In the last installment in this series, I outlined the progressive overload approach that I followed during my first successful training phase. This installment will cover the next phase, namely my forgotten foray into competitive bodybuilding.
Bodybuilders get a rough ride from everyone else in the iron game. Powerlifters scoff at their meager strength levels (at least compared to them), while the functional training types snicker at the woeful athleticism some off-season bodybuilders display when asked to sprint up a flight of stairs or move a sofa.
And nothing draws more criticism from the rest of the iron world than the bizarre narcissism exhibited by some of bodybuilding's real bad apples. Ever notice that the businesses with the most mirrors are hair salons, bridal dress shops, and hardcore bodybuilding gyms? There's a reason for that.
But before you get carried away with the bodybuilder bashing, consider another thing. The most muscular motherfuckers on the planet are bodybuilders.
An elite-level powerlifter might squat 800-plus and bench 600, but how many would have the quad and biceps size to even make a dent at a pro bodybuilding show?
No type of training will build muscle like bodybuilding training. Bodybuilders are obsessed with their craft, and if a modified powerlifting program was the ticket to winning a show, then the powerlifting dungeons would be overrun by shaved dudes in string tank tops.
It seems like almost every coach, lifter, or trainer thinks they have so much to teach, but very few try to see if there's anything they can learn in return. If you want to build muscle – and at some point, you all should – you should shut your face and listen to the bodybuilders. They just might have something you can learn from them.
First, Some Background Story
After (barely) graduating from high school and heading off to college, I was forced to leave my powerlifting gym – along with my mentors – behind. When I say these guys were "mentors" I'm not using that word lightly. These guys basically saved my life.
You see, all through grade school I battled many labels. I was labeled "dyslexic" and "learning disabled" and was forced to take special classes and have tutors. Unfortunately, I accepted these labels, hid behind them, and eventually embraced them by labeling myself as "stupid."
The labels destroyed any sense of self esteem I had. They made it "okay" for me to be the dumb kid that was always picked last in gym class; the loser who got his ass kicked after school. The labels meant that I didn't need to fit in anywhere nor have any hope for the future.
Thanks to the labels, I'd resigned myself to thinking that I was put on this earth for no other reason than to get in the way, and that's what I thought when I joined a private barbell club. I figured that I might as well be at a place where I could get stronger and be left alone.
But those guys at the barbell club saw right through it. Maybe they saw a bit of themselves in me, I don't know, but they proceeded to beat the labels right off me.
They taught me that I had worth, that if I set goals and focused I could accomplish anything I set my mind to. They taught me dedication, hard work, consistency, discipline, and an inner drive that I never knew I had. They showed me how those four chalk-dusted walls could be a sanctuary of strength, both mental and physical. It could be a home. It could be my home.
We all have defining moments in our lives that shape who we are and who we'll become and this was a huge one for me. Those guys are the reason I do what I do today, maybe even the reason I'm still breathing. They changed my life. They saved my life. And for that, I'm grateful.
But now my time at the barbell club was done. I was strong, but also young and on my own, and I decided I wanted to be one thing, jacked.
I did my first bodybuilding show between high school and college. I entered the teenaged division and prepared for it all on my own...except for a pre-contest manual I'd bought from Rich Gaspari.
I followed the manual to the letter and when I stood onstage I was the biggest guy up there by 50 pounds. The problem was, although I was in shape and had abs, I was nowhere near shredded, and had my ass handed to me by a 145-pounder who was cut to ribbons.
To add insult to injury, as I stood up there feeling like the fat kid in gym class, the announcer kept repeating that the guys who beat me were representing Hard Body's Gym.
Repeatedly, Hard Body's Gym, Hard Body's Gym. I knew that somehow, I had to get there....
Hard Body Mecca
Getting to Hard Body's proved to be more difficult than I'd anticipated. My parents really wanted me to go to college and I was applying everywhere, but after graduating high school with a stellar GPA of 1.59, I wasn't exactly being inundated with acceptance letters. Let's just say that Yale wasn't calling; hell, nobody was calling.
I did finally get into a small business school called the University of Tiffin, which pleased my parents but didn't help me one bit. You see, Tiffin wasn't anywhere near Hard Body's. The closest gym to the school was a YMCA and it was about two miles away, and because I didn't have a car I had to walk. I thought I was screwed.
