Any athlete who has the dedication and chutzpah to compete deserves a round of applause. Preparing for any strength or physique competition takes months of rigorous training and calculated dieting. Then, you need to show the heck up and perform.
What follows is a list of athletes in five sports — bodybuilding, powerlifting, strongman, weightlifting, and CrossFit — who didn’t just perform at a high level but shined bright. Some of these athletes consistently smashed PRs. Some of them achieved more in their pro debut than some athletes achieve in their entire career. And some of them rose to challenges previously thought impossible. They were the best strength athletes in 2021.
Best Strength Athletes in 2021
Narrowing down our list of top powerlifters in 2021 was no easy feat. But it was a laughable one compared to what the athletes below accomplished. John Haack made every in-gym and competition lift look like a warm-up, asserting his dominance at 90 kilos for the foreseeable future. All the while, newcomer Tiffany Chapon of France put her entire IPF division on notice by out-lifting her weight class’ best in the gym. Keep reading for more standouts.
John Haack may have had the most substantial year of any powerlifter in gym lifts and competitive results in 2021. Towards the end of the year, it seemed as though Haack was hitting a new PR nearly every week. Haack competes in the 90-kilogram class and routinely lifts 400-kilogram (881.9-pound) deadlifts in training. At the end of November, he pulled a raw 405-kilogram (892.9-pound) pull and then advanced it again to 410 kilograms (903.9 pounds) on a Twitch live-stream hosted by Gymshark and Brawn.
In competition, the highlight of Haack’s year came at the 2021 WRPF The Bucked Up Showdown, where he scored the all-time world record total of 1,005.5 kilograms (2,216.7 pounds) at 90-kilograms. He is the first man to ever eclipse a 1,000-kilogram total in that weight class. Assuming Haack carries the immense strength he displayed in 2021 into 2022, the record books will likely remain open, so the numbers next to his name can increase even further.
Russel Orhii had a ton of momentum in the back half of 2021. It all started at the 2021 USAPL Nationals, where he scored an American record squat of 323 kilograms (712.1 pounds) in the 83-kilogram class. He initially broke the record on his previous attempt when he successfully locked out 314 kilograms (692.3 pounds).
In October, Orhii set two IPF world records at the 2021 World Championships — a 320.5-kilogram (706.7-pound) squat and an 841-kilogram (1,854.3-pound) total for the gold medal.
When Orhii stepped into the gym a few weeks after that contest, he proved he had the strength to break the world record squat by locking out 329 kilograms (725 pounds) — 8.5 kilograms more than his IPF record. Two months later, he successfully hit 332.5 kilograms (733 pounds) for a new PR and further cemented why he should have the sport’s attention when he steps onto the competitive stage in 2022.
At 20 years old, French powerlifter Tiffany Chapon, who competes in the 47-kilogram class, turned heads when she hit a 153.5-kilogram (338.4-pound) raw squat in training. That lift was notable because it is a full kilogram over the current squat world record held by Chen Wei-Ling of Taiwan.
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IPF raw deadlift and total world record holder at 47-kilograms Heather Connor called Chapon “one of the most impressive athletes I’ve seen in a while” due to Chapon’s ability to bench press 96 kilograms (211.6 pounds) and total 411 kilograms (906.1 pounds) — one kilogram more than Connor’s current IPF world record total.
When one of the greatest powerlifters in the sport like Connor is impressed by a fellow athlete, it is a pretty safe bet to give Chapon full attention in 2022. At only 20 years of age, Chapon seems to have a bright future ahead, and it could kick off in a big way in 2022.
In 2020, Prescillia “Lya” Bavoil of France crushed it in the gym with PR after PR, including a colossal total that eclipsed her world record in the 63-kilogram class by a whopping 41 kilograms (555 kilograms (1,223.6 pounds) at her competition bodyweight). She converted those massive strides in training to an IPF World Championships title via three IPF world records — 205-kilogram (452-pound) squat, 230.5-kilogram (508.2-pound) deadlift, and 548-kilogram (1,208.1-pound) total.
