Iron Evolution: Phase 9
Putting Myself in John Meadows' Hands
The last installment in this series was all about coaching, specifically for the nutrition side of strength and physique development.
Bodybuilding writers love to use percentages to describe the importance of exercise and nutrition. They'll say looking jacked is 50% training and 50% diet, or 60% and 40% one way or the other. Sometimes they'll even break it up further and throw in points for mental strength.
I'd personally like to see a few percentages offered to being disciplined, OCD, and a little bat-shit crazy, but clearly the real gains happen when you give equal attention to both diet and training.
Unfortunately, that's something that I hadn't been able to do up to this point.
I'd gone through periods where I put my trust in experts like Louie Simmons to handle my training, and reached levels of strength beyond my expectations. On the other side, when I let experts like John Berardi, Justin Harris, or Shelby Starnes handle my nutrition, I got into the best condition of my life.
But what would happen if I let an expert cover everything – my training, diet, supplementation, everything. What if I just gave up control, handed him the keys and said, "Go for it. Let's see what you can do."
I'm the type of guy who likes to call the shots, so giving up that much control wasn't going to happen by choice. I'd need a hell of a reason. And that's when life stepped in.
The Year from Hell
I've been through my share of shit – just read through the previous eight installments for some examples – but 2010 was probably the worst year yet.
That year I lost my father. It was a terrible process that started with him suffering a stroke and being rushed to the hospital. While admitted, the doctors found he also had cancer. My dad was eventually released and bounced back and forth between long-term care facilities and the hospital before eventually passing away a few months later.
Not long after my dad died, my wife suffered a pulmonary embolism and was also rushed to the hospital. Seconds away from dying, the doctors had to perform emergency open-heart surgery to save her.
Finally, on the business front, I had two monstrous legal issues that were coming to a head. So add legal wrangling and nonstop meetings on top of the normal day-to-day bullshit every business owner has to deal with and I was at my limit for stress.
To combat this, I tried to do what I always did when life got stressful – I trained.
Normal types might scoff at the notion of hitting the gym with so much shit going on, but they aren't seeing the big picture – or at least my big picture. I don't punish myself with drop-sets and high-rep squats to build muscle. I do it to kill my demons.
We all have demons inside of us. Some have more than others, and some guys can deal with them better than the next. That 40-something stressed-out businessman who suddenly snaps and bludgeons the Walmart greeter with a plunger is an example of someone who can't handle his demons. I'm not saying I'm always inches away from committing manslaughter, but I can be a real dick when I let stress get the better of me.
So I smash my demons. I crush them under PR's. And if I'm too fucked up to train heavy, I torch them with extended sets, rip them apart with rest pauses and drop sets, and then chase them away with whatever fucked up finishing exercise I can think of. The demons always come back, mind you, but as long as I have a key to my gym I can stay one step ahead.
But this year was different. Life was piling on the problems faster than I could handle them. I started to feel like I had no control, that nothing I did mattered anyway, and as a result my usual coping strategy wasn't helping.
I still made it to the gym, but since I didn't give a shit, I'd just do whatever – and whatever wasn't working. I felt exactly the same leaving the gym as I did walking in.
I reached a breaking point one Saturday morning when I showed up at the compound to do legs. I couldn't think of a single exercise to do, much less a routine. I was lost.
I decided to phone a friend. I pulled out my phone and sent Shelby Starnes a text. "Hey man, I need a leg workout."
A few seconds later, Shelby sent a response that was perhaps befitting a guy in my position making such a request. "Uh, are you fricken serious?"
"Yeah, I'm lost," I replied. "Can't think of a damn thing."
A few minutes went by before Shelby got back to me.
"Here's something from a guy I've been working with. I think it's what you need."
What Shelby sent me was absolutely nuts. High reps, high volume and enormous pumps, and multiple intensity techniques – it was like the best of 1980's bodybuilding on a 10-day meth binge. I hit it with gusto, and two hours later was seeing stars in the middle of the gym floor.
