Dave Tate is an Elite status powerlifter who’s spent his life under the bar. Here’s what it’s taught him.
Dave Tate has done it all. He was training at Westside before anyone had heard of conjugate periodisation, setting records in powerlifting after recovering from injuries that would have ended other men’s careers. The founder and CEO of EliteFTS, he’s spent thousands of hours helping coaches, athletes and regular people get stronger, fitter and better at life. Here’s what he wants you to know.
What’s been your proudest ever moment in the gym – or on a platform?
There was a meet that I had in probably ‘87 or ‘88, a time I was experimenting with a lot of things – visualisation, self-hypnosis, flotation tanks – and it was the first meet that I ever had that I went nine for nine, I was making 50-60 pound PRs, every second attempt was five pounds better than my best and every third attempt was going for broke, I and got a new elite total. At that meet, everything was just perfect – everything went right, everything went according to plan. So when I think back, that’s one I remember the most. It wasn’t my most impressive total, it was something like 1945, but it was just awesome because everything came together. I’ve never had that experience in a meet after that: I’ve had nine for nine meets, I’ve had meets where I’ve lifted a lot more weight, but I’ve never had the same type of experience.
I visualised that meet probably five or six times every week for eight months, so by the time I came to it I’d done it a hundred times and After that I didn’t really need to visualise that much ever again. After that I could just kind of step back, focus, picture the set. I had a very large discrepancy between my training max and my competitive max back then, and I think a lot of that came down to mental focus.
What do you wish you’d started doing earlier?
That’s one of those questions that I have a hard time answering, because it’s not a possibility – we live in the real world, and in the real world all we can do is keep moving forward, I can’t go back and change it. But I can answer it by saying what I don’t have people do today that I used to do back then. So one of those things is that, after a meet, depending on the level of the meet, I’ll have four to eight weeks of time where they don’t have a barbell in their hands or on their back. They’re not going to bench, deadlift or squat. I also don’t want to see any less than eight reps.
They’re still going to train, but those rules force them to do more bodybuilding style training.
What I’m really looking to do is deload the spine. All of those things can wreak havoc on your spine, so if I can get that spinal compression out of there for a long enough period of time I can rest and recharge that central nervous system. In my era, if we competed on Saturday we’d be back in the gym doing speedwork on Sunday. That’s one thing I have them do differently.
The other thing is that with a more experienced lifter, I use what they know works more than what I think they should do. If they’re a top 20 lifter in their class, I might spend an hour talking to them about what they do. If they’re ranked that high, they’ve already figured out 80% of the equation: what I need to do is help them figure out the other 20% they don’t know. The goal is to get them to their highest potential, however I can. So maybe the solution is to use a Westside Conjugate programme, which is where my bias fits – but maybe it’s not. The goal is to get them there. Twenty years ago I’d have given everyone that programme, and I still believe that if I get someone and they’re going to do everything I tell them to do, that’s going to get them there – but I’ve learned that things in the real world don’t work that way unless you have them in the gym under your direct control 100% of the time.
What does (almost) everybody else do that you don’t bother with?
Trying to convince somebody online of something that you’re not going to convince them of. I think it’s the biggest waste of time.
Any successful coach shouldn’t have to validate their own success, because their clients will do it for them. So, let’s say you’ve got a successful coach who’s trying to deal with some online banter because someone’s calling them out for something. It takes them maybe 20-30 minutes of their time typing stuff up, going back and forth – but that’s only what you see, that’s not even considering the emotional bandwidth that takes up. It might take up 3-4 hours of their day thinking about what they’re going to say next to show that they’re right. So over the course of one day, that one Instagram or Facebook thread means they might invest five hours of their time into someone who’s never going to be a client, never going to be an advocate, never going to give them a referral.
Put that in perspective – look at the disservice they’ve just shown people who do want to work with them, who already want to work with them. Let’s say they’re constantly an hour or a day late with their email updates: if they weren’t arguing online, they’d be on time. A lot of people don’t understand that – it’s not up to you to validate your position. It’s like saying ‘I’m trustworthy’ – you can’t say it, trust is earned, it’s like saying ‘I’m a person of integrity.’ You can’t say ‘I’m a great coach,’ you’re trying to validate something your clientele already accepts.
