Isaac Whistler is a world champion powerlifter.
The 21-year-old Meadville native and resident entered the sport about three years ago and has reached the pinnacle.
On Sept. 23, at the World Classic Powerlifting Championships in Halmstad, Sweden, Whistler won the Men Raw 264 Juniors classification. His total weight lifted was 1,824.3 pounds. His performance was nearly 100 pounds better than the runner-up’s total of 1,725.1.
Whistler played football and wrestled for the Meadville Bulldogs. His weightlifting career began while training for sports.
Lifting weights was always something he had a knack for and something his body seemed geared towards. He has asthma and an autoimmune disease, both of which can make cardio an issue.
“I took lifting a bit more serious than everybody else because it was something I really gravitated towards. I didn’t start going to the gym myself until after sports were done. I was pretty out shape, but stronger than most people — especially when I started to really get into lifting,” Whistler said. “I would chase after people older than me because they were more on my strength level. No one my age was around where I was.”
After his senior wrestling season wrapped up, Whistler headed into the gym. He didn’t have much direction, but knew he was in the right place. Whistler competed in his first competition in March as a senior in high school.
“Looking back on it now, I was a total beginner and I love that because there is a pureness to it. I was super excited because I knew I could be good at it, I just needed some time,” Whistler said. “It was exactly what I needed from a first meet and after that, I was hooked. I had an absolute blast.”
What is powerlifting?
At a powerlifting meet, each athlete get three attempts to lift the most possible weight on the bench press, deadlift and squat. The best lift from each exercise is added together for a total. At the world championship, Whistler’s best bench press was 418.8 pounds, deadlift was 733 pounds and squat was 672.4 pounds.
Whistler competes in the raw division of powerlifting as opposed to equipped. This means he is not permitted to use equipment such as bench or deadlift suits in addition to knee wraps. He prefers the raw division because of availability and safety. In raw, competitors typically wear a singlet, wrist wraps, a belt and knee sleeves.
“It’s extremely hard to compete or train for equipped powerlifting by yourself. You need people to help put the straps and suit on and load the bar,” Whistler said. “The other thing is that because you’re handling such heavy loads that your body can’t do it without the equipment so the possibility of injury goes up. You’re putting stress on your tendons that wouldn’t be able to handle that weight without the equipment.”
There is also tested and non-tested divisions of powerlifting. As in, drug tested and non-drug tested for performance-enhancing drugs. The Meadville class of 2018 graduate competes in the drug-tested competitions.
In addition to divisions and tested versus non-tested, competitions are also split among ages and weight classes. Whistler currently competes in the junior category, which is open to ages 19-23, though he also competed in the open category (open to everyone).
There are eight bodyweight categories to compete in. They range from 130 pounds up to 264 and higher. The former Bulldog most recently competed in the 264 and under level.
The road to worlds
Following Whistler’s first meet in 2018, he has been addicted to powerlifting. He’s competed at 12 different events and his total has slowly risen.
When he is training for an upcoming meet, he travels to Youngstown, Ohio, to lift.
“That gym has the competition plates (a type of weight loaded on a bar) we use. Different plates act differently when lifted and it matters a lot to get used to the competition ones,” Whistler said. “It’s about a 62-mile drive that takes about an hour and a half, but it’s worth the drive.”
Before qualifying for the world championships, Whistler had to prove he was the strongest lifter in the country in his division, which he proved at collegiate and junior nationals in April. His total 1,884.9 pounds earned him a trip to an international powerlifting competition.
He then entered a national meet for fun in June where he competed in the open class, as opposed to junior. He placed sixth in the open and improved his total to 1,890.4, which is still his personal best.
Whistler lifted his highest weight totals in his life, despite a partial tear of his pectoral muscle he suffered in February.
“When you prepare for a meet you need to overwhelm yourself and break yourself down. So you add a bunch of stress and then take it away and build yourself back up so you peak,” Whistler said. “All that stress, it can hurt.”
The world championship
Whistler’s final six weeks before the world championship in Sweden was a stressful time.
“My coach told me for the final six weeks I need to be selfish. I need to put aside friends, extra work and really just focus on training,” Whistler said. “I was genuinely more excited than I’ve ever been for a meet. It was a ton of fun.
“I get a bit of travel anxiety and flying to Sweden alone wasn’t on my comfortability list, but it was worth it.”
After about 36 hours of travel time, Whistler arrived in Sweden on a Saturday for his Tuesday competition. He had enough time to recoup from traveling and get prepared for the competition.
On Tuesday, he dominated the 12 other athletes in his class to claim a world title after only three years in the sport.
Despite his big win, Whistler didn’t feel like he excelled at the meet. His total of 1,824.3 was about 70 pounds less than his best.
“It felt like I lost. It sounds weird because I won by a significant margin, but going into every meet my goal to to get better and to build a better total,” Whistler said. “It was seven meets in a row across about two years where I hit a meet PR at every meet and I did not do that this time.
“You can say that I am a world champion and that’s cool, but I don’t do this to be a world champion. I do it to get better at each meet.”
The world champion spent the next two weeks helping coach four other athletes at the competition who are part of his team, Flex Training. After powerlifting was over and done with, Whistler had about two days to explore Stockholm, Sweden, before flying home.
“It was awesome and a great experience,” Whistler added.
Whistler plans on using the next several months to rehabilitate his pectoral tear. He estimates his pec is about 70 percent of what it should be.
Considering the pectoral muscles are major contributors to the bench press, having a torn pec is a big deal.
“Before the injury my best bench was 500 pounds. About 11 weeks after the tear I benched 452, which I was excited about,” Whistler said. “I have not been above 450 since that point. Hopefully I can get it to 100 percent by my next meet.”
Whistler may not compete for some time. The organization that he typically competes with is in a state of flux so he is unsure when his next meet will be or how things will shake out.
One thing he is sure of, he will compete again at a high level when he does.