FROM ‘SKINNY KID’ TO LIFTING LEGEND: National-record-setting powerlifter says Gainesville’s Top Dog Fitness Center is one of his favorite gyms of all time

Joe Humbyrd completes a 680-pound deadlift in this 2016 photo.

Joe Humbyrd shows off his back muscles in this photo taken at Top Dog Fitness Center in Gainesville, where he frequently trains.

Joe Humbyrd says he began life as a “skinny kid” and was teased for his small size. He began lifting weights when he was 10 years old, about a year before this photo was taken. He’s continued for more than 30 years, setting many records during his powerlifting career.

Earlier this month, Joe set a record for a 500-pound bench press with a reverse grip at the national bench press competition. He’s pictured here with wife Cindy and the first place trophy from the 2020 APA World Championship.

Ava residents Joe and Cindy Humbyrd are shown with Joe’s two daughters from a previous marriage, 13-year-old Sarah and 5-year-old Isabella. Joe also has two stepsons, Dane and Aaron Norris. “I love being a husband and father more than anything,” he said.

Top Dog Fitness Center, which sits on the north side of Gainesville off Harlin Drive, has been the backdrop for a number of local residents reaching hard-earned, sweat-drenched goals, but one Top Dog member in particular is crushing state and national records thanks to his time spent at the gym. 

Joe Humbyrd, an Ava resident who works in Springfield, says he doesn’t blink an eye to drive the half hour from his hometown to Top Dog Fitness Center to train for his powerlifting career. 

Powerlifting, a competitive sport that involves three different weight lifts – squat, bench press and deadlift – demands long hours in the gym, and Joe says the Gainesville gym has been perfect. 

“I’ve trained at many, many gyms over the years, and Top Dog is one of my all-time favorites,” he told the Times last week.

And all that hard work is paying off as Joe has continually shattered record after record. Although his 30-plus-year lifting career has included many impressive achievements, the one that has meant the most to him was the lift he achieved just this month when he hit an all-time-best reverse-grip bench press of an astonishing 500 pounds. 


‘That’s where I wanted to be’

Joe and his wife, Cindy, became acquainted with Top Dog Fitness Center last spring after Cindy accepted a position at Gainesville High School as a social studies teacher. 

“We wanted a place to train that would be convenient for both of us,” Joe said. They soon heard of Top Dog Fitness Center, located just a few miles from Cindy’s new workplace, and the couple decided to join. 

With Joe working in Springfield and Cindy working long hours at GHS, the Humbyrds don’t have a lot of free time to spend together. The gym membership was a way for them to get to chat, catch up and work out at the same time. 

The couple called Paula Rose, who co-owns the gym with Karen Brantingham, to sign the contract and receive their gym key passes. When Joe entered the gym for the first time, he said he was instantly taken back to his high school days. 

“It reminded me a lot of the old Ava High weight room,” he said. “It was full of fond memories for me. I instantly knew that’s where I wanted to be.”

Joe, who has followed a passionate journey to become a record-winning powerlifter, said Top Dog’s owners and other gym members have been nothing but encouraging and kind to him, something he hasn’t always found at gyms.

“In a society today where big, strong guys like me are labeled ‘lunkheads’ by certain commercial gyms, they immediately welcomed me and my style of training…. I’ve developed good friendships with several members and have tried to teach and encourage as much as I can in order to show my appreciation and promote the sport of powerlifting.”


From skinny little kid to national record holder

Joe, 44, who stands 5’10” tall and weighs 290 pounds, says he didn’t start life naturally muscular. 

“Quite the opposite, really. I got into weight training when I was 10 years old. I was a skinny little kid with a big brother who liked to tease me,” he said. “That’s what started my journey.”

Fueled by his brother’s teasing comments and a desire to take his world into his own hands, Joe started lifting weights and exercising to put on muscle mass. He soon developed an interest in weightlifting and the human body’s physical capabilities. 

“I was fascinated with strong people and feats of strength,” he said. “I watched the documentary Pumping Iron with Arnold Schwarzenegger and was glued to the World’s Stronger Man contests when I was in grade school.”

Joe’s grandfather, Miles Alexander, further inspired Joe’s dreams of pursuing lifting.

“He was an old-time strongman and weightlifter from the 50s all the way through the end of his life at 80 years old,” Joe said.


Powerlifting competitions

Joe says he usually begins training seriously for a power-lifting competition about three months before the event. 

“The first several weeks are conditioning training to prepare myself for the upcoming heavy workloads. The next several weeks are hypertrophic or moderate weights with a lot of reps and sets to get my central nervous system prepared to handle the big weights,” Joe said. “The last month or so is purely heavy weights and low reps. This is the peaking part of the program. As far as diet goes, I eat as much protein as possible, along with moderate carbs and high fats to fuel my body. I normally eat six to seven times a day, taking in 40 grams of protein and 1,000 calories per meal.”

The competitions usually begin around 10 a.m. and continue until 4 to 5 p.m., Joe says.

“There are three competition disciplines: the squat, the bench press and the deadlift. They’re done in that order,” he said, adding that competitors can also choose to enter one single discipline if they’d like. “The rules allow you three attempts in each discipline. You must complete at least one lift in each or you are disqualified from the competition, which we call ‘bombing out.’”

Powerlifters are given a scheduled warm-up time before the competition begins, and then each competitor is called by name. A competitor has one minute after their name is called to complete their lift to the judges’ standards. 

