The 11 Best Books for Smart Meatheads

Books That Build Strength and Muscle

Our experts share their favorite books on training, nutrition, and mindset. Check out the list.


What training, diet, or self-improvement book would you recommend to T Nation readers?

Legacy, by James Kerr

Without a doubt, it would be this book. I’ve purchased more copies of it to give out to athletes than I can possibly count. The lessons originated with the All Blacks rugby club and have trickled down to professional, college, and high school sports for years now.

I really can’t recommend it enough to anyone who coaches athletes or trains/competes as part of a team. Moreover, if you’re someone who always trains alone, it’ll make you wonder how much better you could be if you were surrounded by top-notch training partners to push you to higher levels. – Eric Cressey

Super Strength, by Alan Calvert

Your great-great-grandfather was probably a bro lifter. There’s proof. Back in 1924, what we just call “training” today was more broadly known as “physical culture” and Alan Calvert, then editor of Strength magazine and owner of Milo Barbell Company, wrote Super Strength to share the benefits of strength-focused lifting.

The training style Calvert advocated was along the lines of “train for strength and muscular size will follow,” a popular and effective approach that continues in modern times. But throughout the book, he drops multiple hints about a different training mindset on the horizon.

“…the development of the abdominal muscles has become almost a fad with some physical culturists. If you pick up a magazine devoted to exercises, you are almost sure to find pictures showing young men with their bodies bent forward so as to make the muscles on the front of the abdomen stand out in ridges.”

“In some localities, there is a vogue for lifting barbells while lying flat on the back.”

“…there are a great many amateurs who are so infatuated with biceps development that they never take the trouble to acquire the bodily strength of even the average day laborer.”

Almost a hundred freakin’ years ago and Calvert was already seeing guys over-focused training abs, benching, and building their arms!

Fortunately, the rest of the book discusses general methods to build total body strength and size. As I explained in 5 Timeless Lessons, it’s eye-opening to see the training methodology that was being used, and it’s incredibly easy to notice how much is still around now.

A small sample of the advice Calvert talked about in the 1920s includes the importance of barbell squats and deadlift variations; doing farmer’s walks and kettlebell swings; using heavy, low-rep compound lifts as well as targeted isolation exercises for moderate reps; lifting with thick bars for grip strength and forearm size; starting with fundamental bodyweight training like push-ups (called floor dips at the time) and bodyweight squats (called deep knee bends back in the day); the benefits of a hook grip; and the idea of “looking like you lift.”

This is exactly the same kind of stuff you’re reading about from the best coaches today. If a training principle lasts an entire century, it’s a pretty safe bet that it works and it’s something you should pay attention to. And you know the info applies to “natty lifters” because, by default, every single lifter prior to the 1940s was undoubtedly natural. Just hard work, good food, and steady training.

If you’ve heard the expression, “It’s the best thing since sliced bread,” well, this book is even better than that. Literally. It was written a few years before sliced bread was available in stores. That’s how long this info has been delivering results, and it all still works. – Chris Colucci

Total Body Transformation, by Steve Ilg

My lifting library includes books from 1910 through literally today when the mailman dropped off a new read. I have Strength and Health magazines from 1946 until it ended (almost inclusive) and hundreds of other magazines, books, pamphlets and materials.

Total Body Transformation is probably the most underappreciated text in the history of our collective obsession. It has lifting, food, nutrition, cardio and flexibility work neatly packaged in a single volume.

I take his advice. On my walks, I look for eyesores in the area and return with gloves and bags later to clean them up. How does that fit into health, longevity, fitness, and performance? I don’t know, but it gives me inner strength and calm.

The programs are hard. The programs take time, but they are worth the time. It’s also just a damn fun book to read. – Dan John

Championship Bodybuilding, by Chris Aceto

Several books impacted my entrance into bodybuilding, including:

  • Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Encyclopedia of Bodybuilding
  • Mike Mentzer’s Heavy Duty
  • Dorian Yates’s Blood & Guts
  • Mauro di Pasquale’s The Anabolic Solution

However, I kept going back to one particular book first published in 1996: Championship Bodybuilding. In fact, in 1999, coming off a sixth place finish in the middleweight class of NPC Nationals and a photo shoot with Muscle & Fitness, I purchase the book from Venice Gold’s Gym.

While reading it on a flight from LA to Las Vegas in route to the Mr. Olympia that next week I ran into the author. He was traveling with his client, Jay Cutler, for what would be Jay’s first Olympia appearance.

I honestly can’t recall the specifics of the book beyond the fact that it touched on training, nutrition, cardio, and how to peak for a contest. The primary focus was hypertrophy and excelling in the sport of bodybuilding. I utilized it for the next several years and followed many of the “peak-week” methods leading up to my 2004 overall win at the NPC USA.

