Brain workout: Books for the literate lifter

body stuff

books that tell you how to train and eat

Weight Training for Women


Strength Training for Women

Pumping Up!

Power to the People

Stella’s Kitchen

Brother Iron, Sister Steel

Women’s Strength Training Anatomy

Natural Hormonal Enhancement and Hormonally Intelligent Exercise

Starting Strength: A Simple and Practical Guide for Coaching Beginners

Gourmet Nutrition 2.0

mind stuff

books that tell you about training

Your Body Revival


Women of Steel

Building Bodies

Body-Flow: Freedom from Fear-Reactivity

West Coast Bodybuilding Scene: The Golden Era

Iron Maidens: The Celebration of the Most Awesome Female Muscle in the World

Thomas Fahey and Gayle Hutchinson. Weight Training for Women. California: Mayfield, 1992.

This book has some good stuff and some disappointing stuff. I like the no-nonsense, everyone-can-benefit approach to weight training, which shows the importance of weights both in daily life and as an augmentation to recreational or serious athletic activity. There is a clear explanation of physiology and muscle structure, and the basic principles of training. Tips on how to choose a gym are included, as well as how to put together a workout. I was underwhelmed by their endorsement of machines over free weights, especially since they don’t note that many machines are not designed with smaller women in mind, nor do they discuss the advantages of free weights in terms of balance, coordination, and stability development (certainly things that are applicable to sports and “real life”). There are diagrams (of mediocre quality) of both free weight and machine exercises, along with the muscles that are involved in each exercise. This is a good book for absolute beginners, with the proviso that said beginners move on to read other things.

Negrita Jayde. Supervixen: Secrets for Building a Lean and Sexy Body. Illinois: Contemporary Books, 1995.

One of the main problems with this book is the overwhelming urge to slap the author for constantly telling the reader what a supervixen she is. E.g.: “Three true stories occurring on separate occasions: one guy rode his bike into a parked car, another man walked into a parking meter, and still another hapless fellow drove his car, luckily at low speed, into the back end of another car–all because they suddenly became oblivious while looking at yours truly!… All I was doing was walking on the sidewalk! However, my proportions were also walking on that sidewalk. I guess there should have been a road sign saying, ‘Warning! Dangerous curves up ahead!'” Vomit.

In addition, the author seems to feel this odd need to wear lingerie as she works out in the gym. Half the photos show her in exercise wear, and the other half depict her in strange Rocky Horror-meets-Sunset Boulevard creations of ripped black lace, Daisy Dukes, bondage bras, and what appear to be ballet slippers with extensive ankle lacing. Ironically, it is when clad in a plain black unitard and white sneakers that Jayde looks her best and most muscular. OK, these are mostly aesthetic concerns but a book about aesthetics should pay a little more attention to not making its author look completely tacky and frivolous.

Anyway, now that I’ve gotten that off my chest, Supervixen actually isn’t a terrible book, even if the premise and advice is a little misguided. The principle of being a supervixen involves working towards a proportionate, muscular body depending on individual needs. This idea sounds great, but as many a wannabe bodybuilder has discovered, muscles have one origin and one insertion, and they grow only one way and into one shape. Short biceps can’t become long biceps no matter how hard they are worked. However, I do like elements of Jayde’s individualized approach, which encourages women to work with their own unique body shape to achieve maximum results. The illustrations and descriptions of how to perform the exercises are clear and informative, and she doesn’t shy away from showing exercises such as pullups or deadlifts.

One of the most significant problems with the book is the lack of scholarly information. Jayde provides no supporting evidence for her claims other than her personal experience of making men walk into parking meters. There are no studies cited (particularly for the section on nutrition). Furthermore, some of the exercises shown, such as the hack squat with hips off the back support, the “bun squat” which involves sort of hunching underneath a weight on one’s back, and many of the straight-legged ab exercises, range from ill-conceived to downright dangerous.

For all her failings, Jayde redeemed herself (almost) in my eyes by providing about six pages on why a person should squat. She subtitles it, “In Praise of the Squat”, and includes the Top Ten Most Common Excuses for Not Squatting (which she debunks or openly ridicules), and Top Ten Reasons Why You Should Squat. In a women’s exercise book this kind of refreshing call to arms is like manna from heaven, and the pics of Jayde squatting some decent weight are encouraging (though she does suggest putting plates under one’s heels, which I don’t advise).

James and Susan Peterson, and Cedric Bryant. Strength Training for Women. Illinois: Human Kinetics, 1995.

