Art Labare, a Powerlifting legend you need to know

by: Paul Leonard

Art squatting- spotted by the legendary Louie Simmons

In life you will meet many people, some you like, a few you love, those you hate- especially as you get older, and the rest are all just passing through, pedestrian in their importance to your life. Us strength athletes are unique in that we have other individuals in our lives who leave an indelible mark- training partners. I have had many training partners over my 36 years of serious weight training, many whom I love, all I like, and one that has passed away. Of all these training partners, Art Labare stands out above all others for his character, dedication, and performance on the platform and in the gym. Art is 8 years older than I am, so some of the things he went through as we trained together did not register with me until later when I had kids of my own and more time constraints.

Art’s best lifts are 876 628 793, all done at National or World Class Meets in the late 90s through 2004. It is pretty fitting that Art hit his best total in 2004 after I relocated to Dallas and our other partner had serious personal demons which led to his untimely demise that same year. Art did not need anyone to do his best lifting.

I first met Art in 1995 at the USPF California State Meet which Art entered but did not lift anywhere near his capability. Art was training at that time with Brian Meek, Rick Purchase, and Gary Garcia in South Orange County, usually at either PowerHouse Gym Fountain Valley or World Gym in Tustin. I trained at Uptown Gym in Whittier with Gary Hogan, Mike Morgan, Al Morentin, Ray Cosio, and Ron Perkins. Art whopped mine and most everyone else’s ass at the WPC Can Ams in Vegas in 1996, but I still was not training with him. In late 1997, I had lost some training partners, but the final straw was when Gary told me that he could not keep up with my schedule and that he needed a break from our usual Monday, Tuesday, Thursday night 7 to 9 pm sessions as well as from our Saturday lower body assault from 9 to noon. I was out of sorts until I saw Art and we decided we would begin training in my garage with his crew. Art had torn his biceps at the 1997 APF Seniors and I had the shittiest meet of my PL career in the fall of 97. Something had to change for both of us.

By forming an alliance with Art, I had the most productive Powerlifting years of my life from 1998 to 2003. My platform performances were well earned and important to me- despite the fact that many of them are not reflected in the website OpenPowerlifting-yet. But this article is about Art and what a true training partner can mean to another lifter.

On January 1, 1998, Art and I began our assault with him showing me his 5, 10, 15, broke workout which was taking a weight on the bench and repping it for five, ten, fifteen and then to failure for reps. I used 315 and Art did as well. I sucked after the set with 15 reps but Art hit approximately 25 good reps with three plates. Like 90% of our training, this was done raw. As an aside, Art was phenomenal at reps in the bench. One summer Saturday, Art repped 225 lbs for 46 full reps at the grand opening of a South Bay Harley Davidson Shop as part of their grand opening, barbecue type bench contest. Coupled with the hot body contest and So Cal scenic crowd, that was a great day.

This impromptu bench contest was not the most memorable one I ever saw Art compete in however. None to compare to a bench meet that was held as part of a grand opening of a new 24 hour fitness in Orange County. As per the norm, we were close to finishing up a max effort lower body workout in my garage in Yorba Linda when a call came in as to why Art was not at the bench meet set to begin at 1 pm. We had not known about the contest until the call, but all Art had to hear was that Cocco, a decent bencher who thought very highly of himself was entered and had assumed, rather publicly, that Art had ducked his challenge in his own backyard of OC. We proceeded to pile in to Art’s truck and within a few hours Art had benched over 500 and set the record straight.

There was a time I sold a 2 hour video tape of our workouts at Yorba Barbell online. After he reviewed the tape in his monthly PLUSA column, Dr Ken Leistner sold a bunch of tapes for me that allowed me to buy more equipment. The most famous moment in the tape is when the crew is doing floor presses off of my not bolted down power rack. Art is top dog of the day and is floor pressing over 500lbs, when the bar gets stuck under the j-cup on the way to lockout and the rack is lifted off the floor and locked out with the bar. Anyone who has seen this tape has remarked about how amazing Art’s lifting is.

Whenever Art was challenged he was surely at his best, much like a wounded animal, Art would get these dark, shark like eyes, and he would unleash everything he had. Art was on a short hiatus due to his bicep tear when he rode up to a full garage one evening. A newer lifter who did not know any better asked Art, what are you doing here with your bicep hurt? Art took one disgusted look at the guy, shoved him to the side and proceeded to grab the power rack chin up bar to bang out 12 perfect chins. Then Art got into the mouth’s face and exclaimed that no one should doubt his arm.

