The powerlifter and entrepreneur talks about bodybuilding, success, injuries, and what we can learn from kindergartners.
I interviewed Dave Tate, 41-year-old businessman and world-class powerlifting expert, on January 13th. We talked, laughed, and cursed for two hours, and somehow I convinced myself that I’d done my job as a journalist, that I’d conducted a comprehensive, cohesive interview.
Then the transcript arrived. Sixty-two pages, 21,994 words. After reading through a few pages, I noticed a pattern: there was no fucking pattern.
While Dave was talking about Westside Barbell, he launched into a story about sending 75 pounds of pornography to Jim Wendler, a fellow powerlifter and his future sales manager at EliteFTS. He talked about why the 225-pound bench press test, a favorite yardstick to measure athletic talent at the NFL Combine, was “fucking stupid,” then pivoted to a rant about fat guys and kindergarten. He told me his thoughts about the future of the fitness industry, said he liked my book, then went off on a tangent about tearing both pecs.
I realized my questions didn’t matter. He had a lot to say, and his thoughts were uniquely interesting, funny, poignant, and inspiring. But there’s no use pretending those thoughts were offered in response to any particular question I asked. We might’ve ended up with the same answers if I’d asked the questions in Arabic or Lithuanian. So I took out the questions, leaving you with pure, undiluted Dave.
Dave, a native of Findlay, Ohio, currently resides just outside Columbus. He’s as well-known for his prolific and profane rants about whatever happens to be on his mind as for his powerlifting achievements. (He reached Elite status in three different weight classes, and recorded an all-time-best total of 2,205 pounds.)
He’s also the author of Under the Bar and a married guy with two young sons.
With that out of the way, here’s Dave.
I was labeled with a learning disability early on, and had to deal with all the bullshit that went with it. There were events through my childhood that made me feel basically worthless, denied, or rejected. I played football and did very well, but I hated all the fuckers I was playing with and realized I wasn’t getting any respect. But I learned they’d shut up real quick and leave me alone if I just knocked them on their fucking ass all the time.
My dad dropped me off at a hardcore powerlifting gym to get in shape for football. As soon as I stepped in there I knew that I wanted to be a powerlifter. My training partners were 30-year-old men and they took me in. They pushed me. In the weight room you weren’t judged on your grades, what classes you were taking, what special assistance you needed, or any of that bullshit. You were judged on your strength. It was all about what was on the bar and nothing else. In the weight room I learned that I could have control. The harder I worked, the smarter I got, the more people listened, the more I progressed.
I didn’t take shit from anyone after that. People quit picking on me. They quit making fun of me because all of a sudden I became the dude you didn’t fuck with. So why powerlifting? It was my solace.
I always liked the idea of bodybuilding when I was younger. It’s actually been debated that I could’ve done just as well at bodybuilding as I did in powerlifting because of the muscularity I had at a younger age. When I went to college (University of Toledo), I couldn’t find any powerlifting guys to train with. So I started to train with the bodybuilders.
A couple of my training partners were guys who went on to win some NPC contests and compete in the Junior USA. I fell into a crowd of people who really knew what they were doing and helped guide me. I loved the training aspect of the sport, the dieting, and the discipline, but I came into it a bit messed up. I had a blocky waist and my lats weren’t wide at all, which put me at a disadvantage.
We’d use either a three-day split or a four-day split. Back then we trained every body part twice per week and barely did any cardio. I also never even went through the final prep to get ready for the contest. We never did sodium loading and depletion or any of that shit. We didn’t know about it.
My first competition I didn’t do real well and wanted to quit. I didn’t place for shit. I cheated on my diet all the time because I didn’t know what to expect. I was still a teenager and placed like fifth or something. I weighed in at 242 pounds at 5-foot-10, and was around 8 percent body fat, but I just got fucking smoked by some shredded dude that was like 140 pounds. The only reason I stuck with bodybuilding after that was because my roommate called me a pussy. He said I didn’t like competing because I sucked, which was mostly true.
My final show I actually won, but it just didn’t feel right. I remember being up on stage when they gave me the trophy and looking out into the audience. I felt nothing. I didn’t know who any of those fucking people were. Just a bunch of guys in boat-neck sweatshirts, you know?
I was standing up there in my underwear with oil on and felt stupid. I never wanted to do it again. I was actually supposed to compete in the Mr. Ohio three weeks later, and I remember my training partner came to pick me up the next day after the show to go to the gym. He found me lying near-comatose in my dorm room with fucking Haagen-Dazs and Oreos and shit everywhere. I think he realized then that I wasn’t going to compete anymore.
