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, here are the books you should start with:
The best ones to start with are . . .
- Starting Strength by Mark Rippetoe
- Bigger Leaner Stronger by Michael Matthews
- Thinner Leaner Stronger by Michael Matthews
- A Guide to Flexible Dieting by Lyle McDonald
- Peak Performance by Steve Magness and Brad Stulberg
- Muscle for Life by Michael Matthews
- The Triathlete’s Training Bible by Joe Friel
- 5/3/1 by Jim Wendler
- The Little Black Book of Workout Motivation by Michael Matthews
- Strength Training Anatomy by Frédéric Delavier
- Beyond Bigger Leaner Stronger by Michael Matthews
- All About Powerlifting by Tim Henriques
Table of Contents
1. Starting Strength by Mark Rippetoe
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 or building muscle, you’ll want to start with one of the following two books instead (and then read Starting Strength) . . .
2. Bigger Leaner Stronger by Michael Matthews
It’s the ideal fitness book for men who want to gain muscle, lose fat, and get healthy. Specifically, it’s geared toward men who have yet to gain their first ~15-to-20 pounds of muscle (either due to poor programming or because they’re tyros in the gym).
Unlike other “weight loss” books, it doesn’t insist you follow a particular diet or training approach. Instead, it teaches you the grammar of fat loss and muscle gain, which helps you build an amazing body regardless of what diet or exercise program you follow.
It also gives 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.
After reading this book, 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. More on this in a moment.
Thinner Leaner Stronger is like Bigger Leaner Stronger but for women, which means it includes diet and training advice that’s more attuned to the female physiology, preferences and goals, and challenges.
The fundamental teachings and systems in both books are the same, but there are subtle differences in the particulars of workout programming and nutrition for men and women.
3. A Guide to Flexible Dieting by Lyle McDonald
Lyle McDonald was 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.
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.
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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 path to tread during 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 helps fine-tune your decision making and 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.
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.
6. Muscle for Life by Michael Matthews
There are millions of men and women in their 30s, 40s, 50s, and beyond who are overweight, out of shape, and deeply unhappy with how they look and feel, and who don’t know what to do about it.
Many of these people feel that it’s too late for them to get in shape—that they’ve missed the fitness ferry—and that the ship is never coming round again.
What’s more, when they’ve screwed up their courage to try eating better and exercising, nothing much seems to change, and they sink deeper into a state of “learned helplessness” with every failed attempt.
Here’s the reality, though: Research shows that it’s never too late to build muscle, lose fat, and get healthy, and Muscle for Life provides a time-proven and science-based blueprint for eating and exercising that can help anyone get from wherever they are to fit, no matter their age or circumstances.
The principles, systems, and programming are cut from the same cloth as Bigger Leaner Stronger and Thinner Leaner Stronger, but Muscle for Life is geared toward slightly older folks who need a simpler, softer introduction to proper eating and training that still delivers the goods.
Whether you’re a beginner looking for a lifestyle change, a lifelong athlete looking to reach the next level, or somewhere in between, Muscle for Life will show you how to look, feel, and perform your best. It may be the last fitness book you ever need to read.
7. The Triathlete’s Training Bible by Joe Friel
If you’ve caught the endurance sports bug, you’ll need to solve a thorny problem:
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. The same is true about chapters 10 and 11, which are all about threading the needle between training load and recovery.
One of the most powerful lessons from the book is that consistent, moderate, purposeful training beats out sporadic, extreme, haphazard 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. In retrospect, I’d have done even better if I’d taken more of the advice in this book to heart.
Whether you want to compete in endurance sports or just enjoy them recreationally, you’ll enjoy The Triathlete’s Training Bible.
8. 5/3/1 by Jim Wendler
5/3/1 (often called “Wendler 5/3/1”) is a strength training program and eponymous book that helps you get as strong as possible, as fast as possible, as safely as possible.
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.
9. The Little Black Book of Workout Motivation by Mike Matthews
The Little Black Book Of Workout Motivation is a book that helps you overcome the mental blocks that are keeping you unmotivated, unhappy, and unhealthy.
It’s packed with wisdom and insights from hundreds of scientific studies and scores of legendary artists, authors, entrepreneurs, philosophers, and commanders that’ll help you fix the biggest things that are holding you back from doing and achieving the things you care most about.
What’s more, it includes a 100% practical and hands-on blueprint for personal transformation, inside and outside of the gym. Whatever your reason for wanting to upgrade your mindset, skillset, and lifestyle, The Little Black Book Of Workout Motivation has words of advice that’ll help.
10. Strength Training Anatomy by Frédéric Delavier
Many books explain how to use different exercises to train different muscle groups, but none are as thorough as Strength Training Anatomy by Frédéric Delavier.
Each exercise description is brought to life by fine-grained anatomy drawings that show which muscles each exercise works and how different positions affect muscle recruitment and surrounding structures such as bones, ligaments, tendons, and connective tissues.
Delavier studied human anatomy for years (and even conducted autopsies on humans), and his understanding of the human body and creative craft make this book a utilitarian work of art. If you want a better understanding of how your muscles work during all of the most common strength training exercises, Strength Training Anatomy is the book for you.
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11. Beyond Bigger Leaner Stronger by Michael Matthews
When you first start lifting weights, progress is easy—especially if you’re eating halfway intelligently and following a well-designed workout routine.
After your first year or two, however, the game changes, and you need to adjust your diet and training regimen to continue making progress.
And that’s where Beyond Bigger Leaner Stronger comes in.
If you want to continue shattering muscle and strength plateaus, setting new personal records, and building your best body ever long after your “newbie gains” are over, then Beyond Bigger Leaner Stronger is essential reading.
12. All About Powerlifting by Tim Henriques
Powerlifting involves lifting as much weight as possible for a single repetition on the squat, bench press, and deadlift (in that order). And although competitive powerlifting isn’t everyone’s cup of tea (nor is it mine), you can learn much about gaining muscle and strength by studying the sport.
In All About Powerlifting, weightlifting coach and competitive powerlifter Tim Henriques examines the sport of powerlifting from all angles. You’ll learn about the history of powerlifting, specific technique tips for boosting your squat, bench press, and deadlift, what gear to use and how to use it properly, programming powerlifting workouts, preparing for your first meet, and more.
If you’re interested in getting as strong as possible, then you’ll enjoy reading this book.