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Interview with Robert Wilks

"I am the only one to have done the backbraking work of gathering a large pool of data, from many nations from around the wolrd, certainly not perfect, but it is closer to truth than those who simply take world records or at best world championships results and attempt to build a table from a really limited pool."
Robert Wilks, Interviewed by, Thursday 12 June, 2008.
Soissons, thursday 12 Juin 2008: 13h15 (france)
Melbourne, thursday 12 Juin 2008: 21h15 ...
A 2 hours long phone conversation, some sixteen thousand kilometers away.
Here are the transcripts of the first two mails exchanged before actually picking up the phone for this interview:
On 15/05/2008, at 3:28 PM, Webmaster Club150kg wrote:


Being currently involved in the French IPF-affiliated powerlifting federation (FFHMFAC), I would like to know if it could be possible to know as thoroughly as possible how you actually built your table. We know that it was based on bodyweight and age World Records, for 3-lifts totals, but could it be possible to know more ? I've been looking for information about the origins of the now famous Wilks Table on the internet and nothing extensive could be found. I am planning to write an article about it for my website and mine (french benchpress hall of fame - club150kg).
If you don't mind, I dare asking a few questions, to be considered as nothing more than mere leads:

What was the state of mind that lead you to work on such a table ?
Were there previous works that formed the basis of yours ?
What were the IPF competitions used to build your table, which level and which seasons ?
How many powerlifters were indirectly surveyed when building such a table ?
How did the Wilks Table get accedpted by the IPF ? Were there objections ? enthusiasts ?
What were the reactions of athletes when it was first introduced ?
Do you think that the advent of the benchshirt alters the validity of this table ?
Have you tried to do the same calculations using today's records ?

Many more questions could be asked of course, feel free to add any comment you wish.

Hoping you won't mind taking part in this survey.

With all due regards.
Powerliftingly yours.

Lambiel Fabien.
FFHMFAC Athlete and Local Referee (French IPF).

Ok Lambiel, many questions.

The "state of mind" that led me to do this was probably a state of insanity, as it took an enormous amount of time & work.

The formula was not based on WRs at all, it was based on a survey of about 10,000 lifters (i.e. national ranking lists) from many nations & really I did a regression analysis (rate of change in rate of change) by hand & then had that converted that to a quadratic.

The formula really needs some improvement on the BP-only, but I don't think that much of that is due to shirts -- the BP naturally has a different curve to the total. I did the formula exercise twice actually, 1984 & the big one in c 1995 --no difference in the curve for total & I'm sure no difference now, but it is only in the last decade that BP-only competitions have become prominent & people look at BP-only results in terms of the formula.

The original thesis & data I now have only in two hardbound volumes, about 500 pages, so it is difficult to transmit this information (actually the formula was a side-issue to research on changing the bodyweight classes, but maybe I''ll explain that to you later)

Anyway for tonight what I have to say to you is that on Monday I go to China for a week & up to then I am very busy. For me to answer all those questions properly would be a long article --however I don't mind doing some work to explain things to people,even 10 years on. Maybe the best format would be for you to interview me & then you can write an article from that? --if you can speak English as well as you write that should be ok + I don't have Skype set up myself but I can take Skype calls inwards ok. But it all depends on how much detail you want, how long your article would be, etc. Or will you be in Prague for the World BP Champs.?

Let me know how far you want to go on this & I will try & help you.

Best Wishes,
Robert. (sent vendredi 16 mai 2008 15:32)

Exclusive Interview for French Benchpress hall of fame: Club150kg
You're today part of the decision making board of the IPF, and you were even among the candidates for the IPF presidency for the 2008-2011 period.. Before we start talking about the formula that bears your name, could you tell us about your personal relationship with powerlifting ? You are of world-fame in the powerlifting domain, yet, but a few information is available about the man behind the numbers…
Robert Wilks

To cut a long story short, I am now 54 years old, at high school and in my 20s I was a discus thrower of moderate performance (52 metres), until I switched to Powerlifting . You could say that more moderate performances followed, I totalled 775kg at 110kg and was 10 th in the Worlds in Gothenburg in 1983. In 1984 I was going to compete in the Worlds in Dallas, but I tore my pectoral a few weeks before, at the same time the gentleman who was Australian Coach had to withdraw due to some unfortunate personal problems and bingo I was suddenly the Australian coach. From there I went on mainly being interested in coaching, with one injury after another ending my competing career.