That next week I started training for my next powerlifting meet. The bitch of it was that my 1,820 powerlifting total had dropped down to 1,620.
It took me two years to get back to the 1,820 total. Back when I was bodybuilding I had no max-effort type of training, and my technique had totally changed. It’s like I completely forgot how to bench, squat, and deadlift. But even with that it didn’t matter because I was home again. I remember sitting there getting wrapped up for my first competition squat and thinking, man, this is what it’s all about.
I got to test myself again. I got to ask myself some tough questions. Did my training work? Am I mentally ready? You get under the bar, it’s all about you. With bodybuilding you still had to rely on the judges and how they felt that day. But with powerlifting, it’s just you and the bar. There’s nothing like lifting heavy shit.
You’re going to be as weak as your weakest training partner
I always felt it was my responsibility and my duty to get the guy next to me stronger than I was. And all the guys who trained there felt the same. One person may have had better genetics or more mental strength, but it didn’t fucking matter. What matters is that you’re going to be as weak as your weakest training partner.
If you’re the strongest guy in the gym then you can pretty much guarantee that you’ve gone as far as you’re going to go. I would rather be the weakest guy in the gym and the strongest guy on the platform any day, you know? If you’re the strongest dude in the gym, you need to get the fuck out and find somebody else you can train with who’s going to whoop your ass. Very few people can do it by themselves.
First of all, (the 225-pound bench press test) is the stupidest fucking exercise test out there. It makes no sense. But if you’re going to do it, you can’t fall into your weaknesses. You have to be smart about it. Most guys make a huge mistake and try to press each repetition with maximum force. It’s like, one-two-three-go! Like they’re doing a sprint, you know?
Just slow the fuck down. Press it like it’s 225. Don’t blow your gasket by pressing 225 with 300 pounds of force. It’s almost like a strength deficit of 75 pounds you’re expanding on with every rep. That adds up quickly. Over four repetitions you’ve already used up an extra 300 pounds of force.
That goes for any exercise where you’re trying to get a lot of reps. Slow it down and don’t burn out.
Look, any dog will bite if you fucking kick it hard enough. You’ve got to be willing to fix your attitude and get your shit tuned in. You’ve got to be around people with the same attitude that you want to cultivate. If you start hanging out with successful people, you’re more inclined to be successful.
If you see guys busting their ass, straining and pushing against weights you didn’t think they could move, it’s going to teach you a lesson. You’re going to find out that you’re a lot stronger than you think you are once you stop being a pussy. I think you can learn attitude. Everyone’s got it in them.
And everybody’s emotional strength falls on different levels. Just because one guy is psyched up and has a look of intensity doesn’t necessarily mean that the other guy next to him who looks like he’s falling asleep isn’t internally just as driven as the first guy. That’s where people get a lot of this confused.
Attitude is contagious, right? But it’s also the fucking plague. So if you get a guy in there who’s working against the group, who won’t shut up or is asking stupid questions, you need to get rid of the dipshit and move on.
Technique isn’t really that complicated, it’s just that so few people actually coach. I’ll sit there and watch a group of guys train and I hear a lot of “Come on, man, you can do this!” or, you know, “Smoke this motherfucker!” But there’s no verbal cuing on what the actual lift is. It just fucking amazes me.
If you watch any other sport that involves lifting or throwing an implement that’s heavier than a wiffle ball, you’ll see that technique is coached more than anything.
Guys will spend two years doing different exercises for their triceps and all sorts of lockout techniques to try to increase their bench press, and they may sneak on like 20 pounds in those two years. Then they’ll come in to my place and I’ll show them how to actually bench without flaring their elbows or whatever and they’ll walk out with a 35-pound increase that day.
What do you want, 35 pounds in a day? Or 20 pounds over two years? Or how about we just combine it and make it 55 pounds over two years?
And the thing with technique is, it doesn’t matter if you’re a great lifter, an intermediate lifter, or a beginner lifter – it’s always going to be fucked up. So start coaching the cues and stop acting like a badass. Watch the old Westside videos. You’re going to see verbal cuing on every set, and every rep.
I strained my pec at an early age. That was the year after high school when I was doing 385, and on the seventh rep it just popped. That was the first time it ever happened to me, so I just kind of blew it off.
But after that first time, it started popping a lot. You know, it could be like scar tissue or minor tears or whatever. Everyone’s torn a pec, right?
The meet before I came to Westside, I opened with 460 pounds and it was just a super-slow bench. I had no idea what the hell was going on. Then I jumped to 520 and the top of my right pec completely tore off. That had to be surgically repaired. I’ve probably strained that pec at least 30 times. It was a monthly thing.