Given Bavoil’s pattern of strength gains on the competitive stage displayed over the past several years — she was the 2019 IPF European champion as well — she is undoubtedly one of the top powerlifters to watch in 2022.
Strongman was a rollercoaster this year. We saw a new World’s Strongest Man champion crowned, specific women push the boundaries of strongwoman, and rookies ascend to new heights of strength. It was inspiring and sometimes sad to watch, but it was fun as hell above all else.
Trey Mitchell was one of the breakthrough stars of 2021. He finished in fourth place overall at the 2021 WSM contest, missing out on the podium by just 1.5 points. He went on to win the 2021 Texas’ Strongest Man contest and the second annual Shaw Classic — the biggest win of his career.
Mitchell’s competitive trajectory has only gone upward since his incredible battle against Novikov in the last man standing stone off at the 2019 WSM contest. He is a dominant force in the deadlift and consistent throughout his strongman game, except the keg toss. If he improves in that event, he is likely a contender for the podium of every contest he enters.
Peña is an absolute highlight reel of heavy deadlifts — with an axle bar, and a trap bar, and off of blocks. Oh, and he ripped a grand off of the ground. The man can lift over a thousand pounds on multiple kinds of barbells and has not yet had a significant opportunity to prove himself against the other elite strongmen in the sport. At the 2020 WSM contest, he withdrew due to health reasons, and although on-site at the 2021 WSM contest, he was watching rather than competing.
Given Peña’s prowess in the gym and evident hunger to get back onto the big stage, 2022 could likely be his breakthrough year. He has the momentum of his world record axle deadlift of 500 kilograms (1,102.3 pounds) scored in the 2021 Static Monsters Worldwide competition at his back. If he can carry that into the new year, he could be the wildcard that shakes up the sport.
There were many important stories in the sport of strongman in 2021. From Novikov rebounding from his failure to qualify for the Finals at the 2021 WSM competition by reaching the podium of every contest, he competed in after that, to four-time WSM champion Brian Shaw announcing the 2022 Shaw Classic to take place the Budweiser Event Center in Loveland, CO, to the impressive returns of Mateusz Kieliszkowski and Martins Licis.
However, 2021 was undeniably the year of the Stoltman brothers. Tom Stoltman is the reigning WSM and Britain’s Strongest Man champion and improved the previous weaknesses in his grip. Luke Stoltman had almost assuredly the most impressive year of his career to date. The Scotsman won the 2021 Europe’s Strongest Man contest and the 2021 Giants Live World Tour Finals. Although the leaderboard shows him in seventh overall at the 2021 WSM, he was very much in contention for a spot on the podium heading into the contest’s final event.
It is clear that the Stoltman brothers are two of the best strongmen globally, and they train for competition together. The reigning WSM champion training alongside Europe’s Strongest Man during what seems to be the height of his career is pretty indicative that Luke Stoltman should have your attention heading into 2022.
The 2021 Static Monsters Worldwide champion of the 82-kilogram weight class, Nadia Stowers, had a blockbuster 2021. At that contest, Stowers set a new log lift world record of 130.6 kilograms (288 pounds) and an axle deadlift American record of 299.4 kilograms (660 pounds) — an improvement from her contest-winning total of 408.5 kilograms (900.6 pounds) in 2020.
She continued her string of world records at the 2021 Rogue Record Breakers event, where she posted a matching bag over bar world record — a 40-pound bag successfully tossed over a 15-foot bar. Given that her current pace is a new world record in every major event she competes in — the 2022 Rogue Record Breakers event, for which she is already confirmed — is likely to live up to its name.
It would be tough to argue that anyone in the strongwoman world had a better 2021 than Annabelle Chapman. She not only won the first-ever strongwoman contest at the 2021 WUS competition, but she also set a new axle clean & press world record of 131.7 kilograms (290.3 pounds) at Tamworth’s Strongest Man contest took place on May 23, 2021.
