Powerlifting champion, referee and club owner Mark Giffin describes the Vault Barbell Club as the antithesis of a typical chain fitness centre
“There’s no juice bar, no mirrors,” he said. “You don’t get judged here. We’re not pushing membership sales. It was meant to look after a very specific group of people.”
That specific group of people have a specific goal.
“This is a gym where people come to get strong,” said Giffin. “We have world champions here and people who have never competed before. It doesn’t matter where you are on your journey as long as you are on your journey.”
Members journey to the Vault Barbell Club for the expert training but also for a sense of community.
“This is where people who are serious about lifting can train,” he said. “Having said that, the business has evolved where it has attracted a lot of people that want to be a part of that. They appreciate that they can come in, get some help, get a program and almost within the first week they are starting to see and enjoy results.”
That atmosphere has attracted a growing number of women.
“It’s worth mentioning that the majority of our members are women,” said Giffin. “You come in on a Saturday morning and it might be 2 p.m. before you see a guy come in.”
Club member Amy Martin is a kindergarten teacher as well as a competitive powerlifter.
“We hold seminars for different things and do a lot of education,” said Martin. “A lot of people think, ‘I’m not good enough to train there yet,’ but It’s not exclusive.”
Giffin encourages people to start their fitness journey at Vault.
“This is actually the best place for somebody to start,” he said. “They aren’t going to learn a bunch of crap. They’re going to learn how to move properly and they are going to learn how to be safe.”
Giffin was born in Almonte, Ont. in 1962 the oldest of three brothers. He earned a business degree at McKewan University in Edmonton, Alta. and went on to work for a couple decades in the metal fabrication industry.
In the early 1980s he got serious about fabricating his own mettle and started competing as a powerlifter.
He is the president of the Canadian Powerlifting Union that has 3,500 members nationwide. He is also a referee with the International Powerlifting Federation that oversees powerlifting competitions in 107 member nations. Giffin’s long list of powerlifting championships include former World Champion, Commonwealth Champion, North American Champion, Pan Am Champion and National Champion. He has also broken several powerlifting world records.
“I’m not sure how many,” he said. “It’s at least nine and I probably still hold a few. I haven’t looked in a few years. It sounds odd but I never cared about that stuff. It has always been about improving my performance before my next competition. That is what motivated me for a whole lot of years.”
He was working out of Gridiron Crossfit on Woolwich Street until 2017 when the gym was forced to close down and relocate to make way for a condo development. That is when Giffin decided to open Vault Barbell Club.
“What motivated me to open the business was the opportunity to look after that community that wasn’t being taken seriously,” he said. “Anybody could go and buy the equipment but there are so many like-minded individuals here as well.”
He assembled a dream team of trainers that includes Olympic and national powerlifting coaches Dr. Trevor Cottrell and Matt Goldsmith.
“With the knowledge base comes safety,” said Giffin. “You need to have people around you that know what they are doing and help guide you. Sometimes it is just to give you a spot and make sure, if things go pear shaped, that you don’t get squished.”
Along with building muscles, members are building a sense of community and a positive self-image.
“When I first came here, I felt like I was never small enough but once I started lifting with Mark’s help, I realised it goes so much more beyond what you weigh on the scale,” said Martin. “It’s what you achieve. It’s what you put on the bar. What you do with your body. It’s empowering and I’ve seen so many girls come in and make that same transformation. Suddenly we are feeling much healthier as a whole.”
Physiotherapist and competitive lawn bowler, Robin O’Toole is also an aspiring powerlifter.
“I started at 60 and I will have my first powerlifting competition in September,” she said. “I drive an hour each way to train here because I like the environment, the quality of the coaching and the support from the other lifters is phenomenal.”
Giffin said age and physical shape shouldn’t discourage people from joining the club.
“If you’re broken, I can fix you,” he said. “We do everything we can to make people feel they are a part of something.”
For Martin the relationships they have built are as important as the workouts.
“We come in for the sense of community,” said Martin. “We come in because there is a group of people who have become our friends and we can train together. We laugh. We work and everyone knows everyone’s name. It’s just such a positive place to be.”