In the past, when people talked about fitness sports in a country like India, they were referring to wrestling and akhadas (martial arts training centers). That’s so 90s! With thousands of strength-training centers sprouting up all over the country, India is now poised to become one of the world’s largest bodybuilding meccas.
Today, my fellow citizens in India have their eyes on a bigger prize. Where once it was every young athletic Indian’s dream to win a gold medal in wresting, today they look to the future and seek IFBB professional status, and Olympia victories across the divisions from bikini to super heavyweight. This is a marked shift in Indian culture, and it has taken place at lightning speed.
Visitors to this site have already caught a glimpse into India’s bustling fitness scene. In the Kris Gethin Muscle Building trainer, available through All Access, Bodybuilding.com followed Gethin through the streets of Mumbai, India, for 12 weeks of workouts and healthy eating, all with the goal of packing on major size.
The Rapid Rise of Fitness and Bodybuilding
Much like in the United States, the goal of early Indian bodybuilding proponents was to shed a friendlier light on the image of physique sport, which was viewed as a marginal activity. In the decades leading up to the 1990s, Indian strongmen were looked down on and regarded as goons. Scarcely two decades later, the Indian fitness industry has moved from run-down basement gyms to world-class resistance training facilities featuring high-end equipment, high-tech monitoring, and expert training in everything from Tabata to MMA and kickboxing. In the process, the Indian bodybuilding boom has mirrored, but lagged behind, the same boom that hit the United States in the 1960s and early 1970s.
It’s hard to remember a time before the Arnold era, back when few people in the United States knew much about bodybuilding. Once upon a time, bodybuilders such as Steve Reeves, Charles Atlas, and, much earlier, Eugene Sandow, gained themselves a following. But it took movie and TV evangelists such as Arnold Schwarzenegger and Lou Ferrigno to make people sit up and pay attention to this strange thing called bodybuilding.
The current interest in fitness and bodybuilding in India has been fueled, in part, by the increasing incidence of obesity, heart disease, and type 2 diabetes in what had once been a very healthy country—and by more people with more disposable income. In the recent past, spending money on fitness was considered a luxury. Now it is a way of life for many Indian people. This is true not just in the urban cities, but also in small towns and villages. Today’s health-conscious and fitness-aware generation wants to look and feel good—even if it takes a bite out of their budgets. Their motivation? People who keep themselves in good shape not only feel better but tend to be treated with more respect and regarded as more confident than their sedentary fellow citizens.
Drawn by this convergence of interest and income, established fitness chains including Fitness First, Gold’s Gym, and Anytime Fitness are quickly diversifying their product and service portfolios to tap into the burgeoning Indian market.
Bodybuilding Events and Federations in India
There was a time not long ago when it was the rare bodybuilding event that took place in the country. Last year, India hosted its first Olympia Amateur, and the number of events continue to grow—along with the number of bodybuilding federations to sponsor them. The Indian Body Builders Federation (known as the IBBF, not to be confused with the IFBB) is the largest of them all. With certification from the Indian Ministry of Fitness along with international recognition, the IBBF has, to date, organized more than 50 Mr. India bodybuilding contests around the country.
Fitness events such as Fitex India, Musclemania, and BodyPower India Expo are held every year in major Indian metropolitan areas, drawing thousands of paying customers. Aspiring Indian competitors, both male and female, use these events to hone their craft and, ideally, work their way up the ladder to someday earn a shot at one of the prestigious international competitions.
These smaller in-country events also enable supplement companies and fitness equipment manufacturers to meet face to face with customers and introduce their products to large crowds of the fitness newcomers who attend these events.
Not Competing For Money
As yet, Indian bodybuilding competitions don’t offer much in terms of remuneration. The biggest bodybuilding event in the country gives about $10,000 to the title winner, compared with the $675,000 total Mr. Olympia winner’s purse or the $250,000 bestowed upon the top Sandow competitor. If you look at Indian events in terms of reward money only, you might wonder why so many bodybuilders compete at all. Most of them, like their counterparts around the world, do it out of passion. They spend hours pouring out their hearts and souls in the gym, knowing full well that they may never be fully compensated. But just as in the United States, there are other ways for these advanced bodybuilders to bring home the chapatis.
Athletes who compete successfully at international events can secure lucrative sponsorships from supplement companies and fitness apparel and equipment makers. A rarified group of these athletes, including Arambam Boby and Sahil Khan, have gone on to build very successful careers in modeling and acting.
For the majority of bodybuilders, though, the key to success lies in personal training. With a population approaching 1.5 billion, India offers plenty of opportunities for enterprising bodybuilders to build lucrative client lists. Many trainers consult clients at their own gyms, while others focus on providing online training consultation, usually through social media platforms.
The Perception of Bodybuilding
Indian bodybuilding has come a long way in a short time. Interest among Indians in successful international athletes including Arnold Schwarzenegger, Ronnie Coleman, Jay Cutler, and Phil Heath has hastened the transition. At the same time, Bollywood movie stars like Thakur Anoop Singh now routinely flaunt their heart-slaying, shirtless physiques across thousands of movie screens across the country. And when young Indian men and women see their favorite movie stars flaunting their six-packs on-screen, many understandably want some rippling abs of their own.
Athletes like Murli Kumar, Sangram Chougule, and Suhas Khamkar have accelerated the popularity of bodybuilding by representing the country at highly regarded international events. At the same time, former and current Mr. Olympias have joined popular bodybuilders such as Kai Greene to compete and guest pose at Indian bodybuilding events.
Western bodybuilders still control the stage at most international bodybuilding events, but it’s not hard to imagine a day in the near future when competitors from countries such as India, China, and South Korea will become serious contenders, too. If we members of the India bodybuilding community have our way, Indian athletes will soon top the podium—on stages routinely erected in our country.