From what I’ve seen of their products, the Human Kinetics publishing house is a pretty good assurance of quality when it comes to solid information on women’s fitness, and this book fits well into that tradition. It’s aimed at women beginners with diverse backgrounds, ages, and fitness levels. I particularly liked their debunking of common myths, such as “Women can’t get strong” and “Strength training is only for young people” in the first chapter. There are sections on older women and adolescent training, as well as training during and after pregnancy. The authors have taken care to back up their endorsement of diversity with quite normal-looking exercise models of all ages (no supervixens here!). The authors do, unfortunately, endorse H.I.T., the one-set-to-failure High Intensity Training method popularized by Mike Mentzer and Arthur Jones (and later rejected by most of the serious strength training experts and community). I understand the need to make the book accessible, but I would have liked to see the women in the photos using a bit more weight (the shrug, for example, is shown with teeny dumbbells). In addition, there are some depictions of exercises, such as the behind-the-neck lat pulldown and stiff-legged deadlift with locked knees, that are known to be unsafe. However, this is not a bad book for a beginner to learn the basic terminology and structure of a workout, particularly with regard to applying strength training to other activities.

Ben Weider and Robert Kennedy. Pumping Up! Super Shaping the Feminine Physique. New York: Sterling, 1985.
(out of print, but you can likely get it in most libraries)

I have to confess that this book has a special place in my heart, because it was the very first book I bought when I was first interested in weightlifting, waaaay back in high school (gawd, was that really, like, twenty years ago?). This is one of the first books on women’s bodybuilding, from the days of Rachel McLish and Cory Everson. Since I’m used to seeing the commanding figures of the present incarnation of women’s bodybuilding, the women in this book seem slim and somehow innocent. McLish now just seems like a swimsuit model (minus the hyperinflated breasts). Actually even the current crop of fitness models would make McLish seem like a twig. Although I hate the indiscriminate use of the word “natural”, it’s a word that occurs to me as I leaf through this after so many years of looking at androgen abuse by many of the top pro women. The women in this book have their own breasts and their own muscles. They are gorgeous! Even fitness models of today look stretched, harsh, and surgically enhanced compared to the squeaky-clean sultriness of Candy Csencsits, Marjo Selin, and Mary Roberts. I did have to laugh at the part on proper equipment that states: “Originally used exclusively by ballet dancers, leg warmers are now considered virtually indispensable workout accessories.” Ah, the eighties.

At any rate, one of the things I remember liking then and still like now about this book is that it takes women’s bodybuilding seriously. It assumes that the reader is equally intent on eventually competing (even if she may be reading the book as a complete beginner), and includes sections on contest prep and posing. It also includes plenty of photos of women lifting substantial weights, and assumes that we wish to emulate this (which we do, right?!). One of my favourite captions reads, “Heavy weights are required for Kay Baxter’s back squats.” This kind of frank enthusiasm about women lifting big things has me cheering! Not only are heavy weights encouraged, they are required to make progress! Interestingly, the book also outlines some of the mid-80s debates about what the proper shape was for a female bodybuilding competitor.

Pumping Up achieves a nice balance between taking women’s training seriously and making information accessible for the beginner. It provides lots of good, if not terribly detailed, information on nutrition, training, equipment, and supplementation (the authors advise plenty of protein LONG before the mainstream nutritional community jumped on the bandwagon… this would have been about the time that the low-fat, high-carb thing was just getting started). This is a great beginner book despite its lack of detail, and I would recommend it for its you-can-do-it-girlfriend tone alone.

Pavel Tsatsouline. Power to the People. Dragon Door Publications.

Reviewed by Steve Freides.

A quote from Comrade Pavel, “I cannot guarantee that you will not get hurt or killed whether you follow my advice or not. Just keep in mind that people who never lifted anything that could be classified as ‘heavy’ got hernias from coughing and died of a stroke when they strained on a toilet. As someone smart said, fear of doing things does not prevent you from dying, only from living.”

This is the “lean, mean, fightin’ machine” approach to strength training. The author trained Soviet Special Forces troops and reminds the reader, time and again, that Russian training is all about what works, not theory and not expensive equipment because they had none of either. The following two paragraphs from the first chapter pretty well sum up the “Pavelizer” philosophy: [text in ** is italicized in original]

“To appreciate your true strength potential, ponder the fact that when a person is electrocuted – by lightning, or the Fed – his muscles tear, his tendons rip off their attachments, even bones break… For the first – and last – time in the death row inmate’s or golfer’s life his muscles were fully activated by electricity.

“Although we do not know yet how to completely overcome the *strength deficit* (which is good – you would rip yourself apart!), modern training methods can dramatically improve your muscle activation – and your strength with it. *Power To The People!* will teach you how to install the top of the line ‘muscle software’ into your nervous system and improve your strength and muscle tone. Without putting on an ounce of weight if that is your wish.”

