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Science, body or genes? How slight women like Harshada Sharad win medals in weightlifting

Weightlifting actually helps women build a toned physique as it is the most efficient way towards weight loss while retaining muscles.

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New Delhi: At 69 kilos or less herself, Karnam Malleswari became a trailblazer in 2000 when she lifted a total of 240 kilos to win the bronze at the Sydney Olympics.

Mirabai Chanu picked up silver in Tokyo in 2020 by lifting 202 kilos in the 49-kg category.

And this Monday, teenage sensation Harshada Sharad Garud became the first Indian to win a gold medal at the IWF Junior World Championships at Heraklion, Greece. She lifted a total of 153 kgs (70 kg snatch and 83 kg clean and jerk) in the 45-kg group.

The path to the medals podium for these women weightlifters have seen many hurdles – more so, since it ran through the male bastion – but it led to one firm fact: slight women can lift heavy weights.

How do they do it?

Lorra Garrick, a formal personal trainer certified through the American Council on Exercise, argues that short and petite women do not contraindicate lifting heavy weights as they can work up to accelerate resistance over time. She also believes that a woman does not need to “lose her small build” as heavy loads can transform her body composition. So, while her weight might remain the same, the ratio of her muscle to fat tissue will change.

It has, however, been said that all muscles look and function the same way physiologically — irrespective of whose body they happen to be in — and thus there is no reason for resistance training to be different for different body types or genders.

The science behind this is inspired by the basic laws of physics relating to the ‘centre of mass‘. The most rudimentary idea is that in order to lift a barbell, it must be positioned over its centre of balance, which is mostly in the middle of the object.

The next step is finding the center of gravity of the athlete that changes based on the physique and the positioning of the lifter’s body, but will still be somewhere in the middle.

Now, the combined centres of gravity of the barbell (CGB) and of the athlete (CGA) forms the center of gravity of the system (CGS) or the equilibrium point between the CGB and CGA. If a barbell is twice the athlete’s weight, then the CGS would be two-thirds of the distance between the CGA and the CGB, at a point closer to the heavier CGB. The athlete should be aware of their area of balance and where the barbell is within the area of balance as that can help them anchor, when lifting ridiculously heavy objects.

Popular fitness column ‘Leg Day Observer’ says height does not influence success in weightlifting. If lifting is moving weight up and down, the more distance involved, the harder it is – giving shorter lifters a natural advantage.

The column concludes that height or hip bone placement shouldn’t be taken too seriously because there can be any number of genetic factors or other circumstances that go into a lifter’s success. In the end, it’s the “technique” and “work ethic” that matter when it comes to powerlifting.

However, according to successful weightlifting coach Vijay Sharma, who has trained Mirabai Chanu for the Olympics, technique and nutritional intake are only secondary and the most important factors that determine one’s success in weightlifting are based on “genetics”.

“We have to check their natural strength, body flexibility, among other factors. You can’t judge based on one thing like body structure,” he told ThePrint.

Also read: Why does India have so few Olympic medals? We still value grades over skills

Weightlifting is actually good for women

Historically, workouts for women were focussed on using lighter weights at a higher repetition range. The overwhelming fear was women would get too masculine and bulky from heavy lifting.

Even after women’s strength sports became recognised in the 1970s and 80s, concern lingered around short and slight-framed women lifting heavy weights.

Contrary to this popular but unscientific belief, weightlifting can actually help women build a toned physique as it is the most efficient way towards weight loss while retaining muscles.

According to celebrity trainer Joey Thurman, women needn’t worry about becoming bulky because they simply don’t have enough testosterone, which is the main hormone responsible for muscle growth. Therefore, burning fat is significantly quicker than building muscles for women.

A study published in the Journal of Bone and Mineral Research has also shown that lifting weights can improve bone density in women and reduce risk of fractures and bone-related diseases. Other benefits include reducing bad cholesterol, improving posture, boosting mood and simply feeling much more confident about the physique.

Also read: Mirabai Chanu wins silver medal in weightlifting at Tokyo Olympics, a first in 21 years

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