The Dutch philosopher, scholar, and priest Erasmus once quipped, “When I have a little money, I buy books; and if I have any left, I buy food and clothes.”
That’s a human with his head screwed on straight.
While Erasmus was focused on the health of the soul, his statement is equally true if you want to maximize the health of the body.
Simply put, reading great health and fitness books is one of the most effective ways to build a body you can be proud of.
That raises the question, though: what are the best fitness books?
We all have limited time, energy, and attention, and you want to ensure you pour these precious resources into books that offer the highest return on investment. In other words, you should focus on reading books that offer the greatest insights, tools, and practical takeaways that will help you achieve your fitness goals.
That’s what you’ll find in this article.
If your goal is to lose fat, build muscle, get stronger, get or stay healthy, live longer, or perform better inside and outside the gym, you’ll find a book on this list that will help you get there faster.
If you’re serious about strength training, you need to read Starting Strength by Mark Rippetoe.
Each chapter focuses on a particular exercise, breaking down the main challenges and characteristics of each movement, showing multiple pictures of proper and improper form, and explaining what “cues” (mental reminders) work best to dial in correct technique.
The reason Starting Strength has (deservedly) gained cult status is it’s simple, effective, and suited to many different goals. If you want to get strong, build muscle, become more resistant to injury, improve athleticism, or age more gracefully, Starting Strength can help.
The only area where the book is lacking is diet advice, so if your main goal is losing weight, you’ll want to start with one of the following two books instead (and then read Starting Strength) . . .
The books explain exactly how to lose fat and build muscle using simple, effective, evidence-based techniques that anyone can implement.
There are two things that put these books a cut above your average “weight loss” book:
- Instead of insisting you follow a particular diet or training approach, you learn the grammar of fat loss and muscle gain, which helps you build an amazing body regardless of what diet or exercise program you follow.
- They give you clear, specific instructions on how to do everything in the book, from creating a meal plan to warming up for workouts to putting together a supplementation plan that works for you. No stone is left unturned.
In other words, they’re complete field manuals for understanding how to build a body you can be proud of.
The fundamental teachings and systems in both books are the same, but Bigger Leaner Stronger is aimed at men and Thinner leaner Stronger is aimed at women. As a result, the training programs and a few other specifics differ slightly, based on men’s and women’s different preferences and challenges.
After you finish reading either of these books, you may also enjoy Beyond Bigger Leaner Stronger, which offers a new diet and training program to help you keep getting bigger and stronger after your newbie gains are gone. (Beyond Thinner Leaner Stronger is coming down the pike, too).
Want to know what decades of scientific evidence says about training for muscle hypertrophy, but don’t want to spend hundreds or thousands of hours parsing through dusty studies?
Well, luckily for you a guy named Eric Helms already did so and published his findings in this book.
This book isn’t a soggy academic slog, though. Instead, it’s a fine-grained and reader-friendly explanation of exactly how to use strength training to optimize your body composition, organized according to Eric’s “pyramid” paradigm for prioritizing training decisions. In the opening pages of the book, Eric explains this way of looking at fitness:
The Pyramid is an organizational structure that places the most important priorities of training in a hierarchy. There are six parts of this pyramid. The most important elements of your training program are at the bottom; notice that they have the largest area. These elements build the foundation of your training.
In other words, it’s a visual representation of what your priorities should be when it comes to workout programming, going from the sine qua non of training—adherence, as the foundation—to less-important details like rest periods and rep tempo at the top.
Although the book provides a panoramic view of the scientific evidence, it’s killer app is Eric’s extensive experience coaching and practicing natural bodybuilding. Instead of making cautious, cookie-cutter recommendations taken verbatim from scientific studies (as many academics do), Eric and his coauthors use their vast practical and scientific knowledge to help you decide how to apply the results from the research in your own workouts.
So, if you want to take your understanding of how to train for strength and muscle gain to the next level, you want to read The Muscle and Strength Pyramids: Training. And if you enjoy this book, you’ll also like The Muscle and Strength Pyramids: Nutrition.
Lyle McDonald is something of a legend in the fitness world thanks to his prescient understanding of scientific research and his peppery personality.
He was also one of the first people to beat the drum for a style of eating known as flexible dieting. In fact, he coined the term back in 2005 when he published A Guide to Flexible Dieting.
The book is based on a simple, counterintuitive, and profound idea:
People who take a black-and-white, all-or-nothing, no-pain-no-gain approach to dieting usually fail; and people who take a more relaxed, patient, and compromising approach usually succeed not only in losing weight but in keeping it off. The tortoise beats the hare, basically.
The key, of course, is being flexible enough to enjoy and stick to your diet while still consistently losing weight and not regaining it, and that’s what this book teaches you how to do.
It starts by examining the many psychological and physiological landmines that derail most dieters, then introduces a simple system of countermeasures for each obstacle like free meals, refeeds, diet breaks, and more.
If you’ve ever struggled to lose or maintain your weight and felt like “there must be a better way,” A Guide to Flexible Dieting is for you.