The five “key conditions” for maximum strength gain with minimum bulk:

1) slow exercise performance

2) maximize muscular tension regardless of weight used

3) lift 85-95% of one’s maximum weight at least some of the time

4) minimize fatigue

5) take advantage of “neurological phenomena” such as irradiation

On point number 4, Pavel is very clear about lifting to failure – don’t do it. He quotes Dr. Fred ‘Squat’ Hatfield, “Success begets success and failure begets failure” and continues, “Muscle failure is more than unnecessary – it is counter-productive!” He gives this example, “Doing a triple with a weight that you could have done five reps with is a lot safer and more effective than an all-out set of ten.” He says you need to do only two exercises, deadlifts and one-armed overhead barbell presses. Two sets of 5 reps, first set at 90% 1RM (one repetition maximum), second set at 80% 1RM, 3-5 minutes rest between sets, a complete stop between reps, and go home!

On bulking up: “A little comrade who wants to become the Big Brother should not stop there. Reduce the weight to 80% of the first ‘money’ set [70% of 1RM], and keep doing sets of five reps with short, 30-90 second rest periods.”

On weight machines, “Machines are the wusses’ way out.” and goes on to suggest you try a set of dumbbell presses to the limit, followed by a set of barbell presses with the same weight, followed by the same weight on a Smith machine. His point is that it takes less strength to do each of these, and that if you want real-world strength, you want to work the stabilizing muscles as much as possible. He says, “Using the strength built on an exercise machine is like shooting a cannon from a canoe.” Think about it…

A quote from Bruce Lee is found on page 48, “The height of cultivation runs to simplicity. Half-way cultivation runs to ornamentation.” ‘Nuff said.

Stella's Kitchen

Stella Juarez, Stella’s Kitchen: Creative Cooking for Fun, Flavour, and a Lean, Strong Body. Aptos, California: On Target Publications, 2003.

Right from the beginning, I knew Stella and I would get along great. We love training (Stella runs the women’s bodybuilding section of and we love eating. Actually much of my existence revolves around the acquisition and consumption of food. I like to say I’m a sumo wrestler trapped inside the body of a small woman. Of course, for someone concerned with her health, it can seem difficult to balance the goals of good nutrition and decadent good taste. Plus, all of us are busy people without a whole lot of time to prepare complex meals. Frankly, seeing what people buy at the grocery store, it’s not even clear that many people even know how to assemble the rudiments of a decent repast.

The first thing I loved about this book was its little tips on basic ingredient prep. I learned a lot about what differentiates cuts of meat, that chicken breast has the most protein and least fat per pound. I also got some ideas about how to spice up the staples: about 20 ways to prepare canned tuna, oatmeal, and of course, cottage cheese. It’s amazing what this woman can do with a protein shake. One of my favourite tips was to “pre-marinate” things like chicken breasts by coating them with the desired sauce, dumping them into ziploc bags, then freezing. As the meat defrosts, it marinates.

The second thing I liked about the book was its focus on taste. Lots of healthy cookbooks say their stuff tastes good, but then it tastes like recycled ass. These recipes are packed with fire, garlic, fresh veggies, and all kinds of genuinely yummy things.

The third thing I liked about the book was its clean, simple design. Recipes are easy to read and follow, and information is well-organized and clear. This is a great book for experienced and newbie cooks alike. Experienced folks will probably use many of the recipes as jumping-off points and embellish the recipes as they desire.

Dave Draper. Brother Iron, Sister Steel: A Bodybuilder’s Book. Santa Cruz: On Target Publications, 2001.Brother Iron, Sister Steel

Dave Draper is a former Mr. Everything: Mr. America, Mr. World, Mr. Universe (though I thought Jim kBiBx from the planet Zaxor-3 should have taken him in the final round of that one). He is also a pro at making sense of why we weight train. He lays it on you straight, chronicling his own career in bodybuilding and connecting it to the reader’s own challenges and interests. He positions himself as a sort of bodybuilding Everyman, rising from humble 98-lb.-weakling roots to succeed magnificently at his chosen sport, and then to maintain a healthy lifestyle as part of a commitment to lifelong wellness. In his mid-fifties, he still looks great.