Chapman scored a huge podium finish at the 2021 World’s Strongest Woman contest, taking home the bronze medal. At that contest, she finished as the runner-up in three events — the log lift, the Bag Over Bar, and the Car Walk — third in the Atlas Stones and fourth in the Carry & Drag medley. Aside from her eighth-place finish in the deadlift, her performance was highly consistent. Place your bets that she’ll bring that consistency into 2022 and rack up more results on the podium.
The beginning of a new Olympic qualification cycle means new opportunities for lesser-known lifters to rise to prominence and for international heavy-hitters to maintain their momentum. With only three and a half years until the 2024 Olympic Games kick off in Paris, athletes will fight tooth and nail at competitions across the globe for a chance to qualify.
The sport of weightlifting continues to endure controversy, but none of that should take away from what a handful of extraordinary athletes accomplished. Here are a few lifters worth keeping an eye on in 2022.
One of the United States’ most significant competitive assets in weightlifting is its breadth of youth talent. 17-year-old Hampton Morris soared ahead in the international rankings in 2021. The 61-kilogram athlete made waves at the 2021 Pan-American Junior Championships when he clean & jerked 155 kilograms (341.7 pounds), a new Youth world record. That lift cemented him as one of only four American weightlifters in history to set a Youth record at an international meet.
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Morris rode his summer momentum right into the Youth World Championships in October, where he comfortably clinched the top spot on the podium. Morris walked away with two more gold medals and two more Youth records — this time in the clean & jerk; besting his previous record by one kilo, and total, which was a whole 12 kilograms ahead of the runner-up.
Morris was on fire throughout 2021 and seems to show no sign of slowing down. We’ll see if he can bring the heat to the 2022 Youth World Championships held in Mexico in May.
Bulgaria’s legacy precedes it when it comes to weightlifting dominance. In 2021, 17-year-old Karlos Nasar burst onto the scene as the country’s latest bannerman.
Nasar struck a chord in the weightlifting world in the fall when a video surfaced of the 81-kilogram competitor snatching an unofficial world record of 175 kilograms (385.8 pounds). The young Bulgarian racked up wins at various regional and world-level Youth competitions before leading the pack at the 2021 World Weightlifting Championships.
Against athletes older and more experienced, Nasar stole the show in Tashkent. He set multiple world records across all age brackets, took the clean & jerk record away from the previous holder Lu Xiaojun, and won the 81-kilogram category outright. If he maintains his pace, Karlos Nasar will be one of the most threatening players in the sport in 2022.
Meredith Alwine worked hard in silence for years, an ethos that paid off for her in 2021. At the 2021 World Weightlifting Championships, Alwine won her first World Championship title on behalf of the United States.
Even though she didn’t have her best day on the platform, the 71-kilogram athlete clawed her way to the top of the podium in a frighteningly competitive session. Her victory placed her alongside teammates Kate Nye and Sarah Robles as the only Team USA athletes to win a senior World event in well over a decade.
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After placing sixth at her last World Championships in 2018, Alwine returned in force in 2021. Before appearing again in Tashkent — she won the silver medal there in 2018 at the Junior World Championships — Alwine grabbed a warm-up gold medal at the 2021 Pan American Championships. If her competition pedigree is anything to go by, there might be no stopping her once she gets going.
Few athletes in weightlifting have ever needed less of an introduction than Lasha Talakhadze. With the number of gold medals Talakhadze won over the past few years, he’s a couple of events away from renting a storage unit in Fort Knox.
Since his international debut in 2010, Talakhadze racked up 17 gold medals in the total by lifting a truly absurd amount of world records — 26 unique records across each discipline (snatch, clean & jerk, and total), the overwhelming majority of which were his own.
Talakhadze has set new world records at every World Championships since 2017 and bagged two Olympic Champion titles along the way. With no other athlete remotely in his view, Lasha is bound to continue his march towards his ultimate goal of a 500-kilogram total in 2022. As of December 2021, he’s eight kilograms away.
