Interview with Rupa Bhattacharya

This is another post from my other blog since I’m merging the two together — Rupa is still fucking awesome and totally kicking ass!


I chose to interview Rupa for my first interview on Lifterly because she has overcome more hurdles in her journey to becoming strong than almost any lifter I know of.

In general, I’m incredibly inspired by her, and I thought her story was one worth sharing.


Sport: Powerlifting

Weight Class: I’ve competed at 148, 165, and 181 (when 7 months pregnant and at 20 weeks postpartum). I’m currently trying to drop my baby weight and get back to the 148s.

Max Squat: 208#
Max Bench: 92#
Max Deadlift: 286#

When and how did you first get involved with lifting?
One morning when I was 22, I woke up and couldn’t walk. I was in excruciating pain all over, it kept getting worse, the pain kept spreading to different parts, and no one knew what was going on. By December of that year, about 10 months later, I’d been referred to my rheumatologist, who eventually diagnosed ankylosing spondylitis, an extremely painful form of autoimmune arthritis. At this point, I was mostly using a walker, and on very rare occasion a wheelchair. The boyfriend (now the husband) was lifting me out of bed and dressing me and tying my shoes every day, and I was taking huge doses of opiate-based pain medications.

My rheumatologist prescribed me Enbrel, which is an injected immunosuppressant, and as far as I’m concerned, a miracle. My first shot was 12/19/04; my first day of walking again was 12/20/04. Enbrel was close to brand new for AS at the time, and he suggested I build myself a safety net of strength in case it didn’t continue to be a miracle. Basically, he told me I should get stronger. So I did. (I had actually started lifting before I got sick. In 2002 we lived in Russia, and I had a job in the neighborhood in Moscow where all the embassies were. The boyfriend bought me a gym membership in that neighborhood, and because of location/cost, it was basically where all the diplomats’ bodyguards worked out. They thought it was HILARIOUS that I was there and basically made me their mascot — they let me pick the music, and taught me how to lift, and use kettlebells, and say terrible things about people’s mothers.)

So I was fortunate enough to know HOW to get stronger. I basically went on Starting Strength more or less immediately once I could walk again. But a very limited version, because when I started, I couldn’t make my left leg squat. (In the 10 months, there had been significant enough damage to my nerves that my muscle memory was basically at zero. I couldn’t really use my left leg — the quad fired but parts of the glute and hamstring didn’t, more or less — and my upper back/chest/shoulders were a mess. Other stuff too, but that’s sort of the bulk of it.)

So for the first 6ish months I looped a towel around like a leg curl machine and squatted like that. By the end of 2005 I could squat 3x5x45. By 2006 I squatted 3x5x100.

Rupa pulling sumo while 7 months pregnant!

The intervening years have been tricky. I was hit by a car in 2007, snapping my ankle and resetting my numbers, and became pregnant with my awesome son in May of 2011. Before I got pregnant, I had pretty much exhausted the limits of what I could do without fixing all of the remaining muscular/neurological issues from having been sick, so my recovery right now is both from the C-section I had in March 2012 as well as a complete overhaul of my muscle memory from the illness.

How did you transition from ‘random chick in the gym’ to competitive lifter?

One of the trainers at the commercial gym I was lifting at suggested I compete in paralympic, which was a great idea, but because paralympic is bench-only and my paralysis primarily affects my bench, I felt really out of place. Pretty much everyone else there could bench a house, and seeing the non-para squats and deadlifts I started realizing that I was actually a better squatter/deadlifter against the able-bodied than I was a paralympic bencher.

What was the biggest struggle you’ve faced while pushing toward becoming a better lifter?

Ha! See above.

What is your happiest/proudest lifting related moment?

At my first non-paralympic meet, I pulled 255, which had been a sticking point for a few years. It was a huge grind but I got it, and people’s reaction that day made me think I’d made the right choice by lifting in able-bodied.

How is lifting going for you now? What are your current challenges?

It’s going. I’m coming back from my pregnancy significantly more slowly than I’d anticipated but I’m coming back.

Do you do this primarily on your own or do you have a network of people who help you along the way?

I train with the morning crew at South Brooklyn Weightlifting Club: 2 Super heavyweight dudes, 1 very mellow programmer, me, and our awesome coach Paulie Steinman.

What does your normal programming look like? Does it change much as you approach a competition?

I was self-coached for so long that not thinking about my own programming is a luxury I am very grateful for. My programming is whatever my coach tells me to do.

What does your diet look like normally? Does it change as you approach a competition?

I eat paleo + cream in my coffee, basically, with PWO orange juice/whey/creatine. On the rare occasion I run the numbers I get something like 2500 cal/day, 200p/70c/165f. Been playing with a Leangains type model of late, which I’ve been enjoying.

Pre-comp, it depends what I want my weight class to be. I have done everything from absolutely nothing (when pregnant or nursing) to a monthlong meat-and-fat-only with a water-load at the end (when I needed to hit a total at a weight class).

What advice do you have for women who are just getting started in competitive lifting?
It’s a completely different world today than the one I started lifting in, in many ways for the better. There are more women and more raw lifting than ever before, and I have never felt less than thoroughly welcomed by the powerlifting community as a woman (and as a woman of color). Do it. You won’t regret it.

And for women who are just getting started in lifting — obviously, every woman is different, but I had a shockingly easy pregnancy, as pregnancies go (and it was still incredibly hard). Pregnancy is hard. Carrying around a munchkin all day is hard. Being strong helps with all these things. And frankly, my kid’s face when I throw him in the air is worth every single press I’ve ever done (and I hate pressing).


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