Today I coach a squad at my club Melbourne University and also most of the Australian teams. However as time has gone on I have taken on more and more administrative jobs in Australia and the IPF. Now I somehow find myself the CEO of Powerlifting Australia, President of the Oceania Federation and on the Executive of the IPF, as well as being IPF Doping Commission Chairman.
You told us, in the first mail you sent, that in fact your famous formula was in fact the by-product of a research you were carrying out at the time about a wider issue: namely, that finding a scientific basis for changing body weight categories. What was happening at the time ? Were the bodyweight categories under scrutiny ? Why did they needed be changed ? Can you give us more details about the context of the Wilks Formula ?
Robert Wilks

The so-called Formula came about as a result of research I did in the mid 1990s for the IPF on possible new bodyweight classes. A Congress actually passed the proposal to change the classes, but I said that we should hold off for a year so that I could research thoroughly what the new classes should be. I wish now that I had just made up some new classes that day and all would have been done!

Anyway what I did next was survey 15 or so nations from around the world, obtaining their annual ranking lists right down to last place. This gave a pool of maybe 10,000 lifters and results. That data showed some interesting things, such as that the middle classes (75 82½ 90)) have 15-18% each of the worlds lifters, whilst classes like 52, 56 and 125+kg, women 90 and 90+kg might have 1 or 2% each or even less, of the lifters in the world This is obviously unfair and also damages the credibility and marketability of the IPF, when there are medals awarded in classes with a tiny number of competitors – who wants to be “World Champion” of three lifters!?

However creating a completely even segmentation of the lifting population into classes is not possible, although a fairer breakup can be established. Also aside from as evenly as possible breaking up the lifter population, the other key criterion for fair bodyweight classes is that each class encompasses the same range of performance. For example, the 56.1kg to 60kg class covers 40 kg of performance from its bottom to its top and the 60.1kg to 67.5kg class ranges 70 kg of performance from its lower point to its top. This is obviously lopsided, each class should cover approximately the same performance domain, say a range of 45kg of performance.

But to do analyses of the performance size of each class I needed an accurate formula. Naturally for this I first looked at the then official Schwarz and Malone formulae. However it soon became obvious that those were unreliable. The Schwarz formulae clearly greatly favoured lighters e.g. according to Schwarz 21 out of 50 (42%) of the World’s greatest performances had been achieved by lifters in the 52 an 56kg classes, where only 7% of lifters existed So it became clear I couldn’t use Schwarz and Malone to work out consistent bodyweight class ranges, I would have to create my own formula!

So on I went, cursing the nightmare I had created for myself. But I ploughed through, essentially doing a regression analysis by hand i.e. calculating the rate of change in the range of change in performance as bodyweight increased. I established series of equivalent performance points at 52, 56, 60kg and so on up to 145kg (the assumed “limit” for the SHW class, being the average bodyweight of those competitors at World Championships) and similar for women. That “curve” of performance points I ten had spliced into a series of co-efficients via a quadratic equation. Those co-efficients were what was adopted by the IPF Congress
How did this table get accepted by the IPF ?
Robert Wilks

To my horror, when my proposals for new bodyweight classes was put to the next Congress, that whole concept was rejected out of hand. It was impossible to explain statistical and technical issues to the diverse group that makes up an IPF Congress, but more worryingly, it was equally hard to get Congress to grips with the marketing and credibility issues of having lopsided and too many classes.

But with the formulae it was another story. This was accepted with acclaim, helped by the US delegate at the time saying that he had a message from Lyle Schwarz, that Mr Schwarz agreed that his formula needed revising or replacing.

