Q&A - Powerlifting Champion Shares Wisdom

by Robert Maxwell

Back in late 2016, I had the chance to build a website for a remarkable man. His name is Ray Gibbs, and he's a master of traditional timber frame carpentry. Being a builder myself, I really enjoyed seeing photos of his work, and appreciated the beauty and authenticity of the robust, hand hewn structures he creates. You can learn more about Ray's timber framing company here. Ray wasn't always a timber framer, though. Before he got serious with a chisel, he was a powerlifter. Not just any powerlifter, either, but a 4-time Canadian champion. I'm lucky enough to be a personal friend of Ray's, and convinced him to share some stories and wisdom about his lifting and life.


Q - Tell Us a bit about your lifting career and how you got started

I am a past 4 time Canadian powerlifting champ. I represented Canada at 3 World Championships. Although my competition days are long past, I still train 3 times a week. I love your no nonsense, no frills approach to training at The Man Factory. That has always been my mantra as well. I used to use steel pipe and cinder blocks as weight when I started at 13 years old. When on the road back in the day I would pick up the end of my hotel room bed and do curls. I built a basement gym by myself back when I was 15 complete with benches and squat racks I made in the machine shop at school. Training and powerlifting have dominated a huge chunk of my life over the years.


Q - What were your best lifts, and how did you structure your workouts?

Today Ray Gibbs own and operates a traditional timber carpentry business, but still trains for health and strength.
Today Ray Gibbs own and operates a traditional timber carpentry business, but still trains for health and strength.

Like most lifters I know, I left most of my big lifts in the gym, but my PR's are a 720 pound squat, 450 bench and 650 deadlift. I never took any performance enhancers either, despite temptation and pressure from my peers of the time, something I'm particularly proud of. As for workout structure it's pretty basic, old-school. Train similar muscle groups together on one day and do them again a couple of days later. Do the "pushing muscles" like bench, triceps, shoulders at the same time and the "pulls", back and biceps on alternate days. Legs can be grouped with anything. Abs and calves everyday if you're so inclined. Like you I base my work outs around the "big 3" squat, bench and deadlift, but I include one more in that group and that's dips. Dips are the squat of the upper body based on the idea that quads are the "tricep of the leg", glutes are the shoulder, hammy's are the bicep. If I was limited to 2 movements only I'd do squats and dips. Pretty much hit the whole body right there. But squat is king. My favourite back in the day was bench press I'd say. It always came naturally to me. Deadlift always gave me trouble, mostly because it's the only lift that you don't know what it feels like until you start the lift. Squat and bench you have a few seconds to assess how the weight feels prior to doing it. Deadlifts are like 'I'm here, pick me up, or not". Deadlifts are primal. You better believe you can pick it up or you simply won't.


Q - What kept you from using enhancement?

Ray squatting over 700 pounds while representing Canada at the 1988 Worlds in Perth, Australia.
Ray squatting over 700 pounds while representing Canada at the 1988 Worlds in Perth, Australia.

I suppose I just wanted to see how far I could get naturally. I was always stronger than most guys around me and back in those days, gains in strength came fairly easily. I also had 2 young boys and I wanted to be able to tell them later in life that I had success without using steroids. Ed Coan was the World Champ in the mid to late 80's and it was obvious to me that there was no way I was going to beat him without being a total juice freak and that was OK by me. I competed drug free, and beat, most all of Canada's best lifters of the day and I was satisfied with that. Today's lifters are freaks though. I'm amazed at the numbers these kids are putting up these days. I was there in Dayton Ohio in 1979 when Bill Kazmaier benched 666 pounds. I thought that would never be surpassed yet I can find guys benching 700 lbs all over the internet. Same with the squat, 1000 pound squats are normal now. But you know what's funny? Deadlifts have remained pretty stable for 30 plus years, no huge jumps in DL's. A massive DL back in 1980 was in the high 800's and that's still true today. Why isn't anybody pulling 1500 pounds by now? It's because nobody has figured out a way to make the DL easier to do, no equipment or lifting accessories help the DL (other than straps, which you can't use in many PL competitions). I should add that my wife Lynn is a former Canadian Women's champ also. She was a powerhouse back in those days. She competed in the 52 kg class (114 pounds) and would regularly squat 275 pounds and pull 315. That would blow me away as she was so damn tiny. We met at the gym. The old Ottawa YMCA weight room. Funny how life works out.


Q - When did you retire from competition, and what's your training like now?