British lifter Sarah Davies has maintained a reputation in the weightlifting world as both a consistent competitor and a positive voice in the sport’s political ecosystem. Beyond acting as a force for change and reform in the IWF, Davies has stoically represented Great Britain on the international stage since 2014.
However, in 2021, Davies seemingly turned things up a notch. Starting with her silver-medal finish at the 2021 European Weightlifting Championships in Moscow — her most impressive accolade to date at the time — she then competed in the 2020 Olympic Games, finishing fifth and missing the podium by only three kilograms.
Davies’ string of successes culminated in another silver medal at the 2021 World Weightlifting Championships, where she competed for the first time as a 71-kilogram lifter. Davies hit several high marks in her lifting career in 2021, indicating that she’s may have big plans for 2022 as well as the strength to get there.
The bodybuilding world saw several breakout athletes in 2021, and it’s clear that the competition at the elite level of the sport is extremely high. Although many reigning champions at the Olympia retained their titles in 2021, including Mamdouh “Big Ramy” Elssbiay, Chris Bumstead, Cydney Gillon, and Sarah Villegas, many primetime contenders emerged. Here’s who to keep on your radar in 2022:
The breakout star of 2021 in bodybuilding had to be Nick “The Mutant” Walker. After winning the 2020 North Americans amateur competition, he placed fourth in the 2020 Chicago Pro, his pro debut. Walker reloaded for 2021, unleashing a much bigger and more polished physique.
He won the 2021 New York Pro in May, which many consider the third biggest title in the IFBB Pro League. He then shocked the world by winning the 2021 Arnold Classic, defeating established names such as Iain Valliere (second place) and Steve Kuclo (third) along the way. He finished the year by placing fifth in his Olympia debut and automatically qualifying for the 2022 contest. He’s not expected to compete before then, but his 2021 efforts left fans wanting to see more from the New Jersey native.
Hailing from the United Kingdom, Samson Dauda has amassed a moderate following (64,000 Instagram followers) compared to other top bodybuilders. Contest after contest, he’s fallen short of first place, and frustratingly enough for Dauda, missing the top spot was usually the result of another competitor looking slightly better rather than Dauda missing the mark.
But Dauda stayed in the pocket, unfettered by the judges. Finally, his big day arrived at the 2021 Prague Pro. He faced stiff competition in the form of Rafael Brandao but emerged victoriously. He now hopes to have a more successful 2022 but hasn’t committed to any major shows as of this article’s publication.
After finishing second to Janet Layug at the 2020 Bikini Olympia, Jennifer Dorie went all in for 2021’s contest. She didn’t want to win shows; she wanted to be the undisputed best in the world. With Layug opting not to compete in 2021, Dorie was poised to make her goal a reality. The Canadian superstar won the Bikini International at the Arnold Classic and Bikini Olympia in 2021 to sit atop her division.
Amanda Kohatsu was already an established name in powerlifting, but like Hunter Henderson, she opted to become a two-sport athlete by competing in a bodybuilding show. After winning the 2021 Iron Games in both Women’s Physique and Figure, she moved on to the 2021 NPC Nationals, where she took class wins and pro cards in both divisions as well. Kohatsu also took home the Figure Overall title for good measure. It’s unclear what she will do in 2022, but she finished 2021 on as high of a note as possible.
What a shake-up CrossFit had in 2021. Reigning Fittest Woman on Earth® Tia-Clair Toomey-Orr retained her title for the fifth straight year, but pretty much everything else was a roller coaster ride. From the first Fittest Man on Earth® not named Mat Fraser in five years — Justin Medeiros — to Annie Thorisdottir’s legendary third-place Games finish. What’s more, the influx of younger talent leaping up the leaderboard was massive. Here’s who to follow in 2022:
CrossFit Games elite women had been hearing Mallory “Mal” O’Brien’s footsteps coming since 2018 when she first broke onto the CrossFit teens’ division stage. The 18-year-old took 2020 off to train with a new coach — former NFL player James Townsend — and gear up to compete in the women’s division. And compete she did.
