Iron Evolution – Phase 3

Return to Powerlifting

In the last installment in this series, I outlined my brief foray into competitive bodybuilding. In this article, I'll describe my return to powerlifting – and how it nearly drove me into an early retirement.

I'd left bodybuilding disenchanted with the whole competitive scene. To me, it was the ultimate let down. You bust your ass for 16 weeks, have no social life, and follow a diet that would drive a normal person insane, and for what? A 60-second dance in your underwear in front of a room full of mouth-breathing dudes? No thanks.

But I loved the training. It was fun, there was variety, and I got great results. I grew like a weed during my time at Hard Body's, in all the areas I'd targeted. I now had quads, back width, decent pecs, and a big set of guns. And the scale backed up what I was seeing. I was 265 pounds, a full 20 pounds heavier than when I started bodybuilding. Mission accomplished.

One reason I was so keen to return to powerlifting was that I was also getting really strong. I was killing my bodybuilding workouts and leaving my training partners in the dust, benching 405 for 10 and 315 for 32; squatting 700 for 8 and 405 for sets of 20. I could deadlift 600 for 12, no sweat.

I remember pulling out the old rep conversion charts and getting excited. If I could bench 405 for 10, then with the gear I'd be able to max at 540 or 550, no problem. I could do some serious damage. (Boy, was I right.)

I found a meet about three months away and using the conversion charts, set up a 12-week progressive overload program.

It was a disaster. I started missing everything almost from day one and every rep was a grinder. The workout would call for two sets of five and I'd barely gut out the first set, and then give everything I had to eke out 3-4 reps on the second set. Then I'd get pissed about missing the set, rest longer, get super jacked up and push out another set of 3-4 reps.

I could've adjusted to spare myself down the road but instead I stayed the course, telling myself that according to the conversion chart, I should be stronger. I was also bigger so I had to be stronger; all I had to do was ball up! Big mistake.

I went into the meet weighing 275 and totaled 200 pounds less than my previous total weighing 242. My bench opened at 425 and I got stapled with 455.

I was way bigger but weaker.

I couldn't believe what had happened. It must've just been nerves I thought, so I de-loaded and repeated the whole process. Same result.

Frustrated and confused, I started just doing meets, expecting that eventually I'd get a different result. What's the definition of insanity again? Someone should've just had me committed, 'cause it would've saved me much wear and tear.

Then I started getting hurt. Not injured; being injured began early in the first cycle and never went away. I was now getting hurt. This is worse because when you're injured you can work through the issue, but when hurt you have to find ways to work around it. Soon my back was a disaster and my shoulders were shot and I couldn't pull for shit. Something had to change.

Since I was in university, I pulled every journal I could find related to strength and biomechanics: NSCA journals, the Soviet Sports Review, and about a hundred others. I was responsible for clear-cutting an entire rainforest with all the photocopying I did. I was like a sponge.

I came across names and expressions that I'd never heard before like Spassov and dynamic effort, and I began playing with plyometrics, even joining a boxing gym so I could do plyo push-ups to work on exploding off my chest.

I started doing every – and I mean every – new program that I happened upon, no matter how crazy they were. Case in point, the Bulgarian program below.

Sample Bulgarian program

Week 1 Week 2
70% x 3
80% x 3
90% x 1
80% x 3 sets 3
70% x 10
70% x 3
80% x 3
90% x 2
100% x 1 for 3 sets
90% x 2 for 3 sets
80% x 5 for 3 sets
Week 3 Week 4
70% x 3
80% x 3
90% x 2
100% x 1 for 3 sets
90% x 2 for 3 sets
95% x 1
100% x 1 for 2 sets
85% x 3 for 2 sets
90% x 1
95% x 1
100% x 1 for 2 sets
70% x 2
80% x 1
85% x 1
80% x 2
70% x 2 for 3 sets

I'd repeat those four weeks three times, for a total of 12 weeks.

Holy shit, those were long workouts. Needless to say, there was very little assistance work in there.

