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, November 10, 2009

Book Review: Scrawy to Brawny



by Michael Mejia and John Berardi
March 2005
256 pages

Scrawny to Brawny is a workout-and-diet book aimed at skinny guys who want to get larger and stronger. It's aimed at a very specific audience - nothing here about fat loss, long-distance cardio, bodybuilding routines, or sports-specific training. Nothing for women or bigger guys, either. It's a niche book, but there are quite a number of guys in this niche - and the authors both say they've been there as well. That is to say, a skinny guy who just can't seem to get the muscle to go on and stay on.

The book makes a passing reference to an earlier book which can only be one of the Brawn books by Stuart McRobert. This is probably not a surprise - the skinny guy trying to, drug-free, add muscle, is the "hardgainer" that Stuart McRobert discussed so extensively. Indeed, the routines and advice in this book look like McRobert's kind of routines - relatively low volume, lots of rest, and compound exercises. Even an emphasis on trap bar deadlifts instead of conventional deadlifts. The routines are enhanced with a specific stretching and warmup routine, self-myofascial release (aka foam rolling), and a phase dedicated to corrective exercises. Although the intro pretty much says the McRobert's style routines (very few lifts, done hard, with an emphasis on squats and deadlifts) aren't balanced, it shows that it takes very little to add on to balance them out. You can almost consider this an integrated step-by-step plan based on McRobert's work. I'm not sure the authors would appreciate that comment, but reading this so soon after re-reading several of McRobert's books, I was singularly struck by how much it looked and sounded like his approach.

The book opens with some discussion of the problems of the skinny guy, and then heads on into workouts and diet. The workouts are in four phases.

The first phase, the corrective phase, is a workout template rather than a workout itself. You'll have to customize it yourself. There are a series of diagnostic tests to see if you're suffering from rotated feet or shoulders, insufficient flexibility, bad posture, and other problems. Once you've done that, there is a menu of exercises to select to correct them. You're supposed to spend 4-6 weeks just on these. This may lose some of the readers right there, but the authors make a very good case for their importance. You need to lay the groundwork for success before you can succeed. There is not quick trip to the finish line if you're looking for size and strength.

The next three phases are hypertrophy, strength, and advanced hypertrophy, respectively. In these, you begin to see more of the heavy lifting you'd expect - 5 x 5 for two big compound exercises plus a couple of accessory movements. Wave-loading makes an appearance, too. So do somewhat higher rep sets for accessory movements to encourage some hypertrophy. The work is almost entirely compound movements, usually big ones like trap bar deadlifts, single-leg squats, pushups and bench presses, chinups and rows, rows, rows. The workouts are relatively low-volume. You won't find anything that resembles a multiple sets for a given body part; it's all best-bang-for-the-buck exercise selection.

The nutrition section is probably the most important part of the book. It's ironically placed after the workouts - despite clearly being the bedrock of gaining weight for a skinny guy. The diet is based on nutrient timing. You eat meals based on protein and fats anytime, and meals based on protein and carbs (with very little fat) just after your workouts. You take in a heck of a lot of pre, peri (it means "during"), and post workout nutrition, too. To the tune of 0.4g of protein and 0.8g of simple carbs per kilo of bodyweight for each of those three meals. So an 80kg (176 pound) male would need to take in 32g of protein and 64g of carbs before, during, and after his workout - that's 96g of protein and 192g of carbs, for 1152 calories just in the immediate workout window. That doesn't count the additional 5 meals a day you're supposed to be eating, either.

The book doesn't not shy away from the fact that skinny guys need a lot of food to gain weight. This isn't a 2500 calorie "hypertrophy" diet with recommendations to add 100 calories if you're not gaining. The sample diet plan is for a 4600 calorie diet - consider the 12 egg white omelet every morning for breakfast, plus veggies - as an example of what you'd need to eat. How about a meal with 8 oz of meat in a singe serving, plus more protein from eggs and cheese? The sheer bulk of food is almost tiresome to consider, nevermind eat. But skinny guys who don't want to remain so much indeed eat like that.

This reflects my own personal experience as a skinny guy. To gain weight, I need to pack in calories; a huge increase will do it while a small and steady one won't. If you add 1000 calories it's much harder for your body to find a way to fritter them away in nervous activity. The authors don't mollycoddle you on this; if you're skinny and want to gain weight, it'll take hard work, and not just in the gym. Expect to shop, cook, and eat regularly, and have to put away a lot of food day in and day out. If you're a skinny guy who is worried about keeping "the abs" showing, well, you're going to have a tough time here. Conversely, if you're really interested in gaining weight, it's practically a license to eat...but you still have to eat right.

The book is laser-like focused on its goal, and that's both its strongest point and weakest point. It's a strong point because if you're a skinny guy looking to get stronger and bigger, this book is a roadmap to how to do it. It's a weak point only from a sales perspective - if you aren't one of those guys, it's not going to deliver anything to you . . . except maybe a better understanding of why your skinny buddy is having such a hard time. It might not be a poor work ethic, just not knowing how to optimize his workouts and nutrition for his body type.

Rating:
Content: 5 of 5. It's a complete workout plan and provides enough diet information for the target audience. None of the information is inaccurate or wasted.
Presentation: 4 out of 5. Great pictures, top-notch charts, everything is easy to find. The only downsides are that organizationally, you'll find yourself flipping forwards and backwards if you do the workouts and as you read the book.

Overall: If you're skinny and you want to bulk up, get this book. If not, it's probably not going to help you that much.

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