Lifting weights, quashing stereotypes: Meet 56-year-old women powerlifter Somasundari Manoharan

What’s more liberating than constantly rediscovering your strength, asks this powerlifter

Published: 26th December 2022 01:41 AM  |   Last Updated: 26th December 2022 01:41 AM   |  A+A-

Somasundari Manoharan

Express News Service

CHENNAI: It was just another day at the gym for 56-year-old Somasundari Manoharan. The deadlift she usually does was now announced as a competition for ‘Women Powerlifting’ by Strength System, Royapettah in October.

Draped in a sari, Somasundari stood under the barbell. Holding the weight for a second at the top, she returned it to the floor and won the first prize. The reverberation of applause and cheers reiterated her rare achievement of acing the deadlift in a sari at that age, which is a rarity. Two months since, she has been breaking the stereotypes and inspiring more women, despite their age, to join gyms. 

Joining the gym

Somasundari started working out six years ago when her son, Karthikeyan Manoharan, owner of Madras Barbell, had instructed her to do simple exercises to get relief from her back pain. “Gym patthi enakku onnume theriyathu (I didn’t know anything about the gym). I had severe back pain and the doctor had suggested getting an operation. After doing the exercises, I got rid of my pain completely and I mustered up the courage to go to my son’s gym. Gradually, it became a habit,” shares Somasundari enthusiastically. 

Like anybody else, she also had a slow start. Success in doing small movements like climbing stairs without panting motivated her to explore bench press, squat, deadlifts, exercises with dumbbells, push-up and pull-down workouts, and planks. Seeing Somasundari’s determination to stay fit, her daughter-in-law Manimozhi also joined the gym and started working out. Then it became a favourite sight for the gym members to see the mother-in-law-daughter-in-law duo working out as a team. 

“I only started visiting the gym after I got married, one and a half years ago. Before that, I didn’t do anything, not even simple exercises at home. Apart from my mother-in-law, Senthil who is a stroke survivor who comes to our gym has also motivated me. At the age of 20, he became hemiplegic and his left side didn’t function. He started doing workouts in our gym, at least for seven hours a day and his condition improved over time. Seeing all these, I thought to myself if they can do it, why not me. Now I am doing exercises regularly and we work out together as a family,” explains Manimozhi.

With their consistency and efforts, they have now become the family which spreads the message of staying fit. 

Comfort over rules

Since it was their gym, Somasundari didn’t feel any restrictions with respect to following a dress code, and neither did she hesitate to do workouts in a sari. But when she had to apply for competitions, she couldn’t qualify because of her strict adherence to gym wear.

After the success of the deadlift challenge, she has vocalised the importance of allowing people to wear their comfortable clothes while doing sports, workouts or any other activity. She says, “Costume oru thadai yirukkakoodathu (One’s costume should not be a restriction).

Most of the women in my age group wear a sari and they have been wearing it for a long time. They know how to manage these activities in a sari. A lot of people don’t go for walks because people insist on wearing particular shoes for them.

Thus, fitting into a particular costume can be a hurdle for most of them. If we are allowed to wear sari and work out then I think that most of the women will come forward.” To spread their message, Madras Barbell gym collaborated with Decathlon to conduct yet another powerlifting event. Karthikeyan concurs they have plans to conduct more events.  

For the fitness

The family also advertises messages on fitness and shares their videos of gym workouts for those who are enthusiastic about it through their Instagram page @madras_barbell.

From providing alternative movement exercises for the general workouts to introducing new equipment, Karthikeyan who has been training for more than 10 years, says, “Most people in the middle age, especially women, feel intimidated when they see movements which they have never seen before. With my mother’s video reaching lots of people on Instagram, a few of them are coming forward. We also make the gym a gender-neutral space with no restrictions. I advise everyone to try and explore fitness.” 

Apart from exercising, the family also follows a proper diet. About their dietary requirements, Manimozhi says, “WHO recommends one gm of protein per body weight. If you have 50 kg of body weight then take 50 gm. If you are a gym-going person, then take two gram per body weight.  We don’t take protein powder, instead, our sources of protein include meat, eggs, pulses and soya.” 

Sharing her goals to achieve in the coming days, Somasundari concludes, “Exercising regularly is the key to staying fit. I want to continue working out by maintaining discipline in my approach. Currently, I deadlift up to 100 kg. I want to increase that to 120 kg and try new workouts.”

India Matters


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