American Powerlifter And World Record Holder Arthi Nithi On Her Transformational Health Journey, Injuries And Desire For More South Asian Representation In Fitness & Wellness

How did you think your childhood or your formative teenage years play a part in you developing a passion for strength training?

Growing up I struggled with my weight; I was ridiculed at times and always felt like I needed to be thinner. For most of my childhood into teenage years, I did Bharatanatyam and Bollywood dancing. I took a break in high school one year to focus on my studies and ended up gaining weight. After feeling frustrated with myself, I decided to change my lifestyle and started running. After a few months, I wanted to join a gym. I had no experience with weights but started exploring all the equipment. I used to go on to research different exercises and how to structure my workouts. From there I became addicted to working out and felt powerful when I lifted weights. 

How did you make the transition from strength training on a more casual level to specializing in powerlifting?  

I began going to the gym during the second half of my senior year of high school. I was so passionate about working out and wanted to find like-minded individuals as I began college at Georgia Tech. After doing some research, I discovered the Georgia Tech Barbell Club—a sports organization for fitness enthusiasts and lifters. When I joined the club there was a mentorship program I felt I could benefit from. By then I had slowly made my way to using free weights and the barbell. On the sign-up form for the program, there was a question that asked what strength sports I was interested in (powerlifting, Olympic weightlifting, bodybuilding, CrossFit, strongman/strongwomen). I had no experience with any of them but was squatting and deadlifting (baby weights) at the time so figured that was most closely aligned to powerlifting.  

After my first lifting session with my mentor, he saw my potential to become a powerlifter. Initially, I was hesitant but after seeing my own strength, I was driven to go further. Mentally and physically I saw changes, and I was drawn into the sport chasing PRs and hitting heavy lifts. I think I always was competitive growing up but was never encouraged to take my hobbies seriously. So when I discovered something I was really good at and was surrounded by people who encouraged me to explore my talents, it set a fire inside of me. 

What kind of major injuries did you have along your journey of powerlifting?  Have any of those injuries made you consider stopping powerlifting?

I’ve unfortunately had a handful of injuries. I don’t state this to scare people away from lifting. Part of it is when you are doing anything at this level of intensity you are bound to get hurt. The other part is that when I personally got into powerlifting there wasn’t a huge emphasis to train your core and glutes enough. There were many people, including me, who experienced back injuries because of this. Even though these injuries caused low points during my journey they were definitely eye openers to adjust my training and be more cognizant of how my body feels rather than pushing myself through uncomfortable workouts. 

Most recently I had a torn hip labrum. This was due to an irregular shape on my femur head and lifting expedited the tear. These don’t heal and one solution is to get surgery. Out of all my injuries, this was definitely the most exhaustive. Initially I went through an identity loss because I had no idea if I could continue lifting. I second guessed myself for getting into powerlifting in the first place. After months of putting it off, I had surgery in April last year to repair the tear and have recovered well. Luckily right after my surgery I connected with another lifter who had similar issues/surgeries. She was able to get me in the right mindset to recognize I couldn’t have prevented my tear and it didn’t mean I had to stop lifting. 

Since my recovery I began Olympic weightlifting. It’s been a little over a year since my surgery and my squats nowadays look like I never took a break. 

What is the World Record that you hold along with the American records that you hold?

In 2019, I broke the Junior (20-23) 63 kg squat world record with 165.5 kg/364 lbs. I’ve also held the 63 kg American records for Teen 3 (18-19) total (combination of all 3 lifts), Junior squat, Collegiate squat, and Collegiate total. 

How do you make money as a powerlifter?  Is there prize money and/or sponsorship money when you participate in competitions?

Elite-level lifters are able to make money through sponsorships or through winning prize money at competitions. Strength sports have definitely grown over the past few years for this to be more accessible to lifters but they’re still niche sports and very few people are able to make it their sole profession. 

What made you start “South Asian Strength”?

Going back 6 years to when I first started powerlifting at 18 – I was definitely the odd one out. Here I was an Indian woman picking up heavy weights. No one on social media I could look up to, no one in my gym who looked like me, and parents who had never even heard of powerlifting. It was a struggle to figure out how I fit into my community and the fitness world. South Asian communities tell us, especially women, not to have big muscles. We are told not to lift so heavy and are questioned why we spend so much time in the gym.

Now going back 3 years to the summer of 2019, I had just competed at an international powerlifting competition. Surprisingly there were 2 other South Asian women who competed in the same session (@vrindasubhash @karenjeet_bains). I have competed in 5 national-level competitions in the US and have never had that happen. It was an awesome feeling to know that there were 3 of us (and all women) representing the US and UK. Unfortunately, there weren’t many other South Asian lifters aside from us. I remember leaving having all these ideas of what if there was a community for us, and if that would help increase awareness and diversity in strength sports.

Fast forward to the present day. There are more South Asians in fitness and wellness. But there still is a lack of representation and knowledge that creates this cycle that keeps South Asians from lifting weights. If the few of us who do lift come together we can break that cycle.

Although it’s a small community right now, I know this is one step forward to educating and encouraging South Asians to pick up weights. For those that already lift, I know seeing others lift heavy and hit PRs will be invigorating. I hope this page will be inspirational and resourceful for us and future generations. 

What are some common mistakes you see people make around training?

Starting off too extreme. Fitness and wellness in general should be sustainable—part of your lifestyle. Participating in a strength sport will take more time and dedication, but for longevity as an athlete balance is key. I often see people say they’re going to workout every day, then other obligations pop up, and a few weeks later they completely stop working out. I recommend starting slow, building your routines, assessing how they align with your lifestyle and goals, and then making changes. 

What are a few tips you would give people to live a healthy life?

I know I’m in the space of strength sports and lifting, but I always encourage people to just find something they enjoy to be active. Lifting weights is not for everyone, although there are many health benefits so I still encourage doing it at least 1-2x a week. Outside of weights there’s so many ways to stay active and get exercise from team sports to outdoor activities. The more fun you make it the more likely you’ll stick with it.  

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