The book is part narrative and part instruction. Sometimes it’s hard to tell which is which. Like other didactic yarns, it’s in Draper’s story that we find ourselves. He emphasizes the fundamental simplicity of training: “Muscle and power building are not and need never become brain surgery or astrophysics.” Such a focus on the fussy details, he feels, “distract from the wonderful work at hand and confound the basic instincts and investigative courage to discover.” The prose is refreshing and comes straight from the old days when weight training was more about self-improvement and eating lots of good square meals than about getting freaky and chugging down the latest chemical cocktail. When Draper started training, people worked out in “dungeons”: basements, dingy YMCAs, garages, and they did the basics: squat, deadlift, pullups, etc. It was a journey of self-reflection rather than a be-seen trip to the local Chrome ‘n’ Tone, thong ‘n’ pose gym. Draper is democratic in his exhortations. Old, young, male, female, it doesn’t matter as long as you’re willing to get in there and work hard.

Besides Draper’s own thoughts on his experience, there is plenty of information on training, diet, and fitting exercise into one’s lifestyle. I like that Draper presents this as a long-term project, rather than a “be superfit in 12 weeks” kind of thing. It’s an investment in the self, rather than a get-rich-quick scheme.

Frederic Delavier. Women’s Strength Training Anatomy. Human Kinetics, 2003.

Women's Strength Training Anatomy

Beautifully illustrated muscular goddesses stride through the pages of Delavier’s text with authoritative grace. They lend their anatomical elegance to everything from the humble abdominal crunch to the mighty squat. Delavier draws them with an erotic grace, but despite their scanty or nonexistent clothes, these women meet our x-ray gaze with aplomb, managing to maintain dignity even while depicted topless, in full-frontal adductor-machine glory.

The book is full of tidbits of physiological information, such as morphological variations, or fat deposition patterns, in an easy to understand format. Each exercise is illustrated with the muscles it involves, a description of the movement, and little factoids about form or biomechanics. The only drawback to this excellent book is its coverage of exercises: it only includes lower body exercises: abs, lower back, legs, glutes/hips. Presumably Delavier’s original text, Strength Training Anatomy, contains a more extensive collection. Nevertheless, any woman who trains, or anyone who trains women, would find this book very worthwhile.

Rob Faigin. Natural Hormonal Enhancement (2000) and Hormonally Intelligent Exercise (2004). Extique.

Faigin’s book Natural Hormonal Enhancement is characteristic of the new approach in health scholarship, which focuses on the promotion of wellness rather than curing sickness.

Faigin’s approach is wide-ranging and comprehensive, covering a vast array of subjects from aging to diet to sunlight to sex. The fundamental premise is that much of what we accept as “natural” aging and decrepitude is simply disuse and poor physical caregiving, and that by careful attention to our overall hormonal environment, we can disrupt many of these destructive processes. Our bodies’ natural operation can both heal and hinder us in our quest for fitness and wellbeing, and Faigin takes us through the many ways in which we can optimize our bodies’ own mechanisms of action. Although Faigin’s premise is wide, his general concern is with the many hormones that control and influence the day-to-day and long-term operations of human metabolism, with a particular interest in maximizing the body’s intrinsic fat-burning and muscle-building abilities. As with plants, growth cannot be forced, but it can be enabled by providing optimum conditions. The goal, argues Faigin, is thus to create these optimum conditions in order to facilitate and maximize the body’s natural anabolic growth and healing responses.

Faigin’s strength in NHE is simplifying the complex interactions of the many hormones in the body. His treatment of hormonal effects and interactions is easy to follow and illustrated with many little images. I became mildly enamoured of the obesity icon, which resembles a cross between the Michelin man and the Venus of Willendorf. Faigin also provides a detailed plan of action for implementing his recommendations, both in NHE and in Hormonally Intelligent Exercise. For example, he suggests how the timing, frequency, and content of various foods has particular effects on the body’s hormonal response.

HIE‘s motto is “Train Back the Aging Clock”. HIE more fully develops the training protocol that Faigin begins to describe in NHE, and discusses Faigin’s hormonal theories as they apply to the more concrete elements of training organization: exercise choice, sets/reps, frequency, rest, and so forth. It also provides pictures and descriptions of a wide range of exercise, explaining their utility within the larger training program.

Faigin’s broad scholarship is evident in his extensive bibliography and citations, and he draws on many disciplines in order to make his points. He shines in his elucidation of hormones, but where Faigin often struggles, particularly in HIE, is in the clarity of his writing. My schoolteacher self was dying to whip out the Red Pen of Justice and start correcting. His language is often muddy, and his ideas, while clearly good, are not always well organized. He would benefit greatly from a skilled editor in future versions of the book, as clear communication of useful ideas is hampered by the structure and writing mechanics. Additionally, even though I am a fairly experienced trainer, I found his training advice convoluted and hard to understand. A bit of verbal housekeeping, tidying, polishing, and shuffling would greatly improve the transmission of Faigin’s valuable message.