I fumbled out my cell phone and sent Shelby another text. "Dude, that was awesome. Just what I needed. Who the hell wrote that?"
"It's from a guy named John Meadows."
The next week I contacted John Meadows and told him how his workout was exactly what I needed. I also told him that I wanted more. Much more. I wanted the whole package – diet, training, supplements – the whole enchilada. I knew I had to delegate all of this off my plate.
I explained to John that I didn't have the headspace to design an exercise program or micromanage a diet, however, training is what gives me balance. If I don't train (and train hard), I can't function effectively, much less deal with stress. Instead, I just eat comfort foods and blow up into a fat unhealthy mess.
To keep this from happening I needed someone to make it easy. So we established a goal that was simply, "Keep Dave under 250 pounds." Nothing fancy or more stressful than that. From there, John started sending me workouts.
I absolutely loved the training. It was bodybuilding but still relatively heavy, and very few movements were lifts that I was too messed up to do. And the intensity was through the roof.
I was making good progress in the mirror, too. I started emailing John my pics every week, which we quickly realized was redundant because we live in the same city.
So John offered to come out to Elitefts™ on a Saturday to train with me. He said it was because he'd always wanted to train at Elite, but I knew the main reason was to see if I was working as hard as I claimed and to make sure I was sticking to the diet. Sending pics once a week is one thing, but seeing your coach in the flesh takes it to another level of accountability. You can't hide shit.
I saw John coming over to my gym as a challenge. I knew his reputation as a hard trainer and I'd watched his videos that accompanied his T Nation articles. The guy's a beast no doubt, but I'm not exactly a slouch when it comes to intensity, either. I've done my share of retarded workouts, and was not about to let some bodybuilder walk into my gym and try to show me how to train hard.
Our first workout together basically set the tone for what would become some of the most demanding training of my life. With John's training, it's not the exercises and the volume that's so rough but the mental part, specifically the icy fear that runs through your mind before you even start.
I had no idea what we were going to do, how many sets or movements. It was like a nasty black hole. That first day we had warm-up sets, semi warm-up sets, semi work sets, work sets and finally "big" sets. This is all with the same fucking exercise.
We did deadlifts with chains – for 45 minutes. This was after one-arm barbell rows supersetted with t-bar rows, wide grip partial pull downs, and at least 6 sets of Reeves deadlifts. I thought we were done at least three times, but that's when the chain deads came in.
I'm totally serious.
We still push each other. Check out the videos below:
To this day we try to kill each other. In fact, as I sit here writing this, I just heard through a third party that John was sick this week and needed IVs due to dehydration. While I suppose a friend should be sympathetic, all day long I've been thinking about how bad I plan to fuck him up tomorrow.
I should note, he gets sick more often than normal because he's missing parts of his digestive tract, and if he was "really" sick I would definitely back it down.
Nah, I wouldn't. Besides, the last few times this has happened, I ended up the one who got destroyed.
To the lay person it might seem like a really fucked up friendship, and in a way it is. We both just have the type of personality that responds favorably to extreme pressure.
I've known a lot of successful people both inside and outside the gym who share this quality. When life is normal or doesn't ask much of them, their actions aren't particularly note worthy. They just accomplish whatever's required of them.
But when the pressure is on, they rise to the challenge – the bigger the obstacle, the more they step up and get shit done. I wouldn't want my entire life to feel like a John Meadows workout, but if and when something heavy comes up, I like knowing that I have what it takes to hang in there, to never quit, that I'll eventually grab it by its ugly blonde head and beat it.
After Six Months
Within six months I was 230 pounds and under 8% bodyfat. And I felt great. Usually when I get to around 8% or so, life becomes hell. I can't think straight and the cravings get overwhelming. But this was easy, and I was only doing cardio four days a week for 45 minutes.
