Muscle and Strength Pyramids by Eric Helms – Book Review
Given that it’s the New Year (remember that 2016 goes on your checks now, man that dates me, how many people still use checks) I wanted to review a couple of new e-books that should help almost anybody (except perhaps the complete novice set up a plan). And those books are the “Muscle and Strength Training Pyramid” and “Muscle and Strength Nutrition Pyramid” ebooks by Eric Helms, Andrea Valdez and Andy Morgan. I’ve shown the pyramids below (the covers are prettier) and I don’t know why the formatting is off.
Let me say upfront that as Eric has been giving me invaluable feedback on the woman’s book (along with contributing sections on peak week and making weight), he asked me for critical feedback on the books just prior to publication (because he knows how much of a pedantic, overly critical ass I am). So I broke out my metaphorical red pen and went to town. I only mention this since I believe in complete transparency about issues like this.
You can probably understand the titles of both books by looking at the cover designs. Eric has described a pyramid of importance for both training and nutrition that moves from most important to least important with each level. I’ve used similar conceptualizations before but the idea is exceedingly valid. Far too many trainees get up their butts with the tips of the pyramid (i.e. the stuff that is far less important in the big scheme) without having the far more important and fundamental levels in place.
Short version of the review for short-attention span folks: both books are excellent and you should buy them.
In the case of training, it’s lifting speed. Potentially important? Maybe. Important if you don’t have factors such as sets, reps, training frequency, etc. in place? Not so much. For nutrition the tip is supplements which do at most, very little, if your overall diet in terms of calories, macros, meal frequency and patterning are not set in place. I think you get the idea.
Both books are well laid out and clock in at 176 pages for the Training Pyramid book and 126 pages for the Nutrition Pyramid book. They are laid out well with enough graphics to break up the blocks of text (though there is a fascination with a horse pushing a dude in a cart in both books that is odd). They are both fully referenced as well, Eric is one of many coaches who is very evidence based (while still acknowledging the need for experience in application) and the roughly 6 nerds (myself plus about five others) who actually care about the references can follow-up on individual topics. With that said, let me look at each book a bit.
The Muscle and Strength Training Pyramid
The Muscle Strength and Training Pyramid ebook clocks in at 172 pages and is well formatted and structured. There are enough graphics to break up the dense blocks of text and it all flows nicely. The seven levels of the pyramid are: adherence, volume/intensity/frequency, progression, exercise selection, rest periods and lifting tempo. The book finishes with a variety of sample training programs ranging from novice to advanced bodybuilding and powerlifting programs. Note that this is not a book for rank beginners and novice is meant to imply trainees with at least some sort of basic training under their belt.
As you can see, the pyramid is laid out completely logically. Adherence is the base and is the key, as the old saying goes “Half the battle is showing up.” If you hate your training or are trying to follow a program that looks great on paper but you can’t adhere to, it’s not a good program. This comes first. The interrelated factors of frequency, intensity and volume which effectively define any given program. You can’t ever consider any one of them outside of the others and there tends to be not only some optimal levels of all three but you end up having to make a compromise frequently. A high frequency of training affects volume and intensity at any given workout, a high intensity impacts on how frequently you can train, etc. I have addressed this in some degree on the site already.
Next comes progression, the need to progress training in some form or fashion and a variety of methods from increasing the load on the bar, the volume or frequency of training are all discussed. Each is also discussed in terms of when and how to determine when to progress (i.e. should you deload or add when you stall on a current workout) along with recommendations for different levels of trainee. Periodization of training is also discussed here in some detail.
Contrary to what may think, exercise selection comes after all of the above. I say contrary as many tend to think of the exercises chosen as a primary factor (this tends to come from the macho “compounds rule, isolation drool” school of thought (there are others). But as I’ve pointed out at least briefly, exercise selection is actually secondary to the above factors outside of those few athletes such as powerlifters and Olympic lifters who must practice a given movement as part of their sport. You can train with sufficient frequency, intensity, volume and with progression on any exercise, but choosing a given exercise without frequency, intensity, volume and progression won’t get you anywhere. Topics such as specificity, efficiency and bringing up weak points, all of which may change what is the idea exercise for a given goal are discussed here.
