He was all over the internet recently, after winning two medals while representing India at the International Physique League in California. Raja Narendra is a person who believes commitment and discipline can get you to the top, no matter what obstacles one faces in life. We all might find it fancy to see a person winning titles in bodybuilding, but the journey that he took to get there wasn’t as glamorous as it seems. It took him over 15 years to get there. Being disciplined and keeping the body in perfect shape is not a child’s play. In a field where a lot of money is required to maintain the body, coming from a middle-class family, Raja stayed focused on his goals. He quotes that bodybuilding is an ‘art.’ Now, that’s an interesting perspective, as he says that to get a ‘naturally’ built body one needs to have a command on every muscle of his body. To learn more about the journey he embarked on, we at VoxSpace sat down with him for a small chit-chat, where he shared quite a few interesting aspects with us.
And if you are a fitness enthusiast, the journey of Raja will definitely appeal to you.
Hi Raja… Firstly, congratulations on the recent achievement of yours. Fitness is something that has gained a lot of prominence in recent times. We wanted to know the backstory to where all this began?
Hey, thanks alot! I hail from Eluru, West Godavari district in Andhra Pradesh. We are three brothers. My father, Akula Paduranga Rao was a person who had loads of interests in sports and fitness. All of his friends are sports enthusiasts. Unfortunately, he did not receive the support he needed.
So, my father decided to give the needed push in case I showed an interest in this field. Once I started showing interest, he guided me in the right direction and I went on to win over 15 titles. My brothers too have won various international and national titles across various events.
Usually, people in my field have their inspirational idols as Arnold or Sylvester Stallone, but believe me or not, Prabhas was my inspiration to take up bodybuilding. I was about 16 years old when his first movie ‘Eeshwar’ released. Seeing him in the movie inspired me to shape my body that way. That is how I developed an interest in bodybuilding and made it my profession.
When you mean to say the profession, how does this work? Do you get exclusive training from professionals or is there any institute that one can pursue this interest at?
Back in our hometown, there is no concept of professional training as such. I used to train for weightlifting under B Venkatramaiah, who was the then President of the Indian Weightlifting Federation (IWLF). It went on for 3 years and after cracking a few titles, by 2007-08, I left weightlifting and moved to bodybuilding, which was my area of interest. I trained by myself as there was not much on the internet to refer to back in those times. Men’s Health was one magazine that helped me maintain my diet and a few exercises.
In Eluru, there are many sports aspirants and we used to give most of them the needed training when it comes to fitness and weightlifting. We three brothers trained close to two thousand sportspersons around Eluru, Guntur, and surroundings.
What was the barrier in racing further?
Even after many achievements, there was an incident that actually shook me to the core. After winning a National title, I happened to meet a big shot who is updated about all the vacancies in the government sector. When I reached out to him to inquire and apply for it in the sports quota, the question he asked me literally shook me. He asked me ‘what was my caste?’. We’ve trained literally over 2,000 sports enthusiasts, but nowhere we asked which caste they belonged to. Once this person asked me, I knew where it would lead to and moved out from Eluru. I chose Hyderabad as my next stop.
So, how did Hyderabad treat you and what were the dreams for which you moved down to Hyderabad?
After cracking a decent number of State and National level titles, I felt it was time to up my game and compete on International arenas. I moved to the city in 2010 and initially started my career as a trainer in a gym with all the knowledge I gained about fitness and working out. For the next 3 years, I was just directionless, though the money was decent working as a trainer.
The only constant thing I was doing dedicatedly was working out and maintaining my physique. All this while, I went through a really bitter phase trying for jobs in different government sectors under the sports sector but in vain. Recently I visited a big minister and he demanded 15 Lakhs rupees. On one side, I am struggling to make a career and get a job, here these guys are demanding money like sweets.
Also, the bodybuilding structure and protocols are very bad. Most of the bodybuilders are using steroids to win titles and thereafter jobs. Many UG (Under Ground) based companies themselves supply these steroids to trainers and encourage such usage. But, the government is least bothered to keep any controls over the supply of these steroids.
You won’t believe but according to statistics, in a year at least 30 deaths occur only because of the intake of these illegal steroids. Natural bodybuilding is a very rare phenomenon in the present times. If you take a closer look at Bodybuilding competitions, everything conducted is only within a few communities in the country. No one is crossing these boundaries and competing on International platforms.
Just a doubt here, aren’t there any kind of doping tests done before taking part in such competitions?
Unfortunately, in ‘bodybuilding’ on a national front, there is nothing like ‘dope testing’. It is present only in weightlifting or Olympics events in our country. In bodybuilding, there is no regulating body that keeps a check on this. However, for the recent competition, International Physique competition that I took part, WADA (World Anit-Dope Agency) was present to take care of this.
Apart from body-building, is there any other field you are specialised in?
Yes, apart from body-building, I am also into physical training. Like I mentioned earlier, I have already trained over 2000 sportspersons and I also wish to start an academy (of course with the help of government) where sportspersons from all fields can get their required physical training. Each game has its own way to build the body’s stamina and I can confidently say that after all these years of fitness, I have a decent knowledge about the regime to train, build and maintain body for each sport.
