“Your windpipe is compressed, so you can’t breathe. Your nervous system practically stops functioning, so no signal reaches your brain. You start feeling dizzy. Then, there’s a complete blackout.”
This is Sathish Sivalingam, a 2014 and 2018 Commonwealth Games gold medallist, describing what a weightlifter’s body experiences while lifting iron that is twice or thrice their body weight.
In the last few days, India’s weightlifters have made it look easy. On Saturday (July 30), Mirabai Chanu, whose body weight is a mere 49 kg, lifted 113 kg in clean and jerk while demolishing the rest of the field en route to her gold medal. The next day, Jeremy Lalrinnunga, who weighs 66 kg, snatched 140kg — more than twice his body weight — to set a Commonwealth Games record. And later that evening, Achinta Sheuli, weighing 73 kg, hoisted weights over his head that were almost two-and-a-half times more to complete India’s gold medal hat-trick.
They did it with incredible nonchalance and grace, betraying what their bodies were actually going through.
“When someone like Mirabai, who is 49 kg, holds a barbell weighing 119 kg (her world record lift in clean and jerk) at her throat, how do you breathe? The entire body goes numb,” Sivalingam, a former national and CWG record holder, said. “It’s insanely tough.”
The reason lifters like Jeremy and Mirabai made it look so easy, Sivalingam says, is the “thousands of hours” they’ve logged behind the scenes to perfect their technique.
The three pulls — where precision of technique is everything
Jeremy, said Sivalingam, has a “95 per cent” perfect technique in the snatch segment of the sport — the first part of the competition where the barbell has to be lifted above the head in one smooth motion. “The rest of the 5 per cent is not his fault. During a competition, there are small things that aren’t perfect — like the position of your elbow, your head might push a little forward…these things always happen,” Sivalingam, who is a part of the national camp in Patiala, said.
Mirabai, he added, has a near-perfect clean-and-jerk, a two-part lift in which the barbell first has to be brought to the shoulders and then jerked overhead to arm’s length.
Sivalingam broke down a snatch lift into three key elements to explain why Jeremy’s technique is “almost flawless”, something that the commentators could not stop raving about.
With the “first pull”, the barbell has to be lifted from the floor up to roughly the mid-thigh height. At this point, the “second pull” is initiated, which is to elevate the barbell using legs and hips, from the mid-thigh position to a fully extended position. And lastly, the “third pull” or “receiving” phase, where the lifter requires “explosive speed” to go under the barbell.
“Often, the first pull is decisive. When you pull the barbell from the floor, it has to be at a 90-degree angle. If it’s more than that, say around 100, you’ll fall backward and if it’s less than that, 70 or 80, then you won’t be able to perform a full extension for the second pull, the rod will get locked and you’ll fall forward,” Sivalingam explained.
A trained eye, like the ones of chief coach Vijay Sharma and assistant coach Sandeep Kumar, he added, will simply look at the body position — “for example, the position of the spine or the glutes” — during the first pull and in microseconds, will be able to tell whether the lift will be successful.
Jeremy, he says, has mastered the first pull, largely because of his low centre of gravity. “His feet never come off the platform, not even for a split-second. So, he is able to maintain his position and his balance is almost always perfect.”
Shorter lifters have some advantage — but there are exceptions
At 5’7”, Jeremy is so far the tallest among the four gold medallists at the CWG, with others ranging between 5 feet and 5’6”. Mirabai, it must be underlined, is just 4’8”. Even those competing in heavier weight classes usually are shorter for their categories.
At a fundamental level, the argument is that shorter lifters have an advantage. If a lifter has long arms, the barbell has to travel that much farther from the floor until the point of full extension for a valid lift. Similarly, if the legs are long, squats become tougher.
“I am careful to generalise but during my years of competing at a national level, the one thing I have observed is that the lifters from the Northeast tend to do well because they have smaller limbs, relatively speaking,” Sivalingam said. “At an international level, the Chinese tend to dominate because of this reason.”
He underlined, however, that this is not a universal truth — and pointed to the exceptions. “In India, we have Gurpreet Singh who is 6’5”, weighs 145 or 150 kg, but lifts incredibly well. And at an international level, we have Lasha Talakhadze (of Georgia) who is almost 6’6” or 6’7”, weighs close to 200 kg, and is an Olympic champion.”
It comes down to technique, Sivalingam said, especially in clean and jerk, which he said are the tougher of the two segments because “you are lifting heavier weights, in multiple motions, which puts the body under a lot of stress”.
He cited the example of Mirabai, a world record holder in the 49 kg category clean and jerk. At the 2014 CWG, Mirabai lifted 95 kg in this part of the competition to finish second. In the eight years that have followed, she has added 24 kg to that weight by “improving her technique, and conditioning of several small tissues, which can take up to four years”.
You can’t beat gravity but you can trick it — so you don’t black out
At the same time, Mirabai also developed a strong physique and worked on her breathing skills to be able to deal with the amount of pressure her body comes under while lifting iron that’s more than two times her body weight.
Here, Sivalingam said, lifting and breathing techniques become crucial. Lifting heavy weights, he said, can shut down the nervous system and constrict the windpipe, making breathing difficult.
“So, the technique at that stage is, after you have carried the barbell from the floor to your shoulder, you let it rest for a couple of seconds. At that point, you are standing straight. So, you lift the barbell slightly, before executing the jerk, and in that fraction of a second when you lift the rod up, you consume a maximum amount of air so the body refreshes. You have to do all this in three or four seconds.”
The timing, he added, is critical. “When I am lifting 170 kg, each and every second matters. If I let it rest on my shoulder for one extra second, I feel like I am holding 250 kg. After two seconds, it feels like 250 kg and after three, I feel like I am holding 500 kg. Your calories are burning, face turns red and gravity is pulling you down,” he said.
But while you can’t beat gravity, Sivalingam added philosophically, you can indeed trick it.
“You are crumbling under the weight. So, instead of fighting back, you go down a bit by bending your knees. And then straighten them vigorously. When you do that, you capture the momentum and complete the lift,” he said.
“What makes Mirabai great and Jeremy the next big thing? It’s these little things — the ability to stick to their technique even when their nervous system stops and they are blacking out.”