Armenia, an Asian nation of just roughly 3 million people, is known for many things. They have the oldest winery in the world and was the first nation to adopt Christianity. The capital city of Yerevan, one of the oldest inhabited cities in the world, is older even than Rome by 29 years. Many celebrities boast of Armenian heritage, such as tennis great Andre Agassi, singer Cher and even the famously infamous Kardashians.
But the one thing the country seems to produce a lot of is weightlifters. And the small Armenian city of Gyumri (pop. 150,000) has birthed arguably the greatest weightlifter the world has seen – Yurik Vardanyan.
The Scrawny Kid Who Could
Born in 1956 during the early years of the Cold War, Vardanyan had his work cut out for him. By the time he was born, his country had already been participating in weightlifting championships for over 25 years. Weightlifting itself has been around for centuries, being one of the oldest sports disciplines in the world. It was around even before the modern dumbbells, squat cages, weight belts, massage guns or weight machines were ever invented.
Vardanyan started training at the age of 14, under the tutelage of his uncle Sergey, who was a top lifter himself. Weightlifting, in the local Armenian language, literally translates to “heavy athletics.” But Vardanyan was a whole lot shy of “heavy.”
Weighing just 130 pounds (<59kg), he had very few muscles. What he had though, was agility. He had a quickness that helped him grasp the complexity of techniques needed for snatch and clean & jerk with little difficulty. Perhaps it was a lucky draw from birth, but Vardanyan made full use of his gifts of speed and flexibility and made astounding progress.
After 6 years of intense training, he participated in the Junior World Championships in the -75kg class. He won. The following year, he won the championship again, and also set world records in his weight class for snatch, clean and jerk and total.
In 1977, the 5-foot 7-inch weighed 160 pounds (72.5kg). His competitive debut as a senior was at the USSR National Championship. His lean build looked more fitting with the gymnasts than the weightlifters. He was entered in the 165-pound (75kg) class.
He snagged the gold and set another world record.
The 21-year-old skinny kid from the middle of nowhere had won his first senior championship medal and jump started his journey towards weightlifting world domination.
The USSR National Championship was just the beginning of Yurik Vardanyan’s long and bemedaled career in competitive weightlifting. Between 1977 to 1985, he would go on to win 24 medals in international competitions, of which all but 3 were golds.
To understand how big of a deal that is, we must consider that Russia has a weightlifting talent pool so deep that it’s harder to win a USSR national championship than to podium in the Olympics or World Championship. Between the 1960’s to the 1990’s, USSR and Russia racked up over 230 weightlifting titles, making them the winningest country in the sport.
Vardanyan’s heyday was also the time of Blagoy Blagoev and Asen Zlatev. Those two won over 30 medals between them and were widely regarded as Vardanyan’s staunchest rivals. But they were not enough to deter Yurik’s march to greatness.
After his National Championship success in 1977, Vardanyan also medaled in the Friendship Cup held in Lithuania the same year.
With his body filling in and muscling up, he moved from middleweight to light-heavyweight, a difference of 7.5kgs. The wins kept coming. He bagged both the World and European Championships in 1978. He repeated his top finish in the Worlds the next year. By the end of 1979, Vardanyan had set fifteen new world records in his class.
The records may be impressive. But Vardanyan was just starting.
He next set his eyes on the Olympics. Happening in Moscow in 1980, Vardanyan has set a goal for himself – he would post a combined snatch and clean and jerk total of 400kg. The press thought his claim was near impossible. After all, the recently concluded World Championship saw Vardanyan totaling only 370kg. The 400kg total was a good 30kg away and seemed like a pipe dream. Even the current world record at the time of 390kg (which coincidentally was also held by Vardanyan), was already an astounding feat as it was.
Years later, Vardanyan would tell his son how many didn’t believe him, how they all laughed and thought him ridiculous.
The ‘Impossible’ 400
Naysayers didn’t deter Vardanyan, however. Going back to training, he wrote on his belt what became his mantra:
The goal was 400kg. It was firm in his mind and he was determined to deliver.
The 1980 Moscow Olympics set the stage for the greatest accomplishment of Vardanyan’s career. He won the gold by beating his rival Blagoev with a 177.5 snatch. In the process, he also became the first Armenian weightlifter to ever win gold in an Olympic event.
Opening in the clean and jerk, he made 205. On his second try, he set a new world record with 215.5. He then pushed for his target by going for 222.5.
Vardanyan had made good on his pronouncement. Powered by an unending belief in his skills and fierce determination, he became the first person ever to make 400kg.
Two years after the Olympics, Vardanyan decided to go up a weight class, competing in the -90 class while weighing 3 kg below. The change didn’t matter. At the USSR Championship that year, he set another world record in snatch.
Later dropping back to his more comfortable -82.5 class, he continued the onslaught. New world records were again set in snatch. Both the European and World Championship medals were added to his growing arsenal of golds.
By the time Vardanyan was 27 years old, he was an Olympic medalist and World Champion 6 times over.
