Dave Tate of EliteFTS has accomplished pretty much everything a man can do under the bar – and lived to tell about it. He's an Elite status powerlifter, who despite suffering injuries and setbacks that would cripple a mere mortal, still pushes himself to be a better man than he was yesterday, in and out of the gym.
He's a sought after consultant for all things forged by iron, whether it's achieving superhuman strength or building a superhero's physique. A lot of gurus have talent and knowledge, with pristine resumes that sparkle with untested potential; Tate's curriculum vitae is beat up and covered in chalk, with each accomplishment a testament to a life spent surviving – and thriving – under the bar.
Thirty Years of Lifting
Recently at a seminar, some eager kid asked one of those questions favored by young guys who spend too much time online reading about strength training:
"Given your 30 years in the sport, what do you feel is going to be the next big training system?"
I wasn't sure if he was just breaking my balls about being (or looking?) old, but I gave him an honest answer anyway.
"Go dig up a few muscle magazines from the 80's. Find any training system being discussed that hasn't been recycled yet? There's your answer."
Sure, it was kind of a smart-ass response I suppose, but it's true.
Virtually every cutting edge, "Hot off the presses" training system out there; whether it's high volume or low volume, high frequency or low frequency, has been tried, tested, even written about before, just under a different name with different athletes grimacing in the cheesy pictures. The reason I can say this is that, quite honestly, I've done pretty much every non-retarded training system in existence – and more than my fair share of retarded ones as well.
I'm known mainly as a powerlifter and a strong proponent of Louie Simmons' Westside method, but that's hardly the only thing I've done in the past 30 years. I've done "hit the muscle from all angles" bodybuilding routines, even stepping onstage in a banana hammock on a few occasions. I've also done bat-shit crazy powerlifting routines that were so insane they should've killed me, or at least left me trading in the monolift for a wheelchair.
As a result, I've also had to do functional training to regain basic mobility that would bore your 80 year old grandma to tears – how that didn't kill me is probably the most surprising of all. Today, I follow a variety of different styles depending on what I want to accomplish during that phase, whether it's get stronger, bigger, more jacked (yeah I fucking said that), or just maintain whatever sanity I have left.
That's the summary of my story and really, it's nothing special. The way I see it is, I've been under the bar for 30 years, and if you're not pushing the envelope and trying new things, you really aren't trying that hard. But apparently there's some interest in how I trained during certain periods of my career and more importantly, why I decided to change from one style to the next.
I have to admit, the whole idea bored the living shit out of me when TC first pitched it, although when I sat down and wrote it all out I could see that there were some lessons to be learned there.
So every month or so, I'm going to revisit a period of my training career and break down a few things that worked for me, things that could easily work for you today. However, to kick things off, I need to first show you what 30 years of lifting actually looks like.
Phase 1: 1982-1987 Progressive Overload
Truth be told, I started lifting in 1981. My dad got me a plastic weight set for Christmas and a Weider workout book to go with it. I set it up in the garage and every day after school, a neighbor and I would do every exercise in the book. And I do mean EVERY exercise – it took about three hours.
Building the Foundation
Eventually my neighbor burned out and went in another direction and my Dad, realizing how utterly clueless I was, signed me up at a nearby barbell club. It was here that I was put on my first real program, a basic, linear progressive overload training program, and I followed that through to my first meet.
There was nothing new or groundbreaking about that program. Generally, we'd train in cycles, starting 12-16 weeks out from a meet. We'd start at 8 reps for a few weeks, then 5's for a few weeks, then 3's, then doubles and singles leading up to the meet. After the meet I'd do nothing for 4-6 weeks, although I was playing football and wrestling throughout that time as well.
That was it really – simple progressive overload; adding weight to the bar, and by the summer after high school I had a 700-pound squat, a 685-pound deadlift, and a 500-pound bench, raw (the squat and dead were single ply).
Granted, I had good genetics for the sport, but the important thing is that I had great coaching. I only had that one stupid year in my garage; there are guys in commercial gyms that have had stupid careers. I have many lessons to share from the era, lessons that would later define me as both a lifter and as a man. I learned that I loved strength, being challenged, being coached, and adding weight to the bar.
But after high school, I took my first of many steps in a new direction.
Phase 2: 1988-1991 Bodybuilding
After high school I was really big and really strong. But like every other teenaged guy, I wanted to be jacked, like the airbrushed guys in the magazines. Specifically, I wanted to be as big as a bodybuilder but as strong as a powerlifter. Hey, I was a teenager – who was going to tell me it couldn't be done?
