Padma Shri Premchand Degra – India’s Arnold Schwarzenegger – IBB – Indian Bodybuilding

Padma Shri Premchand Degra – India’s Arnold Schwarzenegger – Ibb – Indian Bodybuilding
Date of Birth: December 1, 1955

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Success and respect are never served but they need to be earned. We all have problems and are burdened with responsibilities and expectations. Life at times treats us unfairly and sometimes our efforts do not pay off well. While this is true and inevitable, this cannot be taken as an excuse for not trying any more. The world is full of inspirational individuals who in spite of all the shortcomings have twisted their fate time and again to emerge victorious. One name that comes to the forefront when we talk about winners amidst adversity is of Mr. Premchand Degra. Any bodybuilding enthusiast would know who we are talking about. This is the man who singlehandedly changed the face of Indian Bodybuilding. His most memorable accomplishment is bagging the title of Mr. Universe in the year 1989 making him the third Indian ever to be able to achieve this prestige. Since the inception of Mr. Universe Competitions in 1949 by NABBA, only two other Indians have claimed this title and the last one came in the year 1952. After a long wait, finally in 1988, Premchand brought this glory back to the nation. Let us look into the life of this living legend.

The early life:

Premchand Degra was born in the year 1975 in the small village of Babri Nangal that lies in Gurdaspur in Punjab. Premchhand has 4 siblings (three brothers and one sister) and he is the second eldest among them. You might be picturing a blissful childhood amidst the farms in the glorious Punjab along with loving siblings however, this is not true. Premchand was only 5 years old when he lost his father. He had a very restricted childhood as his mother was solely taking care of 5 children with some support from her brother. This also affected Premchand’s school life as he joined it very late. He had no knowledge about sports and was only aware of wrestling, hockey and kabaddi that were common in those days and Premchand was exceptionally good at wrestling. It was this sport that laid the foundation of his bodybuilding career.

Start of Bodybuilding:

Premchand is probably the only one in this world who decided to take up professional bodybuilding after winning a title at a bodybuilding event. This is how it all happened.

Premchand did not know about sports nor his school promoted a sporty environment. However, when he was in the tenth class, his school had appointed a new coach who came from a wrestling background. He started training students on wrestling and one fine day, Premchand happened to see what they were doing. He immediately developed a liking for this sport and he also joined them.

After a couple of months, a district level wrestling competition was held where Premchand bagged the event title. This boosted his confidence and every one recognized his potential. Premchand had a good physique and hence, one of his teachers, Mr. Brahmbhatt Bhanot, used to encourage him to take up bodybuilding. However, neither Premchand nor the teacher knew much about bodybuilding and so he continued with wrestling.

In 1975 Premchand joined the Punjab Police and for the next 5 years i.e. till 1980 he continued to wrestle at different competitions. One day, the newspaper published an ad for the upcoming Mr. Punjab and Mr. North India competition and Mr. Bhanot, keen on making Premchand a bodybuilder, took him to see that event.

Premchand looked at the contenders and he felt that even he can do that. So, he also participated in the event in his weight category.  At that time, Premchand did not know anything about bodybuilding and about striking a pose. With a wrestler’s physique, he stepped onto the stage and started posing looking at the fellow contenders and this is how his first bodybuilding event was. The results came out later in the evening and Premchand was declared a winner in his category. Premchand was delighted and then he decided that he will quit wrestling. Thus, the end of his wrestling career marked the beginning of his bodybuilding legacy.

The bodybuilding star

Post the victory at Mr. Punjab and Mr. North India, Premchand participated in his first national event – Sr. National Bodybuilding Championship that was held in Darjeeling, only a month after the first event. Premchand still knew nothing about bodybuilding and he was relying on his wrestling training and physique. Thus, with absolutely no preparation or training, Premchand stepped onto the stage to face some of the country’s best bodybuilders. In spite of this, he not only participated with confidence but also managed to grab a Bronze at the event.

By now, Premchand was firm on the resolve that he wanted to make a name and flourish in this profession. However, he did not know anything about the sport nor he had anyone who could guide him. Premchand says that he tried to approach many people seeking advice and guidance, but no one actually came forward to even share a handful of information. So Premchand was struggling to learn about bodybuilding without knowing any bodybuilding institute, federation, coaches, training modules, diet etc. He mentioned that some people did not come forward to help him because they thought on seeking correct guidance; he would speed ahead in the field. Premchand says that in the initial years, he received guidance from an England based athlete, Mahinder Singh, who had come to Punjab to participate in the Mr. Punjab event. He was the person who handed over a detailed workout schedule to Premchand, which he religiously followed in the months to come. Prem worked out tirelessly and used to hit the gym thrice a day. It was because of such a dedicated approach that he chiseled his body so quickly.

