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, October 19, 2009

Book Review: Beyond Brawn



Beyond Brawn
Stuart McRobert
512 pages, revised edition published 2003.

Beyond Brawn is book about bodybuilding, especially bodybuilding for the non-naturally gifted "average" lifter. The book is aimed at "hardgainer" drug-free bodybuilders. Primarily but not entirely for those in the their late twenties or thirties. It's also a rather influential book, like its predecessor, Brawn.

The "hardgainer" tag has gotten a lot of grief, and it's pretty well laid out here - people who can't gain strength or muscle easily on high-volume routines. Although the label is sometimes derided as an excuse, it's not meant as one. Stuart McRobert makes it clear (pedantically so) that a "hardgainer" is merely a prescription for how you must train, eat, and rest. It helps you define how you need to lift to gain, not that you're forgiven from attempting to work hard for gains. Or that merely having a hard time gaining muscle on muscle mag routines doesn't mean you can't gain at all. If you're skinny and can't put on muscle because you won't work, won't eat, or won't train correctly, McRobert isn't selling you a pass. He's giving you the tools you need and sending you on your way.

This book is somewhat difficult to review - it's written in a case-point manual style. Each section is numbered, and then every paragraph under it is further sub-case numbered. For example, Bench Press Alternatives is part of section 10, and runs from sections 10.94 to 10.98. Plus the book is positively crammed with advice about training, mostly very, very good but often written over and over. It often tries to sell you on the ideas, as if every reader must be dragged bodily away and de-brainwashed after too many muscle magazines. Perhaps that's still true, but it can make for a hard read.

The advice is no-nonsense and direct, but it's almost painfully pedantic and overwritten. It's 512 pages, and it has very few illustrations - it's a solid block of text and exercise lists. The newest edition has 60 more pages on top of that. The advice is very solid, though - "core" (basic, compound) exercises first, accessories added if and only if they complement the core lifts and the goals of the lifter. It's advice for long-term lifting, not short-term "no pain no gain" training regardless of eventual costs.

This quote about sums up the book's advice:
Once you have designed a good program along the lines promoted in this book...stop looking for another way to train. Rather than look for a better way to train, look for better ways to recover better between workouts, and to focus better during your workouts so you can train harder and with better form....looking for another way to train, when you have already found a good one, is almost certainly not going to improve your gains.

Pretty sound approach - find something that works, and then get to work on it.

So what's in the book?

- a list of "core" lifts (the main ones, mostly compound, you need to emphasize) and "accessory" lifts (the helpers)
- discussions of training intensities (going hard, going to concentric failure, going to eccentric failure)
- how to implement a program
- how to run a cycle of training, milk it for gains, and then re-set
- how to fit different training schedules into your schedule
- discussions of various ways to make specific progress (strength first, hypertrophy first, bodypart specializations within a "core lift"-centric program)
- advice on trigger point therapy (aka self-myofascial release or foam rolling)
- advice on injury prevention and treatment
- basic diet advice for gaining (and yes, hardgainers need to eat a lot to gain - the book doesn't shy away from saying so)
- and more. A lot more. It even comes with a picture of a blueprint for a power rack, that you could take to a builder to have made.
...all of which have many pages of detail written about them.

Stuart McRobert also lays out some training goals for size and strength he feels are good goals for a drug-free trainee. As far as I know, this book is also the origin of the goal of 300-400-500, in the bench, squat, and deadlift, respectively. They are attainable but impressive goals for a drug-free, raw lifting trainee. A trainee around 190 pounds who can bench 300, squat 400, and deadlift 500 is both well-rounded and impressive. It's changed somewhat on the Internet to be 1.5x bodyweight bench press, 2x bodyweight back squat, 2.5x bodyweight deadlift. That's perhaps a more useful measure for people who don't happen to be roughly 200 pounds.

There are a couple of caveats on this book:
McRobert's advice is centered on bodybuilding and safe strength training, not on athletic performance. So his advice never addresses increasing athletic performance, training to enhance sports skills, jumping, running, etc. All lifting is meant to be done slowly, in his opinion. Explosive lifting is dangerous and to be avoided, unless you're training Olympic lifts with a hands-on coach. This is fine advice for bodybuilding, however, and for general fitness. If you're looking to use jumps and power cleans to increase your vertical, this book isn't aimed at you.

It's also, as I myself say over and over here, overwritten. He never uses one word where five will do. Don't expect short and pithy anecdotes about his injuries and training successes and failures, you'll get a lot of detail. On the plus side, however, you aren't shorted any details that might help you, either.

Rating:
Content: 5 of 5. The information is spot-on for its audience. The few caveats above don't sufficiently detract from content.
Presenation: 3 of 5. The advice is overwritten and pedantic, and repeated so thoroughly and often it obscures the content to a degree. The case-point numbering is fine if you take notes on what you want to go back to, but it doesn't help find things in the book.

Overall: It's a dense read, and it's aimed at drug-free bodybuilders (not athletes in other sports, even strength sports). If you're one of them, it's worth picking up and reading. Yes, it's long. Yes, he could use an editor. But yes, it's got a lot of good information packed in it. He never loses sight of the fact that conservative programming, basic compound lifts, and hard work are what drive progress - and he won't let you lose sight of that either. If you programs just get bigger and bigger, this is a good tonic to take to change that.

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