You have any of those ~40-year-old guys in your life who are just like, “ohhhh…I’m old now. I can’t do that,” after roughly 7 minutes of light volleyball at some kind of friendly gathering?
Yeah…the bad news is, you probably do (don’t we all!) The good news? They simply can‘t use those types of excuses anymore.
These excuses don’t mix well with the Barbell Prescription!
Table of Contents
Why I Decided to Read the Barbell Prescription
The Barbell Prescription came into my periphery at an interesting time in my life. I was old-ish (mid-30’s), but not yet in the book’s target demographic. Additionally, during my first read (~2020), once the hard “hard science” (which actually isn’t that hard) showed up, I think I set it down and picked up a coloring book.
3 years later, it was time to give this work the credit it deserves.
With all due respect to the authors (Jonathon Sullivan and Andy Baker, (with a cameo from Nassim Taleb in the foreword…unfortunately, no Fat Tony shoutouts this time!)), if it weren’t for my recent reading of Dr. Peter Attia’s “OutLive: The Science and Art of Longevity”, I probably would have hesitated to pick their book back up. However, as I made my way through Attia’s book, I couldn’t help flashing back to arguably the most notable topic of The Barbell Prescription (at least of the small portions I finished back in 2020), knowing that Attia’s “groundbreaking” topic had been discussed in detail years prior.
The Sick Aging Phenotype
Where Attia is much more delicate with the topic, opting for personal anecdotes that are incredibly relatable (and as incredibly heart-wrenching) to anyone who has experienced similar situations, Sullivan and Baker just smack you in the face.
Smack you in the face with a pizza and Battlestar Galactica-loving walking heart attack by the name of “Phat Phil”, no less!
Phat Phil is not who you want to be. Not only is he extremely unhealthy (spoiler, he meets an early demise), but is the culmination of everything that polite society considers to be “icky”.
(at least what polite society considered to be icky in the not-so-distant past…)
Phil’s tale of woe (on contrast to his polar opposite twin brother, the Adonis-like “Wellness Will’s”, success story) is a nice “scared straight” type of play to set the more serious tone the rest of the book adopts. On my second read, any time the science got too heavy or my eyes wanted to gloss over the 13th variation of The Texas Method I thought back to Phil. At this point in my life, I think I’m confident that I will not suffer the same fate he did, but his spectre was a motivating factor, nonetheless.
After the initial words and the comically-clicheness of the Phat Phil/Wellness Will story, Sullivan and Baker provide a short, but informative science lesson. This lesson is a natural extension of the preceding story as it largely focuses on “exercise medicine” (largely focused on body processes and, later on, nutrition) an important area of interest when discussing some of the most prevalent chronic diseases (most notably diabetes). Multiple chapters discussing how training impacts the body follow.
As someone who is unlikely to implement one of the masters strength programs discussed in the book anytime in the near future, I nevertheless appreciate these inclusions in books like these. Remembering how much I enjoyed much of this content was my main reason for giving the Barbell Prescription another go.
After these initial sections, the authors get to the meat of what ends up comprising a little less than 3/4 of the text. Specific movements and programs.
The Barbell Prescription is undoubtedly a long book. With 732 dense pages (at least on the Amazon Kingle version), it definitely isn’t a quick read. However, it is prudent to divide the book into two major sub-categories:
- The Justification
This portion comprises the first ~1/4 of the book and is where the Sick Aging Phenotype is first introduced. After Phat Phil’s story, there are roughly 100 pages dedicated to the “exercise medicine” and the effects of training on the body. Besides the science elements, this portion actually reads pretty quickly.
This is the portion that you probably want to read like an actual book (as opposed to thumbing through as you would a reference text or handbook).
- The Exercises and the Programs
This portion comprises the latter 3/4 of the book and is dedicated to explaining each of the highlighted exercises and programs in, at times, extreme detail. Roughly ¼ of this portion is comprised of spreadsheets, each illustrating sample progressions that lifters would/could make on the particular program.
