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Learn the secrets of strength training from weightlifters

How do weightlifters gain the strength and technique to lift twice their bodyweight? Lounge speaks to a lifter to find out

Mexico's Jorge Cardena competes in the men's 73 kg weightlifting event at the Central American and Caribbean Games.
Mexico's Jorge Cardena competes in the men's 73 kg weightlifting event at the Central American and Caribbean Games. (AP)

India’s first medal at the hugely successful Tokyo Olympics in 2021 came in weightlifting when Mirabai Chanu won silver in the 49kg category. She followed that up with a gold medal at the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham a year later. Lifting is a herculean feat of strength, so it’s interesting to try and find out how lifters train. After all, there is much that all fitness enthusiasts can learn from this, especially if their aim is to get progressively stronger. 

According to Raagini Rampal, an Australian of Indian origin, and a national level lifter, training to lift is a slow and gradual build-up process involving a lot of structured training, rehab and nutrition. In 2021, Rampal was stuck in Sydney during one of the covid-19 lockdowns, watching the Tokyo Olympics. That’s how she saw Chanu and others in action, and this inspired her to start lifting. Rampal says she was awestruck watching men and women lift more than twice their body weight, and she knew she had to try it. 

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“I ordered a barbell, weights and checked some videos from Olympic lifting influencers to start me off. I went to the park every single day and started doing Olympic lifting. One day, I was able to perform a 60kg snatch. So, I went back and checked the state (New South Wales) weightlifting records. It wasn’t much heavier than what I had just lifted. That was the day I decided to become serious about weightlifting and compete,” the 23-year-old says. 

As soon as gyms opened, she joined a local lifting gym run by experienced, competitive weightlifters. Rampal expected the coaches to be impressed with her lifts. Instead, they commended her immense strength but were brutally honest about her lifting technique. “I didn’t have any,” she says, recollecting the gist of that conversation. She had to unlearn everything and start from scratch. 

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The first step is to break down the movement into its parts and then learn each of them individually. So, Rampal’s training started with mastering individual moves such as back squats, front squats, jerk and snatch pulls, deadlifts, jerk and snatch dips, muscle clean, muscle snatch, push-press and the push jerk. “One has to work on the starting position, where to grip the bar, how close to the bar one stands, the right hinge at the hips, chest, and shoulder positioning, all these finer points. These are important because this sport requires every bit of power you possess and then some more. All these small details and tweaks help you generate the power required to move those heavy weights,” she says.   

A weightlifter’s training schedule is drawn up based on the competitions she wants to enter. The training is divided into technique, strength, pre-competition, competition, and off-season phases. At the end of each year, the training and competition calendars for the upcoming year are drawn up. During each phase, the exercises and movements remain largely the same, but the focus and volume of work changes. For example, during the technique phase, athletes work on honing the skills they have and fixing any small technical issues that they might have. It could be something as simple as the head position or something significant as a balance issue. 

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For about five months, typically December to April, Rampal focuses on strength. “You work on improving your strength on different blocks of movements such as deadlifts, squats, etc. The aim is to get stronger in each individual block, which all comes together to help you lift heavier at the end of it. During this phase, we typically train five to six days a week and do double sessions most days. I take Thursday and Sundays off with one very heavy session on Friday.” How much weight one lifts on each block depends on the athlete’s one rep max and their goal. For example, if you weigh 55kg and can push jerk 100kg, you need to back squat about 130kg, front squat 125kg, deadlift 180kg and perform clean pulls with 130-145kg. 

The competition phase lasts about a month, with a greater focus on performing heavier lifts. During the pre-competition phase, the focus shifts to volume where one tries to perform more lifts but not very heavy ones. However, a competitive weightlifter’s not-so-heavy lift is still heavier than your one rep max. Double sessions last between 60-90 minutes each and a standard session lasts about three hours, including warm-ups. Visiting a physio for deep tissue massages, dry needling and fixing any minor injuries or weaknesses once a week, is also part of the training programme. Off-season doesn’t mean a break from exercise but it is a lot more relaxed and fun than other phases. 

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A Weightlifter’s Weekly Workout (Off season)

Day 1:

Low Hang Snatch High Pull + Low Hang Snatch + Overhead Squat: 6x1

Low Hang Clean and Jerk: 4x2

Clean Pull: 4x4

Bench Superman Holds: 4x10-15 seconds

Pull-up Negatives: 4x5

Day 2:

Back Squat: 4x5 @ 70% of one rep max

Clean Grip Deadlift: 4x5 @ 70% of one rep max

Scap Push-ups: 4x10

Day 3:

Snatch Balance: 4x3

Power Snatch: 4x2

Snatch Grip Bentover Rows: 3x10

Light Banded Overhead Pulses with Stick: 4x10 

Day 4:

Low Block Snatch: 6x1

Low Block Jerk: 6x1

Split Jerk: 4x2

Day 5:

Front Squat: 4x3 @ 80% of one rep max

Clean Grip Deadlift: 4x5 @ 75% of one rep max

Scap Push-ups: 4x10

Day 6:

Sots Press: 4x3

Power Clean: 4x2

Snatch Grip Bentover Rows: 3x10

Light Banded Overhead Pulses with Stick: 4x10 

Day 7:

Snatch: 3 Waves

Clean and Jerk: 3 Waves

Back Squat: 4x4 @ 75% of one rep max

Snatch Pulls: 4x4 @ 110% of heaviest snatch

Shrenik Avlani is a writer and editor and the co-author of The Shivfit Way, a book on functional fitness.

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