How do we even begin to understand strength when 58-year-old Dave Ricks is breaking open world records in powerlifting?
Dave just recently competed at the Arnold Sport Festival where he squatted 325kg, benched 195kg, and deadlifted 282.5kg as a M2 93kg athlete. He had the 3rd highest Wilks in the competition, and broke the Open Squat WR by 10kg. When we think of this type of success it’s unimaginable, verging on the realm of impossible.
There are few examples in the history of sport where athletes in their late 50s are reaching the pinnacle of human performance. Certainly even more rare in sports that rely on strength as a foundation. In fact, strength and muscle size decrease with age, not increase; and this is backed by many scientific studies (Deschenes, 2004; Baumgartner, Waters, & Gallagher, 1999; Surakka, 2005).
Dave is an example of an athlete defying science. Let’s be clear: this is not simply an impressive feat of strength, but the absolute opposite of everything we know about strength and aging.
When we see exceptions and anomalies in science, we logically have questions in explaining why. One way to understand Dave’s performance is through analyzing his training program, since the variables within a training program are the precise inputs that yield a physiological response. Of course, there are other forms of analysis that would help explain Dave’s performances, but a natural starting point is the program itself.
Dave shared his 13-week training cycle leading up to the 2016 USAPL Raw Nationals with MyStrengthBook. We put his workouts through our data tracking and analysis platform, allowing us to get a snapshot of his training methodology used to peak for competition. We also conducted two phone interviews with Dave lasting three hours, which provided a qualitative understanding to the training data.
This article details the training metrics and methodology that inspired Dave’s odd-defying performance. As a reader, remember that there is not a single approach that defines successful training. What we present in this article is a method tried and tested by one athlete with a very specific training context and background, proving successful for him, but perhaps not by others if replicated.
We are publishing this data to contribute to the conversation on strength and aging, and provide insight into the elite training of a master athlete at the top of human performance.
Dave splits his routine into a series of ‘light’ and ‘heavy’ days – these are self-defined labels that Dave uses for categorizing his weekly workouts. Broadly, the ‘light’ days are focused on low intensities within the 8-rep range. Over the course of the training cycle the light days include the exact same workouts, keeping the percentages static for all exercises and rep ranges. For example, on a light bench day Dave will do 3 sets of 8 reps at 225lbs (50% intensity), and that workouts will be repeated each week from start to finish of the training block with no increases in load.
The ‘heavy days’ are focused on building intensities in a linear fashion over the training cycle, starting at the 5 rep range early on and working to the 3 rep range closer to competition. For example, at the start of the training cycle Dave benched 315lbs for 5 reps (70%) and after 6 weeks of progression he benched 395lbs for 5 reps (88%). Following this week, he transitioned his ‘heavy day’ to the 3 rep range using a similar linear progression in bar load up to the week before competition.
The weekly organization of ‘light’ and ‘heavy’ days are scheduled on the following days:
Dave’s competition training cycles are 13-weeks in length, and as stated above, follow a linear periodization model. Dave has identified a 13-week training cycle that has continued to work year after year, even dating back to when he competed as an equipped powerlifter. As such, he follows the same competition training cycle as he preps for competition with only minor changes to secondary/assistant exercises. Otherwise, each training cycle maintains the same sets and reps, aiming to linearly increase the load from one cycle to the next.
Assuming Dave’s body is healthy, he starts his planning by looking to his previous training cycles and the numbers achieved within that time-period. Moving forward, he sets incremental progressions to his competition movements for the next training cycle. For example, if in the previous training cycle Dave squatted 685lbs for 3 reps on week 10, then on the same week in the next training cycle he would set a target of 695lb for 3 reps. In this way, Dave works backward in his program design, setting target numbers in the latter part of the training cycle, and writing appropriate progressions for the weeks prior. As will be explained later, these target sets are indicators for what he estimates his 1 Rep Max (RM) to be in competition.
Importantly, Dave explained that the numbers programmed on the peak training weeks, the weeks that involve the heaviest loads, are flexible based on how he feels on those training days. For example, he may program a set of 695lbs for 3 reps in week 10 for squat, but if he goes into that workout and feels like he will risk failing then either the load or reps (or both) will be modified. While Dave didn’t describe this as “auto-regulation”, the idea is similar in that he uses how his body feels on a given training day and makes modifications based on performance. Over the years, he has advocated for a humble approach to training numbers, backing off when he knows his body can’t push the numbers on the program.
