I came across Beyond Brawn on Martin Berkhan’s recent post on 10 books that will expand your horizons. Martin cites the book as one of the most, if not the most important book he’s ever read about strength training. I respect Martin’s view on training a great deal and had already read and enjoyed the other two strength training books on his list (Starting Strength and Never Let Go), so I figured Beyond Brawn would be a fantastic read. And it certainly was.
The book is written by Stuart McRobert, an English strength training writer who gained notoriety by founding Hardgainer magazine. The subtitle is: An Insider’s Encyclopedia on How to Build Muscle and Might. And an encyclopedia it is. In a tome that spans 512 pages, McRobert covers nearly every detail required to give a rank beginner almost all of the knowledge they’ll ever need about how to build strength and size. While it doesn’t detail exercise technique, McRobert’s companion book, Build Muscle Lose Fat Look Great, gives detailed instruction on how to perform any useful exercise you could imagine in the gym.
The main thesis of Beyond Brawn is that average people have been seriously misled by top athletes in bodybuilding and companies that have a financial interest in the fitness industry. McRobert repeatedly makes it clear that listening to the training advice of genetically advanced individuals who also happen to be on steroids is a serious mistake when trying to build a program that will work for the average, drug free individual. His point is well taken that those types of individuals can grow on almost ANY type of program, as evidenced by the hundreds of different “successful” training protocols swirling around in the ether.
While there are a number of other fantastic books like Starting Strength that have helped the average trainee get back to the basics, one of the things I really like about Beyond Brawn is that McRobert doesn’t actually preach a specific program. He instead describes in detail the importance of sleep, nutrition, recovery, progression, and heavy, basics-only training, but leaves the exact program you devise up to interpretation and experimentation. In mainstream fitness, this would appear to be a terrible marketing angle for selling a book. Most people want a quick fix program for building muscle or losing fat that they don’t have to think about or tinker with. If that’s what you’re looking for, steer clear of this book. If instead you’re seriously looking for the nuts and bolts of program design for how to put on strength and mass over the long term, this is a wonderful read. If a cookie cutter fitness program is analogous to a cook book full of recipes, Beyond Brawn would be more like a book that describes in detail the basic herb, spice, and food combinations that produce the most fantastic traditional meals. It would then be up to you to come up with the various measurements, combinations, and cooking times that please you and your guests the most. Come to think of it, I would love to read a book like that too.
Exercises: The Basics
One of the big points McRobert hammers home is a back to the basics approach. He points out that a large majority of the fitness culture today has eroded from what it was in the past and has succumbed to the influences of drug-fueled professional bodybuilding. Platforms, power racks, bumper plates, and barbells have been replaced by a sea of weight machines that are designed to work muscles in isolation. While these isolation exercises are only useful for large bodybuilders to detail individual muscles for competition, the average gym member is now using them as focal points of their program. Gym goers and even trainers see these machines as a safer, easier option even though they’re not nearly as effective for what people are looking for. The sad thing is that all they would need is some basic instruction and a little bit of repetition to learn and benefit from the basic barbell exercises.
Like Mark Rippetoe, Jim Wendler, Chad Waterbury, Dan John, and many others, McRobert says a strength and size program should be built around a bedrock of the back squat, deadlift, bench press, overhead press, pullup, bent row, heavy ab work, and a few others. He doesn’t get overly militant about a single exercise, though he says convincingly that a strength building program should be based around the squat or the trap bar deadlift. The muscle mass used and poundages that can be lifted in these exercises will drive muscle growth as well as improvement in the other lifts. Beyond that, McRobert leaves the additional core lifts and assistance up to the reader.
Progressive Weight Means Less Frequency, More Intensity
McRobert’s ideal routines are based around fixed day training of full body workouts 2 or 3 times per week. He offers up multiple templates to help people get started designing their own workout program. Regardless of which exercises, rep schemes, and frequency of training you use, McRobert makes it clear that your number 1 priority should be increased weight on the bar if you’re trying to build strength and mass. There’s no denying the correlation between an increase in bar weight in the major exercises and physique growth. Without much exception, guys with more muscle mass lift more weight. And vice versa. The key to driving consistent growth according to McRobert is by training a) with enough intensity and b) with a low enough frequency and volume that recovery can occur before training the same exercise or muscle group again. The vast majority of people violate both of these rules, which is why they never grow.
McRobert’s suggestion of training only 2 or 3 times per week might seem low, especially to a gym rat who likes to hit the weights 5 or 6 times a week. But the real truth is that if you train as HARD as McRobert says you should on the correct exercises, there is no way you could be in the gym 5 days a week and continue to make progress. In fact, you’d probably beat yourself into an overtrained pulp. If you CAN get in the gym and move weight around 5 or 6 days a week, you’re just not going hard enough. In McRobert’s terms, intensity means putting forth all of the effort you can muster into a few top sets in the major exercises with a little bit of intelligent assistance work added afterwards. This is all you need to drive growth from session to session. With adequate rest and nutrition, you can come back to the same workout a week later and bump the weight up slightly. These small weekly progressions can continue for months on end until you come out the other side significantly bigger and stronger.
Intuitive Training Within a Structured Framework
While the internet can be an amazing resource for strength and conditioning advice, one of the big problems that arises is that there are TOO many options. Not only does this produce a paralysis by analysis type overload of information, but it also forces writers, coaches, and trainers to differentiate their programs by making them incredibly specific. These meticulously crafted programs from sources like T-Nation and Men’s Health outline rest periods, sets, reps, exercises, and everything else you could imagine for programs lasting up to 3 months. A trainee following these prescriptions soon loses the ability to think for themselves in the gym. They lose any grasp they may have had on their own ability to recover and their own response to various exercises. This article by Bill Starr is a prime example of why intuitive training is important. If you can’t think for yourself and make changes when necessary, you will never progress past a certain level.
A big part of the genius in Beyond Brawn is McRobert’s allowance for intuitive training. Similar to Mark Rippetoe’s Practical Programming, McRobert underscores the necessary features of a good program, but he leaves much of the intuition up to the reader. If there is stagnation or regress, he urges the reader to use the concepts from the book, take a hard look at their program, and make intelligent changes. Progress will not be made by endlessly following cookie cutter programs, so critical thinking and analysis are extremely important to moving forward when times get tough.
In essence, McRobert preaches Intensity, Recovery, and Consistency. Kill it in the gym with intense top sets on smart exercises. Recover adequately before the next session. And above all, be consistent with a program that is working. He urges the reader to find exercises, rep ranges, warm up schemes, and training frequencies that work for them as an individual. He acknowledges as Bill Starr does in his article that while certain exercises like the squat and deadlift are universally effective, not every person responds the same way. Some might do better with lower reps while others do better with higher reps. Some may grow with one or two top sets to failure while others may get better growth from sets across at the same weight. The key is finding exactly what works for YOU while staying within the framework of structured, intelligent strength training.
- Use basic exercises: Squat, deadlift, press, bench press, pullup, bent row, barbell curl
- Quality instead of quantity
- Intensity instead of volume
- Recovery instead of high frequency
- Intuitive training: Build a smart program that works for YOU and stay consistent until progress stalls then reassess
Buy the book! It really is a one stop shop for educating yourself on training principles.