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.

Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Book Review: Starting Strength

This book is a classic for weight training. I previously posted a similar review on the EXRX forums here.

Starting Strength: Basic Barbell Training, 2nd edition, by Mark Rippetoe and Lon Kilgore.

Starting Strength is an excellent, basic guide to barbell training. It's aimed at both novice lifters and those who would coach novice lifters.

Each basic compound lift - which includes the back squat, deadlift, bench press, press, and power clean - gets its own chapter, and has thorough, step-by-step instruction on the lift. The writing is clear and easy to follow. The pictures are well-placed and accurate - they don't disagree with the text or show bad form unintentionally. There are lots of excellent queues and tips for the lifts, and lots of attention is paid to correcting bad form and ensuring proper technique.

There is also a Useful Assistance Exercises chapter, which covers exactly that - useful exercises to assist your development of the main lifts and your body strength. These include squat variations like the box squat and front squat, RDLs and SLDLs, back extensions (on an apparatus), chinups and pullups (including dead-hang and kipping), glute-ham raises, and more. Even curls ("Since you're going to do them anyway, we might as well discuss the right way to do curls." - pg 274).

The Programming chapter is pretty basic, boiling down largely to "lift more, eat more" but it's aimed at novices. It doesn't provide a guide to intermediate and advanced programming but doesn't pretend to, either. It covers warmup sets, rest, basic programming, the response of the body to various rep ranges, and a guide to the "first day" in the gym for a new trainee. It also covers equipment, the fairly no-nonsense basic requirements - the advice is both general (you need a rack) and specific (this is the size rack you need).

The book also presents a basic program for beginners. This program is widely known as the "Starting Strength" routine, although the details do vary a little bit. The program is centered on squatting, 3x a week, for 3 sets across of 5, plus executing the other basic strength exercises listed about. If you're willing to work hard and learn to squat right, this program is for you. It's got a well-deserved reputation for success.

There is a wiki dedicated to it, and the author of the book has his own Q&A forum on Strengthmill. The only warning I'd give you is that he's like a tough college professor - don't ask a question until you've done your own homework first.

Substance: 5 out of 5. Well worth the price, excellent instruction, good text-to-price ratio.
Presentation: 5 out of 5 Good pictures, good construction, easy to read.

Overall, it's a great book. It does exactly what it sets out to do, and it's useful for many levels of lifters. Worth checking out even if you already know how to do those big lifts. If you need more convincing, check out the publisher's website, which has some excerpts from this book and others here.

Bottom line: If you are a beginner and you are serious about weight training, get this book. I can't recommend it highly enough.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Book Review: Built for Show

I read lots of workout books, hoping to glean something useful for myself, or to find a gem to recommend to someone. Today I read the book Built for Show: Four Body-Changing Workouts for Building Muscle, Losing Fat, andLooking Good Enough to Hook Up
by Nate Green. I both gleaned something for myself and found a gem.

Built for Show is a workout book aimed at probably the best demographic possible - men looking to lift weights to look better. Who doesn't that include? Nate Green shows you how to go about building a body that looks good, by making a body that's stronger, healthier, and more athletic. It's not about building a showy, competitive bodybuilder's body but an athletic looking, solid-framed body.

The book lays out the workouts in four seasons - the 14-week Winter plan, plus 12-week plans for Spring, Summer, and Fall. The approach is to build what looks the best at that time of year; you don't waste a lot of time trying to make your biceps and triceps look good in long-sleeved weather. The goal is to look good, but the exercises are balanced across the entire body. Most of them emphasize the muscles you can't see in the mirror - your back, your glutes, the back of your thighs - but that other people do see.

The workouts center on compound exercises - deadlifts, chinups and pullups, squats (front and back), bench presses, shoulder presses, etc. and save the isolation exercises - curls, ab exercises, etc. for accessory exercises. The focus is squarely on getting stronger in a balanced fashion. Often workout books will include some suspect exercises, or push machine work or just "dumb it down" a bit for publication. This book doesn't. It's clearly written and yet focuses on solid, reliable exercises that work. Nothing in there seems tossed in just because; it's all included with a clear purpose.

Workouts are laid out as Workout A and and Workout B, so you do ABA one week and BAB the next. The programming is based on undulating periodization - so you mix up 5 x 5, 4 x 8, and 3 x 12 (to quote one example from the book). You'll take at least two weeks to get through all three rep ranges for a given workout, so by the time you get back to doing 5 x 5 bench presses a second time you've done all three rep ranges. If this sounds familiar, you may have seen it before in articles like Alwyn Cosgrove's "The Holiday Program." There is a dynamic warmup before each workout, but it's short and sweet - you'll do only a handful of exercises to get ready but they'll be sufficient to cover the bases.