I kept at it, and finally hit 5% bodyfat. I figured that was a good time to wrap things up, but John had other plans.
"Let's keep things going," he said. "I'll bring up your calories a bit and we'll reevaluate in two weeks."
Two more weeks of dieting? I wasn't thrilled but did what he said.
Two weeks later, it was more of the same. "Let's reevaluate in two weeks. Don't quit now, Dave."
Frick, another two weeks?
A few weeks stretched into a few months, but I eventually reached my lifetime leanest condition – at 221 pounds – before going back up to 250 again over the next six weeks.
When I didn't go much above 250, however, was when things got weird. Whenever I'd dieted down in the past I always ended back up around 280-290. Now 250 pounds seemed liked the new "set-point."
That's when it hit me – by making sure the diet was long enough, that sneaky son of a bitch kept this excessive rebound from happening again. Well, sorta!
The Heavy Stuff
What I love about John's routines is that they push all the buttons that I want my training to push. I can go (relatively) heavy and use real exercises to indulge the powerlifter in me, but also get in enough volume and pump for growth and satisfy my love of training.
But the big thing is, John's training might fuck me up but it doesn't injure me. One way he accomplishes this is by placing the big multi-joint lifts later in the routine.
In other words, a chest day might have reverse band bench presses, but after dumbbell presses, decline presses, and often even machine presses. So by the time I get to the band presses, I'm gassed, and don't need to – or can – go nearly as heavy as I'd normally be tempted to. And it's hard to get injured with 50% of your old PR.
This was also good for me mentally. As a former competitive powerlifter, I know what I could squat, bench, and deadlift when I was fresh and in my prime. I'm often haunted by this when I perform these lifts today since I'm not nearly as strong as I once was. This can fuck with my head or worse, get me calling for weights that I have no business trying to handle.
But having to perform them third or fourth in the routine – after my muscles are completely pumped – is incredibly different. I have no previous bests to compare to, and as such every workout feels like I'm challenging a new PR, not trying to beat an old PR that's now unattainable.
That isn't to say that I'm not getting stronger doing John's programs. He tends to program the same big lifts for 5-6 weeks at a time, so even though you're attacking a big lift later in your routine, you still see it often and in a progressive loading manner. This helps develop strength (though not as a priority) while keeping you healthy.
Pump Up The Volume
John's approach to volume is also different. In a traditional bodybuilding program, 5 x 8 usually means 5 progressively heavier sets, with the fifth set being the true 8RM.
With John, 5 x 8 means 2-3 warm-up sets that don't count, followed by 5 sets with the heaviest weight you can handle for 8 reps. It may seem like a small distinction, but when you repeat that over 6 or 7 exercises per workout, it adds up.
With John I leave every workout feeling absolutely gassed, but I like that. This may go against the grain, but I hate leaving the gym feeling like I could've done a lot more.
For me a good workout means sitting in the parking lot for 45 minutes waiting for my head to clear so I can wheel my tired ass home. Sure it's possible to do too much volume – and a lot of bodybuilders in the 80's definitely did – but today, I think a lot of guys don't do enough.
I'm no swami and I can't read tea leaves, but I know training – and the pendulum is starting to swing back towards higher volume, big pump training. And I'm pleased to see it happen.
Here's why: In every meaningful endeavor in life, whether it's school, business, or sports, success requires hard work and sacrifice. So you're trying to tell me that training is somehow different? That only 30 minutes, three times a week is all you need to succeed?
Bullshit. Anyone who says that is either trying to sell you something or looks like dog shit. Usually both.
Adapt or Die
The body is highly adaptable. That easy routine that produces gains when you're a beginner just isn't enough when you're an intermediate or advanced. You have to do more – either more volume or more intensity, or both – to cause an adaptation.
Look, if it were easy, everyone would be jacked. Every guy who just hits chest and biceps three days a week would have chest and biceps like Phil Heath. But that's obviously not the case. You have to constantly up the ante.