I compensated by moving my grip offset. I’d take one hand out like an inch or two farther from the rings than the other one, and that worked well for a while. Then I ended up straining my other pec. That one basically tore in half. So I guess I was finally even.
With two prior pec tears, something’s going to have to pick up the load, right? That was my delt. All the work my pec major was supposed to do, my delt was now doing. It wasn’t long before it started to hurt.
I had it cleaned out, with the arthritis and the bone spurs and all that. It was horrible, like somebody sticking a knife in my neck all the time. I couldn’t lift my arm. I could never get back under a squat bar after that surgery.
It’s part of the game. I mean, you don’t ever expect injuries to happen. That’s like asking a football player if he knows when he’s going to blow a fucking knee out. Not everyone that comes into this sport is going to get hurt, though.
The injuries were more a part of the success than not getting injured was. The first thing that hit my mind every time I got injured was what it’d take to come back. Then your drive is even stronger. You’ve got purpose.
But with some of the other health issues that came up, it was just time to quit. I was pushing my weight too hard. It seems a lot of the stuff that you can do when you’re in your 20s you can’t get away with when you’re closer to 40. The shit just sneaks up on you.
That’s a choice I made, and I don’t regret it. I do miss it, though. I miss being on a platform. I miss being a part of the sport and everything else.
I had a run from age 14 to 36, though. That’s 22 years on a platform. Not too bad.
When I was working with John, I was going straight from powerlifting into a total depression state.
I finally came into focus, though. I started to think, if I’m going to diet, how am I going to keep the muscle I have? Because I’m still a meathead, you know?
You start to ask yourself questions. Do I really need to be 245 pounds, or should I just go down and be like a normal person?
Well, fuck being normal. I can’t do that. It’s just not going to happen. My whole life has been about getting strong or getting jacked. That’s it. I don’t give a shit if I can jump on a box, run a 40, do a chin-up, do a push-up. I don’t fucking care. All I care about is getting strong and adding muscle.
I hadn’t done any type of bodybuilding training in probably 12 years. That led me to my Trilogy program.
I wrote it because I knew it was going to be hard. I knew I was going to have to cycle the intensity and volume so I could recover. It’d been such a long time since I had done any volume that I knew that once I started putting reps in my training with low rest periods, I’d grow like crazy.
Did it work? Hell yeah, it worked. That’s why I was able to come down each time I dieted and actually put on a little bit of lean body mass. I hadn’t trained anything close to that in 14 years. Hell, my biceps didn’t even know what a curl was. For me, a curl was tying my tennis shoes. I was activating all these muscles that hadn’t been activated for so long, and doing it in such a way that was basically keeping me injury-free.
Over the past couple of years, it really just morphed into what I call my Stronger workout. I break my training into four different phases every year. I guess you could call it block periodization. I just call it survival.
If people watch me train now, they’re going to say, “What the fuck is Dave doing?”
I’m doing more HIT-related stuff than ever. I always used HIT in my offseason before I came to Westside because it was fast, easy, quick, and added a lot of muscle, but didn’t do shit for strength.
The only problem people really have with a phase like that is they don’t give themselves a transition period. If all you’re doing is one giant set to failure, you become incredibly efficient at doing that one giant set. But when you start to flip it over, and you have to do two sets of five reps at 80 percent of your one-rep max, you’ll do real well on the first set, but the second set you’ll suck ass. Your efficiency for lifting heavy weights for multiple sets is gone.
All the seminars I’ve [attended], with all of the backroom talk and after-hours dinners, have been great. But everyone always swallows whatever information is being peddled. Nobody ever says, “Hey, that’s bullshit. Tell me why that’s fucking better than what I do.” They’re not going to do that because they don’t want to call the speaker out.
Which is fine. That’d be fucking rude. But they walk away with all these notes thinking, “Man, this stuff was awesome. I learned so much.” You could’ve just learned a whole complete crock of shit!
Maybe the guy knows what he’s talking about. Or maybe it’s all bullshit and now you’re just hearing it for a second time and getting it ingrained even deeper into you.
When you’ve got a room full of competitors, people who’re living and dying to try to put 10 pounds on their squat, they’re going to come straight out and say, “Well, you fucking tell me why that works.” If they can’t get a clear answer, they don’t need to buy into the bullshit.
I worked my way through college by bouncing at clubs. I started out working in college bars and beating up jackasses for $50 a night. There were fights all the time.