When I see stuff like that, I start to wonder if that person’s really a great coach, because a great coach would be giving the best service they can to the clients they already have, not a disservice by wasting their time on people who are never going to help them move forwards. Sometimes you can tell the crappiest coaches by the ones who are most vocal arguing and trying to prove how smart they are.
If you could have one workout with anyone, past or present, who would you choose?
I’ve been blessed to train with the best of the best, so…there is nobody.
When you’ve had the opportunity to train with Louie at Westside for 14 years, and before that train with people like George Crawford and Bob Wall and the great powerlifters that have helped me since I got into the sport, I wouldn’t trade that with anybody. So I can’t sit there and say I’d love to have trained with anyone, because I’ve always sought out people who were better than I was. Someone told me at a very young age, ‘Never be the top dog in the gym that you’re in, and if you are, move,’ and I’ve always tried to live by that. I can’t sit here and say ‘I wish I’d been able to train with Schwarzenegger in his prime, I really don’t give a fuck. I train with the people I wanted to train with while they were in their prime, and that was awesome.
What do you focus on during a really big effort – a last heavy set, or massive single, or whatever else demands the most focus from you?
I try to be in a void state. I wouldn’t say I really concentrate on anything. If it’s a single, then maybe some verbal cue, one thing I know that’s not clicking right, it may be…like last week I was squatting and I realised I was sitting back too much, so I got the person who was with me to cue me. Other than that, I’m just gone. We’re talking about top, top sets, where as soon as I start getting ready, after I chalk, I don’t know what happens until the set is over. I have to ask my partner how many reps I did, to me it’s just a void state.
The way I’ve heard this explained best was from Kirk Kowalski, and his great speech is: you’ve trained for this. You’ve trained to be in condition to do this, whether it’s low reps for heavy weights or a hundred-rep set or whatever. You’ve done all the preparatory work to be ready to try to do this. You’re here right now. If it’s one rep, it’s 10-15 seconds. So if you’re prepared and you’re ready, just don’t fuck up.
I think that’s most brilliant thing I’ve ever heard. If it’s six plates or five chains a side for seven reps, and that’s going to take 30 seconds, don’t fuck up for 30 seconds. If it’s 100 reps on the leg press, don’t fuck up for two minutes. Stay tight, stay focused, stay locked in, be everything you need to be, and don’t fuck up for two minutes. I think the opposite mentality is to go in thinking ‘I have to push my knees out, I have to stay arched, I have to do my breathing,’ you’re focusing on ten things and then thinking ‘Can I do this?’ You don’t need all those things in your head: it’s easier to concentrate on not fucking up.
What has lifting given you that you don’t get anywhere else in life?
Here’s the thing. It gives me the ability to get outside of myself, even if it’s for 10 or 20 seconds.
Training’s training. It can be complicated, but at the end of the day, it’s about consistency, due diligence, discipline. Some of it’s very boring, and some of it’s very repetitious. There are many times I don’t want to do it. There’s been many a time where I’ve driven to the gym, and – the rule I have is that even if I don’t want to train I’ll go in there, turn the light on, grab the barbell and leave. There are times that I leave, but there are times that the barbell feels so good in my hand that I’ll stay and lift. If I grab the bar and I still want to leave, I know for a fact that something’s up, that I need to rest for a day.
So there’s that. But the majority of that training, I really don’t emotionally get anything out of it, I’ve been doing it my whole life. But it gets me in a position to do these challenge sets, to challenge myself to do something that I didn’t think I was able to do, and that’s everything. That gets me out of my own life for…10, 30 seconds, 2 minutes where there’s nothing else to focus on, no kids, employees, nothing but that set and two minutes. Just that void. All that other training that I don’t necessarily like, that’s to keep me conditioned to be able to to do those one sets that keep me sane and keep me engaged with everything about strength sports. I wouldn’t be able to do those sets, I wouldn’t be strong enough to push hard enough. Sometimes you take strength for granted, and it takes getting to a stage where you can’t even lift a 95-pound bar to remember that stuff, but I always come back to that.
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