I remember doing a seminar years ago with the late Dr. Mel Siff. I was speaking on conjugate periodization and he was talking about Olympic lifting, and over dinner the subject of bodybuilding training came up.
Siff said, "Bodybuilding training is relatively simple. You just train a muscle, tear it down, feed it, and let it recover. Then repeat."
I remember thinking, "That's so frickin' easy," especially compared to strength training where you had to worry about so many factors peaking at the same time.
However, with bodybuilding there's one catch: you have to vary things. And the more advanced you are, the more you must program in variety or you just spin your wheels. You also need to train hard enough to break the muscle down.
At Westside I learned that the stronger you are, the more work you have to do to build work capacity, usually by increasing the recovery work. Meadows applies an escalating workload to his bodybuilding programs and it makes sense, no matter what the "overtrain-a-phobes" tell you.
Remember when you played football or ran track? Remember how sore your calves were after the first practice? According to popular bodybuilding wisdom, you should've gone home, foam rolled, had an Epsom salt bath, and hit practice again in about five days when you were no longer sore.
But what did you do? Sore as hell, you still hit it again the next day. Eventually, the soreness went away.
Why? Because the body adapted. That soreness in your calves likely didn't return all season, except for when you did something different either in your training or in the amount you exercised. To cause a further adaption, you have to vary the stimulus.
It's fun for me to look back and see how I've come full circle. When I was a younger, healthier, headstrong powerlifter, I couldn't give a shit what I looked like as long as I was pushing up ridiculous weight.
But today, as a beat-up, retired powerlifter training to get jacked, I catch John saying the type of stuff I used to make fun of.
"The weight is just a tool, bro, to get you looking jacked!"
"Who cares how strong you are, just get a pump!"
"It's not how much you can lift, but what you look like."
This all makes me laugh, but I get it. We all – even broken down old powerlifters – care about what we look like.
But I'll always consider myself a powerlifter first. No insane shit I do with John will ever compare to feeling 900-pounds on my back. To understand that you have to experience it yourself, but few men ever can. Maybe that's part of the reason I love it so much.
But while some lifters talk shit about what separates bodybuilding from powerlifting, I'm at the stage now that I like to focus on what ties the two together: Hard work. Dedication. Goals. Sacrifice. Camaraderie.
Looking through the past 30 years of my training career, amidst all the painful injuries, crushing defeats, and occasional blissful victory, there's a noticeable theme: my progress always accelerated when I let someone else take control.
The irony is, in no instance did I ever want to give up control. I never wanted to go to the old barbell club – my dad had to drop me off there.
When I first met Louie Simmons I thought he was a fraud – but when I did everything he said, I became one of the strongest men on the planet.
I thought I walked normally – until Alwyn Cosgrove pissed himself laughing at seeing me trying to descend a flight of stairs.
I thought I'd either be a jacked wanna be bodybuilder or a fat off-season slug – until I let John Meadows take control.
When I was on my own and in full control of my destiny, like after I first left Hard Bodies to go back to powerlifting, or when I finally walked away from Westside, I nearly destroyed myself. I really was my own worst enemy. Hell, I still am.
You will always be your worst client. You might help thousands of people, but don't trust yourself to be your own coach. You'll either get injured or won't live up to your potential. So swallow your pride.
You will be better if you let someone help you be better. You're reading T Nation so you're already light years ahead of the curve. Now ask yourself: Am I just reading the articles and cherry-picking the odd tidbit of advice that validates what I currently do, or am I truly all in?
Do you do every published program as written, or do you follow your bullshit modified Frankenstein version?
Do you take the workout protocols as directed or do you try to outthink Tim Patterson when it comes to supplements?
Do you adjust the volume because you think you know more about getting strong than Jim Wendler, or use your own favorite exercises for getting big because you're more up to speed on the subject than Thibaudeau or Meadows?
