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Back to Schul Special! 2009’s Best Fitness Books

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The year that just ended was a rare one for me. After the two New Rules of Lifting books came out in paperback 12 months ago, I didn’t have any new titles to promote. So I thought I’d take a look at some of the best books written and published by other people in 2009.

The cavalcade of caveats:

1. Most of these books were sent to me by authors or publishers, although I did buy a few of them. I’ve been getting free books and DVDs for as long as I’ve been writing about exercise and fitness. That’s just the way it works. A lot of the books I receive aren’t even the final version that’s sold to consumers. I’ll get an uncorrected galley, meaning it’s filled with typos and sometimes doesn’t even have the real photos or charts. Believe me, those books aren’t fun to read, and getting them free isn’t much of a perk.

2. Sending me free books doesn’t mean I’ll say something nice about them. I don’t read everything I’m sent, and I don’t like some of the ones I read.

3. I know almost all the authors of these books. And virtually all of them compete with my own books, either directly (same format, same target audience) or indirectly (there are only so many books anybody can buy). So I’ll be honest with you: If I recommend one, it’s with a mix of admiration for the work and fear that it might diminish the potential audience for my current and upcoming books.

4. I’m not going to mention the books I didn’t like, for several reasons. First, of course, is the fact that I also know many of those authors. Second, the fact I didn’t like the book doesn’t mean someone else reading this wouldn’t like it. Third, I know what it’s like to get negative reviews. No matter how secure you are with your place in the universe, bad reviews hurt, and I don’t want to inflict that kind of pain. Fourth, there’s the obvious conflict of interest. Am I knocking down someone else’s book to prevent the author from getting a foothold in my own territory? I don’t think I’d do that, but it might come off that way.

I was disappointed by a few books that came out in 2009. In one the model couldn’t hold a neutral spine position on core exercises, which sort of defeats the purpose of illustrating the exercises. Others were filled with guru-speak about training people “in the trenches” (What happens if it rains? Do you stay in the trenches, or do you move to high ground?) and getting “real-world results” (as opposed to … what? CGI results?).

With that out of the way, here are the 2009 releases that I especially enjoyed.

The Body Fat Solution, by Tom Venuto

Conflict(s) of interest: Edited by my friend and editor, Megan Newman, for Avery.

Why I like it: Most of us reading this know that anything worth achieving in the gym will only come from hard work. But we also know that hard work is often futile if your underlying assumptions about diet and training are flawed.

So people like me write books showing readers better ways to train and smarter approaches to nutrition. And they work extraordinarily well for the people who’re ready to accept them. I get emails from readers describing results that go way, way beyond anything I’ve ever achieved, or that I even thought possible with the programs in my books.

But I also understand that a lot of readers won’t achieve any results at all because they aren’t ready to try something new. They want my coauthors and me to confirm what they already believe, and since they aren’t willing to try a new approach, they never give the programs a chance to work.

That’s the audience Tom addresses in this outstanding book. Instead of the usual “eat this, lift this, get this” approach to improving body composition, Tom steps back and explains the reasons why so many people are unable to use even the best advice.

For example, he identifies three “diseases” that particularly afflict the fitness population – “quick fix”; “something for nothing”; and “it’s not my fault” – along with other barriers to achieving results. You’re deep into the book before Tom addresses the specifics of nutrition and training that will help you build a better physique.

As an accomplished bodybuilder, Tom understands the mechanics of lifting and manipulating calories as well as anybody; his knowledge in those areas exceeds mine several times over. But he also understands better than most authors how much attitude adjustment a typical reader needs before he or she is ready to employ those mechanics to their full advantage.

Advances in Functional Training, by Michael Boyle

Conflict(s) of interest: I edited Mike’s articles during my year as an editor at TMUSCLE.

Why I like it: Here’s a sentence I picked out at random: “The big key is that the core is used to stabilize against sagittal plane motions that are attempting to produce rotary force.” Out of context, it looks like heavy sledding for those of us who aren’t trained in exercise physiology. But in context – he’s describing a core exercise called the push-pull – it makes perfect sense.

That’s the beauty of what Boyle does: He condenses and synthesizes the most important new information emerging from scientific research in the fields of biomechanics and physical therapy, expressing it in a way that makes it accessible to someone with a base of knowledge and college-level reading comprehension, but without dumbing it down. (That’s my job.)

This is a substantial book. Boyle explains in detail his joint-by-joint approach to training, as well as his current understanding of injury prevention, rehab, core training, exercise selection, program design, and much more. But it’s also a humble book. Boyle writes that he’s “becoming famous for changing my mind,” and notes that he changes an important aspect of his training protocols on an annual basis.

I give Advances in Functional Training the highest compliment I can possibly offer: I cleared space for it on my main reference bookshelf, putting it alongside McGill’s Low Back Disorders, Myers’ Anatomy Trains, Siff’sSupertraining, and the NSCA textbook.

The Men’s Health Big Book of Exercises, by Adam Campbell

Conflict(s) of interest: Adam is my friend and former colleague at Men’s Health, and I probably know everybody involved in the production of this book.

Why I like it: If I had any sense of self-preservation as an author, I’d pretend this book doesn’t exist. It’s designed to replace Home Workout Bible and Book of Muscle, two of my most popular titles. And it doesn’t just update them with new and better exercises. It blows them away. The design and anatomical illustrations far surpass those in BOM, and the exercise selections and descriptions are far beyond what we were able to do in HWB.