Since I aspired to do better, I ended up moving on to Déjà Vu, a strip club in Toledo. All of a sudden, there were no more fights and I was getting paid twice as much. It was the fucking shit. I was making $700 in one night just hustling tables.
Let’s say you roll into the club, and it’s completely dead. I’d say, “Look, man, I’m sorry, but you’ve got to stand in the back of the club. All those tables are reserved and the guys are all coming in about an hour. Just sit in the back and then, you know, we’ll move you up when the reservation people go.”
By this time you’re thinking “What the fuck?” So then I say, “You know what, let’s do this. You can sit up at this prime table at the front, but when my reservations come in you’ve got to do me a favor and get up for me. Okay?” So now you’re my best friend. You’re psyched. “Thanks so much, man!”
An hour or so passes and the place is getting busy. Here comes someone else through the front door, and I tell him, “Look, man, you’ve got to stand in the back.”
“You’re kidding, right?”
“Nah, I’m not kidding. But I can probably help you out if you help me out. You see that guy up there? I can move him and get you that table, but I’m not doing it for free. How much is it worth to you?”
So he’d hand me a $50 or a $100. Then I’d walk up to you, tap you on the shoulder and say, “My party’s here.” You’d get up, thank me, and move to the back of the club so the other guy could take your spot.
Boom! I’d do that all night long with every table.
There was this adult video store right next door to the strip club, and I knew a dude who worked over there who’d just copy porn for me. I’d show up with a 12-pack of blank VHS tapes before I went to work, and he’d copy as much porn as he could, like three or four movies per videotape.
After a while, I ended up having like eight file boxes just fucking packed full of porn. I’ve got an addictive personality, you know? I wanted them all. But then I had my first kid and I’m thinking, man, I can’t have all these boxes of porn in my house. Jim Wendler was still in school in Kentucky, so I figured I’d just send him my stash. I didn’t even tell him. I just put a label on each box, taped 'em up, and mailed them. He sent me an email back and said, “Dude, you’re not going to believe this, but you just sent me 75 pounds of porn.”
Whoever had this porn was an instant hero. People would come over to borrow it all the time. Wendler was the fucking porn godfather of Kentucky.
I let it all go. Man, it was a hard day for me. It really was. I remember the brown truck pulling out and thinking, this is the biggest mistake I’ve ever made in my life. But I let it all go.
Thank God for the Internet, huh?
We made the decision to move to Columbus, Ohio, so I could train at Westside. I came here and it wasn’t the same. I was in a sling because of my pec surgery. I didn’t want to bounce anymore. I just wanted to move on with my life.
I applied for a temp service because everyone was busting my ass about not working. They told me they arranged for me to work at a nursery. I was like, okay, I’ll go unload some diapers for the daycare.
But it wasn’t that type of nursery. I ended up fucking unloading trees and bushes for eight hours a day. I was just busting my ass, and after the first week my check was $161.
I thought, what the fuck is this? I’d make more money in one night bouncing than I could in three months busting my ass carrying trees.
I have two speeds: blast and dust.
It’s just a personality trait. I’ve talked with a lot of entrepreneurs, top CEOs, business people, and athletes that operate in the same mode. You’re 100 percent on for weeks or months, just knocking everything out until nothing is left standing. And then, boom, you’re on the couch for three weeks. Training and business have been that way for me. Fuck moderation. I don’t have time for it.
If I have some Oreos, I’m going to eat the entire bag. I’m not going to have two or three. If I’m going to launch a business, I’m going to do it all the way. If I’m going to train my ass off, then I’m going to do it hardcore. I would rather have no cheat meal for 12 weeks and then eat like a fucking hog for a month, than just have a cookie here and there. I’m going to run on all cylinders and then just disappear.
What I’ve managed to figure out is that I can stagger the roles in my life. So if training is going to be in 100 percent blast, then I know business is going to be in dust. If business is going to be in blast, training is going to fall back in dust. That’s just the way it is.
The biggest mistake I’ve made in my life is not fitting my family into everything. Everyone’s kind of like that, though. Passion is a very, very tricky thing because it’s one of the most important qualities for success. But it’s a double-edged sword. Take it too far and you’ll cut your throat.
I truly believe I’m here to live, learn, and pass on. Whatever happens, the weight room is my place to do that. It’s my outlet to be able to share. That’s what I’m passionate about, that’s what I love doing, that’s what I really feel I’m here for.
It doesn’t matter what income level I’m at. I’m cool because I’m doing what I love to do. To me, that’s successful. And that’s a lesson I need to try to teach to my kids.