99% of the time, Art was cool, calm, and quiet as many of his Yorba mates, myself included were far more verbose. Art’s display of raw emotion would also boil over if he felt a friend was being questioned. In 2000, Art handled me when I won the heavy weight best lifter at the Santa Barbara East Beach Open, but lost the overall to 148er Scott Layman. Scott let us know he was pound for pound the man-and Art leaned in towards him and hissed – “Remember, when people go to the circus they go to see the lions Scott, not the ants.”

At the 1998 APF Cal States in Fresno, Art dominated the meet and when he received his award, he hit a mocking most muscular because 2nd place finisher Joe DeAngelis (RIP) had been Mr America and decided to hit poses after each of his lifts. Art had been mentored by Roger Estep, Terry McCormick and Dave Shaw- Powerlifting royalty who taught Art and all of us at Yorba to respect the sport and your time on the platform.

Art had a quiet, non-conformist streak in him. Maybe it was because he grew up a stones throw from the famous Zuvers Gym in Costa Mesa. It could have been because after graduating from high school Art moved to Hawaii for a year to become a professional surfer. Art would sew his own bench shirts together and if he did have to buy one, he would spray paint over the Inzer logo because they did not sponsor him yet they sponsored teammates such as Josh and myself. Art is a very successful drywall contractor who worked his ass off to build a company which afforded he and his family a comfortable lifestyle. Art’s generosity went far beyond his family, as his company sponsored my trip to handle him at the inaugural WPO show in Daytona Beach. If you look closely, you can see me putting on Art’s straps at that meet in the new Westside vs the World documentary.

Art was always there for me, at every meet, regardless of whether he was competing or not. I strayed from the way so to speak and started doing competitive Strongman training in 2001 following a knee injury. Art was supportive of me, even though his strength goals were strictly Powerlifting. Once I came back to Powerlifting, Art had my back, flying up to Sacramento to be there for my first official 800lb squat. Same thing for my first official 2000lb total, Art was there at Universal Studios but not competing.

The one thing I recall most about Art’s demeanor was his quiet confidence. Art knew what he wanted to do, made up in his mind his goals and achieved them. When training together, I followed more of a Westside Conjugate style with box squats and various Max Effort exercises. Art free squatted his sets and did not do the zercher squats, kneeling squats and pull throughs I enjoyed. We all did variations of speed pulls for our deadlifts at my garage- all conventional and with lower percentages for singles. I had 7 men who trained in my gym who officially pulled over 744, but the biggest pull ever done in the gym was 700 and that did not give us the training effect we wanted.

Art and I worked towards a lot of things together, most importantly the same dream-living a productive “main stream” life while becoming as strong as possible. During our journey we shared laughs, workouts, Physicians, plane rides, long drives, gym visits, and many, many meals together. Around the corner from Yorba Barbell was a small Mexican restaurant with excellent food. Many bench workouts on Thursday would end with the owner showing up with trays of food Art had paid for. When we were getting ready for a Senior nationals, the Friday recovery day between Thursday nights bench and Saturday morning squats was a trip to Sumo Sushi for all you could eat lobster, shrimp and fried rice. When I began training with Art I weighed 296, but was 328 for the 98 Seniors in Chicago. As Larry Pacifico famously stated you should be spending 300 per week on food and 20 on toilet paper. 

Art never weighed more than 285, and did all his competitive damage in the 275lb class.  At 5’11”, Art cut an impressive figure but in work clothes, on a construction site, you may be fooled by what lay underneath that flannel when you talked shit to Art from 50 feet up on scaffolding. The scar across Art’s face from being slashed by metal roofing material from the shit talker was the last act of aggression before said instigator was choked unconscious by one of the strongest powerlifters to ever walk California soil.

I am not saying that Art did not get along with people, far from it. Art was able to work for a neighbor as a bodyguard in China and returned to the U.S. every time without incident.

My favorite Art Labare story, that I can share in mixed company, has to do with a surprise visit he made to my house one Christmas. We had squatted the day before in the garage, which housed my water heater. The house in Yorba Linda was my first, and I had no home owner experience. Art showed up Christmas afternoon with a brand new water heater in his truck and his daughters in tow so they could play with gifts while he worked. Art single handily changed out my old water heater, bear hugging it and throwing it into his truck after he removed it and then let it empty into the lawn. Art installed the new heater in the blink of an eye and as I tried to thank him, he said, “You’ll thank me by getting us stronger.” We both did. Much stronger. But, that my readers is what physical culture is all about- helping each other selflessly when the mutual goal is strength. Anyone who has pursued physical culture, knows that in addition to your birth family, your forged family bonds over the blood, sweat, and tears that is high level strength athletics.