Pillars in life:

Premchand, who today is an inspiration to a thousand of aspiring athlete, looked up to Manohar Aich for inspiration. Bodybuilding fans might know Manohar Aich as ‘Pocket Hercules’ or Mr. Universe 1952 at NABBA Mr. Universe Championships making him the second Indian ever to win this title. Prior to him, this title was bagged by Manotosh Roy in the year 1951. Manohar Aich had said in an interview that ‘he is proud of his mentoring years as it gave India an athlete like Premchand.’

Another source of inspiration for Premchand is the bodybuilding legend Arnold Schwarzenegger. He considered him as a real hero and probably always dreamed of having a physique like him. Looking at his performances at various international events, we can say that he fulfilled this dream quite flawlessly.

A sportsman cannot flourish and achieve if his personal life is not balanced well and for Prem, this balance was brought by his wife Nirmal Degra. She always stood by his side no matter what the situation was. She took care of his diet and motivated him to continue giving his best. Premchand mentioned in an interview that he loved to eat Indian ethnic food that was prepared by his wife as she knew his taste buds better than any chef. Premchand has two sons Harneel and Surneel. His family has been his backbone.

Another noteworthy mention would be of his close friend in bodybuilding Mr. Chander. Premchand has high respect for him. After his wife, Prem gives all the credit to this friend who supported him and helped him sail through difficult times.

Prem’s flawless presentation is a result of not only his handwork but also of the perseverance from these people.

Creating History:

Premchand’s journey of achievements began right from the day he stepped onto the stage. The first time he posed ever in his life; he stepped down with a gold medal and since then, his victory count went on increasing. It is hard to say about the number of events he has participated in during his era of competitive bodybuilding as Prem has competed at district, state, national and international levels throughout his career.

His most memorable victories have been the consecutive 9 winning titles at Mr. India between 1981 and 1989. His international fame boasts of 5 consecutive wins at Mr. Asia between 1983 and 1987. He immortalized his name in the world of bodybuilding by winning the title of Mr. Universe in the middle weight category in the year 1988.

Even though he is the third India overall to become Mr. Universe; he is the first Indian to be titled as Mr. Universe at the World Amateur Bodybuilding Championships (IFBB Mr. Universe) that was started in the year 1959. Till date, Premchand remains the only Indian to win a title at this event. India is still waiting for its next Mr. Universe.

Premchand (till then) was also the only Indian who had the honor of participating at Mr. Olympia.

In addition to these, Premchand has also won the title of Mr. Punjab and Mr. North India several times. Here is a quick snapshot of his achievements.

Event Year Location Achievement
Sr. National Bodybuilding Championship 1980 Darjeeling Mr. India Bronze
Jr. National Bodybuilding Championship 1981 Mr. India , Gold
Sr. National Bodybuilding Championship 1981 Madras Mr. India , Gold
Sr. National Bodybuilding Championship 1982 Kolkata Mr. India , Gold
Sr. National Bodybuilding Championship 1983 Mr. India , Gold
Mr. Asian Amateur Championship 1983 Karachi Mr. Asia, Gold

Best Poser

World Amateur Bodybuilding Championships 1983 Singapore No position
Sr. National Bodybuilding Championship 1984 Akola Mr. India , Gold
Mr. Asian Amateur Championship 1984 Korea Mr. Asia, Gold
World Amateur Bodybuilding Championships 1984 Las Vegas Mr. Universe, 14th Position
Sr. National Bodybuilding Championship 1985 Madras Mr. India , Gold
Mr. Asian Amateur Championship 1985 Colombo Mr. Asia, Gold
World Amateur Bodybuilding Championships 1985 Sweden Mr. Universe, 4th Position

Most improved bodybuilder

Sr. National Bodybuilding Championship 1986 Mr. India , Gold
Mr. Asian Amateur Championship 1986 Republic of China Mr. Asia, Gold
World Amateur Bodybuilding Championships 1986 Tokyo Mr. Universe, Silver
Sr. National Bodybuilding Championship 1987 Indore Mr. India , Gold
Mr. Asian Amateur Championship 1987 Malaysia Mr. Asia, Gold
World Amateur Bodybuilding Championships 1987 Spain Mr. Universe, 4th Position
Sr. National Bodybuilding Championship 1988 Ahmadabad Mr. India , Gold
Mr. Asian Amateur Championship 1988 Singapore Could not participate
World Amateur Bodybuilding Championships 1988 Australia Mr. Universe, Gold
Sr. National Bodybuilding Championship 1989 Madras Mr. India , Gold
Mr. Olympia 1989 16th Position
Pro-Am Classic of Mr. Asia 1990 Singapore Gold
Pro-Am Classic of Mr. Asia 1991 Singapore Gold
Niagara Falls Pro Invitational 1992 18th Position
Mr. Asian Amateur Championship 1996 New Delhi Mr. Asia, Gold

Best Poser

Most improved bodybuilder

In 1988, Premchand could not participate in Mr. Asia competition due to negligence or may be even racism. The Federation had revised the competition program however; the secretary of the Asian Federation did not inform Premchand about it. Premchand started on his journey like he was supposed to as per the earlier plan. However, the itinerary had been changed due to which he had to face a delay. He first went from Delhi to Mumbai and then to Madras from where he took a flight to Singapore. Due to this he wasted 25 to 28 hours and thus, was late for the event. Even though it was not his fault he was not allowed to participate that year. The Asian Federation also told him that even if he would have made it on time; they would have not allowed him to participate as he had strong chances of winning and may be they did not want him to win. Even though Premchand was let down, he did not give up. He came back to India and started practicing even harder than before for the next event, Mr. Universe and we all know what the outcome was. He bagged the title in the next year.