So I set a new plan. I began focusing on getting my grades up and started with a bunch of remedial courses that I never took in high school like biology and algebra. I had to take these before I could take any college level courses, so I could transfer to a better school like Bowling Green – so I could be closer to Hard Body's.
Just one semester later, I'd achieved what I'd set my mind too. I was able to transfer. Hard Body's here I come!
Bowling Green is apparently a much nicer school than Tiffin. I say "apparently" because I flunked out after just one semester.
You see, now that I was at Hard Body's, it was difficult to do things like go to class or God forbid, study, especially when the double split routine I was following had me training three hours a day.
Plus, factor in the time it takes to cook meals and drive back and forth to the gym twice every day. (I'd saved up enough money to get a car, not so I could get to school quicker, but so I could drive to Hard Body's.) Well, something had to give. And considering how hard I worked to get there, it sure wasn't going to be Hard Body's.
Wake The F Up
As you can see, while the guys at the barbell club taught me to have self-esteem, I still had my head firmly lodged up my own ass. Fortunately, throughout my life I've had people call me on that when it really mattered.
Shortly after being kicked out of college, I ran into an old coach that I used to train with from time to time. While explaining to him all the knowledge I was acquiring training twice a day at Hard Body's, he asked me how college was going, to which I answered that school wasn't working out and that I didn't think it was "for me."
In a polite but aggressive way, he let me know that I wasn't stupid but just plain fucking lazy, and that I'd always have to work twice as hard as everyone else to get the same work done.
He told me my will, discipline, and ability to never quit in the gym was all that I needed and I just had to wake the F up. I'm sure in one way or another I'd heard those things before, but on that day, from that person, I listened.
Education of a Bodybuilder
Part of the reason I was training twice a day was so I could meet up with one of the owners of Hard Body's named Rick. Rick was a Mr. Ohio competitor and a hell of a bodybuilder, and I knew that I needed to pick his brain if I was going to reach my goals.
What many young guys raised on digital social networks don't understand is, back in the day you didn't just talk to guys like this. You had to pay your dues by showing up and training at the same time as them to show them that you're serious and then maybe, just maybe, you could eventually ask to work in or maybe even train with them.
I never knew what time Rick was training so I hit the gym twice a day until I could build rapport with him, and eventually I did. The good news for me was that Rick recognized me from my first show. The bad news was that he thought I looked like shit and needed a ton of work.
In short order, my powerlifting physique was:
• Too thick in the waist. All ab work was now out.
• Too narrow in the delts. They needed more width.
• Too narrow in the lats. I needed my lats to "flare."
• Lacking upper pec development.
• Lacking quad development.
• Lacking triceps shape.
• Diet needed to completely change. (More on that later.)
Rick said the first thing for me to do was to stop working my body as a unit and start seeing it as separate parts.
To illustrate, Rick had me bounce my pec, the calling card of every young guy who's ever done a bench press. I did so with ease, to which Rick said, "Now do the same thing with your triceps."
Make your triceps bounce? I could flex my triceps, but I couldn't exactly do a triceps dance like I could with my pecs. Sure enough, Rick could do that, along with his delts, traps, lats, and quads. Regardless, I didn't see the point of any of it.
"You need to be able to learn to control every muscle if you're going to make it grow the way you want it to," said Rick.
So for the next few months, along with lying in bed trying to make my freaking rear delts bounce, I began training Rick's way, which entailed cutting the weights I used by up to 50% and focusing on feeling the muscle contract.
Whenever I pissed and moaned about seeing my poundages plummet, Rick would remind me that the muscle doesn't know if it's pushing or pulling 400 pounds or 40 pounds; all it knew was if it was getting trained or not.
At first I had a real hard time with this, but after a while it was cool to see how I could absolutely destroy my chest with 70-pound dumbbells when before I was blasting away with the 150s. And I started to grow, big time.
Suddenly, I had biceps, triceps, hamstrings, and calves. My chest started to get shape and I could finally feel my lats working during chin-ups, pulldowns, and rows.
We followed the following split:
Day 1 Chest and Delts
Day 2 Legs
Day 3 Arms
Day 4 Back
Day 5 Repeat
Days off were taken as needed. Sometimes this was once every 8 days, sometimes once every 3 weeks. As I was just following Rick around, my days off were taken as Rick needed them.
The training was broken into two phases. After a four-day rotation using the first phase, we'd go through with the second.