Mark Rippetoe with Lon Kilgore, Starting Strength: A Simple and Practical Guide for Coaching Beginners

This is, without question, a superb book. Guys, where were you when I was fumbling through the squat and the deadlift ten years ago, falling over and smashing the bar into my shins? This straightforward book contains an immense amount of practical information about several basic lifts: squat, bench and overhead presses, deadlift, and the power clean. Each chapter examines a different lift in great detail (the squat section alone is about 50 pages), explaining everything from the biomechanics of the movement to how to teach it to others. I thought I knew just about all there was to know about these lifts, but I was mistaken. The authors’ knowledge is encyclopedic and their treatment of the subject exhaustive. Lifts are literally explained from head (looking forward) to toe (curl them up and drive through heels).

Along with explaining correct exercise technique in meticulous detail, the book is full of handy little tips such as looking for shirt folds on the lifter’s back to ensure that spinal extension has occurred, using strategically placed duct tape to get wrists into the proper position (no word, though, on how to get it off without some unpleasantness), or how to troubleshoot common form problems. The book concludes with a chapter on training programming so that coaches and lifters can begin to develop training programs based on their own needs

I would call this book an absolute must for any beginner as well as any coach. The practical advice is excellent.

I have only one complaint with this otherwise fabulous text: dude, where’s my chick? Nearly every one of the many, many photos in this book shows men demonstrating the lifts. There is only one photo near the end showing a female lifter, with the caption, “Weight training is for everyone regardless of age, gender and sport.” Great message, but in the second edition of the book, it would be super to back it up with some visual proof. Beginners often need encouragement and to see themselves represented, so it would be nice to see a variety of lifters demonstrating the lifts. I’m told that the authors tried to find women for the pics, but weren’t able to do so. So grrls, if you’ve ever fancied being a lifting celebrity, drop ’em a line! Rumour has it that we can expect more from these folks, and I eagerly anticipate the next version of their literary coaching.

2007 Update! Starting Strength: Basic Barbell Training 2nd Edition is now out, and I’m told that there are more grrls in it woohoo! As always, great work from Kilgore and Rippetoe. You can also catch their writing in the Crossfit Journal.

gn-cover-765744John Berardi, Michael Williams, Kristina Andrews and John Williams. Gourmet Nutrition 2.0, 2007.

My friend Phil Caravaggio, the business brains behind the Precision Nutrition empire, is a food freak like me. Whenever we get together, it’s over a plate of something delicious, and we talk about food: his Italian grandmother’s recipes, how to grow peppers, whether local is better than organic, and why people think corn dogs are fit for human consumption. From the food love and extensive knowledge of Phil, John Berardi, and two chefs comes Gourmet Nutrition 2.0.

This is, simply, a stunning book. Quite possibly it is the very first fitness food porn. It is beautifully photographed and designed (I’m told the food photographer Jason Grenci is actually a fashion photographer, and it certainly shows), with a host of delicious recipes that span some of the world’s best cuisines: Thai, Japanese, classic French, Italian, even Tex-Mex. There are some new ideas, such as making “pasta” from vegetables, and some modified old favourites, such as a healthy version of breaded chicken strips. Meals are divided into “anytime” and “postworkout”; the ones higher in carbs are simply allocated to the postworkout window when the carbs earn their rent. Healthy shouldn’t mean tasteless or unpleasant — indeed, as the PN team proves, good food is often more flavourful than the junk most North Americans consume. If you are still choking down dry chicken breasts and plain yams, do your taste buds a f(l)avour and get this book now.

Dave Draper. Your Body Revival: Weight Loss Straight Talk. 2003.

Body Revival

Well, the title of this book is pretty self-explanatory. In his inimitable coach/brutally honest best friend style, Draper puts it to you straight: cut the bullshit, lose the denial, and drop the donut. Get your ass in gear, stop making excuses, and start living as if you actually cared about your body. This is painfully truthful prose, but delivered in a loving way. Draper seems to genuinely care about his subject and about helping people, and he tells inspiring stories of average people who have struggled to overcome the overwhelming pressure to indulge in our culture of abundance. Like Brother Iron, Sister Steel, this is a book about engaging in a life-long project rather than some fast weight loss scheme. A few of his suggestions are perhaps a bit much for even the most hardcore life-changers: the tuna and water idea might work great for some people but the thought makes me feel a little upchucky. However, if you’re looking for a book that provides the inspiration to get started on life changes, this is it.

The book doesn’t contain as many suggestions for training but it does have lots of information on dieting, such as how appetite hormones work, why things get a bit weird around menopause, etc. More than factual information about dieting though, the book’s strength is really its treatment of fitness and nutrition as an attitude and approach, rather than a chore. If you feel like you’re a bit in need of a boot in the butt, this book might be a worthwhile read for you.

Leslie Heywood. Bodymakers: A Cultural Analysis of Women’s Bodybuilding. New Jersey: Rutgers, 1998.

Right off the bat, I have an appreciation for Heywood, who unlike many academics who write about a subject, actually is a practicing powerlifter and bodybuilder (she includes her photo both on the back book cover and inside the book, in full workout wear). This gives her a unique double consciousness, as both theorist and athlete. Heywood, a professor at SUNY, whose background is in English, examines the cultural representation of women’s bodybuilding and how it relates to current social and political concerns about women.

She connects the debate within the female bodybuilding community about “how big” women should be to larger questions of “how big” women should be politically, economically, and socially. She examines the role that a feminist analysis can have in understanding some of the questions raised about gender and physical strength, as well as the profound ambivalence experienced by powerful women who pose in lingerie for photo shoots in muscle magazines. She argues that female bodybuilders challenge traditional models of femininity and womanhood, and as such they also challenge traditional portrayals of women in the media. Mainstream cultural representation has proven itself to be profoundly uncomfortable with the idea of women who are “too muscular” (too muscular for what?), and has developed a number of strategies to deal with a potentially uncomfortable disruption of static gender norms. The resulting analysis that Heywood develops is complex, nuanced, and very readable. A great quote from the book: “Let’s leave those aerobics and high repetitions designed only for toning back in the dustbins of history, throw them in that same trash heap which contains the old laws that let husbands beat wives with rods no more than an inch thick. Let’s get more than an inch thick.”

I highly recommend this book to anyone who is interested in the gender dynamics of mass culture, or anyone who just wants to read more about women’s bodybuilding.

Maria Lowe. Women of Steel: Female Bodybuilders and the Struggle for Self-Definition. New York: NYU Press, 1998.

Lowe’s book is a sociologically-based study of the lives of women bodybuilders and their relationships with their training, their peers, their families, and their profession. Based on interviews with over a hundred subjects, mainly female bodybuilders, trainers and contest judges, Women of Steel is a fascinating look at the often hidden world of women’s bodybuilding. Though Lowe does not censure the women that she examines, she does draw together many narrative and theoretical threads to show the connections between perceived physical power and actual power within an industry.

One of the strengths of Lowe’s book is the very concrete information contained in it. The reader learns every painful detail of contest prep from hairstyling to diuretic use. The subtlety and poignancy of many of Lowe’s anecdotes allow the reader to develop a relationship with female bodybuilders that goes beyond mere voyeurism. Lowe provides a particularly interesting discussion of gender presentation and frames it in the competitors’ own words. Topics such as steroid use, contested femininity, and the profitability of one’s physique are synthesized within a framework of the construction of gender, and Lowe nicely articulates the ambivalence and contradictions inherent to the practice of female bodybuilding.

Pamela Moore, ed. Building Bodies. New Jersey: Rutgers, 1997.

This is the review given to Building Bodies on

‘Building Bodies is an exciting collection of articles that strive toward constructing theoretical models in which power, bodies, discourse, and subjectivity interact in a space we can call the “built” body, a dynamic, politicized, and biological site. Contributors discuss the complex relationship between body building and masculinity, between the built body and the racialized body, representations of women body builders in print and in film, and homoeroticism in body building. Linked by their focus on the sport and practice of body building, the authors in this volume challenge both the way their various disciplines (media studies, literary criticism, gender studies, film and sociology) have gone about studying bodies, and existing assumptions about the complex relationship between power, subjectivity, society, and flesh. Body building – in practice, in representation, and in the cultural imagination – serves as an launching point because the sport and practice provide ready challenges to existing assumptions about the “built” body.’

For those who are particularly interested in women’s bodybuilding, I recommend a few articles from this collection: “Feminist Bodybuilding: Sex and the Interruption of Investigative Knowledge” by Pamela Moore; “‘Building One’s Self Up’: Bodybuilding and the Construction of Identity Among Professional Female Bodybuilders” by Leslee Fisher; and “Flex Appeal, Food and Fat: Competitive Bodybuilding, Gender, and Diet” by Anne Bolin (who I ran into at an academic conference in Atlanta, and had the pleasure of training with! how cool is that!?).

Scott Sonnon, Body-Flow: Freedom from Fear-Reactivity. Atlanta: RMAX.TV Publications, 2003.

Scott Sonnon has made a major splash in the fitness industry with his reintroduction of a very old training tool: the clubbell. Not content to restrict his efforts to swinging a heavy stick around, he has also made numerous forays into the mental and emotional side of training. His aim is to bring together various disciplines—diverse martial arts, yoga, meditation, visualization and self-talk techniques, strength training, etc.—and combine them into an overall fitness and wellness paradigm. Body-Flow represents one of these efforts directed at integrating mindfulness and movement.

