Northwest YMCA lead trainer Gary Panttila has a pretty simple concept about weightlifting.
"I always tell my clients, 'it's either going to be the weights or you," said Panttila with a smile.
"And it should be you."
He should know.
The 25-year-old trainer is also a power lifter, and is currently making a name for himself in the sport, both in Arizona and nationally.
Panttila holds state records in both the squat and deadlift, and — if he has anything to say about it — will add the final piece of the puzzle, a bench press record, in the next few months.
In addition to the records, the steroid-free, "all-natural" Panttila, who has worked at the YMCA since it opened its doors six years ago, has been piling up an impressive number of medals and trophies.
In 2005, at the age of 20 and fairly new to the sport, Panttila took home two first-place medals in state competition. In 2007, he won first place five times and finished second twice, all while jumping between the 198-pound and 220-pound weight classes. The year 2008 saw more of the same, with a first-place and a second-place finish.
Through this type of dominance, Panttila has found local sponsors willing to help him pursue what he calls "an expensive sport." Local weight training company Just Weight and charter school Lifelong Learning Academy are two area businesses that have given money and equipment to the 25-year-old.
"My goal is to make it to the (world championships) in September and then make the U.S. Olympic team for the next Games," he said.
Panttila also mentioned competing in the World's Strongest Man competition, as did coach Paul Leonard, as a possible future goal.
Aiming high is nothing new for Panttila. Unlike some of his contemporaries in powerlifting circles, he has had to work extremely hard on more than just upping his pounds and increasing reps.
"I used to work at FedEx from 3:30 a.m. to 7 a.m., then go to work here at the Y from 8 a.m. to 12 p.m., then go to class from 12:30 p.m. until 8 p.m., then train from 8 until 10 p.m.," said Panttila. "I did that for two years."
Although Panttila doesn't work quite so early any more, his pace hasn't slowed at all.
He is currently attending Northern Arizona University's Tucson campus full-time in pursuit of a business degree, maintains a 3.89 GPA and hopes to attend the University of Arizona for a master's degree next year. He volunteers with the Y's youth organization during the summer and trains about 30 clients a week. He reads voraciously on the chemical interactions of proteins and carbs in the body and how to utilize them, both for himself and for his training clients.
And that doesn't even include all the work trying to communicate to the world just how positive powerlifting, and weightlifting, can be.
"The sport used to be really popular in Arizona about 25 years ago," he said. "I'm putting on meets in here in Tucson to try and bring back that popularity."
"It's great for active seniors – it really enhances bone strength," Panttila said. "It's great for teens because it gives them a purpose."
Panttila calls sponsors, makes flyers, coordinates events, locations and volunteers to make these meets run smoothly, and has also partnered with Tombstone's powerlifting community to ensure high-quality statewide competition.
His last meet was in Saddlebrooke, which is fitting, considering he offers guidance and counsel to active seniors at the Y on a regular basis.
"They were so nice to me," he recalled. "They offered me their auditorium and it was a great experience."
Panttila hopes the next meet will be either at the Y, or Flowing Wells High School.
"(Flowing Wells) was the first high school to jump in and say 'if you want to hold a meet here, we'll help,'" said Panttila.
As for the Y, holding the meet there will hopefully help disprove that it is not a traditional powerlifting gym.
"People always ask at competitions, 'What gym are you out of, where do you train?'" said Panttila. "They're surprised when I say the Y, but it's not where you train, it's how you train that matters."
Panttila generally trains with the equipment available at the YMCA, and just before a competition, will bring in special powerlifting tools for a short time.
YMCA members have certainly taken notice of Panttila's training methods (a blend of old and new lifting techniques) and he now advises club powerlifters, including a 55-year-old and a 71-year-old.
"We have three generations of powerlifters here," said Panttila with enthusiasm. "You just don't see that very often."
While the Y has become an unlikely multi-generational powerlifting headquarters due to Panttila's name on the circuit and the success of those he's trained (a trainee, Rhonda Knotts, won first place in the state championship 45-50-year-old age bracket in 2006), adding more to an already-full plate, he said that his source of strength and ability to manage so much comes from close to home.
While his father gives him his "work ethic" and the will to "give it everything you've got," his mother provides inspiration in a different way.
"Last year, my mom was really ill," he said. "She gave me my passion and dedication to not give up.
"Last year she spent a lot of time in the hospital and doctors said there was a good chance she wouldn't ever come out," said Panttila. "For her to have the will and dedication to come out of being sick says a lot about her character."
"When I think about her, I think there's no reason for me to give up when I have a family member facing far worse day in and day out," he said.
"What's two hours in the gym, three days a week?" he added.