And intense? Look at week three, you work up to a 1RM, then do doubles at 90% – and that's a real 90%, not an estimated 90%. Then, you'd work up to a 1RM two more times in a single workout!

So I'm gearing up and wrapping up, I'm snorting ammonia caps and going bat shit crazy trying to crush these three-hour workouts. My hips we're killing me, my back was a mess. As for my total? It barely moved.

Frustrated and burned out, I switched (again) to a nonlinear system, thinking that it would be a smoother ride. It was a longer build up, with drops in intensity in the middle phases. It would be easier on the body, right?

Sample Nonlinear

Week 1: 55% x 15 for 3 sets
Week 2: 58% x 10 for 3 sets
Week 3: 60% x 10 for 3 sets
Week 4: 62% x 7 for 3 sets
Week 5: 65% x 7 for 3 sets
Week 6: 50% x 10 for 2 sets
Week 7: 70% x 5 for 2 sets
Week 8: 73% x 5 for 3 sets
Week 9: 75% x 5 for 2 sets
Week 10: 78% x 5 for 1 set
Week 11: 80% x 5 for 2 sets
Week 12: 50% x 10 for 2 sets
Week 13: 83% x 5 for 1 set
Week 14: 85% x 3 for 2 sets
Week 15: 88% x 3 for 2 sets
Week 16: 90% x 3 for 1 set
Week 17: 92% x 2 for 1 set
Week 18: 95% x 2 for 1 set
Week 19: 98% x 1 for 1 or 2 sets
Week 20: pre meet
Week 21: meet

It destroyed me. Pec strains became a constant battle. My knees started acting up and my once sore hips were now shot.

Week 12 would always be when the wheels fell off. We'd be up at 80%, and then drop back to 50% to give the body a "break." But that one week of light training was enough to get my body "used" to light loads, so the return to real poundages would pulverize me.

I sustained most of my injuries during this phase and many of the injuries weren't even muscular but in the joints and tendons. My back, in particular, was a mess. The programs I kept coming up with were destroying me and I wasn't getting stronger.


Go With The Flow Gear Ho

I was out of control. With each new program I'd hop onto I'd just get more disappointed and more injured.

I eventually hooked up with a new group of hardcore powerlifters. These guys told me that I was overcomplicating things and while I was test-driving all these fancy programs, their approach was to work up to a heavy weight, and if you felt good, go for a single – every workout!

For example, we'd work up to a fairly "easy" set of five, and if that felt good, work up to a triple. If you killed the triple, well, then it was on – we'd work right up to a heavy single. And if you hit the single? Make it a triple.

Every workout.

Adding to the craziness factor, these guys believed in using full gear every time you got under the bar. This was completely foreign to me, as I always saved my gear for the last few weeks. Not these guys. With them, every workout should be like your last workout.

I loved it. As crazy as it was, in hindsight it was my first taste of "Maximum effort" training and it taught me to adjust things if I felt like a bull one day or a lamb the next. Despite the ridiculous programming (or lack thereof), I actually got pretty strong, bringing my squat to 800 for 5, bench pressing 540 for 5, and 700 for 2 in the deadlift.

Too bad it didn't transfer to the meet. I struggled – and I mean struggled – to hit a 780-pound single in the squat and realized that I left my best training back in the weight room. The "balls to the wall" finally caught up to me and again I wasn't much further ahead.

In 1993

Here's the scene: my body is a complete mess, but I decide out of desperation to do yet another meet. The week before the meet, I'd tweaked my pec in training but decide to compete anyway. It's not like I haven't done the same thing many times before.


I open with 455 and it feels hard. Really hard, like the hardest 1RM of my life. I keep going and for my second attempt call for 500 on the bar. I know all I have to do is pull back into myself, ball up, and do whatever it takes to get the weight up.

I get the bar about 3/4 of the way up and my pec blows right out from the humerus. There's no bruising, no blood, but the whole pec has rolled up like a window blind under my nipple.

