A strange thing happens to some people once bodybuilding/weight training gets into their blood. If it really gets a hold of you, you may become a perpetual student, always looking for new routines, dietary practices and supplements. In this quest, sooner or later you’re going to want to look deeper than the monthly magazines, webzines and message boards.
Books are the primary means of learning about most subjects, but unfortunately good books dedicated to bodybuilding are about as common as a newbie who knows how to eat right. Fortunately for you, I’ve taken an interest in separating the wheat from the chaff so you can find a few books that will truly help you with your endeavor and entertain you along the way.
Before we get started, I want to address two things: availability and price. For some odd reason, almost all bodybuilding books at your local Barnes and Noble are uninspired at best, with many of them filled with reams of misinformation. The observant among you will notice that none of the books below are available in a typical bookstore. So if you see something you like, get your credit card ready.
You’ll need that card for another reason too: with a few exceptions, these books don’t come cheap, at least not on a dollar to page ratio. In fact, the shortest (but not cheapest) in the bunch rings in at $30. While this may put a few of you off at first, the fact is that you get what you pay for. If you want to know the techniques used by a prominent strength coach, or a manual on using a drug to mimic leptin’s effects, or a referenced textbook devoted to supplements, then you’re going to have to shell out a little extra dough. If this makes you unhappy, Weight Training for Dummies awaits you at B&N. So, cost will not really factor into the evaluations below, but I will point out a good value when I see one.
The books reviewed below are a mix of old, recent and new. There’s no expiration date on good information.
The Complete Keys To Progress
Author: John McCallum
Cover price: $19.95
Available through: IronMind
“The trouble with bulking the upper body, and the reason for most bodybuilding failures, is that too many bodybuilders specialize on it too soon. You can walk into any gym in the country and see scrawny kids slaving away on their arms and shoulders before they’re ready for it. Most of them don’t make too much progress. They eventually become discouraged and quit. The hard and bitter truth of the matter is that they’d spent the necessary time and effort building up a proper foundation first, then they’d get the results they want from their curls and presses.”
Keys to Progress is a compilation of an article series that ran by the same name in Strength and Health from 1965-1972. If you believe publisher Randal Strossen’s hyperbole you’d think that a well-muscled Moses brought it down from Mt. Sinai on stone tablets. Sadly, it does not live up to those standards. However, the book is a great read that provides training information, a feel for the bodybuilding of the past, and inspiration to get in the gym.
McCallum’s articles are not written in a way that most trainees are used to. They follow a narrative style and each training idea or program is introduced with an individual anecdote or as the part of an ongoing story. While I’m sure that he took some creative license with these stories (especially those involving his studly uncle Harry) this device works and makes Keys a very easy and enjoyable read. It’s easily the most entertaining bodybuilding book that I’ve read.
There is enough training information in this book to keep you busy for years. McCallum outlines routines for bulking, increasing strength and bringing up lagging body parts. He also repeatedly hammers home the value of heavy training with compound movements – if you don’t want to squat after reading this book, then you never will. Given the publication dates of the original articles, some of the information here may surprise you, including ketogenic dieting and 10×10 programs. It just goes to show that most of what is considered new is just the recycling of older ideas.
Keys is also interesting as piece of bodybuilding history, subtlety displaying the animosity between Bob Hoffman—the publisher of Strength and Health—and Joe Weider. Over the course of seven years, the Mr. Olympia contest and all Weider athletes never receive a word of mention. Reg Park and Bill Pearl, who are mentioned quite a bit, are described as “having won every physique trophy worth winning.” More than a few indirect shots are taken at (the Weider magazines and their training methods, although they’re never addressed by name.
On the negative side, many of the programs suggested in the book would flatten any natural trainee over the age of 22. While the 6-day 20+ set workout schemes were conservative for their time, they would probably send most into overtraining – especially considering McCallum’s tendency to encourage heavy weight and training all out in conjunction with high workloads.
Another thing that continually got on my nerves was the way he presented average weights for trainees to be lifting. While I’m sure the weights were supposed to be inspirational, pushing for 300 pounds on behind-the-neck-presses is probably beyond the reach of most lifters. Some of the training advice is dated (sit-ups to keep your waist trim), while most of the supplement advice is best ignored. The simple diet guidelines are on the money though.
Bottom line: An entertaining read with good information that should be taken with a grain of salt. If you have an interest in iron game history and old school approaches to bodybuilding, then you will be very happy with this book. Don’t buy IT if you’re looking for the latest advances or any heavily referenced training methods.
Bromocriptine: An Old Drug with New Uses
Author: Lyle McDonald
Cover Price: $19.95
Available through: QFAC
“Your body hates you. I know I said this in foreword but it bears repeating. It’s become one of my more common catch phrases and I am quite serious about it. Actually, that sentence has it backwards. Your body really loves you and wants to keep you alive. It’s just that what it thinks is the right thing to do to keep you alive is generally contrary to your goals of less weight/fat and more muscle.”