One important thing that people forget is that there is no such thing as a Wilks “formula” (even though there werw quadratic equations in my research document). What the Congress passed was a hard-copy set of co-efficients to 4-only decimal points, covering the range of 40kg to 205kg bodyweights. That is, the IPF rules now say you don’t go past 4 decimal points (a formula could go to an infinite number of decimal places and thus be unwieldy) and also that there are no co-efficients for below 40kg (where there is no data) and above 205kg.

The 205+kg issue is interesting in itself – the calculations indicated that performance should decline as a lifter’s bodyweight goes beyond 205k (150kg for women). I believe that it is immobily worse leverage in at least the Deadlift and fitness to train are the factors which would explain a reduction in performance as lifters go over 205kg and the proof is that we just don’t see these massively large competitors, s you might in something like Sumo, as there is only disadvantage I being so huge. But he only quibble congress had was that people could not come to terms with the co-efficients reducing above 205kg and so the coefficients were capped there.

Has the growing and widespread use of bench shirts or squat shirts altered the foundation of such a work ?
Robert Wilks
I am inclined to believe not. The indications are that the single-ply shirt will add a consistent 20-25% to bench press performance, once the lifter goes to full tightness. I am told that one manufacturer has advertised a calculated 26% gain for their particular shirt. Thus the performance curve with a shirt would be higher across the board, but the actual shape of the curve would not change. Some lifters may gain more or less than others from the shirt, depending on their arm length, specific strengths, etc. but overall the gain will be the same across the bodyweight range.
Have you attempted performing the same work with more recent performance as basis to counter-check your table ? If so, what were the results ?
Robert Wilks

I haven’t re-done the whole exercise again, but I suspect strongly that there would fundamentally be no great change in the shape of the performance/bodyweight curve. Note that in the early 1980s I had actually done a similar exercise, with the resultant co-efficients only being used in Australia. The 1980s and then the 1990s results were actually the same for men. For women, in the 1980s there were hardly any women in Powerlifting anywhere in the world, so it was guesswork in that area, whereas in the 1990s there was a reasonable amount of female data. So maybe there would be even more women’s information to go on if there were a review now, but fundamentally I do not believe that human physiology or the laws of biomechanics will have changed too much in 10 years!