For example, 2-weeks out from the Arnold’s he was scheduled to squat 695lbs for 3 reps, but modified the workout to do 675lbs for a double knowing that he didn’t want to risk failing or injury. Alternatively, there have been moments where Dave has modified workouts to increase loads from the original numbers. However, Dave advised that these increases typically don’t yield any performance benefit in the long run. For example, during a deadlift session leading up to the 2016 USAPL Raw Nationals he was peer pressured by teammates to take a 20lb increase on his planned set of 3 reps. While he achieved that set with the increased load, he noted that the same workout on the following 2 weeks of the training cycle needed to be scaled down from his planned numbers because he simply wasn’t recovered.
The critical components to Dave’s training cycles are:
Dave uses the idea of “indicator sets” throughout the training cycle to gauge performance. An “indicator set” is a prescribed load for a specific number of reps, which is heavy enough for the effort to be meaningful. Based on our discussion already, these are the heavy sets that are programmed on the ‘peak weeks’ of Dave’s training cycle. The purpose of doing an “indicator set” is to evaluate current levels of strength, either to adjust the program in the short term or to plan attempt selection for competition. When Dave was younger, his indicator sets would be singles at a relatively high intensity; however, over time he realized that using singles to gauge performance lead to two outcomes.
First, he couldn’t recover from heavy training singles in time for the competition.
It’s important to understand that indicator sets need to be heavy enough (a high RPE rating) to derive any meaningful analysis of your current abilities. When using the single rep range for indicator sets the load required is typically a greater percentage of your Rep Maximum (RM) – this is true because singles at low percentages wouldn’t yield a significant effort to understand your current levels of strength.
Early in Dave’s career he thought singles were the most effective way to assess strength in a training context. But over time, while Dave managed to perform these high intensity singles from week-to-week, he found it hard to translate that same strength or bar speed onto the competition platform. His reasoning was that singles produced an excess training effect, caused by working too close to his RM, which didn’t allow him to recover in the most effective way in the short-medium term. He noticed this phenomenon in particular when the heavy singles were programed within a couple weeks of the competition. Simply put, too many singles done at high intensities week-to-week burnt him out.
Second, programming singles for indicator sets didn’t leave any room for error if Dave was having an ‘off day’.
When attempting singles, the rep is either made or missed. Unless you have a finely tuned ability to assess your warm-up sets accurately, then building up to your top single can be a high risk context for failure. Some athletes also display a poor warm-up strategy in terms of the attempts selected – either taking too big or small percentage jumps to build to their top set. In other words, if the warm-up sets aren’t ramping up to the top set in the right way then modifications to the top load are hard to judge in the moment.
To mitigate these risks, Dave switched his indicator sets from heavy singles to triples. In this way, Dave found that if he misjudged his warm-ups or his abilities for the day that he had leeway to modify. For example, there were examples in Dave’s training where he had a planned heavy triple, but during the set he only opted to complete a double, or in some cases, a single. Dave admits that the ability to modify intra-set has been critical to his success, which is why he only builds to heavy triples in training, not singles.
The takeaway is that singles don’t offer an opportunity to modify intra-set.
The realization of a powerlifter’s strength is dependent on effective attempt selection on competition day.
Dave uses indicator sets achieved within the training cycle to select his attempts for competition. As stated above, these indicator sets are the planned heavy triples he aims to achieve in the latter parts of his training cycle.
The heaviest triple achieved will act as a gauge for what Dave will pick as a 2nd attempt in competition. Following this logic, Dave’s openers are usually weights that he can lift for greater than 3 reps and represent sub-maximal efforts. In terms of predicting his 3rd attempt, Dave suggested that 94% of his max training triple would yield his estimated 1RM. With that said, Dave rarely lifts these predicted numbers in competition because he only attempts his max capacity if required by the competition to win, podium, or achieve a specific total/Wilks. The goal for Dave is to make all the lifts rather than taking a shot and something that may or may not be possible on the day.
Below is a chart of the MyStrengthBook Rep Max Estimator. This report predicts what an athlete is capable of lifting for any exercise and rep range. Here you will see Dave’s estimated lifts based on some of the indicator sets he performed in training (please note that his bench press reps in training are all completed touch and go, which may inflate his estimated numbers for this lift). The indicator sets are marked by the red dot beside the load.
Training metrics are the units of analysis that represent an athlete’s training program. We can analyze several metrics, including:
There is a clear periodization model for volume and intensity. From weeks 1-4, volume builds, and then stabilizes at relatively high levels until week 7. During this time both peak and average intensities are increasing. On week 8, Dave de-loads volume to prepare for higher intensities in the latter part of the training program. On week’s 9-13 peak intensities rise above 90%.
