Science behind art: How table tennis star G Sathiyan became a lean, mean, power machine

Sathiyan's understanding of human anatomy goes beyond the basic knowledge of muscle groups. He understands the science behind the art, and explains it with a clarity befitting his engineering credentials.

Shantanu Srivastava April 13, 2020 14:37:34 IST
Science behind art: How table tennis star G Sathiyan became a lean, mean, power machine

New Delhi: There is a perplexing peculiarity to athletes deconstructing their craft. Gifted souls breaking down the intricacies of their art with scientific precision, detailing the caprice of their muscle fibers with languid ease, taking you to the non-descript sweat-soaked sessions that make way for a singular moment of glory - talking to an athlete who is willing to talk is often an education. Last weekend, Gnanasekaran Sathiyan was our educator.

Sathiyan's understanding of human anatomy goes beyond the basic knowledge of muscle groups. Unlike many athletes, he understands the science behind the art, and explains it with a clarity befitting his engineering credentials.

Science behind art How table tennis star G Sathiyan became a lean mean power machine

Lower body strength is a key to success in table tennis and Sathiyan is working hard to achieve that. File image.

With the country under lockdown due to coronavirus outbreak, India's top-ranked table tennis star is forced to train indoors. That has done little to throw him off his fitness goals though. The morning alarm still goes off at Sathiyan's bedside at six, and the 27-year-old begins his day with a 90-minute session of sapping bodyweight exercises.

Ramji Srinivasan, the Chennai-based fitness expert responsible for turning Sathiyan into a lean power machine, has dispatched a highly-specialised home workout schedule for the youngster, and he is all too happy to undergo the punishment.

"I rely on push-ups for my upper body strength and stability. I also do Ironman, crunches, squats, step running, spot jumps, burpees, and other bodyweight exercises. I use resistance bands and stability balls too, and I think you can do a lot of things without any weights or gym equipment. You can improve your balance and stability with simple bodyweight exercises. My trainer Ramji Srinivasan says he does not need a single equipment to leave me panting," he told Firstpost.

Srinivasan would know. The former strength and conditioning coach of the Indian cricket team is not a fan of lifting heavy or unscientific copycat tactics. He lets out a hearty laugh at the mention of heavy weights and proceeds to explain the core of his training philosophy.

"I believe in smart lifting," Srinivasan says. "In India, we have this herd mentality. If Virat Kohli does heavy weights and lifts, everybody will do that injure their backs."

The message is quite clear. The demands of every sport and biomechanics of movements in each discipline are entirely different, and hence there is no one-size-fits-all training regimen for high-performance athletes. The focus, thus, is on small muscle groups, core, and lower body.

Table tennis, to the untrained eye, may appear an advanced indoor sport that tests your mental and physical faculties, but it is a lot more than the corporate recreational act it is made out to be. The small surface area of the table means there are no exaggerated movements, but that puts a heavy premium on short and swift lateral motion. Then, there is a small matter of hand-eye coordination, anticipation, getting in position, and maintaining explosive power through the point.

"Since table tennis is an extremely quick and explosive sport, we focus a lot on hand-eye coordination, reaction time, and reflexes. Sathiyan's eye-to-hand reaction has improved a lot, thanks to some highly advanced technology we have," says the trainer.

Finding the perfect balance between speed and power is a highly specialised pursuit too. Excessive weight training tends to toughen up targeted muscle at the cost of suppleness and hence hamper speed. It's for the very reason a number of wrestlers trade gym training for bodyweight and skill-based workouts ahead of competitions.

"Look, fitness has to lead you somewhere. It cannot be disassociated with the sport. I enjoy fitness because I understand why I am doing a particular workout. So when I train, I know fully well where that training will lead to," explains Sathiyan.

Science behind art How table tennis star G Sathiyan became a lean mean power machine

Sathiyan's lean frame packs a lot of punch in his strokes, thanks to his explosive power. Image credit: UTT/File

"Right now, the entire fitness concept is moving from big muscles to getting a lean body, which means lighter weights and higher repetitions. TT being one of the fastest sports, it is very important to get the speed quotient really high. So speed and agility have to be given precedence over strength, but that is different from power.

"You have to have explosive power to get your strokes at the desired speed. I pack a punch despite not having big muscles because I get in the right position and I have that explosive power. Once you are in the right position to receive the ball, you can time your shots better and your movements come from the muscle memory. If you don't have a sound technique, you tend to use a lot of your muscles to generate power. Having said that, it is very important to have the correct amount of strength to have sufficient power in your strokes. So yeah, that balance is really important."