“There are three judges or officials that look for certain rule infractions of each lift. In the squat, when descending, the top of the thigh at the hip must be below the knee, meaning your thigh has to be slightly below parallel to the floor in order for the lift to count,” he explained. “A head judge seated in front of you will give you two commands in order to complete the lift. You will get a start command, at which point you start the lift. Then you receive a ‘rack’ command, which signals that the lifter should replace the bar on the rack upon completion of the lift.”

Joe said if the lifter does not adhere to the judge’s commands, the lift is considered invalid, the lifter is required to wait until the next round to try again. 

“The same rules apply in the bench press. You get a start command, a press command and a rack command,” he said. “A competitive lift, especially the bench press, is much more difficult than a gym lift. You have to hold the bar at arms’ length until the head judge gives you the command to start. Once the lift is started, the lifter must stop the bar on the chest and wait for the head judge to give the press command. Once the lift is complete, the lifter must hold the bar at arms’ length until given the rack command, signaling it should be placed back into the rack. If any one of the rules is not adhered to, the lift doesn’t count.” 

In the deadlift discipline, there is only one command - a down command after the lift is done. 


Smashing records

Joe’s interest in powerlifting grew throughout this youth and adult life, and he began setting and crushing goals each year.

“I’ve set numerous state and national records in various powerlifting federations,” Joe said. “I currently hold the state  and national bench press record in the Warriors Powerlifting Federation in the masters 40- to 44-year-old division, 308-pound weight class.”

Joe made the 500-pound bench press, which he set earlier this month at the WPLF bench press national championships, with a reverse grip. 

“[It’s] gripping the bar with your hands turned the opposite way of a normal grip,” Joe said. “It’s used mainly as an accessory exercise to strengthen the triceps and take pressure off of the shoulders. It’s very rarely performed in competition as it is very difficult to perform. I’m the first person in the state of Missouri or any surrounding states to do this successfully in competition.” 

The lift was made as a “raw lift,” Joe said, explaining that a “raw lift” means no supportive equipment was allowed.

Other achievements? Joe has plenty to share. 

“I’m a five-time American Powerlifting state champion and two-time national champion,” he said. “I won the American Powerlifting National Championship in 2009 where I competed in full powerlifting. In that competition, I squatted 630 pounds, bench pressed 545 pounds and deadlifted 600 pounds for a total weight of 1,775 pounds.”

He currently holds the national record with the Southern Powerlifting Federation (SPF).

“In 2013, I performed a bench press with a lift of 730 pounds,” Joe said. “I still hold that record for the submaster 35 to 39 age division, super heavy weight class, in the multi-ply division.” 

In 2009, Joe earned the “drug-free best lifter” record at the SPF national championship. 

Last month, he took home another record, the SPF masters division national championship. This one in the 40- to 44-year-old, 308-pound class. 

“Masters is for anyone 40 years and up,” Joe said. “I competed in the push/pull division, which consists of the bench press and deadlift combined. I bench pressed 450 pounds and deadlifted 605 pounds for a 1,055-pound total.”

Joe says his best competition raw bench press is 520 pounds, and he has benched 750 pounds using a “bench press shirt,” a stiff, supporting shirt that powerlifters use to help improve performance. It has an artificial shoulder and pectoral, or chest. 

His best squat is 640 pounds, “but I’m not much of a squatter.” His best deadlift is 680 pounds, and his best total is 1,800 pounds between the three lifts. 


An ambassador to the sport

In addition to working toward his own goals, Joe has begun training young lifters too.

“As a seasoned competitive lifter, I feel a responsibility to pass along my knowledge to the younger generation. After all, they will be here after I’m gone,” Joe said. “I’m an ambassador to the sport, and I want to help cultivate it and grow it to the point it becomes more mainstream, like football or baseball.”

Joe said he’s helped coach several young lifters, but one lifter he’s particularly proud of is Cody Johnson from Ava. 

“I played baseball with his father and uncle in high school. So when his dad, Casey, reached out to me to get together with Cody, I was all for it. He said Cody had a lot of talent for powerlifting. He was a star high school football player, so he was already used to off-season weight training and had a good [muscle] base to start with.”

Joe met with Casey and began training him for powerlifting in 2015. 

“He went on to win several high school powerlifting meets and got second place in the national championship.,” Joe said. “He already had the talent and drive; I just gave him a little guidance.”

Joe says he still trains several people in person and online. 

“It makes me feel good to help someone achieve their lifting goals. I know what it’s like to start out with an ambition but not direction. I like to help point people in the right direction and watch them bloom in the sport. I get as much satisfaction from seeing a friend or training partner succeed as I do when I succeed myself.”


An uphill climb

In December 2019, after decades of powerlifting, Joe hit an obstacle like no other. 

“I ended up in the hospital with heart failure,” he said. “My heart had to be stopped and restarted to get it back into rhythm. I was dead for an instant.”

Joe said many people told  him he would never lift again. 

“It was a long, hard road to recover. I had several setbacks along the way, but just last week I made my comeback complete. I hit an all-time best reverse grip bench press of 500 pounds. I had been chasing 500 in this style for nearly five years. I had a lot of doubt due to illness and injury, but I persisted – and made it. It’s pretty special to me. To think that just last year I was dead [for a moment], and now I’m hitting all-time record numbers again. I’ll never forget it,” he said.

Joe says he believes powerlifting is one of the greatest sports there is.

“Not just because of the massive amount of strength that the athletes have, but also the hearts of the powerlifting community. It’s a family,” he said.

Joe said powerlifting is one of the few industries where competitors are usually always willing to help each other out.

“The hearts of the people I have met in this sport are unmatched, as far as I’m concerned. Powerlifting and weight training have changed my entire life. I would certainly not be the person I am today without it. It’s not just a hobby for me, it’s a lifestyle I’ll continue until the day I die.”

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