Granted, there’s no competition for the 18 months of Ian King workouts in BOM, which helps me sleep easier at night. But BBOE offers something different and valuable to its target readers: a wide variety of shorter-term programs from guys like Joe Dowdell, Craig Ballantyne, Bill Hartman, and the aforementioned Mike Boyle.

If you want my true opinion of this book, ignore the two previous paragraphs, and take away this two-word summary: Holy crap!

Alpha Male Challenge, by James Villepique and Rick Collins

Conflict(s) of interest: Where do I begin? I edited the original Core Performance when I was at Rodale. Mark, Pete, and I have the same agent. My current editor at Avery now edits the series. And Pete has hosted me on his radio show, The Fitness Buff, more times than either of us could remember.

Why I like it: I can sum up the modern history of strength training with five glib and irresponsible bullet points:

* In the late 19th century, really strong mofos reveled in their strength.

* Early 20th-century bodybuilders adapted strength-building routines as the path to hypertrophy.

* Eventually, routines specific to bodybuilding emerged, and we had separate methodologies for training for mass vs. training for strength and performance.

* Bodybuilding gurus tried to merge the two disciplines, claiming their methodologies were superior for sports performance. The best example is the ludicrous story told by the Weider brothers about the time a strength coach in the old Soviet Union credited Muscle & Fitness for all the success of athletes training behind the Iron Curtain.

* Strength coaches turned the tables on the bodybuilding crowd by showing how performance-enhancing routines could also help recreational lifters build muscle, lose fat, and feel better.

My career as an author begins with #5. My coauthors – Ian King, Alwyn Cosgrove, Chad Waterbury – are all major promoters of the idea that training for strength, power, and anaerobic fitness will help gym rats achieve better results than they could get with watered-down bodybuilding routines and hours of steady-state endurance exercise.

But I don’t think anybody has promoted this idea as persuasively as Mark has. That’s why I was so excited to work on the original CP.

CP Women has all the elements of the original (which, it’s worth noting, was never intended as a single-gender book). It’s well written, beautifully designed, and handsomely produced. More than anything, it’s persuasive for an audience that isn’t already sold on the idea of training the body with an integrated movement system instead of trying to isolate bits and pieces of flesh so they can be manipulated like Jell-O.

One thing they do better than anybody (including me, alas) is finding clever and memorable ways to simplify complex information. Whereas I might take a thousand words to describe the problems with a grain-based diet, they write this: “The fewer crumbs, the better.” In five words, they’ve told you to stay away from bread, cookies, crackers, and just about every other type of snack food.

Alpha Male Challenge, by James Villepique and Rick Collins

Conflict(s) of interest: I know the authors and the production team who put this book together for Rodale.

Why I like it: I’ve been in the weeds the past few weeks as I write the third book in the New Rules of Lifting series. Alwyn and I have a lot of new information to share, and a lot of new advice to offer. To substantiate our points, I dig as deep into the scientific literature as time, ADHD, and a mediocre intellect will allow.

But sometimes, after I’ve wrestled with a particularly counterintuitive argument for hours or even days, I’ll look back at what I wrote and decide I need to scrap it and start over. Why? Because if I put myself in the position of the reader, it looks like the bald-headed moron who wrote that section teleported himself into the middle of an ongoing conversation, without providing the reader with any sense of the topic’s history or context.

I’m sure every author deals with this problem at some point in the process. Do you skip over the basics of training and nutrition, assuming your readers are familiar with them, and get right to the new and more advanced information? Or do you assume your readers are confused about the basics, and need a guide to such elemental issues as heart-rate training and estimating portion sizes?

There’s no right or wrong answer; you can write a useful and popular book with either approach. Alpha Male Challenge, more than the others I’ve reviewed so far, aims to provide information at both ends of the spectrum. It’s a big, substantial, well-written, and well-produced book in a season that has more of them than usual.

It has a ton of everything: long lists of food choices in a variety of categories; exercises that range from barbell standards to bodybuilding curiosities like Smith machine hack squats to plyometrics; and workouts that combine power exercises with leg presses and preacher curls.

Most of the books on my year-end reading list have programs rooted more in athletic training than bodybuilding. AMC offers a mix of the two, offering its readers functional benefits like power and mobility with good old-fashioned seam-ripping muscle mass.

Three More I Like

The Female Body Breakthrough, by Rachel Cosgrove

Lots of great information and a killer workout template from the wife and business partner of my coauthor. I’m amazed at how much substance Rachel packed into the slimmest book on this list.

Body by Eats (ebook), by Leigh Peele

This is really an endorsement of Leigh’s entire body of work, including The Metabolic Repair Manual and Fat-Loss Troubleshoot. Leigh is brilliant at identifying and fixing the problems all of us have with managing our weight and body composition. If she weren’t involved in a lifelong battle with the English language I’d consider her a perfect human being, as well as a consummate fitness professional. So forgive her ebook for its crazy title, but by all means seek it out at

Maximum Muscle, by Matthew Perryman

Another ebook, this one offering the most detailed description of the muscle-building process that I’ve ever seen. Matt has a way of addressing controversies in a way that’s both definitive and argumentative. Here’s a sentence plucked at random: “Fundamentally, bodybuilding exists as it does because people misunderstand the processes that underlie muscle growth.” Sure it’s true, but at least half the guys in the gym will want to argue anyway. Check it out at

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