Getting Jacked for Bodybuilding Shows
As I got more into muscle, I noticed that all the jacked guys were training in these fancy gyms with tons of exotic equipment. Keep in mind, I'd been training in a very basic weight room with zero bells and whistles, so after high school when I visited my first big commercial gym I almost had a weight orgasm.
I was instantly hooked and within a short time competed in my first bodybuilding contest. I came in at about 220, about 20lbs heavier than I should've been, and had my ass kicked by a guy who was about 145-pounds and absolutely shredded.
The good thing was that I caught the attention of two guys from Toledo who ran Hardbodies gym and coached bodybuilders. They saw some potential in me and offered to take me under their wing, so to speak. They told me that although I was plenty thick from my years of powerlifting, I lacked typical bodybuilding lines like lat and shoulder width.
They taught me stuff like how to isolate muscles and how to train to bring up weak points and create the bodybuilding illusion. It was completely different from what I had been used to and I can't say that I enjoyed it – especially all the slow tempo shit – but it worked, and I grew like crazy.
No System or Split We Didn't Try
Training wise, we did it all. I mean, EVERYTHING. There was no bodybuilding system or split that we didn't play with. Usually we did 8 sets for smaller bodyparts and 16 sets for larger ones, training each bodypart twice a week on average, which, incidentally, I think will be the next "big thing" in the bodybuilding world.
I did a total of three shows during that phase and increasingly improved my placing, even winning my last one. But the thing was, I hated bodybuilding shows. There was no adrenaline like a powerlifting meet, no camaraderie. You had this 12 or 16-week build up and then zip, nothing. Just a 60-second dance on stage. It wasn't me.
Thing is, I loved the muscles and especially the dieting and the discipline. I loved how it was a 24-7 commitment. You have to do your homework with powerlifting too but let's face it, it's nothing like the extreme attention to detail bodybuilding requires. Still, my place was under the bar and breaking PR's.
Lesson-wise, I learned how to address weak points for purely aesthetic purposes and create the bodybuilding illusion. I learned how to manipulate training parameters for size as opposed to strength, but most importantly, I learned how much I love discipline. That lesson in particular may have benefitted me more than any.
Phase 3: 1991-1993 Return to Powerlifting
AKA the "Fucking Disaster Period."
This is where most of my injuries occurred and where I had the most self-doubt. It was hell, plain and simple, and I learned one of the most important lessons of all: at the extreme end, building muscle and building strength are very different things.
After bodybuilding, I rebounded back up to 260 pounds with about 20 lbs. of new muscle that I gained from my bodybuilding period. I thought this new beef would help me kick some serious ass as a lifter and I couldn't wait for my first meet.
The whole training cycle sucked. I was benching 455 for 8, but couldn't single 485. I could squat 650 for 10, but couldn't single 720. I ended up doing the meet at 265 pounds and totaled less than I did after high school at 245. I was not happy.
By now I'm also in college and studying strength and conditioning, talking to coaches about strength, and reading everything I could get my hands on. It dawned on that during my bodybuilding period, I didn't do a damn thing for maximal strength or explosiveness. I had a lot to work on.
I started using nonlinear programs, and played with Bulgarian systems and some of the Spassov stuff. One of my favorites was:
- Week 1: 80%
- Week 2: 83.5%
- Week 3: 87%
- Week 4: deload
Then start over at week 1, but with the week 2 weight.
This was working well and I started to regain some of my former strength, but I also started to accumulate injuries, and in hindsight it was obvious why. I didn't take the necessary time to get my joints and tendons back up to handle maximal weights. Not to mention that not only was my rep strength too high and max strength too low, I'd created some muscle imbalances that were short-circuiting my gains.
When it was all said and done, when I finally did a meet, although I ended up totaling over 2000 lbs., I tore my pec right off the bone.
Change My Ways, or Out of the Sport In a Year
At that point, I'd seen Louie Simmons around and heard about him and his Westside Barbell club over in Columbus. I admit, much of what I heard I thought was total bullshit and didn't put much stock in some "magic" training system. But when I tore my pec, I remember Louie saying to me that if I didn't change what I was doing that I'd be out of the sport in a year.
Really, I was already done. I'd graduated college and was so beat up that I was ready to leave powerlifting for some kind of real job. My wife though, wanted to move to Columbus for work so I figured I'd give Westside – and powerlifting – one last shot.
Phase 4: 1993-2005 Westside Method
I arrived at Westside thinking Louie Simmons was basically full of shit and to be honest, that opinion didn't change my first year there. I saw what he was doing and it was just too different from what I was used to, so I trained in the afternoon when Louie was rarely there and did my own thing.
I did a meet after a year or so of training and my total went down, after which Louie, in his gentle style, suggested that I either start doing what he tells me to do or find the fucking door.
So now the line was drawn, and as a stubborn young guy it really pissed me off. "You know what," I thought, "fuck you. I'll do your bullshit system, and when I shit the bed again it'll be your fucking fault." And with that, I changed schedules and started to train in the morning with Louie's guys and put about 100 pounds on my total in a matter of months.
From Critic to Advocate
At first I couldn't believe it. What we were doing completely contradicted everything I'd learned in school and in the books and journals I'd been reading. Maximum effort? Dynamic effort? Speed? I started to read what Louie was reading and pick his brain about what he was doing, and before long went from being one of his biggest critics to one of his staunchest advocates.
It's because I wasn't a Westside fanboy from day one that I was the perfect person to help Louie compile his thoughts and get his message across. One of the most common objections I'd hear when I gave seminars on the method was that Westside was just a great lifting "environment" and that there was nothing special about the system itself.
Bullshit. It's more than that. Every year we'd see kids from little suburban Columbus show up totally average and leave world champions – it just can't be because of the "magic environment." The guy's a genius plain and simple, and I credit him for extending my career from 1993 to 2006 by teaching me all the ways to build strength.
Three Ways to Build Strength
There are essentially three ways to get stronger: physically – meaning by adding more size and strength, lifting gear like shirts and suits, and technique.
Getting stronger physically is obviously the foundation but it's slow, especially as you get more advanced. If an advanced guy tells me that his lifts are going up 20 pounds a year, I'd say he's doing awesome. Hell, if an advanced guy is even maintaining his best lifts that's pretty good in my books.
Gear is the current hot thing and it's all many advanced guys care about, but technique is massive. A slight change in how you execute a lift can add 20 or 30 pounds to your lift easy, and Louie is the freaking master. That's why when you watch those Westside training videos, you hear guys barking stuff like "Knees out!" or "Head up!" over and over again.
They say it takes upwards of 10,000 repetitions to reestablish a new motor pattern, which is a hell of a lot more than most sane people will ever do. Add in that when you do a set of 10, if the first 3 are good and the next 7 are shit, 70% of your set just reinforced bad technique. So, your shit bench is becoming a stronger shit bench – and shit technique plus heavy weight is the recipe for injury.
So the biggest thing I learned from Louie other than the ME/DE method is the importance of technique, which literally saved my powerlifting career.
Phase 5: 2005-2006 Mobility/Joint Heath Period
Louie told me once that when powerlifting stopped being fun it was time to give it up. By 2005, a combination of injuries, family, and business demands made me realize it was no longer fun and it was time to retire for good – but to what? There are no retirement homes for broken down 300-pound powerlifters.
Coincidentally, around the same time I was meeting with Jim Wendler, Jason Ferruggia, Joe De Franco, and Alwyn Cosgrove. We were heading to a restaurant and as I was going down a flight of stairs Alwyn noticed that I took each step one at a time, while most functional humans tend to alternate steps.
I told Alwyn that's just what my body allows now and he offered to give me an assessment on the spot. He had something like 12 tests he wanted me to do, but by the time we did 3 he stopped and said he could already tell that I was a wreck.
Complete Retraining of the Body
So I spent the next year getting my mobility and flexibility back. I started by eliminating all prime movers like squats, deadlifts, and benches, and removed all short range of motion movements like floor presses. The logic was, I had to re-teach my body how to move through a full range of motion again before I could start loading it – and I fucking hated it.
For a guy who loves training heavy, rehab shit is the worst. Heavy pressing and pulling became 40-pound dumbbell rows, 80-pound lat pulldowns, and 20-pound curls. Just shoot me. It was around this time that I started working with Berardi to clean up my diet. I'd like to address a popular misconception: that I ate like absolute shit my entire life.
Truth is, I ate a very "clean" diet for many years. I loved typical bodybuilding meals like chicken and rice and ate that way throughout my career; that is, until Louie ordered me to pack on 70 pound of bodyweight. If you can gain that kind of weight on low fat, low sugar foods, then congratulations.
Although it wasn't a fun period of my life training wise, it was an absolutely necessary one, and in hindsight, something that I should've done much earlier.
Phase 6: 2006-Now
Which brings us up to today. My goal now is to walk around at a healthy bodyweight and in great shape; decently strong and in good health, without cholesterol or blood pressure meds, which is easier to accomplish at a lower bodyweight.
So here's my situation: I love training hard and heavy, I love discipline, and I love dieting. I guess if I can't be strong I might as well get big and jacked. Except for my shoulder, I have most of my mobility back and can still train pretty hard, though I realize I'll never be as strong as I used to be. With these goals and limitations in mind, I now train in phases.
Finding What Works For Me: Training in Phases
I start with a strength phase. I know, I just said that I can't train heavy any more but I still like the strain of heavy triples, doubles, and singles. I just can't do it for very long. I'll pick a lift like floor press or safety bar squat and push as hard as I can, being mindful not to destroy myself in the process.
After this phase is when I like to schedule a diet. Considering one of my goals is to look like I work out, this phase is essential, plus I just love the process: the dieting, the discipline, the weekly tweaks; I have Justin Harris or Shelby Starnes help me out and I try to get to about "four weeks out" condition before I break the diet and enter my rebound phase.
Ask any bodybuilder and they'll tell you that it's during the rebound phase that you gain the most size – it's one of the main reasons that I diet in the first place. So I make the most gains, physique wise in the few months after I break the diet.
Of course, that's the just the plan and if there's one thing I've learned is that life often has other plans. This past summer was ridiculous for me personally, culminating in my father's passing and my wife having major surgery. Throw kids into the mix, business, joint health, and other stressors and it's a wonder I can even train at all.
Here's the thing: all this shit is just another training parameter that you have to control. You can't let it win. You can't let it control YOU. At the time it might seem insurmountable, but if you account for it and prepare the best you can, you can get by.
I mentioned earlier that I've always done best when someone else is controlling me. Left to my own devices, I can't account for these parameters well. I couldn't adjust my training right when I was 20 when I had fuck all to worry about and I sure as shit can't do it now with my health, family, and business all on the line.
Back when I was young I had coaches at the barbell club controlling me. Then I had bodybuilding coaches. Then Louie Simmons. Then Cosgrove and Berardi, and now Shelby and John Meadows, who designs my programs. He gave me a leg training workout that literally had me seeing stars; I've never felt so nauseous in my life. He also pulls me back when I get too wound up. He controls me, and I prosper for it.
You see, I can train others flawlessly, and I mean, flawlessly. I'm a fucking expert. But training myself, I'm a retard. And I'm sorry, but we're not all the same. If we were, we'd all have the same eye color, be the same height, and could put an inch on our arms with just 10 sets of curls.
Obviously we're not, so we need to find what works for each one of us as individuals. The more elite you get, the more you realize how individual all this is.
The Plazma Difference
I also put a lot more emphasis on nutrition and supplementation now. I have Shelby doing my food, but a few years back Tim Patterson called me and kept me on the phone for hours, explaining this exciting supplement protocol he's developing. To be honest, I didn't really understand what the hell he was talking about nor did I really care, as I've never been a huge supplement guy to begin with.
The stuff works. Some of the strongest men in the world are taking it, including Jeremy Frey, Brian Schwab, and Brian Carrol, and while I'm not going to insult anyone's intelligence and say that any supplement accounts for 50% or 30% of their success, I will say it makes a difference; otherwise, they wouldn't be taking it. Plain and simple.
The catch is that no one uses the stuff just one way. Some guys like the Surge® Workout Fuel before training, others like the Finibar™, while some prefer both. Before meets, I've found that if guys have once scoop of Surge® Workout Fuel and one Finibar™ every few hours the day before, they can show up the next day over 8 pounds heavier, which can make a huge difference. Finibar™ the day of a meet are essential as well.
As for myself, Tim wrote me out a precise protocol (his word, not mine) and when I first saw it I thought he was nuts. But I tried it out and have to say it works. I'm not nearly as sore after training on the days that I use it, even when I'm following Meadows programs, which are certifiably insane to begin with.
For the most part, I take two scoops of Mag-10® and two scoops of Plazma™ during the workout, with a scoop or two of Surge® Workout Fuel before hand. depending on how many carbs I'm allowed that day. That seems to work well, although being the type of guy that I am, I took Tim's protocol and doubled it for six weeks. I went from 240 to 286 in six weeks and still had abs. Granted, I'd just finished a diet and was rebounding, but that was ridiculous. I've never gained weight like that in my life.
With Supplementation, Consistency is Key
The key to all this is to be consistent. It's like training: you can't lift for two weeks and then stop, then complain that this weight training shit doesn't work for you. Get a plan, follow it, and be consistent. After you give it a fair go, evaluate.
It may feel retarded at the time to be mixing up all these drinks and pissing like a racehorse but here's the thing: we're all retarded. If you're so passionate about training heavy that you can barely roll out of bed in the morning, guess what, you're retarded. If you weigh your food, count your protein grams, and live out of fucking Tupperware, you're retarded.
Hell, if you're the least bit interested in the training we're going to discuss in this article series, yes, you too, are retarded. Get over it. We all are.
But this is our world, where the lunatics run the asylum.
See you next month, retards.