A Practical Approach To Strength Training

Title: A Practical Approach to Strength Training, 4th Edition

Authors: Matt Brzycki

Publisher: Blue River Press; 4 edition 

Publication date: June 29, 2012

Pages: 336

Special features: 300 photos, charts

Price: 24.95

ISBN:  978-1935628132


Excellent Training Information

A Practical Approach To Strength Training is an excellent manual summarizing the evidence-based principles of effective strength training and bodybuilding.  This fourth edition, published 25 years after the first edition, is more than a strength training manual.  It provides chapters on flexibility training, anaerobic training, metabolic conditioning, power training, weight management, and nutrition in addition to strength training for adults, women, children, adolescents, and elders.

The Author

The author, Matt Brzycki, has more than 34 years of experience at the collegiate level as a coach, instructor and administrator at Princeton and Rutgers Universities. Matt has authored eight books, co-authored seven books and edited two books. In addition, he has authored more than 525 articles/columns on strength and fitness that have been featured in 48 different publications. When in college he competed in powerlifting and bodybuilding.  In recent years he has competed in USATF sprint events for men aged 50-59, and in 2014 his time of 1:05.72 in the 400 (age 57) ranked #73 in the US, #86 in North America and #176 in the world among men aged 55 to 59.

Contents Of A Practical Approach To Strength Training

A Practical Approach To Strength Training provides a complete introduction to evidence-based and high intensity strength training principles. The chapter topics include: 

  • basic anatomy and muscular functions
  • the physiological basis of physical training
  • genetics and strength potential
  • strength training principles
  • strength training for women
  • strength training for youths
  • strength training for older adults
  • free weight exercises
  • machine exercises
  • manual-resistance exercises
  • designing and varying a strength training program
  • rehabilitative training
  • flexibility training
  • aerobic training
  • anaerobic training
  • metabolic training
  • power training
  • skill training
  • nutritional training
  • nutritional supplements
  • nutritional quackery
  • weight management (gaining or losing weight)
  • steroids
  • miscellaneous Q & A

What I Like About A Practical Approach To Strength Training

Unlike other popular authors of books on brief, effective training, Brzycki does not recommend very low volume training routines composed of 3-5 compound exercises only.  Apparently based on his experience as a coach and instructor at Princeton and Rutgers, he believes that most adults can tolerate and profit from training routines composed of 14-20 exercises, each performed for one set.  If performed with minimal rest between exercises – and minimizing rest periods should be a goal to increase the work per unit time, i.e. intensity – an individual can complete such a routine in 30-45 minutes.  Also, Brzycki recommends most people perform 3 full body routines weekly, in accord with research which has indicated that thrice weekly training produces better results in both beginners and advanced trainees.  Apparently, in his work at Princeton and Rutgers, he found these guidelines effective.

In designing routines, Brzycki recommends using both single-joint and multi-joint exercises for every muscle group, generally one of each for the largest muscle groups of the torso and legs. He also recommends that basic training include direct training for the calves, lower back, abdominals, biceps, triceps, and neck.  

Thus Brzycki  recommends a much higher total volume of strength training exercise than many other advocates of single-set training, some of whom recommend performing only 3-5 exercise sets once weekly, generally composed of multi-joint movements, i.e. 5-10 minutes of exercise each week.  I have tried that super abbreviated, super infrequent training and found it unsatisfactory myself. 

The super abbreviated training routines are often claimed to be best for people who feel they are “hard gainers” or low responders to training stimuli.  I believe they may not be the best for all individuals in this population.

"Easy-gainers" respond exuberantly to even small doses of exercise. In other words, they are highly sensitive to the stimulus, thus likely need only small doses to achieve results.  Low responders ("hardgainers") may either have a low tolerance for high intensity training, or a resistance to the stimulus. Some HIT advocates have assumed that all hardgainers have a low tolerance for high intensity training, but some research and basic physiology suggests otherwise. 

A recent study found that low responders to aerobic training became responders when the dose (amount of exercise) was increased from 60 minutes weekly to 180 minutes or more.1  This provides evidence that at least some low responders to aerobic exercise simply have a higher stimulus threshold.  Given that all human characteristics appear to distribute in a bell curve fashion, it is likely that this is true of anaerobic exercise as well.  Some hardgainers may actually need MORE exercise stimulus than easy gainers.  