Pushing the Limits of Human Capability
Vardanyan and his peers certainly made weightlifting look easy, breaking and setting records left, right and center. And on the surface, weightlifting does appear like a straightforward sport. You grab the barbell. You lift it over your head. Sounds simple enough, no?
To be a world-class weightlifter, however, entails discipline and intense training that often start at a young age. It calls for investment not just in time but in an effective coach and sufficient training equipment.
Powerlifter Tom Hamilton is clear on the benefits of weightlifting but he also knows it requires strict technicality and a lot of practice. Strength and conditioning coach Alex Adams cautions that to safely do the lifts “requires very good mobility, flexibility and balance.” And while it is widely acknowledged that weightlifting practice helps in the improvement of knee and hip flexibility, experts also agree that fatigue reduces exercise quality and renders an athlete unable to work out at a given intensity.
To summarize, to excel in weightlifting, you need A LOT of practice. But doing so also puts you at risk of exercise fatigue.
How do you know you’re suffering from exercise fatigue? Muscle weakness is a good sign. You may notice you’re not lifting as much or as efficiently as you used to. You may also have any of the following symptoms:
· Localized pain
· Weakness in Grip
· Shortness of Breath
So, what can you do?
Adapt and Overcome
The road to championship gold is not impossible. Yurik Vardanyan’s success is proof of that. But pushing too hard, too often may have adverse effects instead of beneficial ones. How can you train in weightlifting more efficiently and avoid muscle fatigue?
1) Volume and Repetition
Even Yurik Vardanyan, as told by his son Norik, did not lift his maximum weight every session. Instead, he focused on building his foundation by doing five-rep maxes. This enabled him to get used to the intensity and slowly build his strength for greater weights. The same principle carried over to his son who eventually became a top-ranked lifter himself.
Stretching helps warm muscles up. Warm muscles are more flexible. Therefore experts recommend doing static stretches before the start of any rigorous exercise.
Of course, stretching “cold muscles” can sometimes feel uncomfortable. In that case, your best course of action before starting your routine may be using a tool like a foam roller or massage gun. It addresses the need to warm up muscles and helps you avoid exerting too much effort to stretch. Massage guns gently stretch muscles and promote flexibility, thus increasing movement range during workouts and limiting injury risk.
A massage after weight training meanwhile, helps you cool down. In the same way a massage gun helps in warming you up, this time it will help in easing the lactic acid build up in your muscles. It will assist in shortening recovery time and ease soreness.
There are many benefits to drinking enough water. And while the “drink 8 glasses a day” rule is still being debated by the science community, no one disputes that proper hydration helps exercise performance. Amanda Carlson, Athletes’ Performance Director of Performance Nutrition, posits that even as little as a 2% loss of your weight in body fluid can diminish athletic performance by up to 25%.
If you’re exercising, all-day fluid intake is a must. An hour or two before starting, drink up to 20 ounces (around 500ml) of water. Fifteen minutes before, drink another 8-10 ounces (approx. 230-300ml). And during the workout, it’s advisable to drink 8 ounces (230ml) every 15 minutes, more if you’re sweating heavily.
4) Eat right
A healthy diet will help improve recovery time. This is because proper nutrition promotes healthy muscle function. The International Society of Sports Nutrition (ISSN) suggests consuming 23-36 calories for every pound (0.45kg) of body weight each day.
Rest is severely underrated. Studies indicate that when it comes to working out, there’s such a thing as a “Goldilocks Zone.” While fatigue can signify progress, too much is still bad.
Pushing yourself too much, in fact, can negate the positive effects of exercise and put you at a higher risk for cardiovascular ailments, bone loss, inflammation and even death. So, take a day off. Leave at least one day of the week sorely for resting. Take a deep tissue massage to ease the muscle tightness. You can even use the same massage gun in your pre- and post-exercise routines and save yourself the time and trouble of going to a spa. You get the same effect and save money, too.
The Gold Standard is Within Reach – with Determination, Discipline and the Right Tools
Image: Sputnik Images
The weightlifting classes have been recalibrated and changed since Vardanyan’s time. But it doesn’t make his achievement any less remarkable. In fact, it only made the record more extraordinary.
If he were competing today, Vardanyan would be in the slightly heavier -85kg class while weighing less than 82kg. Yet his world record still stands at 4kg above the current record for that class.
Vardanyan was a perfectionist. He knew when to push and when to pull back. Most importantly, Yurik Vardanyan knew not to take things too seriously, that “even at the Olympics, life goes on.” He derived pleasure from the sport of weightlifting even as he took on the burden of being the one person to break boundaries others thought were impossible.
One spectator mused after watching Vardanyan compete, “How in the world could a man with such a slight build, working with only 180 lbs. of flesh, accomplish such a prodigious feat of strength?”
The answer lies not just in innate skills, but in constant practice, dogged determination and the right tools. And if such an unassuming man as Yurik Vardanyan can do so much with so little, what’s stopping you from doing the same?