Next up is rest intervals and the topics of hormonal response, metabolic fatigue and muscle damage (due to tension) are all discussed. Short versus long rest intervals and the idea of pairing antagonist muscle groups for supersetting are as well. Specific recommendations for different goals are given and the fact is that there is no single rest interval that is optimal for all goals.
The final topic is lifting tempo, the speed at which weights are lifted and lowered. This was an insanely popular topic years ago and people (including myself) got a bit up our butts with different tempos. It’s still something I think is worth paying some attention to but in the big scheme, this is far less important than the other factors. Lifters have used all kinds of different lifting speeds and so long as the other factors are applied meaningfully, progress will still be made.
As mentioned above, sample training programs are given for various training populations (novice, intermediate, advanced) for both bodybuilding and powerlifting. They are, of course sample, and should be taken as such within the context of the rest of the information that is provided. But it’s always nice to see a lot of, often theoretical or separate information, put together in a useful format. No sample workout should be taken as THE WORKOUT YOU MUST DO but an example of how the principles might fit together.
Other training resources are also provided at the end of the book.
Overall, this is an excellent book and will give anybody reading it a complete basis in all of the major components of the factors that are critical to training along with how to apply them to set up a training program. I’ve seen books claiming to be a “Complete Guide to Program Design” which simply were not but with this book alone, readers have most of the information (with the possible exception of exercise technique which is a book unto itself) to set up a training program for different goals. It’s a fairly lofty goal but this book accomplished it.
Since none of my reviews would be complete without criticisms of the book, I have two. The first was the use of the word framily (representing friends and family) which I just find, well, dude. Just dude. As a real criticism, when I broke out my big red metaphorical pen, I only took severe issue with one small section of the book (having to do with tempo and time under tension and how I felt the concept was being misinterpreted based on nomenclature). Beyond that, everything was mainly my normal pedantic nitpicking and I found nothing at odds with either the currently published research or best practice experience; Eric took all of my commentary in stride. So I give it my wholehearted thumbs up. Moving on.
The Muscle and Strength Nutrition Pyramid
Just as with the Muscle and Strength Training Pyramid, the Nutrition Pyramid book is divided up into a logical sequential pyramid of importance which are: energy balance (calorie intake and expenditure), macronutrients, micronutrients, nutrient timing and supplements. Just looking at it, I imagine that most can see how that follows. And of course we all know people who get the pyramid backwards or in the wrong order. Many put supplements (the magic kind) before a proper diet setup and I can’t tell you how many people will ask why they aren’t losing fat or gaining muscle as they provide their meal frequency or clean eating or whatever without having any clue how many calories or what their macros are. Looking briefly at each.
The book actually starts out with a section on mindset: accuracy, flexibility and consistency. It gets into issues of flexible and rigid dieting, the idea of their being magic macronutrient patterns, good and bad food attitudes along with tools for tracking food intake and bodyweight changes. It’s a good introductory chapter and may hopefully keep people from falling into some of the extremist traps that they often find themselves in (i.e. if they don’t hit their daily macros exactly to the gram without any deviation, they have failed and should go eat Blizzards).
The first step in the pyramid is energy balance, the difference between energy intake and expenditure. Argue all you want (and be wrong) that energy balance doesn’t apply to humans or whatever nonsense, but this is the key determinant of what happens in the body. You don’t gain body mass in a deficit or lose body mass in a surplus no matter how you dick around with macros or nutrient timing or anything else. The chapter discusses determining/estimating maintenance calories before looking at realistic rates of weight loss and gain for optimal results. It also talks about metabolic magic and the idea of gaining muscle while losing fat (or vice versa) and finishes off with a practical discussion of differences in weight loss and weight gain (in terms of how the math works out).