Hardgainers are also likely to have a lesser proportion of fast twitch and greater proportion of slow twitch fibers in their muscles.  Fast twitch fibers are highly responsive to brief hard training, but slow twitch fibers may require greater time under load and more frequent training to elicit optimum response.  On this basis I would expect genetically gifted individuals having higher fast twitch fiber endowment to respond best to lower frequency training, such as training a muscle group only once weekly with limited volume. 

As Brzycki notes in A Practical Approach To Strength Training, the majority of studies indicate that average trainees – not genetically gifted trainees – respond best to training muscles thrice weekly, using 9-12 exercises and 9-36 sets per session.  I suggest that this is because average trainees need frequent stimulation of sufficient volume to provoke adaptive changes.

Of course individuals vary and each trainee (or his/her coach) should find the volume and frequency that produces the best results for each muscle group.  Some individuals may in fact find they only progress with very limited routines. However, I would think these individuals are a small minority of the total population, given the physical demands our ancestors had to adapt to during prehistoric times, which would have selected for individuals who could tolerate and thrive if exposed to two to three bouts of very heavy exertion every week in the course of hunting and gathering for a living.  

A training routine consisting of even 3 hours of hard training weekly (3 sessions each 1 hour in length, about 20 exercise sets per session plus rest breaks) represents a time investment of less than 2% of the 168 total hours in a week, or less than 3% of waking hours (assuming 8 hours sleep each night).  This seems a quite small time investment compared to the amount of time our ancestors spent in physically demanding activities. I find it difficult to believe that there are many people who have such weak constitutions that they are unable to tolerate a few hours of hard work each week.  In any case, you get what results you pay for.

The chapters on strength training for women, youths and elders suggest reasonable modifications for these populations.  The chapters on aerobic, anaerobic, metabolic, power and skill training are excellent.  

In the skill training chapter, Brzycki makes short work of the myth that doing power cleans will improve your performance in any other sport.  People who promote this myth seem to have no understanding of the basic principles of motor learning and skill acquisition, particularly the principle of specificity.  Doing power cleans will not make you better at anything other than power cleans.  There is no strength training method that will help your develop any specific skill.  The only thing that will help you become more competent at any skill is diligent practice of that skill.   

Brzycki’s chapter on nutritional supplements is excellent, debunking claims made for many popular supplements. His chapter on nutritional quackery will help readers understand how to critically evaluate nutritional claims.  The Q & A chapter is both informative and, at times, quite humorous as he dispels various myths.

What I Don't Like About A Practical Approach To Strength Training

I find the following limitations in A Practical Approach To Strength Training:

The flexibility chapter is very basic and not of much use to anyone seeking to achieve maximum mobility such as front splits, straddle splits, and gymnastic bridges.

The “nutrition training”chapter of the book simply presents the currently dominant, State-endorsed nutritional paradigm that recommends a high carbohydrate, low fat diet, five food groups, avoidance of saturated fats and limiting cholesterol and red meats, calorie-counting for weight loss, three meals and three snacks daily, and so on.  

Some of the general nutrition information is incorrect.  For example, on page 243 Brzycki states that it is “well known” that “saturated fat and trans fat increase low-density lipoprotein and…decrease high-density lipoprotein.” In fact, as I have written in my discussion of high cholesterol dieting, two very effective ways to raise your HDL levels include to eat a carbohydrate-restricted diet including 3 eggs daily2, 3, 4 and to increase your intake of saturated fats.5, 6  In contrast, eating the low fat diet commonly recommended for cardio metabolic health actually decreases HDL.7

For another example, in the last paragraph of the book, Brzycki writes:

“There’s no doubt that eliminating carbohydrates from your diet will inhibit your stamina and endurance.  In addition, it’s important to note that consuming too much fat and protein is associated with a greater risk of heart disease.  And if you avoid carbohydrates, you also avoid foods with highly valuable nutrients such as fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.  This may lead to vitamin and mineral deficiencies.  Clearly carbohydrates are miscast villains.”