Phase 1: Heavy
Volume: 20 sets for big bodyparts, 10 sets for small
Exercises: Basic compounds
Techniques: Clusters, partials, pyramiding up to a heavy weight
Rest: Longer rest intervals
Notes: Nothing to failure
Duration: 45 minutes
Phase 2: Light
Volume: 20 sets for big bodyparts, 10 sets for small
Techniques: Pre-exhaustion, supersets, drop sets, constant tension. Weak parts like upper pecs, quad sweep, delt width, and back width were given extra attention.
Rest: Short rest intervals
Notes: Past failure
Duration: 90 minutes
As contests drew closer, Phase 1 would be gradually eliminated until training was strictly Phase 2. This was done to burn more calories, thereby reducing the reliance on cardio while helping prevent the injuries that can result from heavy training in a depleted state.
According to Rick, my diet needed to change completely if I was to be a bodybuilder.
This is the diet I followed throughout my time at Hard Body's:
4-6 ounce bowl of oatmeal
8 slices of rye or whole-wheat toast
1 apple or grapefruit
8 ounces of juice or protein drink
3 whole-wheat pancakes with honey (with toast, fruit, and drink)
4-6 ounce bowl of grain cereal with skim milk (with toast, fruit, and drink)
Lean meat protein
Baked potato or pasta or brown rice
Salad with low fat dressing
Lean meat protein
Salad with low-fat dressing
Meal 4: Repeat Meal 2
Meal 5: Repeat Meal 3
Meal 6: Same as Meals 2 & 4 (perhaps add a protein drink)
Eating this way was redundant, to say the least. (Even today I can't eat a plain baked potato, and even eating a chicken breast can be difficult for me on a bad day.) Off-season, I could eat more than this, but it was only allowed after I ate everything off this menu first.
Pre-contest, the diet would change very little. Rick was of the mind that there were certain foods that "worked" and that to lose fat you should only change how much of them you were eating.
Not surprisingly, with carbs so sky-high my biggest problem at show time was getting into condition. Even with a very long prep – diets were always a minimum of 16 weeks – I could never achieve the kind of conditioning that I could later in life with things like carb cycling.
It was the competitive side of bodybuilding that eventually did me in. As much as I liked the guys at Hard Body's and loved the training, I just didn't get the reward at the end of the long prep that I got from powerlifting competitions.
First of all, the entire last week is a freaking nightmare, and anyone who says different is either a liar or has never done it.
Second, and this really hit home for me while competing in a warm-up show before the Mr. Ohio show, on contest day, you're standing on stage posing and you realize: I'm on a stage, in my underwear, painted up and oiled, posing for an audience of 90% guys, most of which are dressed in boat-neck sweatshirts with tank tops underneath. It just wasn't me.
After that show, I went back to my apartment and essentially ate myself into a coma. My training partner Vinnie came by the next day and found me passed out in a litter of pizza boxes, Oreo wrappers, and McDonald's containers and said, "Shit Dave, I guess you really are done with competing,"
I was. I loved the training, loved the process, but the reward just wasn't there.
What I Learned and Liked
The older I get and the more my own training has evolved, the more I find value in the time I spent bodybuilding. The biggest things I've taken from this phase are:
• The value of hard, high volume training. Powerlifting is hard. A max-effort deadlift or squat can make you feel like your lungs are popping out your ass. But there's something about a hard, high volume bodybuilding workout that's another animal entirely. You just get gassed; a full body, total exhaustion, can't-do-another-rep-if-you-paid-me kind of gassed. And those pumps? I don't want to quote Arnold, but who doesn't love a good pump?
• The value of isolating a muscle. Clearly, for a powerlifter to be successful he or she has to learn how to train movements, not muscles. But if some of those individual muscles are out of balance, it's like the weak link in the chain. Bodybuilding taught me how to target and bring up weak points, which a powerlifter can apply when selecting supplemental exercises.
• The 24-7 factor. Let's face it, powerlifting is demanding as hell, but it's nowhere near as all encompassing as bodybuilding is. If you're preparing for a powerlifting meet, you can still eat pretty much whatever you want and even have a social life. A bodybuilding contest prep? Forget about it.
The thing is, I like that 24-7 challenge. I've always seen things that are monotonous and tedious as paying your dues, something which has benefitted me later in life as a businessman. I see it as doing the things the average guy can't do, or at least isn't willing to do. There's a lot to be said for doing those kind of things.