Nevertheless if and when a revision comes, the passing of time may have provided more data on the extreme bodyweight classes e.g. men below 60kg and above 120kg. As I mentioned before, there are actually very few competitors in those areas, thus less data an there had to be some guesswork in estimating the curve in those zones. Deep down I suspect that the co-efficients may still have some favouritism for those extreme classes and this may need looking at.
Siff also worked on this subject, but this time with a set of three tables each specifically built for each powerlifting lift. What do you think abou this kind of approach ?
Robert Wilks
I think the indications are that the Bench Press has a different curve to the total. The current co-efficients are for the total. With the Bench Press, higher bodyweights produce more performance gain than for the total i.e. the current co-efficients may favour heavier lifters if applied to the Bench Press. There was a study done at Dayton University which said that this is not so, the Wilks formula is accurate for the Bench Press, but my feeling is not in agreement. Also twice the IPF Congress has voted against a separate bench press formula, on the grounds that this would complicate matters. I think that the next bout of work that should be done is for me to investigate the Bench Press data and put a specific proposal (or not) for a separate set of co-efficients.
… in this perspective, let le offer you my own work: I have compiled the latest french benchpress results from the top athletes down to the very beginners, this could be of help…
Robert Wilks
Yes, I would value that data set as a valuable start. However I would need more data, thousands of lifters and also some Asian, Pacific, etc. data. Every effort must be made to be comprehensive and objective in such an exercise.
Another approach, from the N.A.S.A, asserts that any of these works is unreliable because based upon a sample of results including those from doped athletes. Hence have they built their own with only "drug-tested" athletes and results. They have specifically shown that, by doing so, the heavyweights were comparatively less powerful than lighter athletes. Do you think doping reduces the validity of any formula ? Or is it but a minor aspect drowned into the mass of numbers ?
Robert Wilks
This is an interesting assertion and it is not impossible that there is some validity to it. However my feeling is that, like shirts, the extra variable of doping in men adds a figure of somewhere between 10 and 15% o performance right across the bodyweight range. In the IPF we have achieved at least a reduction in doping use in the last decade and casual observation is that performances have been constrained in all classes. But it is going to be very hard to get valid data on “drug” v. “drug-free” lifters, as how can those categories be controlled? I also point out that it is far from established that the so-called “drug-free” federations are really drug-free, especially when they do not have valid drug-testing! (the IPF being the only WADA-approved federation).
Malone and Metzer have added an "age" variable to their table, and related coefficients. Others have followed this trend (Reshel, Glossbrenner). What do you think about such an approach ? Was there a desire not to take age into account when you built your table ? Did you find it irrelevant ?
Robert Wilks
Age is another vex’d variable. There is not much practical need for an age formula, as people seem content to award Best Lifter trophies within each age category (MI, MII, MIII, MIV) although I still do get enquiries on this subject. Again the problem with age is lack of data – there are very few lifters above 60 years especially. The academic literature is not clear – reports indicate strength loss per year for older persons of between 1 and 3% but there is a huge difference between 1% and 3% drop, which may or may not accelerate after age 50 or 60 or 70 depending which report you look at. Also, that data is always gathered from untrained subjects, whereas regular training may create a lesser rate of drop. For example I coach two over 70 lifters, World Masters medallists, who started training at age 60 and have probably doubled their strength, no decline at all. I did notice that when I did the exercise a few years ago of creating new World Record standards for the then new MIII women and MIV men that there was an indication of a steady decline only in WR data at least from 40 to 50 to 60, at a rate of about 12% per decade (i.e. around 1% per year).
The Glossbrenner formula (that replaced that of Reshel) is often said to have averaged Schwartz and Wilks, on the assumption that the former tends to favour lighter athletes, whereas yours is said to do so with heavier ones. Apart from the fact that this aknowledges the Wilks table as a trustworthy table, What can you say about this method, and the underlying criticism about favoring one bodyweight class or another ?
Robert Wilks
OK if I say 2 + 2 = 4 and you say 2 + 2 = 5, do we agree that 2 + 2 = 4 ½ ? And then do we go and build a bridge based on calculations of 2 + 2 = 4 ½ and see if it falls down? So this Glossbrenner averaging method you describe is nonsense, the aim should be to gather more and more data and get closer and closer to an absolute truth. Virtually all of these other formulae you see around useless as contributions. This is because all they do is take say the set of World Records, or at best World Championship results for a few years and at worst some wild assumption plucked out of the air (“light lifters are favoured, heavy lifters have too much fat”) and then throw up a formula which fits that very limited data pool. No-one has gone through the back-breaking work I did of gathering data lists in the thousands, from many nations of different racial groups. Only large-scale exercises like that will advance the cause of determining accurate performance/bodyweight relationships
You remind us that powerlifting is "buffeted by a whirlpool of influences"; you mention doping and the influence of commerce as potential threats. Let us begin by doping. For instance, we have witnessed the outcome of a new policy in France based on financial garantees asked to athletes in case they would be found guilty of doping (in case the national branch of the IPF would have to pay). Such a measure has been well accepted. Has this type of measure given good results ? do you intend to go further ?
Robert Wilks
Punishment of offending athletes is part of the total picture of measures for controlling doping. As well, education and law enforcement action against illicit manufacturers and distributors are major elements. Financial guarantees are a new deterrent which perhaps has promise. I know of one IPF nation which now requires all selected members of its international teams to lodge a EUR1500 bond, refunded if there is no problem, lost if they test positive. It is early to evaluate this, but there ha already been a noticeable change in that nation’s teams.
We all know that the "drug-free" trend is now growing fast in the world of powerlifting, with the creation of "drug-free" divisions in many federations, not to mention the recent advent of the "life-time drug-free" trend implying a pledge to accept the erasure of all one's records in case of positive testing during the whole of one's life ! Hence does WDFPF attract many athletes thanks to such as stance. Meanwhile, european cyclists are now requested to carry a built-in GPS device in their cell phone to be easily located and more easily controlled without warning. One of the pillars of powerlifting legetimacy will be that of anti-doping: among all the measures sometimes heard around, what are those you favour ? Life-suspension ? Records-erasing ?
Robert Wilks

