MY FITNESS JOURNEY
‘Pick up a fitness routine, if you haven’t done so already, and persevere without any expectation.’
I was born in 1987 in a quaint city of India—Guwahati, popularly known as “The Gateway to Northeast India.” From a very early age, I was fascinated with cricket, and would rarely miss any match of the Indian Cricket Team. I intended and dreamed of becoming a professional cricketer by the age of eighteen.
Chasing that dream became an obsession. I played cricket whenever I got time—after school on weekdays and the entire day on Sundays. At the age of ten, I joined a cricket club to train under the guidance of a coach. I would go to the club every day after school to practice. However, reality was quite the opposite. I didn’t fare well in any sports, including cricket. With a frail constitution, I couldn’t run fast and my bowling lacked in pace and precision. I used to be scared of facing a fast bowler in nets while batting. Any batsman with average skill could easily hit my deliveries. Even at school, where we played with tennis balls, I got demoted to Team B, whereas initially I used to play for Team A of my section. When I turned twelve, realization dawned upon me that I could never become a cricketer. Most of the boys in my school, who played good cricket, used to represent their clubs in Under-13 tournaments. I never played for my club in any tournament—not even as a substitute. Later, my family relocated and that put an end to my going to the cricket club. But I continued to enjoy cricket and kept playing with my neighbors, although my competence remained the same. Because of my fragile built, I was always overpowered by everyone. Such was my fate that my weakness even reflected during friendly physical altercations with my classmates.
I was an average student and didn’t possess any other skillset. My school used to emphasize a lot on learning music and dance. I started learning dance and participated in group dance during various school programs. But lo, I was terrible at that as well! I used to be at the back and often played the part of a filler.
My life became more entertaining when my family got the cable connection. It was around the year of 1999. I used to watch WWE, known as WWF at that time, twice a week. It became a part of my being. I used to breathe, eat, and sleep WWF. Even in school, I used to always talk about WWF. From 1999 to 2005, I remember watching almost every episode of WWE, RAW, and Smackdown. I started to fantasize myself as Stone Cold Steve Austin. Hollywood movies filled with action sequences were also my favorites—mostly because of my inability to understand what the actors were saying. I remember watching Rocky, Rambo, Blood Sports, and Double Team multiple times. Sylvester Stallone and Jean-Claude Van Damme became my idols. I decided to build a physique like them. I thought, this would compensate for my lack of skill in any field and boost my confidence. I planned—like I always used to do—to start exercising after my 10th board exam, and made up my mind to make my lack of confidence and my frailty a thing of the past.
I wanted to work out but didn’t know how to go about it. My cousin, who was only a year older to me, had been working out at the gym for some time and the changes were clearly visible. He appeared to be gigantic thanks to his broad shoulders and well-developed muscles. I looked like a pencil-thin, malnourished fellow in his presence. I sought his guidance to begin a workout program. My parents did not allow me to go to a gym. Instead, like most Indian parents, they wanted me to focus on my studies. All I could do was freehand exercises. Following my cousin’s suggestion, I started doing jumping jacks, high knees, push-ups, pull-ups, dips, and crunches; and frankly, given my parents’ priorities, that’s all I could manage to do. For two years straight, I did these exercises regularly for four days a week. Surprisingly, for the first time, those came naturally to me. I didn’t struggle the way I did in cricket. I started with five push-ups, which gradually increased to sets of five, sets of ten, sets of twenty, and by the end of a year, I was doing around 250 push-ups regularly in sets of thirty to forty. To gain strength, I started eating more. However, my pull-ups were disastrous. I couldn’t do a single pull-up. All I could do was to hang from a high raise slab for more than a minute with my chin above the slab. I used to enjoy the ritual of those twenty to thirty-five minutes. Somedays, I would go for a run early in the morning with two of my friends and often, we would run around six to eight kilometers. The only competition I had was with myself. I became stronger and developed some muscles, although I was the only one who could see that. I grew taller as well—precisely six-feet tall—and left behind most of my friends who had been taller than me a few years back. My shoulders became faintly broader and my body became slightly athletic.
