Among the rows of gym equipment, Robert Fedele discovers why bodybuilders punish themselves for their moment in the spotlight.
IT’S early morning, ridiculously so. Most people are sleeping, but in his Taylors Lakes home, Jason Ciarniello is methodically separating egg whites from yolks.
Over time his mind has been programmed to control his body, which now functions like a machine.
Food is consumed but seldom savoured, eaten at repetitive intervals throughout the day.
In the afternoons he lifts and lifts until exhausted. Bedtime is 8.30pm on the dot, without fail.
Ciarniello is preparing for his first bodybuilding competition, the International Natural Bodybuilding Association’s Melbourne Natural Classic & Novice Rising Star, at Moonee Valley racecourse on May 6.
We meet at his local gym in Deer Park, aptly named Obsessed With Fitness.
There’s not a soul in sight, just deafening music that makes it feel like an empty disco.
The 26-year-old says what began as a hobby two years ago has morphed into an obsession, and he admits he feels physically ill if he misses a training session.
‘‘It just sort of crept up on me. It was kind of a surprise, just how quickly I took to it.
‘‘You go through stages where you just want to give up and you’re like, what’s the point, you’re taking it too seriously. But it’s just a little episode you go through and you’ve got to pull yourself through it.’’
Standing 175cm, Ciarniello is proud of his size and muscles but laments his comparatively modest calves.
In the coming weeks he promises to shed four kilos from his already rock-hard frame.
Posing, which he insists is harder than it looks and needs training in its own right, is a critical part of competition. He will also be judged on a one-minute floor routine performed to music.
‘‘If you asked me last week I would have been excited. But now I’m excited and nervous. The nerves are starting to get up there.’’
Ciarniello appears so enamoured of the sport that the sacrifices involved seem to bounce off him like a pinball when he’s questioned about the downside.
He has a girlfriend, but struggles to remember a night out on the town with his mates.
The painstaking diet can make you cranky, he concedes, as your body starts craving carbs and sugary foods.
Asked why he deliberately punishes his body, Ciarniello says he grew to love the intense nature of the sport, and more so, the pressure that now rests on his puffed-up shoulders.
‘‘What I like about the sport is it’s your own thing. You go on stage and it’s you and no one else. No one’s coaching you. No one’s telling you what to do. On the day you can make it or break it.’’
It’s an atmosphere which bodybuilder Andrea Coventry knows intimately, describing the stage as ‘‘your wedding day with muscles’’.
‘‘I love it. All these guys call me Barbie,’’ she says, referring to the ‘‘gym junkies’’ at her second home, Natural Muscle, in Ascot Vale.
‘‘I like the performance side of it. You work so hard. The gym is the fun part and then you get to the show and I just come alive. I love being on the stage. All the lights are on you.’’
Coventry, 41, is gearing up for the Sydney Natural Physique Titles at Darling Harbour in May.
She strikes a pose in front of mirrors, donning a sequined red bikini and 127mm heels, closely watched by gym owner and trainer Nick Selek, a former bodybuilding champion.
‘‘I trust him completely,’’ Coventry says. ‘‘On the down days he makes me laugh. On the tough days he pushes me harder. And I know that he’ll get me there. I just have to trust him.’’
Coventry grew up admiring bodybuilders and turned to the sport after joining the gym at 35, hopeful of shedding puppy fat after the birth of her two children.
‘‘I’ve always been interested and never did anything about it. And then when I had the kids I put on much more weight than I wanted to, blew out to 83 kilos, which was horrific for me.’’
Her introduction came in the form of a novice event in the National Amateur Body Builders Association.
She remembers it as an ‘‘awful experience’’ where she was paired off with the wrong sort of trainer.
‘‘I came second but there was only two in it. Second or last, whatever you want to call it.’’
Coventry has competed five times since but is cranking it up a notch this year.
She has left behind the emotional stress of a busted marriage that ended last year, directing all her energy into realising her dream.
Selek trains dozens of women and men each year and says he now gets more reward from seeing others sculpt their bodies.
He argues the sport is thriving, citing more competitions and entrants as more people realise what can be achieved naturally.
‘‘I will not train anyone that’s not natural. That’s the first thing I ask. If you’re taking something I won’t train you.
‘‘There are some cheats that come into the natural competitions but they’re always found out.’’
Footscray bodybuilder Mark Hogan agrees.
‘‘A lot of the guys that compete in the non-natural competitions, their bodies have reached a level that’s not natural and it doesn’t look nice. They’ve achieved a look that may win them the competition and it will stand out, but it’s almost of no relevance to the everyday person. It’s just mythical.’’
Hogan grew up in Coffs Harbour and has spent most of his working life in the army.
His father ran the Penrith Fitness Centre in western Sydney in the early ’80s and competed in bodybuilding.
‘‘There’s a bit of motivation and inspiration there,’’ he says.
‘‘My dad’s my best friend. He’s somebody I’ve always looked up to. He’s been a role model.’’
Hogan reckons he’s predisposed to some sort of physical activity and always had access to a gym on military bases.
Training soon became much more.
‘‘It was probably 2008 that I got back into serious lifting in terms of having a goal of actually seeing how far I could take it and develop my body.’’
In his first competition, last year, he took out the novice category and the overall title, and he described it as one of the best days of his life.
‘‘It was vindication of all the hard work that I’d done over the last 10 years.’’
Hogan will compete at the Melbourne Natural Physique Titles in May in the overall category under 180cm.
His diet includes lots of boiled eggs, tuna, chicken breast, and fish.
‘‘I eat breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince, and dinner like a pauper,’’ he chuckles.‘‘People think that you’ve got to be this massive
giant, this big guy, and you don’t. You can be 70 kilograms and have an amazing physique.’’
Articulate and unflappable, Hogan thrives on structure.
‘‘It’s funny now that we talk about it. I think it just defines who I am.
‘‘I’m not a big risk-taker. I don’t live on the edge. I don’t go out every Friday and Saturday night. My satisfaction is working towards a goal and achieving it.
‘‘I feel comfortable in an atmosphere where I have routine and structure. It’s been my career ... but it’s also been what I’ve done in my spare time.’’
Hogan plans to compete for a year or two more, then give it away in favour of travel, friendships, and family, things he’s missed out on.
Altona Meadows resident Nikki Smith is realising her dream in her early 40s, after years of self-doubt.
She began training three years ago, was instantly hooked, and has since won several competitions.
For her, it’s the off-season, but she plans to compete again later in the year.
‘‘Having two successful years a lot of people are watching to see what I’m gonna do this year.
‘‘I can’t wait. I look forward to every workout. The training regime tightens up. The diet tightens up. It becomes much more regimented.’’
Smith is muscular, but not huge.
‘‘I like the way I look all-year round. I definitely still feel feminine. There’s a big difference between a bodybuilder who doesn’t take drugs and one that does.
‘‘Generally if you say you’re a female bodybuilder people think great big horrible muscles ... and we’re not all like that.’’