But, you know, if you spend all your time in the weight room, or wherever your passion lies, to where it’s alienating everybody around you, you’re cutting your own throat. And now you’re not happy. Everything else suffers. That’s why you’ll have multimillionaires who’re unhappy. They found their passion, but they haven’t found the balance.
It’s like walking on a cliff. Sometimes you know you’ve got to get as close to the edge as you can, and that you may slip. But you have to know when to take a step back and reevaluate what’s important to you.
If you have a guy that works from 9 to 5 to be able to keep bread on the table, but he doesn’t want to work overtime or do anything extra because he wants time with his family, I respect the shit out of that. That’s why you can never look down on somebody who does what they do unless you know where their passion lies.
The more successful you become, the more the critics come out and the more bullshit you’re going to hear. That’s just the nature of any business.
I’d be lying if I said it didn’t get to me occasionally. The problem I have, though, is that a lot of the criticism really doesn’t come toward me. It’s directed toward the Q-and-A guys on our site, the sponsored guys, my staff, people around me, friends of mine. That shit bothers me.
It makes me want to step up because I don’t know how they’re going to take it. I can handle the criticism toward me, because I’ve had it for long enough. I don’t give a fuck. But if it bothers someone to where they lose productivity or happiness, I get upset.
I’ve volunteered in my son’s kindergarten class most of the year, and it’s been a great time. I was there yesterday, walking down the hallway listening to the morning announcements. I heard something about a fire and donations for the family.
So I go to the classroom and I’m sitting there not even thinking about it. At the beginning of reading time, the teacher brings up one of the kids in the class. Well, it’s the kid who just lost everything in the fire over the weekend. You could tell the kid wasn’t in the highest of spirits.
The teacher’s explaining to the class that the important thing was that nobody was hurt. She’s doing exactly what she should do because the kids have questions, you know?
“Did you lose your clothes?” “Did you lose your toys?”
He starts talking about how one of his cats ran off because it was scared of the fire, and his two dogs are now in heaven. And it’s just killing this kid to sit up there and talk about it.
All of a sudden these little kids start saying things like, “You can have some of my clothes” and “you can have my dog” and “you can stay at my house.” Every single kid in this class is willing to give this kid their toys. He looks up and says that everything’s fine and he has everything he needs right in front of him.
I had to get up and fucking walk out of the room.
All these kids know the most important things in life are friends and family. And I’m standing in the hallway and it just dawns on me. Where did we get so fucked up? Because we’re really starting off okay. It was one of the most inspiring moments I’ve had in my entire life, seeing the strength and resolve of a five-year-old kid.
I’ve never said that you need to bulk up and be a fat piece of shit. I think everything’s got its limitations. If you start pushing over 20 percent body fat on the calipers, you’re fucking fat. At that point, you need to reevaluate your plan, because it’s not working.
Unless you’re a superheavyweight powerlifter, being fat isn’t going to serve a purpose. Sure, you may have to lose your abs to gain some significant size, but some don’t have to. It’s purely individual.
I’ve always said to just keep gaining weight as you get stronger. And then when you quit getting stronger, drop a weight class. For an intermediate, it’s going to work real well. You know they’re going to end up getting a little pudgy, but then they’ll bring it back down.
But I’ve had guys come to these strength sessions and I’m trying to show them how to squat and I’ll get behind them and try to put their hips into a squat position and I can’t even find their fucking hip bone. It’s just like this giant glob of shit. What the hell’s the point?
Olympic weightlifters were booted out of clubs a long time ago for dropping bars. Powerlifters have been kicked out for using chalk, dropping bars, lifting heavy weights, and bending bars. Strongmen were never invited. So every group had to go underground. Now [health-club owners] are going after the bodybuilders and recreational athletes who like to push themselves. They’re trying to kick them out for being too loud and disruptive.
So, I think there’s going to be a push to set up small training centers.
We’ve helped set up more powerlifting warehouse gyms and Joe DeFranco-type training centers than anybody else out there in the industry. That’s where we specialize. That’s our niche.
I think that a lot of these smaller places are going to become a lot more profitable. Everyone’s splitting the expenses, and people who really want to train are finding their way to them. It’s going to come full circle and be kind of like a reinvention of the hardcore gyms that were around 20 or 30 years ago.
If you put strongmen, powerlifters, bodybuilders, Olympic weightlifters, and recreational athletes together, they’re going to get along fine. There’s not as much bickering as people think. They all share the same common goal of getting bigger and stronger. They all have a passion for what they do. So it’s going to create one hell of a gym environment. Not only that, these guys are going to be members of the club forever.
Trust me, these small clubs are going to start popping up. Maybe not this year, but you’ll see it in 2010 for sure.