That said, Sathiyan was never a big fan of fitness. Thanks to the general sporting ecosystem in the country where basic running passes as physical training, he never felt the need to work beyond his obvious skills. His genetics ensured a naturally lean physique, but lack of power soon became apparent. Realisation dawned soon after.

"At 15, I went abroad for some tournament and was beaten by the guys there. That's when I realised how swiftly they moved and powerfully the hit the ball," he recollects.

By the time he turned 18, Sathiyan had understood the need to find the delicate balance between speed, balance, stability, and strength. However, the final push came with Ramji entering the scene a little over five years back. To put it mildly, the results have been phenomenal. Only three years back, Sathiyan was languishing in 120s in the ITTF world ranking. From there, to become the current World No 31 and even breaching the top-30 has not been easy.

"We had to build him from the scratch," recalls Ramji of the time when Sathiyan came to him. "He had already missed a couple of years since he wanted to complete his education, so he had really fallen behind. However, he has always been very hardworking and thoroughly professional in his training and diet. The improvement is over 100 percent."

Ramji began travelling with Sathiyan to international meets, analysing his ward's movements and those of his opponents. With coach S Raman, he formed a dedicated support system for Sathiyan. Having worked with Raman during the latter's playing days helped as there was always an open communication built on mutual trust and respect. The process is simple. Raman provides technical inputs to Ramji - such as the areas of improvement, a particular movement he wants to be looked at and so on - and the routine is drafted accordingly.

The focus generally is on lateral movement, upper and lower body stability, glutes, calves, hamstrings, mid-back, and reflexes. "We also work a lot on his rotational axis, so we do a lot of torso rotational work because in TT, lower body has to be stable and upper body has to rotate," Ramji elucidates.

"Lower body strength is key," asserts Sathiyan. "With all my international experience, I have realised that table tennis is not played with hands; it is played with feet."

The real gamechanger, however, are hybrid workouts. Quite similar in principle as circuit training, these workouts are a series of high-intensity strength and stability exercises performed non-stop for a specific duration.

"Hybrid is a time-based workout of a combination of muscles. For example, you do 30 seconds of squats, and then without break, you do push-ups for 30 seconds, and so on. So you can do five or six exercises, and then start another set," Sathiyan says. By his own admission, he can reel off six sets of six exercises in 45 minutes flat.

"My hybrid workout days are hell," he chuckles.

The postponement of Tokyo Olympics due to global coronavirus pandemic has come as a blow, but both Sathiyan and Ramji insist it is a blessing in disguise.

"Given my age, I think I have two Olympics in me, so I am not overly worried about the postponement. My biggest worry was cancellation (of Olympics), but luckily that has not happened. Frankly, we were expecting the rescheduling, and I was already in talks with my coach. The mental conditioning and planning for next year had begun before the lockdown was announced. I have now started to rework all the plans with my trainers, skills coach, dietician for the next year. If I could peak at this time, I could definitely peak before next year's Olympics," he says.

Ramji is optimistic too. "I would say it is superb for Sathiyan. He will improve a lot over the next year and he will definitely qualify for the Olympics. It's been a pleasure to train someone as focussed as him."

With technology being an active part of modern sport, Sathiyan has famously procured a Butterfly Amicus Prime robot from Germany and is finetuning his skills against the highly-advanced machine.

Robots, in fact, are commonly used at basic and intermediate levels in table tennis, but Sathiyan's sparring partner is an advanced version. Capable of throwing up to 120 balls per minute of varying speed, spin, length, trajectory, and direction, it tests Sathiyan almost as close as a human opponent would.

"It is the closest I could have gone to a human opponent. Of course, a human being can see your movements and put the ball accordingly, but this is the closest I could have gone," says Sathiyan, who got the device in November at the insistence of coach Raman. Besides training, home-cooked food and daily movie sessions with his mother keep Sathiyan occupied. He is also big on gaming and is rediscovering his love for books. A stickler for sports books and fictional thrillers, he is currently halfway into the global bestseller 'Ikigai: The Japanese Secret to a Long and Happy Life' and finds the concept "interesting."

Sathiyan, who turns up for Dabang Delhi in the Ultimate Table Tennis (UTT), credits the league for his development and game's rising popularity in India.

"My progress is an indication of the league's competitiveness. Never before did so many top players set foot in India, but thanks to UTT, we are getting to play against a number of world-class players which raises our level of performance. It gave me immense confidence as a young player and the learning and knowledge you gain while training and playing alongside top players is simply incredible. It has taken the sport to the masses, and it will change the face of TT in India in ten years," he concludes.

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