Large discrepancies are displayed throughout the training cycle between average and peak intensities, caused by the characteristically low average intensities. The weekly average intensities remain between 50-55% throughout the training cycle (except for week 8 where it spikes to 62%). On the other hand, Dave’s peak intensities are between 96-100% during the latter part of the training cycle.
From these metrics we can see that Dave plans extremely heavy top sets (the 3-rep indicator sets mentioned above), but produces the majority of his volume with sub 60% loads.
In November 2016, we published the training metrics of Ls McLain who placed 3rd at the USAPL Raw Nationals, 17.5kg behind Dave Rick’s 2nd place finish (to see LS’s Metrics click HERE). Both athletes are at the top of their game, but implement two different training methodologies with their intensity prescriptions.
Below are the volume and intensity metrics for Dave’s total (all 3 lifts combined), squat, bench, and deadlift. All calculations are based off work-sets only (not warm-ups).
Below are the zones of relative intensity where Dave accumulated his volume. Each of these zones represents a prediction of how close his training loads and reps were to fatigue. You can assume that training in the red and black zones involve reps that are closer to an athlete’s fatigue when compared with the grey and light blue zones.
As evidence by this metric, most of Dave’s volume (about 75% from week to week) was accumulated in the de-load and light zones.
Do not confuse de-load and light zones with low average intensities. As we said earlier, Dave’s averages intensities are 55%, but until we consider the reps completed with these intensities then the zones are undetermined. It’s possible that low intensities could still yield heavier zones of relative intensity if they were performed in a higher rep range (20+), and thus closer to an athlete’s fatigue.
With that said, however, Dave only performed moderate rep ranges with these lower intensities (8 reps). Consequently, his metrics suggest that he was training at both low average intensities and lighter zones of relative intensity. The heavier zones of relative intensity (red and black zones) were achieved through his indicator sets where he lifted between 2-3 reps of 96-100% intensities.
Baseline volume is a metric that measures the average amount of volume an athlete handles within a time-period. For example, Dave averaged 54,000lbs of volume per week across all three lifts. In the graph below, the bars above the mid-point represent volume that has been accumulated above his average for that weekly period, and conversely, bars below the midpoint represents volume accumulated below his average.
The first half of Dave’s program consisted of training weeks where the volume accumulated was above his baseline. In this example, Dave trained between 23-36% above his baseline from weeks 4 to 7. In the second half of the training cycle, Dave lowered his volume below baseline. From weeks 10 to 13, he trained at volumes between 10-34% less than his average.
This next report represents the metrics of the number of lifts above 90% that Dave achieved on a weekly basis throughout his training cycle. Dave started to train above 90% on week 9, starting with bench, adding in squats on week 10, and deadlifts on week 11.
When Dave’s peak intensities are the highest in the final weeks of the program, his volumes are much lower than the baseline volume. This is important to remember when describing Dave’s training methodology, as he said that the reduction below baseline was to balance fatigue caused from higher intensities and aid in recovery between training sessions.
Overall, the most number of lifts above 90% were achieved on bench (20 reps), followed by deadlift (9 reps), and squat (8 reps) throughout the training cycle.
In conclusion, Dave’s metrics provide evidence for his training methodology. Dave accumulates the majority of his volume with low average intensities (below 60%). With that said, in the latter part of the training cycle where peak intensities are rising, he pushes the 3-rep indicator sets to near max abilities (between 96-100% of his competition 1RMs). When considering zones of relative intensity, 75% of Dave’s overall volume is accumulated in the light/de-load zone, which represents volume that is recoverable and not proximal to fatigue. As with most competition peaking phases, Dave’s volume is higher than his baseline in the first half of the training cycle, dropping below his baseline in the second half. Dave has an ability to handle more lifts above 90% for bench press and only half as many for squat and deadlift. While strength and muscle mass typically decrease with age, Dave is defying what we know about science, sport, and aging. The training approach we detailed is a single case of how an elite powerlifter is able to top human performance into his late 50’s.
It’s a web application that allows powerlifters to build workouts, plan training programs, and assess training metrics that lead to better performance. Sign up for a FREE TRIAL.
Surakka J. Power-type strength training in middle-aged men and women. Journal of Sports Science and Medicine. 2005;Supplement 9:1–35.
Deschenes MR. Effects of aging on muscle fibre type and size. Sports Med. 2004;34:809–824.[PubMed]
Baumgartner RN, Waters DL, Gallagher D, Morley JE, Garry PJ. Predictors of skeletal muscle mass in elderly men and women. Mechanisms of aging and development. 1999;107:123–136. [PubMed]
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