitness journey but this connection, and my growing passion for bodybuilding, helped me decide that this is what I want to do with my life, professionally,” she reminisces.
The bullies you meet and the sacrifices you makeSaini soon realised that bodybuilding is a truly transformative sport and brings a different set of challenges. As her muscles began to develop and her structure changed, Saini faced negative comments from many around her. “Bodybuilding is still taboo for most women,” she explains. “If a man dedicates his life to bodybuilding then people call him ‘strong’ and ‘fit’. If a woman does the same then the most common responses are: ‘what have you done with your body?’, ‘you look like a man’, and ‘women look better with soft bodies’.”
“When I started out, 80 to 90 per cent people demotivated me and did say these things,” she adds. Saini says that bodybuilding gave her the confidence to shut out all the negative voices. “Bodybuilding didn’t just make me physically strong, but mentally too. It helped me overcome self-doubts and become more resilient,” she says, adding that the sacrifices you make on the way are totally worth it. She may have had to give up her old lifestyle and friends, but she has no regrets about it.
Beyond the pandemic with optimismThe COVID-19 pandemic was not easy for anybody, and she explains the struggles she faced. Professional bodybuilding is an expensive sport that requires more work when championships are around the corner. “You have to clear the state levels, then the nationals, and that requires you to start your training at least four months ahead. In 2020, the entire momentum I built was broken when the IBBF nationals were cancelled. Maintaining our bodies in the ensuing months became even more difficult with the gyms closed. I lost 30 per cent muscle mass and had to work very hard to get back into shape,” she explains.
Even now, with second wave of COVID-19, Saini’s optimism and determination aren’t diminished at all. “I’m going to give the upcoming selection trials everything I’ve got, and it’s my dream to win an international medal for the country, see our flag posted at the top,” she says. “The other dream I have is to leave a legacy. As a woman, I know what my fellow athletes go through, what all they’ve had to overcome. If I can make it any better for the next generation of Indian female bodybuilders, I’ll have done my passion and dedication for this sport justice.”