I've torn muscles and tweaked pecs before but this is different. It doesn't hurt, there's no discoloration, but I can barely move my arm and there's a huge gap where my pec used to be.

Sitting in the corner, I realize what my lousy training and countless injuries had been trying to tell me all along. That despite all that I read, I don't know shit. I question if I've taken my body as far as it would go. I'm stronger mentally than physically and regardless of what I've done, my lifts are barely moving. I question if I've come as far as my genetics will allow. Is this the end and if so, what next?

A guy I've seen at the meets comes over. He looks at my arm in a sling supporting my busted up pec, then looks me dead in the eyes and says, "If you don't start changing what you do you're going to be out of this sport in a year."

It's Louie Simmons.

One Door Closes...

The first thing I told Louie was that I thought I was already done with powerlifting. I truly was at rock bottom and ready to move onto the next chapter of my life, whatever the hell that was. I told him how I'd tried everything to move forward and failed. I told him the extensive list of injuries I'd accumulated.

Louie would have none of it. "You have no idea what your potential is," he said. "Come to Westside and let me show you."

I was skeptical. And when I'd said I thought I was done, I meant it. But my wife wanted to move to Columbus and I certainly didn't have any other options, so I headed to Westside.

There was also something in Louie's words that never left me. Unlike so many others in my life who'd provided guidance or suggestions, I could tell Louie was serious and meant every word. Very few people in my life have ever really believed in me and there I was standing face to face with someone who did.

That's the phase I'll talk about next time.


They say that when life kicks you in the balls is when you learn the most important lessons. For all the beating I took those years, at least I learned a lot:

The value of a perceived max.

In the Bulgarian system for example, you're always going balls to the wall, working off an actual max. That just destroys you, especially if you have other commitments outside of training.

A better way is to establish a perceived rep max. Work up to a decent weight and then have a conversation with your partner (or yourself) about how strong you really are, today.

Do you think you can hit 315? No? Maybe just 300? Then bam, work off 90% of that 300. It spares the joints and sets up long-term success as opposed to frustration and failure.

Use real-time perceived maxes, not what some equation tells you to lift.

The value of the maximum effort method.

The best gains I made out of all the programs was when I trained with the two guys that just worked up and used "how I feel versus how the weights feel" as the guide to the number of reps to be done.

This influence carried over to how I used the max effort method in later years.

Bodybuilding training and powerlifting need to be mutually exclusive.

That is, at least to excel at either of them. A big mistake I made was that I never really left bodybuilding training behind. Despite being a "powerlifter," I was benching like a bodybuilder: elbows flared, no leg drive, and wondering why I couldn't bench for shit and blew a pec in the process.

Strength is a high-level skill. Like any skill, to get good at it, you have to practice. That means performing the same lifts, the same way, repeatedly until you develop some degree of mastery.

Ask any high-skill athlete and he'll agree, that kind of repetition is a grind. It's beyond boring and it burns many people out, but those who stick it out are rewarded at the end.

If you're a competitive powerlifter you know what I mean. The training essentially is doing the same things day in and day out, week in and week out, for years. How many times have you been cued, "head up," or "back, back, back?" Thousands. Those who become successful learn to love and embrace the boredom.

Bodybuilding is way less boring. There's variety; hell, variety is encouraged, and once I got a taste of that I didn't want to let it go.

So when I should've been squatting, deadlifting, and benching I was throwing in meaningless stuff that had no business being in my program, like leg presses and hack squats. But I enjoyed them and they were fun – at least until I started to get overtrained and injured.

Bigger muscles do not necessarily mean stronger muscles.

When I returned to powerlifting I was way bigger – and could do walking lunges with 315 on my back – but couldn't squat 700!

Powerlifting is all about coordination, getting the entire system to fire as a unit. Bodybuilding, once you reach a certain level of development, requires the exact opposite. You can either accept this and change your approach, or just bulldog your way through it and destroy your body in the process.

Conversion charts are bullshit.