So, have you approached any officials with this idea of yours?
So far, I haven’t. I am waiting to gain more titles and reach a recognizable position so that I earn everyone’s trust. Only after that, I can look forward to taking a big leap. Moreover, I have no hope for the government in supporting this field, where it failed to support many other sports. It feels embarrassed and sad to say, but even the rewards and incentives a sportsperson receives after winning international titles is based on caste.
When did you start training for the International Physique Competition and what was your daily regime like?
I started training for this International title since the last two-and-half years. But, the last 16 months it has been a very rigorous one. All I did throughout the day was work-outs after work-outs. I used to wake up by 5 in the morning, warm up and hit the gym from 8 AM – 12 PM. Have my breakfast after that, take some rest and hit the gym back by 3 PM.
Finish my dinner by 7 PM and sleep by 10 PM. Since I myself gained knowledge about every muscle in the body, I trained by myself without anyone’s assistance. The only help I took was when I competed in the weightlifting championships from my guru.
The calculations and amount of workouts he used to tell me back then helped in my later stages, only after that I started to understand my body completely. We shouldn’t be working out to our 100% capacity every day, it might take a toll on the body. The workout should be balanced out equally throughout the week.
Can you tell us why is it that we do not see many people taking up a career in Bodybuilding or Weightlifting?
Firstly, there is not much awareness. Also, unlike weightlifting, bodybuilding is not included in the Olympics, so automatically not many people would show any interest. Bodybuilding and weightlifting are two different fields, though both revolve around maintaining a good physique. The highest title one can achieve through bodybuilding is Mister Universe.
Every year there will be about 5-6 titles that will be rolled out, everyone who is confident about their physique being built naturally can work towards it. And coming back to the question you asked, why not many people are working towards this field is that gaining command over each and every muscle of yours is really a task. And unless you gain that confidence and command over your body, bodybuilding cannot be achieved. To me, bodybuilding is also an art form.
We’ve heard Bodybuilding is a costly affair. Is this true?
Yes, that’s true! Bodybuilding, weightlifting, powerlifting all of these depend highly on feeding the body. And any less feed to the body, it will not just reflect but also injure the body. If you need the best results, the diet should also be the best apart from the regular discipline and workouts.
It is said that once you build a proper body and then stop, the body is more prone to get damaged (if we don’t continue). How far is this true?
See, if you take the shortcuts (like steroids etc) to build your body and then stop, then yes, obviously it is going to have a huge impact health-wise on your body. Many people in the glam field take these steroids, it might be due to various commitments and lack of awareness. But, if you dedicatedly and religiously work out, then the body will respond very nicely.
And to be precise to the question you asked, if you stop working out all of sudden, the body will only lose its form. Only if you change your diet drastically, then it will take a toll. In fact, I did not work out in between for a year and a half because of my weak financial position. But, I managed with diet and basic exercises. My body remained lean. It is only if you change your diet drastically the body will be affected.
So, how did you sustain financially and maintain a balance with the resources?
I want to take this opportunity to thank Gayatri Gupta. She has been the person who supported me a lot in maintaining my diet and body. And when I was all prepared to go to the US for the International Physique Competition, I literally had just Rs 30,000 in my account. I still needed money to book flight tickets, visa, documentation, and accommodation. There were a few other people who helped me out to get past these hurdles respectively. An anonymous person came forward and booked my roundtrip flight tickets. He remains anonymous even till date and I couldn’t even get to meet him so far.
Gayatri’s friend, Srikanth helped me with Rs. 1 lac without any second thought as soon as we approached him for some help. This way I could manage some amount through crowdfunding and get past this entire trip. Even after reaching the US, all our friends were obliged enough to keep aside all their works and help me with priority. They literally gave the ultimate boost and energy that I needed in the end. I’m really fortunate to have such people around me. I thank each and everyone from the bottom of my heart.
After winning the title in California, TAGS (Telugu Association of Greater Sacramento) extended their support by giving me $800. Even the APTA (American Progressive Telugu Association) supported me with $300 after I won the title at International Physique League. However, going forward is definitely going to be challenging as there is a lot more to achieve and many hurdles to cross. We hope the same support pours in the future as well.
What’s the next plan of action?
For now, I’ve got an invitation to Olympia. Thankfully, for the medal that I cracked at California, there are sponsors. And I am also staying committed to crack every title that comes my way and makes a mark.
Is there any advice or tips you want to give the upcoming generation?
I’d just want to give a basic advice. Not that they should take me as their coach or inspiration, but just before you pick your coach, analyse and ensure for yourself that you get your basic right about bodybuilding. I know this is something tough to do, but just keep this one thing in mind – when you go on a particular day to work out, before your exit the gym, you should feel equally enthusiastic about getting back to the gym the next day as well. This will determine that your coach is the right one. If you feel that your body is aching and it becomes a burden for you to step into the gym the next day, then the trainer you are under is definitely a wrong one.