I’d be curious to know if Chris Aceto still ascribes to the same principals. Science has progressed, but some truths never lose their relevance. – Mark Dugdale

Artist of Life, by Bruce Lee

He looked scrawny in clothes. As an Asian male, at that time he was immediately pegged as nerdy and weak. Except something was very different about him. He had an intensity in his eyes that telegraphed his power. He had a warmth that made his power magnetic and mysterious rather than threatening. And he had a way of listening and communicating that made you feel like you were the only person in the room and he was there just for you.

And then you’d realize he was one of the strongest pound-for-pound athletes on the planet, and he wasn’t scrawny at all but rather ripped to shreds. His name was Bruce Lee and he was a martial artist, philosopher, and cultural icon that completely transformed the way the world viewed Asian men and fitness in the short 32 years he was on the planet.

He may have invented the protein shake, taking boiled meats and veggies then blending them so he could carry his nutrition with him everywhere. He may also have invented metabolic conditioning as his training was a mix of bodybuilding, intense martial arts, and powerlifting.

He wrote extensively and his work is profound and loaded with explosive truths. If you’re a student of philosophy you’ll immediately recognize him as the perfect mix of stoic and Taoist. His book, Artist of Life, is simultaneously a guide to training and philosophy with profound insights on almost every page.

Here are just three ideas paraphrased and adjusted slightly by me to illustrate the point:

“To know thyself you must study yourself in action with obstacles or others.”

The lesson here is to not take what anyone else says or tells you without testing it yourself. This is a fire-then-aim approach versus an aim-then-fire approach. What he was teaching here is that you should take action first and then adjust based on outcomes. Any lifter can relate to that principle in the gym and it’s the same in life.

“Absorb what is useful, discard what is not, and add what is uniquely your own.”

Here Bruce is telling us that you don’t find a way; you create a way. It’s not about finding the perfect diet or exercise program, it’s about creating it from experience over time.

“Be like water, my friend. Put water in a cup and it becomes the cup. Put water in a kettle and it becomes the kettle. Water can flow and water can crash…”

Water can change based on the environment it finds itself in. It can become solid, liquid, or vapor. What he’s saying here is to survive, get better and become strong we must be infinitely adaptable and ready to adjust, grow, and change. This is how we get better in the gym or in life. – Jade Teta

Nutrition for Health, Fitness, and Sport, by Mel Williams

I’m always pushing this textbook on my podcast. Each chapter starts simply but ramps up to a current lit review. It’s a university textbook that I use in classes so it offers educated interpretation of many nutrition topics without the commercial BS. It’s pricy at nearly $150, but getting just one edition back saves significantly whilst being just a few percent different in content.

So many people in our industry rely heavily on lay commercial fitness books. They can talk a good game on certain issues, but with any length of conversation you see the holes in their education – holes that a book like this could fill. It’s a solid, unbiased sports nutrition base. – Lonnie Lowery, PhD

The End of Overeating, by David A. Kessler, MD

This is the book that really brought to light how powerful food can be, especially junk foods that combine bad fats, sugar, and salt. This combination triggers powerful responses in the brain, not unlike certain illicit drugs.

And just like how tobacco companies manipulated cigarettes to be even more addictive, food manufacturers have done the same thing to their products, so much so that it borders on criminal.

Using some scary science, “food” makers are able to trigger you to eat when you’re not really hungry, keep you eating when your stomach is physically full, and ensure that all that food ISN’T satiating… so you’ll buy and eat even more. Even restaurants do it.

Manufacturers even Frankenstein these foods so you can eat them faster without any effort, almost like how tobacco companies added bronchodilators to cigarettes so that smoke could more easily enter the lungs.

Now, not everyone who struggles with overeating is overweight. Many are able to stay in decent shape with exercise and on-and-off strict dieting, but their overeating and binge eating is wrecking them psychologically. It’s a daily struggle that drains their willpower.

And sadly, many in the fitness biz are encouraging overeating and binge eating behaviors. This book gives you the background knowledge needed to avoid falling into those traps.

Even if you don’t have an overeating issue, the info here is eye-opening. If you eat (and I bet you do) it’s worth reading. – Chris Shugart

Never Let Go, by Dan John

This book really simplified everything for me. It came at a time when I was starting to work a ton of sessions with clients and was taking in everything I could to enhance my programming and client experience.

Dan hits on what really matters in training. He offers some easy-to-follow programs that yield significant results, and adds a conglomerate of valuable messages on nutrition. Plus the stories and concepts are great. I think everyone can take something away from this book.

The Black Book of Training Secrets, by Christian Thibaudeau

The title says it all. This book is packed with so much programming for every goal (fat loss, performance enhancement, hypertrophy, power, and strength) that every lifter could benefit. Christian goes into detail about the how and why.

