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 14, 2013

Book Review: The Swing!

by Tracy Reifkind
Published by HarperOne, March 2013
256 pages

This book is a one-exercise workout aimed at fat loss. You will restrict your food intake, learn to swing a kettlebell, and then swing it several times a week to lose weight and get in better shape.

I'm personally leery of "one exercise" solutions, especially because it implies only this one exercise will do it. Frankly almost any full-body exercise, done with progression and for sufficient time and intensity, coupled with the right diet, will get you results. The swing is a good choice for a one-exercise program, though, because it's both full-body and fairly easy to learn. This book is also an excellent specimen of a one-exercise workout, because it's actually that - you will only swing in the workouts. You will do variations of the kettlebell swing, but there isn't anything else sneaked in the back door.

The book comes in four parts: Mind, Body, Food, and "You Won The Lottery."

Mind covers getting started. It's part autobiographical look at the author's own weight loss. It's mostly inspirational, and useful for folks who need to be inspired to train and take control of their weight and fitness.

The next section, entitled Body, is the real meat of the book - it covers learning the kettlebell swing and the workouts. This is easily the best section of the book.

The details on how to swing are excellent. The author's command of the exercise and how to explain it is clear from the text and the pictures. Both work together to present a very clear picture of what your swing should look and feel like. She starts you off with learning to swing, and learning to swing for time right away - pacing is important. It starts with essentially miming the swing to learn to hip hinge. Then you move onto swinging without the kettlebell, and then on to swinging the kettlebell.

At each stage the technique and what a good rep will look and feel like is well explained. While you'd still benefit from hands on training for the kettlebell swing, this goes as far as print can usefully go to teach you.

Once you get the swing down, you start working on progressions - the one-handed swing, swing-and-touch, and switching hands. These progressions don't replace the basic 2-handed swing but rather add to it.

The workout progressions make sense, and they aren't on a rigid schedule. You progress when you are ready to progress, and thus also have an easy was to regress if necessary. You aren't pushed to do more, but rather to do enough to get you on the right path and keep you on it yet still recover. Workouts are described in sets, reps, and time per grouping of sets and reps, and overall time. They also add up - if you work at the pace you learn to swing at, and rest when you're supposed to rest, these can really be done in the 20-30 minutes listed. Plus warmup, of course.

The third section, Food, is diet. The diet is more-or-less straight up calorie counting. 1200/day for women, 1600/day for men. The diet is vegetables first (you get unlimited non-starchy vegetables, but have to count them as 100 calories a day no matter how many you get), protein second, fats and starchy carbs last. The emphasis is on real, whole foods - no protein shakes, no bars, no eating at fast food places. It's also on whole foods - full-fat milk, real oatmeal, whole eggs, etc. - and not on low-fat versions. The goal is flavorful, healthy food, with a caloric deficit to ensure you lose weight.

The "all non-starchy veggies add up to 100 calories" method is interesting. On one level, it's odd to mix precision (weigh your food and count the calories) with a grouping of foods into a single block with a pre-set amount. On the other hand, it's psychologically brilliant. You can eat as many of these veggies as you want, from a little (bad idea) to a lot (better idea) and it still counts. So it subtly encourages you to take advantage and eat more - you don't have to count them beyond that 100, and if you don't have enough you still have to count it as if you did.

The author also brings up intermittent fasting. This is very interesting, and potentially very effective. Unfortunately her personal example (stop eating at 6 pm, bed by 8 pm, wake at 4 am, breakfast at 11 am) is hard to match. A worked example of how to do it with a more "normal" 9-5 schedule and later bedtime would have been useful - those hours match well to bed at stop eating after 8 pm, bed at 10 pm, wake at 6 am, breakfast - well, lunch - at 1 pm.

The book also includes some recipies (all whole foods), basic information on cooking and preparing food ahead of time, and otherwise re-connecting with healthy living.

The final chapter is just how to keep it going, and a place to reflect on the rest of the book. It's only a few pages long.

There are some minor downsides to the book.

An almost required dig on other approaches is included - the idea of other forms of weight training building blocky muscles that don't work together. That might be a dig on a specific method of training, but the book implies that's what happens with a broad range of weight training exercises. This is a personal peeve of mine - if your workout is good, and fun, and gets results, you don't need to waste a single word dismissing other workouts. And if you're compelled to, it's appropriate to say "other approaches have different goals than the one this book is aimed at, and the method in this book will get you where you want to go." You don't really need to imply that all other roads than this one will take you to a different destination. It suffices to show this one will work as advertised.

The diet is also one I don't like to recommend - calorie counting. This is for a lot of reasons - calorie counts are estimates, even on whole foods, and have a margin of error. Your caloric needs are also an estimate. Combining a possibly-correct intake with a possibly-correct outflow plus a possibly correct need into a very specific number gives a false sense of accuracy. It also introduces a false idea of exchange - that 100 calories of one thing has the same effect on 100 calories of another, which isn't really true. It gets you focused on the totals, not the makeup of the total, no matter how much you try to dial back from it. I find it's easier to deal in portion sizes, even if you've derived them initially from calories, and then let the calorie counts fade from view. The diet will work, though - restricting intake is inevitably part of dieting, and what the author has outlined is very good with or without the calorie counts.

The book also makes a big deal of the magic of 2-minute sets of exercise, but simplifies it a bit too much. That's long enough to ensure you're getting solid use out of all of your energy systems, and still training with enough intensity to get stronger. But the description kind of simplifies it down enough that it sounds like the magic is 2 minutes of work, not 2 minutes of work hard enough that you wouldn't be able to sustain it much longer than that. Like rep counts, timed sets imply that you're working a specific intensity for those reps to get the results out of it that are described. That this confuses people is clear from some reviews on that make 2 minutes out to be some magic number, not just a sweet spot given appropriate load. It will work as advertised, but it's not the number that is magical so much as the effort-for-time.

But the upside is that this is a working program. You could easily get a single appropriate-weight kettlebell, a timer, and work out twice a week at home. You will learn to eat well and healthfully, and you can improve many aspects of your fitness at the same time. If someone told me they'd grabbed this book and intended to use it as a workout and eating plan, I wouldn't try to point them elsewhere instead. It's also a good resource if you just want to improve your swing technique.

Content: 4
out of 4. Solid training advice and excellent details on the core issues. Slightly undermined by simplistic discussions of tangential topics.
Presentation: 5 out of 5. Well written, easy to follow, excellent pictures, easy to follow workout writeups.

Overall: This book is good if you either want to tune up your kettlebell swing, or want to get working out without needed a complex program to follow. This is a pretty good place to start if you need a simple routine for fat loss. It's also good if you can't work out daily, like so many fat loss programs require. Two workouts a week with built in progressions and regressions, and very effective descriptions of what to do, make this a good place to look. Recommended.


  1. Your reviews have been most helpful in this era of paid-for publicity. Can you please suggest a good program for advanced strength training ?

    1. I'd take a look at Jim Wendler's 5/3/1, if you're familiar with the bench press, deadlift, and squat. If not, take a look at Starting Strength by Mark Rippetoe.

      Or I think the various "New Rules of Lifting" books provide a really good basis for a lifting program. I recommend them often. I've reviewed all of those - check the review page for links to each of them.


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