O’Brien took a close second in the 2021 Granite Games, winning three events. At the 2021 CrossFit Games, O’Brien became the youngest competitor ever to win a CrossFit Games event at 17. She finished 34 seconds ahead of Toomey-Orr in the thrusters and wall walks couplet. She finished the contest ranked seventh overall and earned the Rookie of the Year title, a strong performance from an athlete with nothing but time to continue climbing future CrossFit leaderboards.
More recently, O’Brien joined forces with Mat Fraser as the newest member of his HWPO training team. With the most dominant men’s CrossFitter ever now in her corner, the word “threat” may not even begin to encapsulate the potential impact O’Brien will have on the 2022 CrossFit season.
Fans from Malheiros’ home country of Brazil took to social media to warn the wider CrossFit world, “Anota a placa” — translated from Portuguese to mean “note the license plate,” as the 22-year-old athlete passed notable CrossFit elite veterans like a racecar on a track.
While Brazilian fans complained about his lack of air time on CrossFit media coverage, anyone who had previously missed Malheiros in his first few days of competition couldn’t miss him at Saturday’s one-rep max snatch. During that event, he out lifted the field with ease to take first with arguably the smoothest 305-pound snatch a CrossFit elite competition has ever seen.
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Malheiros used his explosive power earlier in the competition to take first in the 550-yard sprint event and a sprint and clean ladder event. If he takes time to hone his rougher skills in the offseason, Malheiros could be a serious podium contender in the 2022 season as he is training with four-time Games winner Rich Froning’s Mayhem Freedom.
CrossFit became much more competition-friendly for adaptive athletes over the last couple of years, starting with the inclusion of Adaptive divisions in the 2021 Open. CrossFit HQ announced three Adaptive divisions at the 2021 Games.
Born without a left arm below the elbow, Casey Acree quickly became the face of the men’s upper extremity division, performing feats that would best many athletes outside the Adaptive divisions. He took first in all but one event in the field of five at the 2021 Games. With CrossFit HQ seemingly having more extensive plans for Adaptive division competitors in 2022, Illinois-based Acree is likely looking forward to the Games. He’s won Wodapalooza four times, a competition with a long history of adaptive athlete inclusion, and boasts a 295-pound clean and jerk. The sky’s the limit for Acree.
Hopper came roaring onto the scene, seemingly from nowhere, to win the Mid-Atlantic CrossFit Challenge. He turned heads at the 2021 CrossFit Games and the 2021 Rogue Invitational. He joined Nike as an athlete before the Games and has rubbed elbows with the PRVN team and Mat Fraser.
24-year-old Hopper hadn’t competed at an elite CrossFit level before 2021, slowly climbing the Open leaderboard out of CrossFit Simpsonville in South Carolina. While he may still be getting used to the “unknown and unknowable” part of CrossFit competitions, especially those programmed by former General Manager of Sport Dave Castro, fans should expect big things from Hopper in coming seasons.
It was a good year for Gabriela Migała, the first-place Open finisher out of Poland since 2016. Migała punched her ticket to the Games at the CrossFit Lowlands Throwdown and capitalized on it by placing sixth at the 2021 CrossFit Games, a far cry from 75th in 2019 and 18th in 2020. With four top-five event finishes, she was in front of many more eyes in 2021.
Since the Games, she’s gone on to collect more hardware at the 2021 Rogue Invitational and the 2021 Dubai CrossFit Championship, placing third at both competitions. At just 22 years old, Migała will likely be a name you’ll hear for many years during CrossFit competition podium announcements.
Kings and Queens
2021 was a strong year for the royalty of the iron game. From old legends returning to cheering stadiums to newcomers ascending to the top of the podium, each strength sport abounds with anticipation for what the next year might bring.
Will these same athletes reign supreme in 2022, or will the pieces on the board shift entirely? Time will tell, and BarBend will be here to tell you all about it.
Featured Image (left to right): @guimalheiros162, @meredithalwine on Instagram