In fact, Phinney et al. have shown that if athletes are given sufficient time to adapt to a very low carbohydrate intake (less than 3% of energy), given adequate protein, fat and mineral intake, they have the same stamina and endurance as when eating a high carbohydrate diet.8  

The second statement that “consuming too much fat and protein is associated with a greater risk of heart disease” could be true, but without import, because association does not prove causation. There is a considerable body of evidence rendering doubtful the idea that this association (if indeed it really exists) indicates that eating protein and fat causes heart disease (see my article on high cholesterol diet for some references). 

Third, while it is true that avoiding carbohydrates will lead to reduced intake of fruits, vegetables and whole grains, it does not follow that this will cause vitamin and mineral deficiencies.  Animal bodies have the same general nutrient requirements and composition as human bodies, so meat, eggs, cheese, and bones used to make soup contain all of the vitamins and minerals humans require. Several uncivilized tribes lived on diets absent or very limited in fruits, vegetables and whole grains over many generations, the Inuit being the prime example.

Moreover, one can get an enormous dose of vitamins and minerals from a very small amount of green vegetables and low-sugar fruits supplying very little carbohydrate.  In other words, the statement that limiting carbohydrate intake “may” lead to vitamin and mineral deficiencies is true – anything is possible as implied by the word “may” – but misleading because although this is possible, it is not necessarily probable if proper whole food selections are made. 

Highly Recommended Reading

Despite my disagreements with some of the nutrition and diet recommendations in A Practical Approach To Strength Training I highly recommend it for the rest of its content.  The nutritional training chapter is only 20 pages of the 336 total, or about 6%, so 94% of the book is valuable information on training topics, dispelling many myths and misconceptions about proper physical training. 

If you are serious about strength training to achieve your full potential, you will find A Practical Approach To Strength Training 4th Edition is a very valuable reference book.


1. Montero, D. and Lundby, C. (2017), Refuting the myth of non-response to exercise training: ‘non-responders’ do respond to higher dose of training. J Physiol, 595: 3377–3387. doi:10.1113/JP273480

2. Mutungi G, Ratliff G, Publisi M, et al. Dietary Cholsterol from Eggs Increases Plasma HDL Cholesterol in Overweight Men Consuming a Carbohydrate-Restricted Diet. J Nutr 2008 Feb;138(2):272-76.  <http://jn.nutrition.org/content/138/2/272.full?cited-by=yes&legid=nutrition;138/2/272#cited-by>

3. Schnohr P, Thomsen OO, Riis Hansen P, Boberg-Ans G, Lawaetz H, Weeke T. Egg consumption and high-density-lipoprotein cholesterol. J Intern Med. 1994 Mar;235(3):249-51. PubMed PMID: 8120521.

4. Mayurasakorn K, Srisura W, Sitphahul P, Hongto PO. High-density lipoprotein cholesterol changes after continuous egg consumption in healthy adults. J Med Assoc Thai. 2008 Mar;91(3):400-7. PubMed PMID: 18575296.

5. Hayek T, Ito Y, Azrolan N, et al. Dietary fat increases high density lipoprotein (HDL) levels both by increasing the transport rates and decreasing the fractional catabolic rates of HDL cholesterol ester and apolipoprotein (Apo) A-I. Presentation of a new animal model and mechanistic studies in human Apo A-I transgenic and control mice. Journal of Clinical Investigation. 1993;91(4):1665-1671.

6. Wolf G. High-fat, high-cholesterol diet raises plasma HDL cholesterol: studies on the mechanism of this effect. Nutr Rev. 1996 Jan;54(1 Pt 1):34-5. Review. PubMed PMID: 8919697.

7. Brinton EA, Eisenberg S, Breslow JL. A low-fat diet decreases high density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol levels by decreasing HDL apolipoprotein transport rates. Journal of Clinical Investigation. 1990;85(1):144-151.

8. Phinney SD. Ketogenic diets and physical performance. Nutrition & Metabolism 2004; 1:2. https://doi.org/10.1186/1743-7075-1-2 <https://nutritionandmetabolism.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/1743-7075-1-2>

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