In the meantime, I got through a reputed engineering college. I had little over a month for the college to start. As there was nothing else to do, I decided to join a gym. My parents also agreed; my prize for clearing the engineering entrance exam was a month’s gym membership. I joined “Red Indian Gym,” which was close to my home and required minimum membership fee. It had some basic equipment, mostly old, rusty, and worn out. The roof leaked during rain. There wasn’t any trainer or coach, just a few members who did whatever they wished or could. I would wake up early, pick up my friend, who would still be asleep, and rush to the gym on my father’s scooter. We didn’t follow any routine; we just did whatever we willed.
Post that, I started attending college, which was in a different city. I used to stay in a hostel with 100-odd boys and was allotted a newly constructed hostel with no seniors. I didn’t exercise for the first five months. During the second term, my friend and I started going to the college gym, which was cleaner and better equipped. Many seniors, with whom I gradually started interacting, exercised there too. Within a couple of months, I metamorphosed from freehand to gym workout. My exercise regime, which I followed during my entire tenure at college, included barbell chest press, lat pull-down, biceps curl, skull crushers, leg presses, pullover, chest fly, shoulder press, and rowing. At that time, I didn’t do squats or deadlifts as I was unaware of those exercises. Also, parties and unhealthy food went hand in hand.
When my hostel mates started forming a sports team, my name appeared on the list of probable sportsmen—not because of my skills but because of lack of options, as we had few students in the hostel. I became part of the cricket team, thereby playing more than 30 matches as a bowler and the Number 8 batsman. My bowling skills improved. I played a crucial role in winning a few matches. My batting skills, however, remained the same with hardly a double-digit score in any match. I remember hitting only one boundary in an entire year. The reason for this was not lack of strength but lack of skills.
Another instance of gratification came when I was chosen to be a part of the fashion show to represent my college in the annual fest. I didn’t do anything to get the opportunity; it just came my way. This time round, I wasn’t a filler and it was indeed a proud moment.
I joined an organization after completing engineering and I was back to my hometown. I immediately enrolled in a gym. It was a basic gym like the one in college. I kept doing the same things that I did. Basically, I followed the same routine for about five years. There wasn’t any improvement in my structure or strength and they remained the same for most part of those five years—neither increased nor decreased. Two years later, I joined a premier gym chain—the Talwalkars—and it was a significant upgradation in my gym journey. The equipment was of top quality, the gym was air-conditioned, and had a good number of trainers. It felt like a luxury lounge. Few months later, I decided to hire a personal trainer, and exercising under the guidance of a personal trainer was an enriching experience. My trainer focused more on compound exercises, something that I had been ignoring this whole time. I did a lot of deadlifts, weighted squats, and bench presses. Compound exercises are great for building full-body strength as they target and engage multiple muscle groups. Beginners should focus on mastering the compound movements, but with caution as these exercises can cause serious injury. Hence, having a trainer is crucial. I had been doing a few exercises incorrectly. I learned breathing technique: exhale while pressing the bar and inhale in the other motion. The sets per exercise and reps per set also increased. I used to sweat profusely during the workout sessions, but it felt amazing. I used to wait the entire day for the evening. Workout became fun and challenging. I trained under the supervision of the trainer for six months. During this time, I gained a lot of knowledge about workout and my fitness level enhanced. I kept following the routine as prescribed by my trainer on my own for a few months.
