Strength Basics

Getting stronger, fitter, and healthier by sticking to the basics. It's not rocket science, it's doing the simple stuff the right way. Strength-Basics updates every Monday, plus extra posts during the week.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Book Review: Maximum Strength

by Eric Cressey and Matt Fitzgerald.

Maximum Strength is a book aimed at weight trainees who've been stuck in the bodybuilding 3 sets of 10, body part split, use the machines kind of workout.

The first two chapters are dedicated to explaining why you don't want to be stuck there. They make the case for why being strong is useful. And why training for strength will get you where you want to go - no matter where that is.

Before the workouts are two frameworks for dynamic stretching and foam roller warmups. These are fairly time consuming until you get used to them, but few books provide such an integrated mobility/warmup routine.

The workouts are broken into four phases: Foundation, Build, Growth, Peak. Each phase is 4 weeks long. Each workout is done with four different volumes of work - High, Medium, Very High, and Low. So you vary how much work you do, and every fourth week is a deload, where you continue to work the movements but allow your body to recover for the next phase. The Foundation program is meant to establish a base of strength, using low reps (4-6) for strength with accessory exercises doing higher reps (8-12). Build uses cluster sets - a method of doing small groups of sets interspersed with rest during a single set - as well as a mix of low reps for strength and higher reps for the accessory exercises. Growth involves a variety of rep ranges, often mixed together - such as "3x3, then 2x5" or "3x7, 1x10." Peak is the payoff - heavy strength worth, including many single rep lifts at near-maximal weights. All of the workouts are split into Lower/Upper/Lower/Upper. Several of them integrate stretching and flexibility training in the workout, often as part of the rest between sets of another exercise.

All the workout phases feature many different exercises. They are variations of big lifts like bench presses, rows, deadlifts, squats, pullups, etc. plus a wide variety of accessory exercises. There is a big emphasis on balancing pulling and pushing and using both single-leg and two-leg exercises, and dumbbells and barbells. The downside to these workouts is they really need a well-stocked gym - inclining bench, lots of dumbbells, resistance bands, power rack, pullup bar, and cable station. Eric Cressey has answered email on his blog with suggested substitutions if you can't get the equipment to do these exercises. None of the exercises are dangerous or ill-advised, and all of them get a good technical explanation with the author pictured doing them. Some of them are somewhat complex, however - speed deadlifts, box squats, and pin presses might be new to some trainees.

One nice feature are the before-and-after testing, called Packing Day and Moving Day. Before the Foundation, you do Packing Day - a check of your one-rep maximum box squat, deadlift, and bench press, your three-rep maximum weighted chinup, and your long jump distance. After you finish the 16 week program, you do Moving Day - another duplicate of packing day to check your results. This concrete goal-oriented layout is a nice feature, because anyone who follows the program knows where they started and know where they are going! This mimics Eric Cressey's advice - train for something.

The workouts are also bracketed by "energy systems" work. These, interestingly, are split by body type. Endomorphs (basically, naturally heavy folks) do some kind of HIIT cardio. Mesomorphs (naturally muscular) do some light cardio for recovery. Ectomorphs (naturally skinny folks) do some light technique practice. This helps customize the workout for individual body types. That way you don't have guys who need cardio missing it, and guys for whom cardio will kill strength gains burning up their workout results on the cycle. Nice!

The nutrition is excellent as well. It includes some basic nutritional advice, supplement advice (what might be worth taking, what to specifically avoid), and two meal plan charts based on either morning or evening workouts. The advice isn't terribly specific, but it's spot-on and good. It's a series of habits to get into, like eating vegetables at every meal, eating whole foods, staying on track, getting enough protein, and so on. It's good, general advice and for someone with a limited background in nutrition, it lets you know how to eat to benefit from your hard work in the gym.

The final motivation chapter is useful, but not especially interesting or unusual. Like the rest of the book, though, it's worth reading. It even covers "what next?" and the option of going through another 16 weeks, or how to make your own workout.

Substance: 5 of 5. A complete package - diet, warmup, cardio, solid exercise routine.
Presentation: 5 of 5. Easy to read, clear pictures, good layout. The workout tables and laid out well enough for easy readying and copying (for bringing to the gym).

Overall: Great book. If you've got a good gym (or a well-stocked home gym) and the time for 4 workouts a week, this is a great program to try. You'll get stronger and incorporate lots of pre-hab/rehab movements into your workouts too.

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