Body By Science

Title: Body By Science
Author:  Doug McGuff, M.D., and John Little
Publisher: McGraw Hill
Publication date: 2009
Pages: 284
Special features: Photos, graphs
Price: $21
ISBN: 978-0-07-159717-3
Rating:  ♂ ♂ ♂ ♂ ♂

Body By Science by Doug McGuff and John Little is a concise introduction to the science and logic supporting brief, infrequent high intensity strength training.  McGuff and Little discuss the research that has shown that very brief, high intensity cardiovascular or strength training can produce results equal to if not better than time-consuming, low intensity training protocols.  Body By Science teaches you how you can get all the benefits of strength training from a brief, 15 minute training session once weekly.

Many people believe that strength training must be time-consuming, consisting of multiple sets per exercise, in order to produce good results.  In Body By Science McGuff and Little explain that research tends not to support this belief.  For most people, a program consisting of 3-6 basic multiple joint exercises, with a few single joint exercises, each performed for one single work set once or twice weekly, will provide all the stimulus necessary to achieve all possible results given enough patience, persistence, and time.

Body By Science Vs. Aerobics

In Body By Science, McGuff and Little point out that high volume, low intensity “aerobic” exercise in the form of long-distance running appears to increase one’s risk of several diseases, including cardiovascular disease, atrial fibrillation, cancer, liver and gall bladder disorders, muscle damage, kidney dysfunction, acute microthrombosis, brain damage, spinal degeneration, and germ cell cancers (references in the book).

In contrast, Body By Science explains how a very small amount of high intensity exercise – 10-15 minutes per week – provides health benefits beyond stronger muscles including:

  • Improved insulin sensitivity
  • Reduced cholesterol
  • Increased bone density
  • Improved flexibility
  • Reduced joint and spinal pain
  • Reversal of age-related genetic expression

The Body By Science Program

After establishing that low intensity high volume exercise has high risks and little benefit, whereas low volume high intensity exercises has low risks and high benefits, McGuff and Little outline two Body By Science basic full body training routines: The Big 3 and The Big 5.  The Big 3 consists of pulldown, chest press and leg press.  The Big 5 adds the overhead press and rowing.  They recommend novices perform The Big 5 once weekly.

In Body By Science, McGuff and Little suggest that the leg press provides adequate training for the hamstrings.  In fact, as explained by Greg Nuckols in "Hamstrings – The Most Overrated Muscle Group for the Squat," the hamstrings get little activation during the leg press or squats, because these movements involve flexing or extending at both the knee and the hip simultaneously.  On the descent, the hamstrings shorten at the knee end while lengthening at the hip end, which means there is no net lengthening; then, on the ascent, as you extend at the knee and hip simultaneously, the hamstrings are lengthening at the knee while shortening at the hip – again no net change in length.  EMG studies also show very low levels of contraction in the hamstrings during leg presses or squats. 

Hence, I think a well-designed strength training routine should include an exercise that directly trains the hamstrings, such as straight leg deadlifts, back arch ups or leg curls.  Otherwise you may create a strength imbalance between the knee extensors (quadriceps) and the knee flexors (hamstrings), which may increase your risk of knee injuries.

If you don’t have access to machines, McGuff and Little suggest using the barbell bent over row, bench press, deadlift, overhead press, and squat for a Big 5 training routine.  I don’t like this selection of exercises.  Here’s what I suggest instead and why:

The bent over row only trains the upper back and biceps through a limited range of motion, with very poor loading for the biceps, and puts a lot of unnecessary strain on the lower back.  I would recommend using rings to perform feet-assisted chin ups, progressing to full chin ups, instead. These train the upper back through a greater range of motion and provide excellent loading for the biceps.

The barbell bench press is a relatively dangerous exercise unless done in a power rack with safety bars set to catch the bar in case of muscular failure.  Push ups on the floor (for novices) or on rings (for intermediate or advanced trainees), with bands for additional resistance, or bar dips, are safer and just as effective as barbell bench presses.  You can do incline push ups on rings or a suspension trainer to start, and this allows progressive resistance by gradual decrease in the height of the rings or handles.

The conventional deadlift doesn’t train any upper back, hip or thigh muscle group through a full range of motion. Moreover, it is very fatiguing, requiring much more recovery time than other exercises.  Squats (including single-leg squats) sufficiently train the hips and quadriceps through a greater range of motion and more safely than the deadlift (and, arguably, the leg press), obviating the need for this aspect of the deadlift. 

I would replace the conventional deadlift with suspension leg curls, ball leg curls, Nordic leg curls, back arch ups, or very strictly performed, slow motion straight leg deadlifts to train the hamstrings and lower back.  If performing leg curls or back arch ups, pair these with inverted rowing on rings to provide the training for the upper back that one would get from deadlifts.

Thus, my Big 6 with conventional equipment would be:

  • Chin ups (starting with feet-assisted and progressing from there)
  • Barbell or resistance band press
  • Inverted Rows on rings
  • Push ups  rings (starting with incline push ups, progressing from there)
  • Squats (split squats for those who want to avoid spinal loading)
  • Leg curl (on ball or with bands), back arch up, or straight-leg deadlift

This could be split into two Big 4 sessions:

  • Chin ups
  • Press
  • Squats
  • Leg curl


  • Rows
  • Push ups
  • Squats
  • Back arch up or straight-leg deadlift

In Body By Science, McGuff and Little suggest direct neck work only for some athletes, such as football players, as injury prevention.  I think everyone should include neck work because almost everyone either drives a car, bicycle or motorcycle, and is thus vulnerable to whiplash injuries; and many people also do a lot of desk work, which often causes chronic neck strain, which I have found responsive to regular neck training.

Otherwise, this book provides an excellent introduction to high intensity training principles and practice.  I highly recommend it. 


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