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.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Book Review: Muscles in Minutes

Muscles in Minutes
by Steve Leamont
232 pages, published 2004.

Disclaimer: This book is unabashedly about bodybuilding. This is not normally my area of interest. Although I started out reading bodybuilding books, my goal has always been improved athletic performance. My secondary interest is general fitness - fat loss, improved health, improved posture. Bodybuilding just isn't what I'm into this for. I tried to be as fair as possible.

The book opens with a chapter on Mental Training. How to psych yourself up, get your mind ordered and focused on lifting. It's got a number of good mental triggers for getting ready - gripping the bar tightly, fear the weight, never underestimating a weight. These triggers should help you keep your mind on business. This chapter also covers setting achievable goals.

The diet section is pretty standard stuff - eat more to gain more, eat less to lose fat. Avoid saturated fats (which I don't necessarily agree with), get plenty of EFAs - essential fatty acids, eat low glycemic index carbohydrates. This is a bodybuilding book so you're expected to eat 1.2 grams of protein per pound as well. The best advice in the whole section is probably the section "Eat for Size." That covers getting enough food to spark growth after your workouts and contains ideas on how to get enough calories. Protein shakes, nuts, beef jerky, cheese (especially cottage cheese), tuna, etc. are all suggested as good choices. It also sticks to a diet of 40% protein, 25% fat, 35% carbohydrates, with no non-vegetable carbs after 2 pm. Plus a cheat day every 10-14 days. It's well constructed and although I think some recommendations have changed in the past few years it's a workable basis for a diet.

There are sections next on cardio and flexibility. They are standard - you use cardio to lean out, flexibility/stretching is important to do pre-workout. The cardio is mostly LSD (long, slow, distance) and the recommendation is for fasted cardio - do your LSD before breakfast. That's been challenged recently, and it's not widely recommended. The chapter also suggests interval training as you adapt to LSD cardio. A minimum of cardio is still recommended (15 minutes, light work) for people trying to gain size, in order to spark a larger appetite.

The flexibility writeup is short, and focused on posture (not common in training guides) and static stretching. It's basic, useful stuff, with the caveat that pre-workout stretching is generally not recommended anymore. It weakens the muscles you stretch, so unless you have a specific reason to weaken a muscle prior to a workout you want to avoid this. The stretches themselves are with their respective muscle groups in the workout technique section.

The section on building your own workouts is very good. It's focused entirely on bodypart splits. Options for various training days (4-day, 5-day, 6-day) are included with daily breakdowns. But the workouts are meant for you to build yourself. He gives guidelines on sets and reps and exercises, but you have to fill in the details. It's interesting because it includes specific advice one on changing the working. One step in a workout plan is going back and re-making the workout based on your results and new needs. That's an often-dropped step in guides to making your own workouts.

One thing the book claims is to cut your workout time dramatically. This seems based on the assumption that you are doing dozens of sets per bodypart. The book's recommendations do recommend dramatically less sets, but still multiple sets. In a way, it seems like a variation of HIT - High Intensity Training. Where HIT is "one set to failure" this is "multiple sets to failure." Like HIT, this book promises the results will be superior in less time.

There is a section, central to the book, on advanced lifting techniques. Intensification techniques. These are ways to make your lifts harder, beyond the usual "more sets, more reps, more weight, or a difficult variation." Examples include forced reps (your partner helps you raise the weight, you lower it by yourself), partial reps, speed training (explosive reps), static holds, etc. He divides these into three levels, from one to three. Each includes progressively more advanced techniques. One thing he stresses is that you only get as complicated as you need to in order to progress. You stick with the simple stuff for as long as possible, moving onto move advanced techniques only when you need them. Otherwise, he notes, you'll use up all of your tricks before your body needs them, and then you have nothing left to vary. So until you've exhausted the possibilities of level one, you don't need to use level two intensification techniques. That's smart and well-articulated here.

The exercise technique section is actually pretty good. It has a major downside in that it's heavily machine based - hack squats, leg presses, pec deck, etc. - rather than free weights. But free weight exercises are represented well, and the technique descriptions are generally good. The bias is that you are aiming to train to failure, so many of the caveats and warnings apply mostly to people who'll squat to failure and not just squat, or bench until the bar hits their chest and stays there. Each of the exercises also has specific advanced techniques (cheats and so on) listed. Each also includes spotter advice. Some of this can be a bit silly - spotters for seated dumbbell curls? - but the aim is to show you how a spotter who's applying active resistance or active help (for negative-accentuated reps) can participate in the exercise. If you're following the book's advice on three-leveled advanced techniques, this is useful stuff. If not, it's just extra text.

One thing that comes up throughout the book is failure. This is quite the opposite of Power to the People's "never fail a lift" approach. You always want to induce failure in these workouts. It's the goal of the sets and reps and weights chosen, and the intensification techniques are aimed at getting failure on your final rep of each of your sets. There is a debate about the importance of training to failure in the fitness world. The short version is - sometimes it's okay, but most coaches prefer you lift only until technical failure in most cases. This is old-school, High Intensity Training-style lift until complete failure and then rest until the next workout. If that's not what you want to do, avoid this book. If that's okay with you, then it's worth checking out.

Content: 3 out of 5. Interesting stuff, if you're a bodybuilder, and it's as complete as it needs to be. It's just a little outdated. You could work out with just these methods for a while...but you better like training until failure.
Presentation: 4 out of 5. Good pictures, well written, easy to read and follow. The lack of an index hurts later usage, though, and some of the pictures meant to show off the (authors?) body are a bit much.

Bottom Line: Unless you're a bodybuilder and interested in training to failure, with the help of an equally experienced partner, skip this one. It's good for what it is, but only bodybuilders will get any use out of it.

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