Premchand has also received the Arjuna Award in 1986 and the Padmashri award in 1990 for his remarkable tenure as a bodybuilder. He is the only bodybuilder to be bestowed by this highly esteemed civilian awards. In 2003, he received IFBB Achievement Medal for winning Mr. Universe in 1988.

Diet and Workout:

Premchand has always been a very hard working individual. Right from his initial days, he took working out very seriously and gave it all he got every time he stepped into the gym. Premchand had a clear goal in mind; he wanted to win not just for himself but also for his nation and hence, there was no room for excuses.

Premchand used to work out three times a day i.e. about 6 to 7 hours a day. He did not have access to great facilities where he could work out. Premchand says that he used to go to 3 to 4 gyms to fulfill his requirement for space and equipment. At some gym he used to find good equipment for his biceps while at the other gym he used to fine good facilities for his lower body. Due to this, working out, in addition to physical stress, caused a lot of mental stress as well. Premchand’s routine involved working out on one portion or muscle group a day. For example, one day he would work only on the lower body and the next day would be only the upper body. Then it would be the arms and forearms and the next day would be only weight training.

Strength has always been Premchand’s most impressive quality and it also reflects in his routine. His bench press weight was 170 kg and full squat was 250 kg. In spite of these impressive figures, he says that he could not say for sure whether this was the maximum weight he could do as this was his regular. He indeed is a man of superhuman spirits.

Talking about his diet plan, Premchand followed the simple concept of a balanced diet to fulfill his nutrition requirements. His morning started with 6 eggs and half a liter of milk and fresh juices. This was followed by a lunch that included half a kilo of mutton, chicken or fish and lots of green vegetables along with one or at the max two rotis. He gave a high preference to green vegetables. We are not too sure whether he relied on supplements. Judging from the fact that he barely had access to gyming facilities and no prominent coach by his side, we think it would be fair to say that supplements are definitely not what made this man, a legend.

When he won i.e. in 1988, his stats were as follows

Category Stats
Weight 80 kilograms
Height 5’6 feet
Chest 48 inches
Waist 31 inches
Arms 18.5 inches
Forearms 15 inches
Thighs 25.5 inches
Calves 17.5 inches

Hardships faced:

By now you should have a fair idea that success was not served to him in a plate. We told you about how he struggled to find some guidance to even start with bodybuilding. We also told you how the Asian Federation plotted against him so that he could not participate in the year 1988. We even revealed that he used to work out at several gyms to meet his requirements. Let us now tell now how difficult it can be to create history.

Premchand left with his manager for Brisbane, Australia where Mr. Universe 1989 was scheduled to take place. However, when they reached the airport they were greeted by terrible news. Air India had gone on a strike and therefore, their Air India flight to Australia was delayed by 20 hours. There were no other flights for Brisbane and so they had to wait. Premchand reached there a day late, i.e. on the 12th instead of the 11th. Premchand reached just a few minutes before the event.

However, there was another obstacle waiting ahead. He had to undergo the dope test before the event. The venue for the dope test was about a 100 km away from the hotel where they were staying. Going there for the test was definitely not feasible. He did not have so much time. Premchand presented his situation and thus, a message was passed on to the doping test team and they were requested to take his test at the hotel and they fortunately, agreed to this. A test was performed which he definitely cleared and he was given a clearance for participation and the rest is history.  52 countries participated that year and the one that emerged victorious was India.

Message to Indian athlete:

Premchand says that when he started, he knew nothing about the sport. He had no coach, no mentor, and no resources but what he had was his determination and will. He did not look at it as his participation; for him, it was his country’s participation and therefore giving up and losing was never an option.

Premchand says that the problem with Indian athlete is that they are not focused in the right direction. Over the years, it has been inculcated into our minds that we are not as good as European or American athlete. We can never be like them etc. However, this is not true. According to him, an Indian athlete is as capable as any other athlete on this planet, may be even better. All they need is the determination to win. An athlete should step onto the stage only if he is ready to give all he got and may be even more for his victory and for his nation.

Premchand, currently 60 years, still continues to inspire the youth with his legacy. He runs two world class gyms in Gurdaspur – Punjab by the name WORLD 88 GYM. These are not just gyms but health clubs that he runs along with his two sons. He guides the aspirers with all his experience and expertise. He attends various events and heartily blesses the young faces of Indian bodybuilding that still touch his feet in respect and honor.  Premchand is not just a great bodybuilder but also a great human being. Just like him, we all are waiting for that day when this nation will see its next Mr. Universe.

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