Certainly out-of-competition testing is the most effective tool yet found for doping control, but this rests entirely on a rigorous Whereabouts system i.e. OCT is rendered ineffective unless athletes can be located immediately. Paper and even on-line Whereabouts systems are resource-intensive and if it comes to GPS systems so be it.

This factor can’t be underestimated. Any laxity in Whereabouts virtually destroys a doping programme e.g. the Marion Jones case. Also there can be hypocrisy from federations and organisations, who proclaim “you can test our athletes any time!” but allow no method for finding those athletes.

But the masters of hypocrisy must be those so-called “drug-free” federations. The “drug-free” term is merely a marketing device and an attempt to grab the moral high ground None of these organisations have genuine event drug-testing, let alone Whereabouts and OCT. The IPF is the “Anti-Doping Organization” recognised by WADA for Powerlifting and the IPF is the only pathway to a genuine drug-testing programme in Powerlifting.

As an example of the futility of the so-called “drug-free” concept, consider the example of the Australian drug-free federation in the mid 1990s. They agitated politically for government recognition were eventually ordered to amalgamate with us, the genuine IPF Australian Federation, but as part of that process for about eight months or so had real drug-testing for the first time, from the Australian government testing agency. The result? - about eight or so positives out of a very small group of athletes and then the crowning glory when their Secretary was arrested for heroin and steroid-dealing? Sacré blue! Detachment from the mainstream will not create a drug-free sport, only embracement of one sport realistically working to control doping through the legitimate methods of world sport (in Powerlifting’s case the IPF and WADA) has any prospect of success.
Do you support the lifetime exclusion idea, right from the very positive testing ?
Robert Wilks
I do not personally yet support a first-offence lifetime ban. Two years or so first offence, then life second offence allows for a chance at rehabilitation. Also, there can be cases of inadvertent doping, especially from unwise supplement use. It has been well-documented that many of these protein and strength supplements are laced with small amounts of steroids, simply to give them some effect as they are useless in themselves. This is especially so with supplements originating from Asia and also the US and there are published studies where supplements are purchased off the shelf, analysed and anything up to 50% are found to contain steroids. So it is possible to inadvertently go positive and I am aware of 1 or 2 probable cases in Australian sport. However the small quantities of steroids in these laced supplements means that such cases are rare in practice. But the point is that there can, in unusual circumstances be positives which are less positive than others and an immediate life ban might be harsh. The way to go might be a range of sentences for a first positive, say between 2 and 4 years depending on the facts and life for a second offence. I understand that WADA will have a system like that in 2009
What do you think about the new trend that advocates the erasure of all records, even those reached out of the "positive testing" period ?
Robert Wilks

I am very much in favour of this. The penalty for a steroid positive should be suspension for two years or life plus erasure of all records ever set by the athlete. We have this rule in Australia, if we did not at least our men’s open records would literally now be made up entirely of lifters who subsequently went positive! i.e. our entire record system would be destroyed. To bring in such a system there has to be a clearing of all past records and starting again, which is what we did in 1991. There was much huffing and puffing at the time from old record-holders, but this came to nothing as our strong legal advice was that if our organization legitimately voted to have suspension plus record erasure as the penalty for a steroid positive, that is perfectly valid. This system is a little bit more complicated in the international scenario, I’d like to see such a system come in as part of a clean sweep to re-define the sport’s credibility – new bodyweight classes, no shirts, no world-record unless the athlete has been on Whereabouts for maybe a year and WR-erasure if you go positive. I’d like to see Elvis come back too.

