Days after weightlifter Saikhom Mirabai Chanu won India its first Olympic medal at Tokyo 2020, a video of a girl, less than 10 years old, went viral on Twitter. It showed the girl standing in front of a television showing replays of Mirabai’s winning lift, mimicking the Olympic medal winner by lifting her own set of tiny weights after gleefully rubbing talcum powder between her palms for a better grip. She followed it up by waving to those around her as Mirabai collected her medal on the television behind. The tweet, posted by two-time Commonwealth Games gold medal winner Sathish Sivalingam, said that this is what it means to be inspired.
Maybe the little girl will go on to chase the same dream Mirabai did as early as when she was 12 years old. But for most of those reading this article, it is probably too late to think of winning an Olympic medal in weightlifting. But that doesn’t mean that what Mirabai pulled off in Tokyo cannot be incorporated into a fitness routine. Her two moves: the snatch, and the clean & jerk, are not just for those wanting to lift professionally. In fact, they are two moves that once you learn, can lead to dramatic improvement to your body. Of course, they are complex moves, but that isn’t a reason to not invest time in them.
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Mirabai’s lifts were in two parts: she won silver for a combined lift of 202kg, made up of an 87kg snatch and a 115kg clean & jerk (the latter is now an Olympic record in the 49kg category). While both these lifts will be part of a carefully conducted CrossFit class, they must only be attempted after you have crossed your beginner phase. “Initially, a trainer with a lifting background or experience in executing these will ask you to use a PVC pipe. I wouldn’t let someone even attempt this with a bar even if they are strong enough on their other lifts,” says Mayank Deo, who is a strength and conditioning coach based in Pune. Deo used to be a commercial diver and for that he needed to regularly pass fitness tests.
Deo warns gym-goers to be wary of trying the lifts because they are extremely complex moves. The snatch could technically be broken down to six phases to execute: just so that one can lift the bar as high as possible and get under it in a squat position with arms fully extended overhead with the weights. “It needs to be smooth and precise, but also needs incredible coordination to get right. The amount of force you must generate for a snatch is probably unmatched for any other move in any fitness routine because your hips, knees, and ankles are all in extension,” adds Deo.
The video below demonstrates an exercise progression before trying a snatch, but cannot be done in just a day, and it is highly advisable to have a trainer while doing the progression exercises as well.
The Clean & Jerk
Mirabai’s second lift, the clean & jerk, is another complex move that involves the clean: which is pulling the bar from a deadlift position into a racking position at the front of the body; and the jerk: which is essentially performing a push press from racking position into an overhead position. The most common variation here is the split jerk, where the athlete hops into a split squat while pushing the barbell overhead.
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“A lot of basics need to be mastered before these lifts, and you understand them only once you break them down. I had to master a full squat, an overhead press and a push press, and the deadlift over weeks of training before even attempting a clean & jerk,” says Rohit Behra, 32. He added these lifts to his workout after developing an obsession over form and how his body mechanics would react to a challenge which was different from conventional gym workouts like chest and triceps or back and biceps days. Behra adds other vital details, like changing the deadlift grip to overhand rather than alternate, and also calculating the distance between your feet if you are adding a split with the jerk.
Here’s European and World Championships weightlifting medallist Oleksiy Torokthiy taking you through a basic preparation for these lifts.
Why it’s a great move for you
Both the snatch and the clean & jerk are not just for athletes who need explosive power. As Behra says, “I have good looking arms and I rarely do a workout which works on just my biceps.” While increased coordination, strength, and posture are the clear takeaways, these lifts will also give you an aesthetic body. “Just doing these gave me a massive back,” says Mayank Deo when asked about the more vanity-based advantages from them.
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From the personal experience of doing these lifts in my CrossFit days, I could feel a clear difference in my speed, reflexes, and mind-muscle connection, which have all been carried over into other fitness routines, be it pilates or conventional gym days or playing sports. There could be a situation where one can get impatient learning these to eventually replace a back day for just complex barbell workouts, but it is important to know that progress is slow but rewarding.
“It’s safe to say nine out of ten people who go to the gym don’t know how to do a snatch. It is because of the amount of patience required to master it. That is a big deterrent even for trainers, from whom clients expect quick results. This is by no means a shortcut,” says Deo, who also practices martial arts.
One of the progression exercises is the dumbbell clean & jerk, before graduating to an Olympic size barbell.
“For me the explosive power generated by the body from a cold start is a huge advantage. Imagine lifting with force and technique and weights: it automatically means that after a point, generating speed without weights will see an increment. Which is why those who play other sports and care about their power output must certainly add these workouts to their routine,” says Behra, who is a software engineer. He also mentions something known in the fitness world as General Physical Preparedness (GPP), which is a measure of how well one is prepared for Specific Physical Preparedness (SPP). GPP is basically your body’s conditioning for specific physical tasks in the future.
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Behra was inspired to learn more about technique when he saw someone at his gym execute a perfect back squat. He then tried to “wing it by learning the technique on his own” and faced injury setbacks until one fine day he decided to get expert advice and learn how to lift in the right way. “The guidance is important,” he says. Once he started seeing the advantages of lifting, there was no turning back. Mirabai Chanu’s two lifts may be something we’ve seen over and over again at the Olympics, as well as the Asian, or the Commonwealth Games and one doesn’t need to be at that elite sporting level to be truly inspired. All one needs to do for that is to go the gym and try out something that is a proven method to getting fitter, faster, and stronger.
Pulasta Dhar is a football commentator and writer.