5. Peak Performance by Steve Magness and Brad Stulberg
If you like to chase big goals in your personal and professional lives, but sometimes feel frazzled, rushed, or frustrated as a result, this book is for you.
It’s a penetrating and practical overview of the science of maximizing your mental and physical performance over the long-haul.
Although you’ll find much of the information in Peak Performance in other self-development books, the authors’ background in competitive sports (Magness) and corporate America (Stulberg) give their teachings a unique flavor. Both ultimately overreached and undermined their aspirations, and their book is full of insights on how to avoid the same fate.
Much of their advice rang true for me in particular, as I found myself in a similar situation as Steve after competing at a high-level in triathlons during my teenage years, only to realize that swimming, biking, and running quickly wasn’t a fulfilling way to spend most of my waking hours.
I particularly enjoyed their guidance on finding and formulating a purpose in all areas of your life to help guide your decision-making on a day-to-day basis. This big picture approach also helps reprioritize and reframe your decision making to maximize your full potential over time, instead of looking at success as a series of rat races from one short-term goal to the next.
So, if you want to learn simple, effective, and sustainable strategies for finding your purpose and consistently working toward it for months, years, and decades without burning out, you’ll enjoy Peak Performance.
If you’re interested in endurance sports, the thorniest problem you’ll have to solve is this:
How do you keep getting faster without training full-time or getting injured?
In other words, how do you make your workouts as productive as possible to keep pushing the envelope of fitness, while also fulfilling your obligations at home and at work and staying healthy?
This is particularly true for triathletes, who have to train for three very different sports simultaneously, and The Triathlete’s Training Bible offers the best solution of any book I’ve read.
Friel explains the physiology of endurance sports, the fundamentals of proper training and periodization, and offers sage advice on what kind of mindset you need to excel at triathlons. What makes this book unique is that all of the systems, tools, and tips are highly relevant for any sport you may want to pursue.
For example, his system for budgeting training time throughout the week, month, and year, is just as applicable to a runner, a weightlifter, or a golfer as it is to a triathlete. Heck, it’s a good system for any area of your life.
One of the most powerful lessons from the book is that consistent, moderate, purposeful training beats out sporadic, extreme, scattered training every time. The secret to excelling in endurance sports is to put in the time year in and year out, not crush yourself with workouts in the months or weeks leading up to a competition.
At bottom, he teaches you how to be your own best coach, and back when I was a young whippersnapper, I used many of his methods to complete over 100 triathlons, running races, and cycling races, winning many.
So, whether you want to compete in endurance sports or just enjoy them recreationally, you’ll enjoy The Triathlete’s Training Bible.
7. 5/3/1 by Jim Wendler
To understand the value of 5/3/1, though, you first have to understand a bit about Jim Wendler.
After a successful college football career, Wendler became possessed by powerlifting, eventually squatting over 1,000 pounds, bench pressing 675 pounds, and deadlifting 700 pounds. In the process, though, he also became overweight, overtrained, and unglued.
As Wendler confides in the book, “I was about 280 pounds, and I wanted to be able to tie my shoes without turning red. I wanted to be able to walk down the street without losing my breath.”
After losing weight through diet alone, Wendler decided he wanted to get strong again, but didn’t want to follow the complex, time-consuming programs he’d used as a powerlifter.
After decocting the many training programs he’d followed over the years, he created a barebones but highly-effective program he dubbed 5/3/1.
In essence, Wendler took the most useful features of more advanced powerlifting programs and used them to create a minimalistic routine that could work for anyone. The main feature that sets 5/3/1 apart from other training programs like Starting Strength, though, is its unique progression system.
In order to ensure you get as strong as possible as quickly as possible, Wendler has you increase the weights in a specific manner that makes for very productive, short workouts, going from 5 reps, to 3, to 1 over a series of weeks (hence the name).
5/3/1 isn’t ideal for everyone (it’s main drawback is that it’s very low in volume, which isn’t optimal for more advanced weightlifters), but it’s an excellent introduction to periodized strength training. While not everyone needs to try 5/3/1, it’s a great way to learn how periodization works, and it’s particularly effective for setting PRs after a phase of higher volume training.
It can be hard to carve out the time to read amid the myriad distractions, obligations, and obstacles life throws at you.
It’s important that you do, though, as it’s one of the highest-reward activities you can do . . . if you read the right books. And if you want to get stronger, leaner, more muscular, or healthier, you need to make the time to read great books on health and fitness.
The best ones to start with are . . .
- Starting Strength by Mark Rippetoe
- Bigger Leaner Stronger and Thinner Leaner Stronger by Michael Matthews
- The Muscle and Strength Pyramids: Training by Eric Helms, Andrea Valdez, and Andy Morgan
- A Guide to Flexible Dieting by Lyle McDonald
- Peak Performance by Steve Magness and Brad Stulberg
- The Triathlete’s Training Bible by Joe Friel
- 5/3/1 by Jim Wendler
Now, go forth and navel gaze. 🙂
What’s your take on the best fitness books of all time? Have anything else to share? Let me know in the comments below!
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