• The scheduling demands. I was training a ton back then, especially during double-splits or contest preps. This required that at the beginning of the week, I had to schedule my training sessions like they were must-attend appointments, and pencil in everything else around that. This is something I continue to do to this day – I schedule my workouts into my week as if they are meetings so I don't miss any. My only regret is not scheduling some of my college classes the same way.
Looking Back at Bodybuilding
In my training life I've always kind of fallen into extremes. I could never just be "strong," I had to be "ridiculously strong" and destroy my body in the process.
Same with bodybuilding. I couldn't just get big and muscular and hit the bars with my 20-inch guns, I had to train three hours a day, eat the same shit for years on end, and compete in bodybuilding shows.
But that's just the way I am. The average person just wants to be pretty big and fairly strong. And for these normal people, a certain amount of pure bodybuilding training could be just the thing.
You will never, ever achieve the pec, arm, and quad development of a bodybuilder if you don't train like one, at least for a while. I don't care how big or strong a powerlifter you are, you need at least some isolation work to reach your hypertrophy potential, especially in stubborn bodyparts.
Stubborn bodyparts need volume, usually from isolation work, to grow. Some of you may debate this but I have 30 years of observations to back up my theory. Don't bother trying to convince me that because your stubborn arms finally grew when you started doing chin-ups that all you need are chin-ups. Your biceps started to grow because you were/are a fucking beginner. I'm not referring to going from 14 to 15 inch biceps – try 19 to 21 inches.
So if your goal is to be an average guy with above average levels of strength and muscle mass, you should cycle bodybuilding into your own training. Even if your primary goal is to be strong, a three-month block every year won't hurt.
Perhaps true "dyed in the wool" powerlifters might not benefit from such a different style of training, but that doesn't mean even they can't apply some bodybuilding principles to their assistance work. Most powerlifers I know put very little thought into their accessory work, and if they do it's just what movement to do, not how to cycle it.
Bodybuilding the Right Way
Would I do this all again, and if I could, what would I do differently?
• Training. The biggest change I'd make would pertain to recovery. I wouldn't try to cram so much training into 8 days, and the double splits in particular would be out the window. Pre-contest I'd just use more steady state cardio to lose fat rather than cramming in double the gym workouts.
I'd still try to follow the "each bodypart twice a week" thing. This was huge in the 80's, and fell out of favor in the 90's with everyone jumping on the "one body part a day, once a week" bandwagon. I'm not sure why – maybe bodybuilders are just lazy? Regardless, the frequency definitely worked for me, and if I were to pick the next big thing in bodybuilding training it would be an every bodypart twice-a-week spilt.
• Diet. What wouldn't I change? The diet I was given was terrible; too high in carbs, too low in protein and fat, not enough variety and very little actual nutrition.
The first thing I'd do is hook up with Shelby Starnes and set up a carb-cycling plan. Not necessarily a low carb plan – I do well with carbs – but something where the macros are adjusted throughout the week allowing me to ingest more fat and in turn, burn more bodyfat. This is kind of funny to write because it's something I'm currently doing today.
The next thing would be to add a peri-workout nutrition system like the Plazma™. I keep a lot more muscle when I take in the right nutrients before and after training. We never had that back then, and it shows.
• Given it more years. If I could somehow repeat this period in my life, I would've liked to have given it more time. Knowing what I know now, I think that in a few years I could have produced a quality physique.
Granted, the competitions were still a let down, but I think if I could've taken that 20-year-old guy and applied what I know today about training, nutrition and supplementation, I might've been able to create something respectable.
I still play around with all those things today, but now it's with a body that's been beaten up and with things torn off. My physique can still make progress, but there are real limitations that I can't overcome.
It's not something that I piss and moan about, but here's the thing: I might be known as Dave Tate the powerlifter, but to this day I still question whether my genetics were best suited for powerlifting or for bodybuilding?
I made the decision to be a powerlifter and I have no regrets, but I do think about that sometimes. I also wonder what might've happened if I could apply what I know now about strength training and restoration to my powerlifting career from day one. This is something I wonder about much more. But that's for later in the series.
Looking back at my brief foray into bodybuilding, I realize that I made many mistakes – go figure – but I also took steps towards becoming the powerlifter, businessman, father, and yes, bodybuilder that I am today.
Because when I showed up at Hard Body's, I was like a NASCAR stock car; everything built to work together as a unit to achieve optimum performance. My bodybuilding mentors took that car apart, cleaned and tested every last piece, and then reassembled it so every piece individually operated at peak performance.
It wasn't until I left that body behind that I realized what a gift it was.