My last contest was in 1995. Aches and pains caught up to me and my drive to compete fizzled out. Interests in timber framing and building things in general soon took over. I still NEED to train though and I have been training at least 3 times weekly since I was 13 (58 now). In fact, I can probably count on one hand the times over all those years I might have gone a full week without hitting the gym. I used to have my own weights and equipment but I started a powerlifting club in the mid 90's at the "Y" and "lent" most of my equipment to the cause. Suffice it to say I never got it back. I had over 700 pounds of plates in my garage up to a few months ago but sold it all on Kijiji after I got tired of moving it around over the years. I train now at Movati, a chain gym I don't think has made it to northern Ontario yet. Not my style of gym to say the least but it has all I need and is relatively close to my house. Gyms like your basement gym were always my favourite places to train. We had a gym back in my home town of Alexandria that was like that. Saturday mornings were heavy squat days and the atmosphere in there was amazing with my fellow lifters all cheering each other on. Had some really awesome workouts in there.


Q - What are your thoughts on the mental side of lifting heavy?

A factor I always believed in was that your body will only work as hard as it needs to, sort of a self preservation mechanism I figure. The mind could very well be jacked for a big PR squat, but if there is no real reason to do that lift, subconsciously the mind is saying nope, not gonna do it. BUT, if you are in an environment that produces big lifts on a regular basis then subconsciously the mind is saying "hey, we better get to work here or we're gonna be left behind". For example if you're in a gym where the top dog is benching 315 for 1 rep and there are no threats to his bench crown then the chances are pretty good that he will hover around that 315 x1 mark forever, or until somebody walks into that gym and does 8 reps with 315. Then chances are good that the 1 rep guy will start to improve and so will everybody else in that gym. Products of our environments I suppose.


Q - What was it like being a Serious lifter in the 70's and 80's? What InSPIRED YOU?

Back then the fitness craze was still years away. In fact, lifting weights or simply just exercising was only for people actually training for some event. Even running was weird to do. I remember one time back in the late 70’s when I was running (back then they called it jogging) before work one dark winter morning along the road. Several cars passed me and later, when I got to my job, one of the older men asked me, loudly of course so all could hear, if someone was chasing me that morning. Big belly laughs all around. But the difference for me was I had been bitten by the training bug a good 10 years before the fitness fad hit. I was Rocky before Rocky (minus the boxing part). My inspirations came from the big name bodybuilders of the 70’s. Guys like Larry Scott and Dave Draper. Arnold was still an up and comer but it wasn’t long before he became my hero. Still is in a way, the man is a freaking anomaly. Larger than life, that guy. What he has accomplished is truly amazing. Have you ever seen the movie Pumping Iron Rob? A real classic. It was a book first though. I remember buying 2 copies when it came out, one to have as a book and one to cut the cover off of and have it framed. Honest, I did that. I think I still have the coverless book around somewhere. I could stare at that cover for hours, black with a black and white photo of the legendary Ed Corney with his arms over his head, “Pumping Iron” in simple a font across the top, “Charles Gains and George Butler” the authors across the bottom. Funny how I remember that. I haven't seen the framed cover though in years but I’m sure it’s around. 


I was a big fan of bodybuilding back then. The thing was, I was more impressed with the way bodybuilders looked when they were not shredded and posing. I wanted to look like Arnold when he was in Conan the Barbarian and not when he was on stage at Mr Olympia. Big and strong was what I wanted. That was when I discovered powerlifting. Those guys looked like they could rip a bear’s leg off. Franco Columbu was another hero, he looked strong and was in fact one of the strongest men in the world in his day. I recall watching him on TV at the first World's Strongest Man competition. He was running with a fridge on his back when he tripped and his leg broke. So here he is on a stretcher with Brent Musburger from ABC Sports interviewing him. Crazy. One of his trademark stunts was to pick of the back end of a small car and move it sideways. So one time many years ago, me and Lynn are out with another couple and when we get back to the car somebody had boxed us in. So I channelled my inner Franco and picked up the back end of Lynn’s Cavalier and moved it into the street. First and last time I ever did that.


At that time weight training was pretty much 75% upper body with a huge portion of that devoted to arms, and 25% legs. But of course you can’t be a powerlifter without squatting so that’s what I did. I struggled with squats at first but it wasn’t too long, say 5 years, before I was repping out 8’s with 405 pounds without giving it much thought. 


Here's a funny story. I’m sure you’ve heard of Tom Platz. He had the most freakishly huge quadriceps in the world back in his prime. His legs were almost beyond belief. Anyhow me and some buddies had traveled down to California for a vacation. I was heavily into powerlifting at the time so of course I needed to visit the famous Gold’s Gym in Venice, CA. And being how I was going to a gym I might as well get in a workout. A squat workout. So here I am squatting and up walks Tom Platz, asking if he can work out with me. I am speechless but of course I say sure. So here is me going set for set with one of the world’s best bodybuilding squatters. I got to 405 and that’s as heavy as he went as well. The only thing he would do differently is position his feet about a foot apart, high bar and super fast reps. It was nuts.