Sonnon begins with the concept of “Body-Flow”, which is not really a thing but a dynamic state in which the body is fully functioning on all levels, and wherein physical, emotional, and mental tasks and growth are accomplished without effort or pain. Sonnon ‘s premise, which I like very much, is that BF is not an object or something that can be acquired, but rather “something which you must get out of the way of. You must get out of the way of your own genius, talent, and abundance – which are your birthright.” The book takes the reader through Sonnon’s identification of BF and subsequently, how to create the conditions for it to occur.

Many of us in the fitness field (and outside of it) are well-acquainted with pain, fear, tensions, failure, and stress. The challenge, argues Sonnon, is how to overcome these things and keep coming back to take another kick at the can, not only from stubbornness, but as part of the natural process of growth. As part of competition, athletes have a unique opportunity to experience failure as a productive part of progress. Years ago I had a student who I’ll call Mark. Mark did quite badly on an assignment that I had given him, but unlike many students who whine and bitch about the unfairness of my grading, Mark simply said to me respectfully, “I thought I did my best, but obviously it wasn’t what you wanted. Tell me how to do better next time. I am willing to put in the work.” I looked at Mark and said, “You must be an athlete.” And so he was, a national-level hockey player who was well-used to the rigours of meeting life’s challenges and learning from them. He sat down with me and went through his work piece by painful piece. If I’d been able to spend more time with Mark, I have no doubt that he could have become a very skilled writer, because he was willing to face his mistakes and work towards correction. Mark has stuck in my mind since that day as a shining example of how to live and approach one’s work, especially when I hear of “road rage”, “air rage”, and various other types of rages that North Americans seem unable to control when faced with tiny obstacles and frustrations. Could it be, as Sonnon might suggest, that this is, in part, because we are collectively so tense, inhibited, and blocked up from our years of physical constraint and impediments to natural human movement?

Sonnon builds on this theme when he writes, “How long does it take you to recover from being surprised, shocked, disappointed, angered, frustrated, dismayed, or any other emotional or mental distraction?” The responsibility, according to Sonnon, is ours. We are our own worst enemies and most strident critics. Indeed, Sonnon takes on the “addiction culture” of North America that wallows in the “mud-lined river” and evades responsibility for itself, stating: “You are not your addictions.” Thus, as Sonnon demonstrates, the goal is to “keep our movement from binding” us.

In theory courses we learn that often, theorists make the same errors that they critique. Sonnon’s prose binds itself with allusions to patented or trademarked systems, and occasionally his clarity of thought turns a little mucky itself. The book opens with some compelling narratives that bring the reader nicely into Sonnon’s theories, but the explanation and exploration of these ideas later in the book seems somewhat obscured with psycholinguistic sediment. Scholarly language is not the problem; rather, often the reader looks for references that aren’t there, or is not convinced that terminology is properly used.

Sonnon concludes with suggested “biomechanical exercises” that basically involve rolling around and contorting into various positions, rather like a slow break dance. Many of them I quite enjoyed, although my knees weren’t thrilled with the forward-sitting or laterally rotated squats. Sonnon’s companion video would be greatly useful here – don’t expect to get it all from the book.

Despite some challenges with the book, Sonnon’s call for taking responsibility for our “flow” is compelling. Such a premise echoes Marianne Williamson’s famous thoughts in A Return To Love (1992) (often misattributed, including by me, to Nelson Mandela):

“We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightening about shrinking so that other people won’t feel unsure around you. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It is not just in some of us, it is in everyone.”

Dick Tyler, West Coast Bodybuilding Scene: The Golden Era. Santa Cruz: On Target Publications, 2004.

The title of Tyler’s book pretty much says it all. This is a dense narrative of Tyler’s years spent chronicling the development of North American bodybuilding as a cultural phenomenon that originated in the unique social milieu of California. Tyler situates the practice of bodybuilding within a historical tradition, but also identifies the features that made bodybuilding in this place, at this time, particularly special and evocative of larger cultural trends. “Sometimes,” notes Tyler wistfully, “we go through periods in our lives when great camaraderie abounds, then slowly it all passes and we go on our separate ways never to return.” WCBS paints a portrait of an optimistic time when young men involved in the scene could fill their days with “tossing around plastic flying saucers, lolling in the sun, running in the sand, tossing the shot… looking at the dolls,” the odd bout of bear wrestling, and of course hanging out in gyms thinking up new ways to lift heavy objects.