Not only is every lifter different, but also bodybuilding produces a much different type of strength than powerlifting. Bodybuilding conditions you to perform 8 rep sets but does jack shit for your limit strength or your explosiveness. You have to give yourself time to relearn that type of training before jumping into what you "should" be lifting. I never did, and I paid for it.

Jumping from program to program is a mistake.

The more I read and the more I "learned," the more I changed programs. As a result, rather than "fine tuning" or "tweaking" my progress, I made no progress. In hindsight, I would've been better off just picking a decent program and sticking with it until mastering it.

I see people making this mistake all the time, especially the young guys coming up in the information era, where every lifter and his mother have their log posted online.

These guys leap from program to program like frogs leaping from lily pad to lily pad. They're following a solid program until some other frog croaks about a new Conjugate Eastern Bloc hybrid that they're making great gains off of, so they ditch what they're doing and leap to the next lily pad.

Jumping from lily pad to lily pad is okay until you miss. When you do, you better know how to swim.

I tell guys that the smart frog ignores all the other frogs and just swims underneath the lily pads to the other side. Pick a good program and follow it to the letter until you master it. So when you're on the other side of the pond happily eating bugs, the rest of the frogs will still be jumping from lily pad to lily pad.

Sure, some of the pad jumpers will make it over to eat bugs beside you, but most will just keep missing, and all you'll hear is the "ribbit ribbit ribbit" of a pond full of frogs blaming everything but themselves for still being stuck on the pads.

This guy had better gear, that guy had better drugs, that federation had messed up rules, ribbit, ribbit, ribbit.

During my first phase of training I used the same program for basically five years and it was tremendously successful. When I finally got to Westside, I did that program for 12 years – and learned it from a guy who was using it for 20 years before I got there. That's an important lesson, and it leads into my final point.

Strength training is a massive learning circle.

There's a massive learning curve to strength training, but it's more like a "learning circle."

At the bottom, when you're new, you know nothing. You're this giant idiot and you just do what bigger guys tell you to do, and as long as those guys aren't retarded you'll make gains and progress up the circle.

This wide middle part of the circle is where a lot of guys are. They're kind of strong and they've got some scars, but the main thing they have is an education. They've read everything. They have degrees. They have a stack of journals on their desk and a dozen forums they help moderate. They can talk the pros and cons of every periodization modality and jaw about the old Soviet coach they met at a conference. They think they're masters.

What they don't realize is that they're not all that. They're not masters – in fact, they're still idiots, cause they haven't done anything or lifted anything. But good luck telling them that. After all, they've got degrees and certifications and a lot of Facebook friends.

They need to be humbled before they can move on. They need to have their asses handed to them, their pride beaten like an unwanted dog. They need to wake up one day and look in the mirror and realize that this craft they've devoted their life to has gotten the best of them. They have to realize that they really don't know shit.

It's when they're at rock bottom and ready to quit; that's when they're ready to move up. That bottom is really the beginning. That's when the real understanding begins to take shape – when you realize you know nothing is when you begin to learn and move forward.

When I headed to Westside, it wasn't like I "graduated" to that system. I didn't hit some amazing total and Louie Simmons swept in and gave me a diploma. I was a broken down mess with a torn pec and wrecked back and was done with the whole frickin' sport. But that's what I needed. My body had to be broken before my mind could move on.

Jazz legend Charlie Parker said, "Master the instrument, master the music. Then, forget all that shit and play."

You've read the books. Now learn the trade. It took me years of training and journal reading to realize that I didn't know a damn thing.

I said in the first part of this series that we're all a bunch of retards. Now you can begin to see this is what cuts through all the bullshit.

Until next month.

Dave Tate is the founder and CEO of Elitefts and the author of Under The Bar. Dave has been involved in powerlifting for over three decades as a coach, consultant and business owner. He has logged more than 10,000 hours coaching professional, elite, and novice athletes, as well as professional strength coaches. Follow Dave Tate on Facebook