The attention to detail is excellent - rest times are clear, single-leg and single-arm exercises are marked with *s that led to "do this many reps per side" explanations, etc. Even the more complicated rep schemes he uses - such as wave loading 5-4-2/5-4-2 with increasing weight, are so clearly explained it should be easy for someone to follow. Many exercise forums have questions that show these are necessary - people do need to ask if 3 sets of 12 step-ups is one leg for 2 sets and another for 1, or if you do 6 per leg. For the record, it's 3 sets, 12 reps per leg, so you do 36 reps per leg per workout in that example.

The exercises have concise and clear instructions on how to execute them, excellent pictures, and two great sections, if appropriate - the "Garage Option" and the "Don't Be That Guy" section. The first explains what to use if you don't have an incline bench, or a pulldown station, or a low cable to do woodchops. The second covers bad form (such as partial squats), why lunges aren't just for girls, not crashing the weight stack down after each cable row rep, etc. - he hits some potential gym obnoxiousness head on.

There is also diet advice, layed out with recommendations ranging from bad to great and everything in between. It's also useful for a less nutrion-savvy lifter to learn to eat right and make the most of those lifts.

The book also has a section most workout books don't include: one on meeting and talking to women. It folds nicely into the section on walking, dressing, and having the confidence to act like you've built a body worth showing off. It is pretty specific stuff - how to talk to women, what not to talk about, why to avoid pickup lines, and even how to tip bartenders and divide up a tab without seeming desperate or cheap. It was actually refreshing to read because so many books just kind of wink at the idea you'd like to work out, look good, and use it to meet someone.

Substance: 5 out of 5. It's all there.
Presentation: 5 out of 5. It looks good, the pictures are clear, the text readable, the charts and tables clear and well laid out.

Overall, I think this book is excellent. It's inexpensive and it would be a great book for a skinny guy trying to get bigger or a big guy trying to lean out. It leans a bit towards a beginner, but one who knows at least the basics at the gym. If you're a beginning lifter or one who is kind of stuck for what to do, I'd check it out.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Some basic definitions

One problem a new lifter has is dealing with the terminology of lifting. Here are a few definitions to help out.

The first two go together:

Rep - A repetition; one complete execution of a given exercise. For example, in a squat, a repetition involved squatting down and then standing back up. If you see "5 reps" you know this was 5 complete repetitions of that exercise. Sometimes reps are expressed in a range, as in "8-12 reps." This is seen on workout plans that call for choosing a weight you can do for at least the lower number of reps, but preferably less than the higher number.

Set - A group of repetitions. A "set" typically begins when you start the first repetition, and ends when you finish the last one. How long you can rest between repetitions and still consider it a "set" is debatable. Generally, if you're taking more than a short break to enable to next rep, the set has ended. There are many variations of sets, but that's the basic version.

Set/Rep notations - If you see "3 sets of 10 reps" you know this plan calls for doing 3 sets, each of which is 10 repetitions, resting between sets. Sometimes this isn't so clear, however. You may see "3x8-12" and it's clear this is 3 sets of 8-12 reps. On the other hand "10 x 3" can be 10 sets of 3 reps" (probably heavy work!) or 3 sets of 10 reps (a lighter weight, done for more reps). But some people record the weight of the reps, as well, and there isn't a clear consensus on which one comes first. You may see 225x5x3 for 3 sets of 5 reps of 225 pounds, or you may see 3x5x225 for that same workout. These sets at your goal reps and goal weights are called work sets. Sets you do before the work sets to warm up your muscles and practice the exercise are called warmup sets. Sets you do with a lower weight to get ready for your
If you do all of your work sets at the same weight (like the example 3 x 5 x 225) this is referred to as straight sets or sets across.

#RM or # rep maximum - # rep maximum (abbreviated #RM) is the maximum number of repetitions you can do at a given weight. For example, if you can press 135 pounds as many as 5 times but not 6, 135 pounds is your 5RM. If you can press it only once, it's your 1RM. Normally a low number is chosen to express your strength - you'll rarely see anyone crowing about their 15RM or 25RM. Your #RM is usually your tested maximum, although there are calculators that can attempt to predict your given #RM from another #RM. If someone tells you their 1RM, it's fair to ask "Tested or predicted?"

Armed with these definitions, you should be able to read a basic workout plan.

Sunday, December 28, 2008


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