I changed city after three years into my job to a metro city. There I enrolled in Gold’s Gym; it was grander. A lot of members had already achieved advanced levels of fitness and the trainers looked like professional bodybuilders. After initially continuing with my old routine set, I thought of getting a trainer in the hope of gaining more insights. After consulting a few members and observing them train, I shortlisted a trainer. He was huge and used to compete professionally as a bodybuilder and demanded a hefty monthly fee. I started training under his guidance. It felt like shifting from the third to the fourth gear. Under his direction, I followed a periodization workout plan. Periodization is important to avoid plateau in a workout regime. For the first three months, I focused on gaining muscles. This required me to be on a calorie-surplus diet and eat adequate amount of proteins. Till then, I believed I could outwork a bad diet; I was wrong. Diet is the key. So, I started eating clean, and reduced junk and alcohol. I started making a mental map of the food I was consuming. Gaining weight was easy for me. I was around 90 kilograms and had to consume around 3,000 calories. As I ate more, I could lift more. There wasn’t any shortage of energy. I became bulkier and gained around four kilograms. The exercise focused on maximizing weights with reps ranging from six to eight and sets ranging from three to four. The key was to reach failure at the eighth rep; failure entailed not being able to perform even one more rep. This enhanced maximum muscle growth. Resting time between sets was not a constraint in this phase. I focused primarily on bigger muscle groups, such as back, legs, chest, and shoulders. Smaller groups, such as biceps, triceps, and calf, were not completely ignored. Then came the difficult phase—cutting fats and conserving muscles. In this phase, calorie intake, primarily carb, should be reduced gradually, and I was supposed to be on a calorie-deficit diet. It was challenging. Workout also changed as rep range and sets increased, and the focus was to keep the heart rate up while feeling the full contraction of the specific muscle group. Cardio, too, was introduced that had to be done after weight training. I was able to perform the exercises but couldn’t stay hungry. Nevertheless, I did what I could, and the outcome was satisfactory.
I worked out in Gold’s gym for two years and that phase was the golden period of my fitness expedition. I met a lot of amazing people who were equally passionate about fitness, and learned a lot about diet, timing of food, different workout plans, etc. These takeaways have helped me become efficient.
The tricks that I gained are:
- Keep changing the workout every few months; human body is very smart and adaptive.
- To derive the best results, one must continuously shock the body. Hence, progressive overloading is advised. Keep increasing weights whenever comfort kicks in, even if it is for two reps. Keep changing workout programs. German Volume Training is a good one to break plateau.
- Diet is the key element of fitness. One can never outwork a bad diet.
- Rest is important for recovery; else the strained muscles would not grow. That’s why it is not advisable to exercise the same body part twice in consecutive days.
All the points mentioned are applicable to any fitness-related activity.
I also enrolled myself in other forms of fitness routine, such as Yoga, Fitness Boxing, and CrossFit, in multiple fitness centers. All these activities have helped me break my own limitations.
Things that went well for me are:
- I started early. I was only fifteen, and even though I did twenty-five to thirty minutes of few basic exercises, the benefits were remarkable and helped me build a good foundation.
- I stuck to it and enjoyed it like any other sports. I followed the same routine, which is not advisable, for a very long time. It is better than doing nothing.
Things that I could have done better are:
- Focus on diet. For the first eight years, I did not focus on diet. I ate whatever I found tempting and used to consume alcohol regularly. This impaired the result that I was expecting.
- I stuck to the same routine for a long time. My fitness level reached a plateau and didn’t change.
But in hindsight, I am glad that I did what I did—the benefits have been extensive.
Previously, I was also susceptible to falling sick multiple times a year. Every season change would lead to fever, running nose, cold, etc. I also suffered from acid refluxes. My parents are diabetic and have high blood pressure levels. I was also showing similar signs when I was 25. I am much healthier now and don’t fall sick with change in season as often as I did. Also, I recover faster. I am also able to gradually control the temptation of food and alcohol; from drinking heavily thrice a week, these days I drink moderately once in two months. I am mindful of what I eat, and this has resulted in managing my weight. I once had cholesterol level close to 500 and my body fat percentage was more than thirty-five.
Lastly, fitness has enabled me to control my emotions. There was a time when my professional career was going downhill and I had to brave moments of humiliation. I was filled with rage and frustration, and didn’t want to share my problems even with close ones. All I could do was lift some iron in the gym. Those days, I would spend half an hour more in the gym and sweat till I dropped dead. It made me calm. Further, I got to interact with people who never bothered to enquire about my professional or personal life.
As a closing remark, I would suggest anyone reading this to pick up a fitness routine, if you haven’t done so already, and persevere without any expectation. Soon, it might be one of the most fun things you do.
Suraj lives with his wife Alankrita in New Delhi. He is a Chief Manager at Sterlite Power. Apart from fitness, Suraj is passionate about rock music. He listens to classic rock bands, such as Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple, AC DC, etc. He has also started learning guitar more seriously now, after failing in the first three attempts because of lack of practice. He is fond of travelling, too.
Suraj studied Electrical Engineering at National Institute of Technology Silchar and pursued MBA at the Indian School of Business Hyderabad.