Bodybuilding is one of the few contexts where it is considered okay, even desirable, for heterosexual men to openly admire one another’s bodies in detail, and Tyler spares no superlatives in describing the great physiques of this time. One bodybuilder has forearms so big that he struggles to undo his shirt, while another has “lats [that] erupt like two giant crescents of muscle from the rib cage. His pecs balloon out like two enormous fists. His legs are powerful and shapely; his arms and deltoids have splendid separation and shape…” Women are strikingly absent from this world, except as the occasional spectator or love object. This is a world of men, admiring one another’s “beautiful pair of light blue [posing] trunks that were interwoven with silver” and engaging in various rituals such as mirror posing and trying to exhaust one another with workouts o’death, with anecdotes such as, “If [Jack LaLanne] asked me to work out with him today, I’d be smart and collapse before I got started”. The peculiar masculine masochism of bodybuilding is unselfconsciously explored in passages such as, “In order to be a champion, a man must submit himself to rigid discipline and a degree of torture… he must be willing to sacrifice certain comforts for pain.” Herein also lies the meritocratic, class-mobility theme of bodybuilding as a working man’s activity: regardless of whether he won competitions, any man could access this championship mindset and free himself of wussdom through hard work and commitment. Tyler, a self-declared wimp, purged his flesh of weakness and engaged in what he called “punishment reps”, and while doing chinups one day, fell off the chinup bar to throw up, but once the expectoration was complete, resumed chinups because he “dared to fall off before the set was through.” A masculine world that was loaded implicitly with worship of authoritarian father-figures such as Joe Weider, and a practice of self-punishment that “was the only way either of us gained approval from the other”? Paging Dr. Freud.

The book is filled with great old photos of everyone who was anyone in the 1960s and 70s bodybuilding scene, as well as training shots, candid snaps of lifters in conversation, hanging out, shooting pool, or horsing around, competition shots, and gym shots that reveal the low-tech, faintly grimy interiors that characterized the typical bodybuilding headquarters. Fans of bodybuilding history will no doubt enjoy this long, strange trip through a golden decade of California training.

Kristin Kaye, Iron Maidens: The Celebration of the Most Awesome Female Muscle in the World. Thunder’s Mouth Press, 2005

Review by Kat Ricker

First-rate author Kristin Kaye deserves admiration for her immense, unflinching bravery in writing this book. With deft writing skill and gripping momentum, she bared her evolving personal and professional raw self, exposing every hope, every delusion, misjudgment, rationalization and grief in the rarified experience of her first big break – writing and directing a Broadway show. The pain of her tough and bizarre journey is exquisite, and yet she unfolds the tale in such an engaging way that she allows you to laugh at it all, even eggs you on with her wounds gaping open. Anyone who can do this successfully is irresistible, straight off. Her dream turns into a garish circus with a crazed tiger in the center ring whose leash is tearing apart, and no one will listen to this ringmaster’s warning cries. On top of this steady, jading, black humorist perspective is an equally naked stare into the wild world of professional female bodybuilding.

Kaye weaves her tobogganist tale through the glitzy cusp and seedy underbelly of bodybuilding. She provides a journalistic history on the sport that is arguably one of the most solid and up-to-date accounts available, lays out gritty details of competition dieting, primping and steroid use, all the while building suspense that will have you racing through the pages toward climax of the Broadway debut. She presents real women from the sport, casting them in honest light – bleached hair, impossible implants, brazen remarks, stalwart dedication, sensitive embraces and all. Whatever you think about the women in the book and the world of bodybuilding, Kristin leaves you with the distinct impression that you are hearing someone call the shots as she sees them, nothing more, nothing less, with the added bonus of her distinct incisive candor in your ear.

For bodybuilders, this book can be a place to recognize themselves or at least people they know. For thespians, literary types and any bodybuilder with a sense of humor, the effect of reading it is like lounging with friends at two in the morning, capping each others’ jokes until you collapse laughing into the pillows, your body hiccupping because it keeps being funny and you just can’t laugh anymore. It’s also a valuable resource for information about the sport’s history, a fair look at the battles raging within and around its tenuous survival, and fodder for reflecting on the cultivating legacy.

For those who are not familiar with the sport, Kristin not only gives you nuts and bolts to make you conversant, she takes you on a wild ride you’ll never forget.
Finally, this story is for anyone who has ever found fate in a wrong number, who has aspired to create something meaningful, to be the best she can be, to succeed, and wound up losing control of the plane speeding full-throttle into the mountainside. This is not a book you can walk away from. Whatever your feelings on the many subjects in this book, if you still have a pulse in your cerebellum, you’ll be hooked.