Now, some of the silly criticism of energy balance come out of the misconception that that is ALL people think matters. You see idiot level comparisons of “So you’re saying 3000 calories of chicken and broccoli are identical to 3000 calories of jelly beans” but this is idiotic. Nobody with a brain has ever said that macronutrient (protein, carbohydrate, fat, alcohol) content doesn’t matter; it’s simply that no magic macro combination can overcome the energy balance equation. And that’s why macros are the second step in the pyramid. First the book looks at prescribing macro guidelines and makes the excellent point that striving for exact numbers is futile. A three tier approach to hitting macro numbers is given and it’s excellent. The chapter continues with a discussion of setting macronutrients for fat loss, muscle gain and then provides example calculations of diet setup. It talks about who should use the guidelines (i.e. much fatter individuals need to worry far less about the details than lean athletes) and finishes with some rough ideas on how to determine if a given dietary pattern is better or worse for an individual. Also, fiber.
Level three of the pyramid is micronutrients, vitamins and minerals. A brief discussion of both is given and a discussion of how some of the exclusive dietary approaches that people take (i.e. no dairy, no red meat) often cause nutrient deficiencies for dieters (this is on top of less food overall being consumed). Specific considerations for dieting and mass gaining are provided and guidelines for fruit/vegetable consumption and fluids are given here.
The fourth level is nutrient timing and frequency which covers a lot of ground. The book refers generally to nutritional periodization with the idea of free meals, refeeds and diet breaks being talked about. Different nutrient timing patterns such as multi-day refeeds versus other ways to implement refeeds (including what is being called Intermittent Caloric Restriction or ICR, an approach where a few days of dieting is interspersed with at least maintenance levels of intake). The issue of meal frequency is then addressed and around workout nutrition is discussed in some detail with pre- and post- workout carbs, around workout protein and specific recommendations for dieting and mass gaining provided.
The final pyramid is supplements, the place too many people focus on before attending to the above issues properly. Discussions of how to pick quality supplements along with determining validity and effectiveness are discussed before recommended supplements, both general (i.e. vitamins, minerals, Vitamin D) and some performance supplements such as creatine, caffeine, beta-alanine and others are discussed.
The book ends with a discussion of behavior and lifestyle, which sort of comes full circle to the mindset section that started the book. A three-tier system of adherence is provided and it’s important to match the need for precision to the needs of the person (again, an obese individual just starting out needs far less detail than the lean athlete). Discussions of listening to your body and tracking without measuring ever nutrient are given along with a discussion of alcohol and how to integrate dietary patterns with life (this is where the word “framily” turns up and, well, dude. Just, dude). The book ends with resources.
Overall, this is another excellent book. It may not tell people well versed in nutritional setup anything too new but it is completely up to date with both evidence and practice well shown and possibly some ideas that folks have not seen before. As I broke out the red pen, I didn’t have anything but the most minor of quibbles with what was presented. And most of that was probably pedantic nitpicky crap. But unlike the one section in the training book, there was simply nothing I could or did take any issue with. So another wholehearted thumbs up.
Both The Muscle and Strength Training and Pyramid ebooks are excellent and I can recommend them without hesitation. They provide a very up-to-date look at the evidence and practice of both training and nutrition and it would be hard to go wrong with either one of them. Bought together, they should give anyone a solid grounding in all of the truly important aspects of both topics that they need for training program and dietary set up for their goals.
The book are available for $39 each or $67 for both and can be purchased here here.
Note: I do not receive anything for sales of either book and my only conflict of interest was mentioned up top: I made some editing commentary on both books and Eric is providing equally valuable feedback on the women’s book along with his contributions. But he asked me to do it since he knows I’m a critical pain in the ass when it comes to feedback. And I was. The. End.