The first thing I want to say about this e-book is that it’s improperly titled. While the book more than adequately covers using bromocriptine, it actually includes a lot of information that would interest those who have no intent of using the drug.
Bromocriptine starts with a chapter appropriately titled “Defining the Problem” where McDonald explains the difficulties associated with dieting and some of the hormonal consequences of dropping calories. He also discusses the setpoint theory and thrifty gene hypothesis.
The next two chapters could be titled Leptin for Dummies, as McDonald explains what leptin is, how it works, and it’s direct relation to fat loss. After setting the stage, he then describes the current research on leptin explaining leptin transport and resistance, and why leptin injections are not a viable solution for fat loss. These chapters are written in a conversational, easy to follow style that allows the non-science oriented to quickly grasp the concepts.
After the information dump on leptin, bromocriptine is finally introduced into the picture. McDonald gives a brief history of the drug, describing its medical use, role as a dopamine agonist and effects on prolactin levels. He also takes the reader through the research supporting its efficacy in humans and addresses safety concerns.
McDonald then provides instructions on using bromocriptine. Anyone looking to actually take this drug for fat loss will find everything they need including:
* Dosing guidelines
* What time of day to take it
* Substances to avoid when using bromocriptine.
* Possible side-effects
* Information on possible positive effects on libido
This book has received some criticism for both it’s premise and the oversight of bromocriptine effects on testosterone levels. I believe the content of the book defends the premise well. The latter issue is addressed in an update posted on QFAC, which provides a comparison of all the results that involved differences in test levels. I believe that McDonald adequately addresses the omission, but you can see for yourself here.
I do have one minor criticism though: at one point McDonald refers to a current hypothesis that free-radical oxidation of dopamine causes the neurodegeneration linked to Parkinson’s disease. So as a cautionary measure, he warns against regular use of substances to raise dopamine levels, including tyrosine, L-dopa and nicotine.
I appreciate this level of thoroughness and concern about user safety. However, several studies have shown smoking, and consequently chronic nicotine use, to reduce the risk of acquiring Parkinson’s disease. This research is far from conclusive, but there is enough evidence to remove nicotine from that list. I suggest that anyone interested in using nicotine for this purpose review the literature and then draw his or her own conclusions.
Bottom line: Buy this book if you are interested in using Bromocriptine for fat loss or if you want an easy to follow explanation of leptin and it’s relevance to fat loss.
Modern Trends in Strength Training
Author: Charles Poliquin
Cover Price: $29.95
Available through: Charlespoliquin.net
“Strength and power athletes will want to pause in between reps so that they hypertrophy only the fibers that they need: the high threshold, fast-twitch fibers.”
Charles Poliquin has achieved NEAR-legendary status among the bodybuilding community. This status is largely based on two factors: A strong promotion of his work in prominent bodybuilding magazines and the fact that his programs deliver results. He has introduced (and reintroduced) several effective protocols for developing strength and muscle mass.
Modern Trends is the beginning of a new book series that will finally allow him show us just what he knows. With 50 pages of actual training information, no one will mistake this for an encyclopedia, but the pages are heavy on information and there are no pictures or other graphics taking up valuable space.
Two thirds of the book is dedicated to delivering the newly numbered Poliquin principles. Those familiar with his work will remember his previous book by the same name, but this time the principles are actually spelled out as opposed to a compilation of loosely related articles. These principles, as the title suggests, provide guidelines for selecting set and rep schemes and specific methods for increasing performance.
Some of the techniques outlined include:
* Guidelines on varying rep amounts in each set
* Wave loading programs
* Drop sets that reduce weight during the set
* Assigning reps based on training age
* Specific set/rep combinations for increasing squatting poundages
I want to stress that this is not a book for newbies or anyone not interested in building their own routines. Sure, there are prefab routines in the book (some of which you may have seen before), but the true value comes from assimilating the data that Poliquin presents. This book is written to the audience of strength and conditioning coaches with an eye towards assessing a trainee and using the information provided to develop the best possible program. It also focuses more on strength than hypertrophy, but there is plenty of information on achieving the latter.
My only complaints are the ones I typically have with Poliquin’s work. First, many of the suggested routines and workloads would constitute overkill for the average trainee. Second, many of the suggestions are simply not possible for someone training alone or in a crowded gym. To be fair, this book is marketed towards strength coaches who would likely be training competitive athletes more suited to the workloads and also be able to provide the assistance needed to for some of the techniques. Finally, the book could have used a few more examples to flesh out the specifics of some of the principles.