If you do, your ego is what's holding you back. It's fucking you over. These guys know more about this stuff than you. It doesn't make you a bad person – it's just the facts. Swallow your pride and let somebody better call the shots. Go all in.
If you suddenly needed a doctor to remove your appendix, would you ask for the guy who reads a lot online and loves to "experiment?" Or the licensed surgeon who's done it a thousand times?
Listen to the real experts. Let go of control. And grow.
Life Is Competition
When I was a young I used to work so I could train and compete in the sport of powerlifting. Now I train so I can work and compete in business.
It's a much harder fight. In sport, everyone is out to win, no doubt, but a true sportsman cares if they see a competitor get hurt or carried off the platform.
In business, however, there's no sportsmanship of any kind. There's no end of game handshakes, and you're kidding yourself if you think for a second that your competitors care if you can feed your kids or not.
While it may seem like I'm painting a grim picture, it's also one of reality – and I love it!
I love it because I know how to deal with it. I've spent my life failing under the bar – getting stapled, getting hurt, being told I'd never compete again – but I've always gotten back up, dusted myself off, and came back stronger.
The gym has been the perfect classroom for me, because business is just a slicker variation of the same adversity I've faced since the first day I walked into a gym. And I know what to do.
Prepare. Perform. Prevail.
The Perfect Strength Supersoldier
If you've read through all the installments in this series you're probably wondering what I think is the absolute best training from my thirty years under the bar.
What would I do if I had access to a 13 year-old Dave Tate who wanted to be the ultimate bad ass? How would I train him to make him among the strongest men on the planet, yet jacked and muscular, with outstanding health as well?
Next to Westside, what I'm doing now with Meadows is the most productive training I've ever experienced. But neither of these systems is appropriate for a novice.
Most raw novices are too weak for either method. Hell, most are too weak for weight training period.
A raw novice's time would be better spent doing bodyweight training. You should be able to perform 100 push-ups, minimum, before even approaching a bench press. Add in pull-ups, lunges, and the other bodyweight staples to complete the program.
After a decent base of bodyweight strength has been developed, I'd next perform a sensible linear progression routine until respectable strength levels are achieved. 5/3/1 by my friend Jim Wendler and Starting Strength by Mark Rippetoe would fit the bill perfectly, with assistance work programmed to target any emerging weak points in size and strength.
However, after a certain threshold of development – say a 1.5 x bodyweight bench press, a 2 x bodyweight squat, and a 2.5 x bodyweight deadlift – it's time to step it up.
I'd follow a Meadows-type hypertrophy routine for about 7 months of the year. If the primary goal was bodybuilding, the programming would be designed to bring up any lagging body parts (delts, biceps, etc.).
If powerlifting was the main goal, the programming would try to stabilize any weak points such as the hamstrings and lower back. I'd also perform more sets of 5 reps or below.
After this 7 month phase was complete, I'd do 4-6 weeks of transition work in which I'd slowly scale the reps down while working in the traditional powerlifts.
Then, it's strength time. I'd do 12-16 weeks of Westside training, ideally leading into a powerlifting meet if that was the end goal. If not, the assistance work could shift to address any aesthetic weak points that might benefit from heavy, basic loading.
After this 12-16 week phase, I'd take 2-3 weeks to do absolutely nothing before reassessing my physique and identifying any weak points again. Then I'd start the whole system over.
Would such a system create the absolute best powerlifter or bodybuilder? No, some coveted muscle fullness would be lost in the Westside phase, and some strength would surely go during the long bodybuilding phases.
It would, however, create an athlete that's truly the best of both worlds – muscular, strong, and well rounded.
And with that, my evolution is complete. I hope you've enjoyed reading this series as much as I've enjoyed revisiting it. It's brought back a lot of memories; some painful, some cherished, but all a part of my evolution as a man of iron. I know my training will continue to evolve, and I look forward to sharing it with T Nation readers in future articles.