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Sunday, Sept. 22, 2002

Veteran builder lives his art

Toshio Konuma, 43, is a Japanese bodybuilding legend. He started training at 17 and entered his first competition two years later. He won that, and he's been winning ever since. In 1985, he scaled the pinnacle of Japanese competition, capturing the Mr. Nihon title. Then he won it again in 1987, and held it for the next 13 years straight. Konuma (right), who works as a coach at the Nakano Health Club bodybuilding gym in Tokyo, talks about his experiences as a top bodybuilder -- what it took, what it takes -- and of some of the rough road he's covered along the way.

News photo
Toshio Konuma poses.

What got you hooked on bodybuilding?

Simply getting bigger, putting on muscle. It was something every boy wanted, and I had quite a complex about being small. I was the smallest kid in junior high and everyone called me a shrimp. I was weak, too, couldn't even run around the track in elementary school. When I started weight training after taking up boxing, I started packing on muscle and I was hooked.

What motivated you to keep competing all these years and to stay at such a high level?

I always strove to make my body better. Over the years, my ideals kept changing. At first I'd want this much and then I'd want more, and I kept moving up and up. I was never satisfied. Being No. 1 in Japan doesn't mean you have your ideal body.

It doesn't?

Of course not. There was always some part of me I thought wasn't quite good enough. Winning a competition isn't the goal. It doesn't mean you have the ideal body. If I'd been satisfied with winning Mr. Nihon, I'd probably have quit. But when I looked around at the world, I saw this enormous gap. So I kept working.

Many of the world's top builders use muscle-enhancing substances. Can you compare yourself to them?

You're aiming for the same thing. My aim was to do it naturally. You have to believe you can. If you say, "Oh, it's impossible to get muscle like that without drugs," you won't get too far. There are a lot of people who take drugs who never get anywhere. The champions are the elite among them. It's not a matter of getting big because you use steroids. (Laughs)

What do you think of people who get big using drugs?

Well, I personally don't think they have ideal bodies. A natural body has smoother lines. A body built with drugs has a much more stuck-together look, an inflated look. If you're natural you only get near that look if you're pumped up, but the ones on drugs look like that all the time. [But] what they're doing is the same, the same hard training and strict diet. Only the drugs are different. No one is taking it easy and getting big.

What about the drugs themselves?

Well, it's faster than without. If you're going to use drugs, you've got to really study [them]. Because the side effects are dangerous. You're risking your life. You have to know just how much is safe and how much isn't. You really have to know what you're doing. You've got to be smart or you won't be around too long.

Once you reached the top, was it just a matter of maintaining what you had?

Maintaining? Of course not. It's always a matter of getting bigger. If you thought you could win with the same body, you'd soon be surpassed by the others. Nowadays you have all sorts of people competing, near-professionals, people whose whole life is training. Earlier it was just a lot of weak people with complexes who were into bodybuilding. Gyms in the past were a very closed world. Now you have big fitness clubs and training gyms, places that are a lot less intimidating than a bodybuilding gym. It's a much bigger world now, and the level has risen dramatically.

Do you think you've had an advantage, having been in bodybuilding from early on?

It'd have been much easier to start now. There is all sorts of equipment now, and great advances have been made in nutrition and training. People now know how to exercise and rest. Years ago, there was a lot of overtraining. Everyone thought the more the better. When you dieted, you were told not to eat. Now people know you have to eat when you diet.

Did you make mistakes?


Why did you get injured?

Because I'd keep pushing myself and kept training through the pain. People today mostly have trainers who tell them to stop. I trained alone. There were no books then, only bits and pieces translated from American magazines.

Did bodybuilding change you in other ways?

As my body changed, my personality changed. I became more assertive. After years of being teased, I was introverted and quiet. But with training and the changes in my body, I became very open. Life became fun.

As a coach, when you see people who were like you were, do you want to help change them?

Oh, very much so. It's very satisfying to see them enjoying the results of their efforts. You see them becoming more aware of their bodies. When their level of awareness rises, they're more likely to stick with it.

What mental attributes are needed to get to the top?

You need the mental strength to stay with it. And you always have to look for improvement, however small, from workout to workout.

Do you have techniques to keep you going?

Setting goals. Competitions are good as goals, but I also set small goals, such as saying I'm going to bench X number of kilos. When I reach that, I set new ones.

Does knowing the small steps needed to reach a bigger goal come from experience?

Well, I wouldn't say it's experience; I never thought I'd have a body like this. I just thought about adding a little muscle. I'd add a little and think, "Oh, that's cool-looking." And then as I'd go along, I'd want to add more and more. Your thinking becomes bigger with your body.

What do you think of people who belittle bodybuilding?

People think muscle is just something you can put on, just like that. They think if you go to a gym you'll bulk up right away. They don't know what goes into it, the hard training, and that it only comes bit by bit. That's the reason a lot of beginners quit.

You recently lost to Koichi Aikawa in the Japan Weight-Category Championships, which means you lost the chance to compete in the Asian Games. Was that a big disappointment?

Of course. It was a huge disappointment. But, looking back, after analyzing the photos of the contest, I realized I'd been soft on myself. I hadn't practiced my posing and my color wasn't ideal. I should have been darker. I wasn't 100 percent. Perhaps somewhere I was thinking I could get by without being 100 percent and still get in and then peak for the big competition.

You'll be competing at the Mr. Nihon Masters competition on Oct. 13 for a chance at the Mr. Universe title. Did that disappointment spur you on to continue?

Yes, it became a motivation. Losing makes you reflect on a lot of things, on how easy you were on yourself and on the possibility that others have been easy on you, too. It makes you reassess things.

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