Bottom line: If you are a current or aspiring strength coach this book is for you. Trainees interested in developing their own programs or some tips and guidelines to improve what they’re already working on will also find value in this book. It’s not for newbies.
Edited by: Jose Antonio, Ph.D. and Jeff Stout Ph.D.
Cover Price: $34.95
Available through: Supplementbooks.com
“Evaluate if a supplement claim is measurable. It is difficult to analyze the purported benefits of a substance if it is claimed to make you feel better or more energetic. Purposefully vague claims do not allow users to determine if a supplement is worth the hype.”
If you ever took a college course on supplements, this would be your textbook. What we have here is the most heavily referenced book ever produced on the subject of supplementation. This book contrasts sharply with the company sponsored supplement reviews that we’ve seen in the past, both with its unbiased approach and heavily researched conclusions.
The book is edited by Jose Antonio Ph.D. and Jeffery Stout Ph.D., who also contribute to a few chapters. Several of the individual contributors are also names that should be familiar to you, including Thomas Incledon, John Berardi, Douglas Kalman and Richard Kreider.
Sports Supplements hits the ground running with a chapter defining what a supplement is, the history behind them and the how to evaluate labels and research. Next is an excellent chapter on diet, which is fitting since many trainees ignore that and go straight to supplements. Diet reappears later in the book in a chapter on preventing overtraining through dietary modifications. Then, the book starts to tackle the available research on supplements.
While the complete contents of this book are too comprehensive to list in this review, I can give you an idea of what kind of information Sports Supplements features. Supplements reviewed are broken down into chapters focusing on distinct categories and include: muscle mass builders, fat reduction, anticatabolics, endurance enhancers, vitamins, anti-oxidants, immune system modulators and androgens and GH releasers.
The chapters on hydration, preventing overtraining, recovery and protein requirements for athletes are unexpected, added bonuses. While there are some minor mentions of supplementation, these chapters focus more on educating the trainee about these often overlooked concepts and how they might affect performance.
The biggest disappointment for readers of this website will likely be the content of the androgens and GH releasers chapter—not because of the quality of information, but due to the limited amounts of conclusions that can be drawn from it. The fact that most research on prohormones does not show any significant benefits (where have we heard that before?) does not help matters. However, Chris Street, Chris Chromiak and Antonio make due with what they have and provide a comprehensive overview of the research regarding GH stimulation via supplementation.
Bottom line: If you want a textbook on supplements and a reference guide to the most commonly used substances, then you will be happy with your purchase. If you’re looking for the latest advances or an easy to digest treatise on supplements, look elsewhere.
Muscle: Confessions of an Unlikely Bodybuilder
Author: Samuel Wilson Fussell
Cover Price: $12
Available through: Amazon.com
“Pre-iron, I’d spent my days convicting myself of avarice and envy and sloth. To become something else seemed the only alternative. As long as I covered myself with the equivalent of scaffolding and labeled myself a ‘work in progress,’ I could escape the doubt and uncertainty that plagued my past and spend every second of my present concentrating on the pristine future. I hated the flawed, weak, vulnerable nature of being human as much as I hated the Adam’s apple that bobbed beneath my chin. The attempt at self perfection grew from seeds of self disgust.”
Samuel Fussell’s book is included in this review because of the insight it provides into the hobby/vocation that so many of us are obsessed with. You won’t find much useful information on training and diet in Muscle, but you may find some words that ring true. This memoir on his zealous jump into the bodybuilding lifestyle is an interesting look at the subculture of bodybuilding in the 80s.
Starting as a frail, Oxford educated intellectual in New York in 1984, Fussell is terrified of the city’s people and everything else about it. One day, avoiding a would-be assailant, he finds his way into a bookstore where he discovers Arnold: The Education of Bodybuilder. After reading it, he decides to throw himself completely into bodybuilding with the intent of armoring himself against the dangers of the world. As his story progresses, it becomes obvious that Fussell’s obsession is also fueled by the desire to protect himself from dealing with his fears, doubts and issues with intimacy.
Fussell starts his journey in a crowded YMCA, where he quickly graduates from Universal machines to free weights. On making this jump he meets two “hardcore” bodybuilders who show him the way and teach him the “walk.” Fussell notes their shortcomings and idiosyncrasies with a sense of irony that only becomes more biting as the book goes on.
It doesn’t take long before he outpaces the freaks in New York and decides to make his way out west to San Gabriel Valley to follow his dream. While in southern California he meets bigger caricatures than those in New York and wryly notes his transformation into one himself. He ends up juicing his second day there.
Notable So Cal characters include Fussell’s roommates: would be actor and (porn) model Vinnie, extreme personal trainer Nimrod and tough guy Bam Bam – all of whom are, of course, competing bodybuilders. Fussell takes great pains to point out the losers, freaks and misfits that are drawn to bodybuilding. As a matter of fact, there’s not a single mentally balanced bodybuilder in the entire book. He continually includes himself in this group, although it’s obvious that he considers himself above his compatriots.