You also admit being worried about the growing influence of representative from powerlifting-oriented commercial industry within the IPF (people selling shirts and benches for instance). What are the dangers associated with this situation ? How do you intend to address this issue ?
Robert Wilks
Commerce in Powerlifting is good. Part of being a significant sport is having the capacity to generate larger-scale sponsorships, promotions and providing businesses. However where this gets out of line is where the cart gets before the horse i.e. commercial concerns set the terms of the sport’s agenda. In that regard I think of the situation at IPF Congresses where equipment distributors being delegates might be voting on equipment, rules, promoters vote on by-laws about promotions and so on. In the broader corporate world such conflicts of interest are precluded, morally and legally. Re-setting and enforcement of constitutional rules preventing such conflicts is the first step forward.
Is the recent attempt to get rid of the bench shirt to be considered related to this issue ? It has often been heard that the bench shirt hindered a potential OIC recognition, do you agree with this assumption ? Is the IPF going RAW ? Or are we going to witness the creation of Raw Divisions within the IPF (knowing that RAW, as well as Drug-Free, is one of the strongest recent tendencies in powerlifting) ?
Robert Wilks

Bench shirts as they are now are detrimental to the sport’s credibility. Something which adds 25% to performances fundamentally changes the nature of a sort It is no longer a test of skill, intelligence in training and dedication to improve, but an exercise in who will spend the most money and take the risk of getting tighter an tighter shirts on as to who improves the most.

As to the relationship of this to IOC recognition, at first it will have no affect, as the recognition process does not go down into such details as lifting equipment. The challenge is to get sport bureaucrats to even know that Powerlifting exists. It is at a later stage, when Games organizers and the like look more closely at just what sort of sport Powerlifting is, what its credibility, integrity and safety standing is, that artificial equipment will pose an issue for us. I think it is significant that the IPC, who are in the Olympics, will have nothing to do with the shirt

Raw divisions I think are ultimately unwise. The lifeblood of sports it he quest to find who is truly the one and only champion. Multiple categories and champions only dilutes that fundamental ideal. But I can understand that in the current circumstances separate raw competitions have appeal to many lifters and this category may grow.
Today, only France, Belgium and England have powerlifters and weightlifters united within one single federation. Everywhere else these two sports lead their own way. IPF is often considered to be modelled on the IWF. Do you consider this to be true ? What do you think about the strategy that consists in getting recognition through association with weightlifting?
Robert Wilks

Combined WL and PL federations are a vex’d issue. I think that it is fair to say that on the national level, over the years, the concept has failed The cry has come from Powerlifters in those combined federations that “the Weightlifters get the money and we get the testing” and a number have separated e.g. I believe United Kingdom is in the process of a separation.

But there may be a bigger picture It is pure speculation at this stage, but alliances or partnering by the IPF with the IWF or IPC might be beneficial for all concerned. Swimming is stronger because it has all the disciplines of swimming, diving and synchronized swimming under one umbrella, Gymnastics a similar story. Let’s just see what develops on this front.
What abou the IPF ? what should be the image associated with this federation that would help it stand out of the fray ? Is it to be associated with "strict rules" as it is already the case ? IOC association ? World-wide presence, even in remote and unthought-of countries ?
Robert Wilks
What the IPF is in the business of selling is credibility. We offer the opportunity for athletes to enjoy the sense of achievement tht comes from striving to their maximum on a level and comprehensive playing field. Drugs, artificial equipment, empty bodyweight classes, separate raw divisions and the like all damage that core concept. The IPF must continue to move forward in establishing itself as the universal governing body, promoting worthwhile values and accepted by the major sports organizations in the world. We are more on the right path than not in attempting to craft an organization promoting those fundamental values and aims, but still have many obstacles, from within and without, to overcome.
© Copyright Lambiel Fabien -