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, April 5, 2010

Book Review: The Men's Health Big Book of Exercises

by Campbell, Adam
Published 2009
472 pages

This book has 619 exercises and variations put out by Men's Health. As typical with exercise compendia, they are organized by body part. Those exercises that don't neatly fit into "Glutes & Hams" or "Chest" get their own "Total Body" section.

Each section starts with a description of the body parts involved, some discussion of how and why to train them, an muscular anatomy chart with labels and descriptive text, and similar introductory material. Then it moves on to what's best described as a series of sub-sections. Each sub-section is organized around a "Main Move" - the basic exercise - and a list of variations. For example, the Glutes & Hamstrings section has hip raises as a main move, followed by 6 variations. Then single leg hip raises as a main move, followed by 10 variations. The barbell deadlift gets main move status, and 3 variations - the wide-grip deadlift, single-leg barbell deadlift, and sumo deadlift - follow right on. Each exercise and variation gets a short but fairly comprehensive description of how to do it, and usually two pictures of a shorts-wearing fitness model dude doing the exercise.

This organization makes it fairly easy to see what exercises are the central/core/basic moves you'll need to learn, as well as variations on how to perform them. But where it really fails is in the variations. It really needs more descriptions of why the different variations are valuable - okay, so is a sumo deadlift a harder version of the deadlift, or just a different version? Why would I choose it? Even if the book aimed just to be a list of exercises, this is a flaw. But it provides some basic workout frameworks and tells you to go pick. The difference between choosing a barbell deadlift, single-leg barbell deadlift, and sumo deadlift in your workout is going to be a significant one . . . yet the book doesn't give you the tools to differentiate them.

After the exercises, you get a big series of 4-week workout plans. These range from a "big bench" program by Dave Tate, a sports program by Mike Boyle, a Zach Even-Esch plan for getting skinny guys big, and more. They are good programs, they're organized well and easy to follow, and they refer back by pages to the exercises they use. But they have one main flaw - they are four weeks. There isn't much of a "what next?" plan here. For the folks that will need this, they will need more than four weeks.

Cardio gets coverage as well, mostly as intervals and not steady-state cardio. This is a good thing, as everyone gets that running for 30 minutes burns twice as many calories as running for 15 at the same pace . . . but intervals are new to many trainees. It even comes with a 10-K plan for those folks who want a good long run but don't know how to train for it.

The book ends out with a section on diet. It's pretty basic stuff, in line with the usual Men's Health recommendations. This is to say they're pretty good, emphasize protein and healthy fats and veggies and fruits, and don't get too specific with numbers. It's good basic stuff if you haven't read it before, skippable though solid enough if you have.

Content: 4 out of 5. Excellent stuff, but the exercises really could use more differentiation.
Presentation: 5 out of 5. Slick presentation and easy to use.

Overall: If you need a big reference book of exercises, this is a good choice. Like Bill Pearl's Getting Stronger, it has a big pile of exercises. The workouts in the back are nice, and they'll work for what they are, but they are only 4 weeks . . . so it's hard to figure out how to progress unless you're advanced enough to already make your own workout. Still, it's a comprehensive book of exercises.

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