The book continues to follow Fussell’s progress until it climaxes with him entering several contests to finally evaluate where all of his efforts have gotten him. The bench press competition and the two bodybuilding shows are described in great detail. Fussell never misses a chance to point out the contradictory nature of these contests and the comical, sometimes sad situations that they produce.
I won’t reveal how the books ends, but I can tell you that you will end up judging Fussell and his final decision completely based on your own prejudices. It’s tempting to dismiss Fussell’s negative observations as the lamentation of an unhappy, lonely man. This is exactly what he was. But while he may have been lonely, I suspect he’s far from alone in some of his experiences.
Bottom line: An entertaining read that also serves as a gut check on your level of obsession with bodybuilding. On a very short list of what could be considered bodybuilding literature.
Author: Stuart McRobert
Cover Price: $19.95
Available through: Hardgainer.com
“The appalling irony of modern bodybuilding is that the training methods appropriate to only a small minority of bodybuilders are given massive promotion, while training methods appropriate to the masses are largely hidden from those who need them the most.”
Brawn is more than a training book; it’s a manifesto against the most common presentation of bodybuilding. Written by Hardgainer publisher Stuart McRobert, the book challenges the volume-based approach to gaining strength and mass, dismissing them as unsuitable for most trainees. He makes a good case too.
Brawn is based on very simple premises: stick to compound movements, use perfect form, keep training volume low, employ progressive resistance and get the rest you need to grow. While not extreme enough to classify him with the HIT zealots, McRobert’s approach will seem a big departure from typical training protocols for many trainees.
However, it would be a mistake to dismiss the information in this book. McRobert delivers the equivalent of cold water to the brain of starry-eyed trainees caught up in the images they see in bodybuilding magazines. He is overly preachy at times, but his chapters on genetics, expectations and mindset provide some hard truths that many people could benefit from reading. There is also a good amount of solid training information, including details on periodization, exercise selection and upping intensity.
In addition to sermonizing, McRobert is dogmatic in his approach to training. While he does acknowledge the need for greater volume and variety for experienced lifters, he mostly dismisses most other approaches to training. This is great for new trainees who need to stay focused, but it can become tiresome for advanced lifters who know there’s more than one way to add a pound.
Stuart McRobert would likely hate this website and many of the things described here. He’s a strong proponent of drug free and mostly supplement free training. I expect most readers here will find his style a little preachy, given their interest in those topics. However, he makes a good point on not relying on anything to make up for shortcomings in training and diet.
Bottom line: A good book, strong on the basics, if at times overly preachy. Should be assigned reading for newbies and many “vets” could learn from it as well.
Sport Supplement Encyclopedia
Editors: Jose Antonio, Ph.D. and Jeff Stout Ph.D.
Cover Price: $29.99 (available for $9.99)
Available through: Supplementbooks.com
“We need science. Science provides us with an objective way for resolving disputes. Undoubtedly, more research is needed in the area of dietary supplements. Supplements aren’t meant to replace food. But there’s certainly enough objective evidence to show that certain supplements can improve body composition and improve athletic performance.
Personal experience is important. But to ignore science is to ignore the most powerful learning tool ever devised by man.”
So begins the Sports Supplement Encyclopedia (SSE) the best introduction to supplements that I’ve ever read. If you’ve been paying attention, you’ll notice that this is the second book on supplements put together by Antonio and Stout. While the one above is geared more to the science minded, SSE provides an intro that even greenest of newbies could appreciate.
Once again, the editors put together an impressive group of contributors to fill in the supplement blanks including: Will Brink, Chris Lockwood and repeat performances by Thomas Incledon and John Berardi. The book features chapters on protein, creatine, thermogenics, endurance, diet and miscellaneous supplements. Also included is list of Frequently Asked Questions answered by bodybuilding mainstay Jeff Everson.
When I decided to obtain SSE I expected it to be a watered down version of Sports Supplements. This is not the case. The book takes a completely different and direly needed approach to providing supplement information. SSE’s biggest strength is how accessible all of the information is. While references are provided for each chapter and most of the contentions in the book, it still maintains a conversational tone as it explains the basics of supplementation. It also provides information on some substances not covered in Sports Supplements including 7 keto DHEA and DAG oil.
I really have nothing negative to say about this book, which delivers perfectly on its premise. The only minor complaint I have is the lack of numbers on the references, which made checking the source studies a little more time consuming. However, this is not something that will affect the majority of the book’s target audience; it also has the effect of making the information seem less intimidating.
Bottom Line: Best introduction to supplements ever, and a great value at $9.99. Most useful to newbies, but should have some value to all but those who spend endless hours on PubMed.