He gives sample programs, templates, and trouble shooting techniques for progress stalls. This book really separated from the pack for me, and I refer to it today for program development and theories. Very beneficial book, especially for the more “cerebral” gym goer. – Ryan Taylor

Any of the Mike Mentzer books

Many people don’t know this, but when I first began my iron game I was actually somewhat of a high intensity training enthusiast. The HIT or high intensity training methodology was popularized by the legendary Arthur Jones who many still consider to be one of the most brilliant innovators in the field of exercise science. Besides his original developments of the first Nautilus variable resistance machines in the 60’s and 70’s, Jones was also an ardent advocate of something he referred to as high-intensity strength training.

This involved a significant reduction in the training volume and training frequency that many of the bodybuilders were using at the time while also taking all of those sets to failure and beyond. Jones also had many devout followers over the years including the legendary yet controversial Mike Mentzer.

To this day Mentzer is known as having one of the most complete and fully developed physiques ever to grace the bodybuilding stages, with levels of muscularity and density that rival many of our overly-juiced modern day competitors.

Mentzer attributed much of his success to his unusual training methodology that took Arthur Jones’s theories multiple steps further by reducing training volume and frequency to inordinately low levels. For instance, Mentzer was known for having many of his advanced bodybuilders train only once every 4-7 days with only 1 max effort set to failure on a handful of exercises. Additionally, Mentzer was known for asserting his beliefs that the traditional volume approach that many bodybuilders were (and still are) using, contributed to more failed physiques and training stagnation than any training methodology in existence.

To say that Mentzer thought outside the box and went against the bodybuilding establishment is a massive understatement. In fact, reading his writings and books helped shape my own career in this field, not so much because I held strongly to his training beliefs, but because it taught me to think outside the box and question everything, even if it was considered popular.

I eventually came to agree with Mentzer on the topic that most everything commonly advocated in the traditional mainstream bodybuilding and fitness world was filled with lies and misinformation. Although his solution to this problem with the HIT methodology wasn’t something I entirely agreed with, it did show me that I needed to investigate deeper and perform my own research.

In fact, this is what ultimately led me to develop my eccentric isometric protocols and research them during my doctoral studies. I realized that many of the training methods we use even to this day (including those recommended by expert trainers and coaches) are highly flawed.

While many were quick to write Mentzer off as a lunatic and iron game heretic, reading his books and examining his training methods will forever change your mindset about strength training. They certainly did for me. – Joel Seedman, PhD

Fortitude Training, by Scott Stevenson

I really liked this ebook. In fact, I remember reading it clearly because I read it at the airport when travelling to Europe for a seminar. I also remember immediately emailing Scott and telling him, “Screw you! I really wish I had written that book!”

While the program presented is solid, and shares a lot of common traits with my Best Damn Workout Plan for Natural Lifters, what really drove it home for me was how Scott presented the hypertrophy process – what triggers it and how can you apply that in the trenches.

The science presented is complex but it’s explained extremely well and is fairly easy to understand. The Fortitude training approach is based on scientific facts about how muscles grow, and the application of those facts are very interesting. Some key points include:

  1. Hit each muscle more frequently to trigger protein synthesis more often.
  2. The volume can’t be as high as a “normal” program because of the higher frequency.
  3. Use various methods on each training day to stimulate muscle growth via many different mechanisms.
  4. Minimize the catabolic response to training (cortisol release for example) while maximizing the anabolic response.
  5. To get maximum growth you need to learn to produce maximum effort in few work sets and not compensate a lower level of effort by doing more sets/work.

Of course, the fact that those principles are the same as one of my most popular programs makes it easy for me to love the book. But how well it’s written makes me hate Scott for writing it first! – Christian Thibaudeau

Bigger Muscles in 42 Days, by Ellington Darden

Man, this may shock some people. This is a HIT-based program that was brutal to do, but I spent a summer doing it when I was 17 and power-shoveling food. Wow, did it pay off.

A lot of science nerds with spaghetti-noodle baby arms would scoff at it, because it’s built around a super-slow rep cadence protocol. But after doing two rounds of it (84 days) I went back to normal training (cadence wise) and in a few weeks I was busting past previous PR’s with ease. I went from around 175 to 205 that summer without a ton of fat accumulation.

It was that summer that I really learned what it meant to eat for gains, how important sleep was in terms of recovery (I was training six days a week), and how powerful a new training stimulus could really be.

I’ve read a ton of training books over the years but that one has stayed in my mind because of the many valuable lessons I learned from actually DOING it… you know, instead of squabbling on the internet about what works and what doesn’t. – Paul Carter


How about a book for Rob Reiner…the dumb meathead, lol


Anything from Ian King. :+1: