The Barbell Prescription Book Review

The Barbell Prescription

It used to be in the world of weight lifting for amateurs there was little solid information to go on for barbell training. Of course there was a plethora of muscle magazines that had overly complicated training plans that involved equipment the average lifter didn’t have, but these magazines were more about selling supplements than teaching anything worthy about strength training. Making matters worse, I can’t think of any sources of strength training information twenty plus years ago that existed for people over the age of forty who were just trying to keep their bodies fit and trim, strong enough to take care of their basic functions of life as they aged. Until now, I would say that most people who are older, and those who are without physical fitness backgrounds rely on personal trainers who may or may not actually know what they are doing. Always bear in mind, it only takes being about five percent more knowledgeable than your audience to make some people believe that you are a genius.

When I was a kid I always wanted to lift weights and get big and muscular like all the super heroes and of course action movie stars of the day. I got my first barbell weight set when I believe I was about thirteen years old. I worked out like there was no tomorrow. And herein lies a problem for people who begin strength training while lacking knowledge of how to best proceed.

Strength training for any reason, whether for body building, brute strength, or even for keeping strong for basic functions of life requires planning and programming. When you start by working out like there is no tomorrow, you will find yourself first suffering from Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS) and then you will quickly burn out and actually lose strength going forward. For those who begin strength training with no background, you need to know that it is training that requires far more than picking up heavy weight on a barbell and setting it down over and over.

Fact – most beginners have no clue of how much they do not know about this type of physical fitness. You can go like gang-busters at your local gym, experience what we call newbie gains, and then completely flame out at the time you begin believing that your strength gains can go on and on forever. I have seen this over and over, through people that I personally know and have trained as well, along with people I have interacted with on strength training forums who get overly upset when their strength gains slow down and then stall out. They lose sight of the fact that everyone will stall, otherwise everyone could bench press a Buick. I will be honest, I have been one of these people…

In the early 2000’s as the internet began to grow beyond the old dial up modem stages where a page could take twenty minutes to upload, I was getting frustrated with my own strength progress. I had to get honest with myself that I did not know what it was I did not know, therefore I began searching online for the best in barbell strength training information. I found a new and popular website with a forum that I learned a lot from until I discovered that the owner had actually been to a sizable extent, ripping off the information that was being put out by Coach Mark Rippetoe of Starting Strength. At least Rippetoe was intellectually honest enough to inform his readers that he was promoting old school 5×5 power lifting programs that were the creation of Bill Star among others who were paving the way before him.

Although Medhi of Strong Lifts 5×5 eventually did admit that he was using the same template for training, he had already lost his credibility as a trainer. However, in fairness, Mehdi of Stronglifts has introduced thousands of people around the world to the benefits of strength training using proper programming. Kudo’s to him for this. But I digress…

I followed Mark Rippetoe and his power lifting program for a number of years and became very familiar with one of his coaches that was active on the Starting Strength forum. This coach was Dr. Jonathon M. Sullivan M.D. (Sully)

One of the things that drew me to Sully’s posts and commentaries was that he mostly addressed the senior lifters, as in older lifters. Sully was always kind and quite helpful with useful information that older beginning lifters needed to know. Dr. Sullivan is very knowledgeable and has rightfully earned the respect that is due him. I was pleased when I discovered not only his Youtube Channel Greysteel, Fitness after Fifty, but I got excited even more when I discovered that he had published his book The Barbell Prescription, Strength Training for Life After 40. I must also add that his co-author Andy Baker is also a highly regarded strength coach as well. These gentlemen have produced probably the best and most informative book there is for the older strength trainee as well as for those who are younger, out of shape and also just beginning.

The Barbell Prescription is over 300 pages with 27 chapters of solid training information. Even after reading this book cover to cover, I still go back to reference things and to refresh my own memory. I do this in order to check myself from inadvertently developing bad lifting habits of my own. Seriously, I am not sure there could be a more comprehensive book on this topic. After the introduction, Sully has divided the book into three sections:

  • Part I: WHY – From Exercise Prescription to Training Programs
  • Part II: WHAT – An introduction to the Exercises
  • Part III: HOW – Programming for Strength and Conditioning

A little bit from the Introduction

A quiet revolution is transforming the way we think about fitness and health in the aging adult. It’s changing our concept of what aging is, how it should be approached by doctors and patients, how it’s worst effects can be blunted – how it should be lived. Recent research has turned old assumptions about exercise in healthy aging inside-out, We’ve always known that exercise is important for health. But we have new ideas about the type and intensity of activity that can be tolerated and will best promote health in aging adults.

Healthy aging is strong aging.

Lifting weights has always been viewed by most as a young person’s game, more particularly as a young man’s game. In recent years, we’ve seen an explosion of published biomedical evidence on resistance training in the aged, in women, in children, and in people suffering from a broad spectrum of health conditions, ranging from diabetes to hypertension to congestive heart failure to Parkinson’s. What this growing body of data tells us is that everybody who can lift weights, should lift weights. This most emphatically includes those in their 40’s and beyond.

Dr. Jonathon M. Sullivan MD

Chapter One:

The Sick Aging Phenotype.

In this chapter, Sully discusses the many illnesses and frailties we now see in our aging population. He describes the Sick Aging Phenotype as “a complex of interrelated and synergistic processes, in which the metabolic syndrome, muscle and bone loss, frailty, loss of function and independence, and an ever-growing stew of pharmaceuticals conspire to destroy the health and quality of life of the aging adult”.

Or to sum the Sick Aging Phenotype up, these type(s) of people are suffering from metabolic syndrome, sarcopenia, osteopenia, frailty, and polypharmacy which means lot’s of drugs. We are drugging ourselves right into bad health across the board when we could be eliminating the need for drugs simply by keeping with a healthy and nutritious diet and exercise. Sully describes how when he see’s patients in the Emergency Room, “they invariably present with a bag full of powerful medicines, many of which work antagonistically or synergistically in unwholesome ways“.

All of this is a huge component of what we have been teaching over the years to our readers. Through healthy eating practices and exercise, your body will thank you and show it’s appreciation by weight loss and improved health which will make you feel better than otherwise.

Chapter Two

Exercise Medicine

In this chapter, Sully presents evidence of how and why exercise is the most powerful medicine that can be used in order to prevent many illnesses.

Sully writes, “Exercise has beneficial effects at every stratum of biological organization, from the molecular and cellular levels to the realm of neuropsychiatric health”. “Some of the critical distinctions between exercise medicine and standard medical therapies, which are both cause and effect of its unique powers and properties”. “Exercise is the medicine that actually gets to the root of the Sick Aging Phenotype, instead of just treating its symptoms”.

In this chapter you are going to learn about musculoskeletal and cardiovascular health, metabolic and cellular health, followed by neurological and psychological health. All of these can be positively influenced through exercise, including barbell training.

Chapter Three

From Prescription to Programs: Safety and Dosing

As I was saying in my opening paragraphs, most people have no idea how much about strength training it is they do not know. Improper form, not knowing where to begin, nor how many sets and reps and progression of weight will get you hurt. However, despite all of this, strength training with a barbell is one of the best things you can do for yourself as long as you are learning about “Safety and Dosing”.

Another key point that Sully makes is that there is a difference between exercising and training. “The most powerful and rational exercise prescription must take the form of an explicit long-term training program”. In other words, for the most benefit to your body, you really need to be doing exercise programs that are long term in nature and not get caught up in the hullabaloo of needing to change up what you are doing for “muscle confusion”.

People who promote the muscle confusion theory either do not know what they are teaching, or they do know that the concept is really nothing more than a marketing concept to keep people interested and coming back to the gym for their paid training. If you want muscle confusion, the steady increase of weight, reps, and sets will keep your muscles confused enough for progress to occur. Everyone stalls at a plateau at some point no matter their methodology.

In this chapter Sully lays out the General Exercise Prescription Criteria:

  1. Our exercise medicine must be safe.
  2. Our exercise medicine must have a wide therapeutic window. Meaning it should be available in a broad range of effective doses, from low at the beginning of therapy to higher doses as we get healthier.
  3. Our exercise medicine must be comprehensive. Our exercise prescription should be as integrated and complete as possible. (In other words, doing a bunch of triceps kick backs and curls are not going to give you any meaningful benefit.)
  4. Our exercise prescription must specifically combat the Sick Aging Phenotype. It should attack the metabolic syndrome, reduce visceral fat, arrest or reverse sarcopenia and osteopenia, and fight frailty by retaining strength, power, endurance, mobility, balance, and function. Ideally, it should also reduce the requirement for further medicine (polypharmacy).
  5. Our exercise prescription should be efficient and as simple as possible. But, no simpler. The prescription must be practical, accessible and time efficient. This will promote compliance, enjoyment, and long term success.

As one who has suffered a couple of very significant spinal injuries, people always want to know what I have done to ease the pain, and to get over them. I tell them that I strengthen my body, with an emphasis on my back and core through strength training. This is never the answer that anyone who has ever asked me has wanted to hear. Well here is the real deal, shooting it straight to all:

No matter your age, no matter your disabilities, your strength, your stamina, mobility, or general situation, you CAN train. The prize you should be striving to win is a longer life full of quality years instead of one filled with preventable misery. You can do more than you know. You just have to willing to get out of your comfort zone.

Chapter Four

Enduring Resistance, Resistance Endurance: Comprehensive Training

In this chapter you will learn about the different types of training in the chapter title as well as the Bioenergetics involved with your body. Sully describes how “Understanding how living systems capture and use energy is fundamental to any understanding of exercise, and nobody who is serious about fitness can make intelligent decisions without it, any more than you can make intelligent decisions about any other aspect of your life without some minimal level of knowledge”.

Think about it, are you going to invest your hard earned money into stocks and bonds while knowing nothing about how stock markets work? Of course not, you will either lose your money at worst, or make very small returns at best. It is the same with physical fitness, you need to do your due diligence in learning the nuts and bolts, how to and why, for everything that you do in the gym.

Chapter Five

Specificity and Effectiveness: Your Physiological 401k

If you have decided that you would like to begin strength training with a barbell, or any other exercise for that matter, you must be specific about what you want to achieve and why. Here at David’s Way we often have people tell us that they want to tone up, lose the batwings underneath their arms, or they want to have visible abs. The problem is, none of those goals are specific and will not get you the body, nor your level of fitness you may desire.

From Sully: “ A correct prescription must specify a therapy with specific biological targets in order to produce a desired outcome”.

If you think that doing 100 crunches per day, a few triceps kickbacks and barbell curls are specific enough to meet your objectives, you would be incorrect.

“A rational training program for any athlete will aim at the attainment of specific improvements in fitness attributes to optimize performance in practice and play”. You will learn that, “programmed strength training effectively combats the component of the Sick Aging Phenotype, while allowing the Masters Athlete to optimize the General Fitness Attributes and retain muscle, bone, strength, power, and function.

To sum this up, we have a problem in western society with obesity being on the rise to where thin people are not the ones who stick out in public as it used to be for the obese . If you are overweight, or straight up obese, you can almost rest assured that your body contains what Sully refers to as “sick fat”. In other words, you have too much visceral fat in your body which becomes a pro-inflammatory tissue. Inflammation is known to cause degenerative changes in blood vessels and other tissues that drive the development of cardiovascular disease and other elements of the Sick Aging Phenotype.

The good news is that strength training has the power to fight the accumulation of visceral fat within your body. And in this chapter, you will receive a very detailed lesson into how strength training can help to significantly reduce the effects of ailments which are caused by poor nutritional practices and a sedentary lifestyle.

Chapter Six

Simplicity and Efficiency: From Black iron to Grey Steel

In this chapter Sully describes the simplicity and effectiveness of barbell training. “Barbells optimize the suitability of strength training for older adults”. “Barbells maximize muscle recruitment and range of motion, permit training within the widest therapeutic window, demand concomitant training for balance, load the axial skeleton, and train the broadest range of fitness attributes with the least number of exercises and a minimum of complexity and training time”.

Barbell training does not require that you remember multiple exercises in order to effectively improve your health. Nor does it require that you spend more than an hour in the gym. You can even begin with such light weight as a barbell without the weight plates, or even with a broomstick. Through barbell training you need to begin light and easy even if you have been one to lift weights in the past. There is no need to rush – you will begin feeling better just by learning the movement patterns required of each lift that you will perform.

Through the rest of the book, Parts Two and Three, Sully and Andy give easy to understand lessons and pictorials in how to perform the basic lifts that you will need to learn for efficient barbell training. Part three gets into the nuts and bolts of programming different lifting programs, it is important that you know how and why you will make progress in your body’s strength.

To new lifters of any age, and more specifically to the older and out of shape crowd, I highly recommend that you follow the programming that Dr. Sullivan and Andy Baker have laid out for you. The truth is, if you are a beginner, you will not have the knowledge required to create a lifting program to meet your individual needs. You do not know what it is that you do not know, and if you think that randomly picking up weights and setting them down is all there is to lifting you will eventually hurt yourself or you will cause imbalances of muscular strength that can also lead to injury. All lifting programs need to be well balanced to work the entire body in as few specific and basic lifts as possible.

The Barbell Prescription, Strength Training for Life after 40 is a must read for anyone wanting to improve their body composition. I cannot recommend this book any more highly, it is also my bible for strength training as I am about to turn 59 in August. I may be a seasoned lifter, but everyone needs a refresher from time to time. Refreshers help to keep us strong and injury free as we continue to strength train with the barbell as we begin the journey towards the twilight of our lives.

In closing, people do not realize just how important their strength is until they have lost what little they have left. Once you have allowed yourself to arrive at the point where you cannot take care of your basic functions of life such as getting off of the toilet, or in and out of a bath tub on your own without assistance, you will wish you had done something about it when you could have. Sadly, there are nowadays a lot of people living in total care nursing homes at rather young ages simply because they allowed themselves to become sick and weak.

I will say it again, people end up in nursing homes earlier than they should simply because they have allowed themselves to become sick and weak.

The key word is “allowed”. No one forces an adult to eat junk foods nor to live a sedentary life. Our disease and sicknesses almost always come from our nutritional habits and not moving our bodies enough. Next time you can’t get up, out of a chair with ease, think about how far or close you might be from becoming dependent on others…

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