I wouldn’t really recommend reading this portion in a continuous, front-to-back manner since most of the content won’t be relevant for most people (at least at the specific time they’re reading it). For most, checking out the Novice programs as well as discussions about best conditioning practices will be sufficient, possibly for the entirety of their master’s lifting careers.
Although the buildup to actually getting down to the nitty gritty of lifting is quite long, the payoff doesn’t disappoint (that is, unless you want a completely cookie-cutter, “one-size-fits all” program to follow!) The authors lay out the attributes of different classifications of lifters (Novice, Intermediate, Advanced), making it crystal clear for the reader to determine exactly which camp he falls into. This is important because each of the carefully designed and tested programs will fail to garner the best outcomes if its in the “wrong” category for the specific lifter.
From here, a number of Novice programs, a few Intermediate programs, and a select few Advanced programs are discussed. The general intent, focus, and parameters of each are outlined before sample progressions are presented. The authors provide multiple variations of each program to accommodate lifters with different tolerances, training schedules, and possible physical limitations.
Although the programs are very appealing at their “standard” levels, the portions discussing the variations seems to be where the most value lies. Due to the great variance in physical capabilities of 40-plus-aged lifters, it is more than likely that any given reader or trainee will fall into one of these variation categories. Including these not only makes barbell training programming more accessible to all ageing populations, but implies a degree of “we’ve seen this before, addressed it, and made it work”, giving even greater credibility to the authors’ insights.
As expected from anything coming out of the Starting Strength posse, barbell movements, particularly those comprising the sport of powerlifting, make up the lion’s share of what one can expect from a Barbell Prescription program.
Although some lifters may find themselves, due to physical limitations, becoming “bench press specialists” or “deadlift specialists”, most lifters will regularly perform the bench press, deadlift, squat and standing press. Common assistance exercises include the chins, barbell rows, and rack pulls while select lifters have the option to include power cleans and even power snatches into their regimen.
Non-bar movements are generally conditioning related and include weighted sled pushes/pulls, walking, rowing, and biking (lifters can decide which options are most appealing to them).
Including a small number of relatively simple-to-perform barbell movements presents both massive advantages and disadvantages.
On the plus side, there is so little “guess-work” to put in with these movements (especially in the greater context of the simple-to-follow programs) that all a lifter has to do is show up and lift.
However, in a world of short attention spans (even among the…ahem…older generations) rule the day, it doesn’t take long to grow somewhat bored with such a small array of exercises, even when regular progress is being made.
As effective as these movement have, time and time again, been proven to be, actually sticking to them over a period of weeks, months, and years is probably their most challenging aspect.
The beauty of the vast majority of powerlifting-style programs is the dearth of equipment required. What’s better, as a lifter progresses, there isn’t a sudden need to “upgrade” or run out and order a multitude of new pieces in order to advance within the program.
The centrepiece of the program is, of course, the barbell (preferably a “power” or powerlifting barbell). Depending on the training environment, weight plates can be of the steel or bumper variety (you can check out our article comparing these two options here).
Although squat stands are perfectly functional, I personally feel much more comfortable squatting in a dedicated power rack (these have the added bonus of the pull-up bar, which will come in hand when chins are programmed). A weight bench rounds out the fundamental items needed to get started with the Barbell Prescription.
As mentioned in the section above, lifters have a few different options regarding their preferred poison when it comes to cardio. Those opting for erg options will find themselves shelling out somewhere between the high 3-figures and low 4-figures for a Concept2 rower or some kind of Air Bike/Fan Bike. The sled and ruck options are significantly cheaper.
As a master’s athlete who has not crested my 40th year on this planet, I’m not quite in the target demographic for the Barbell Prescription. As such, I haven’t put any of these programs to the test…yet.
Let’s reconvene in a few years!
It’s hard not to respect what Sullivan, Baker and, by extension, Mark Rippetoe have put together with the Barbell Prescription. They have not only opened up the world of barbell training to an entirely new (and very large) demographic, but have perfectly laid out the case for why this demographic needs to be apart of this world. The only downside to their work? It didn’t catch fire the way that works like “Outlive” have in recent times.
The early science and nutrition sections, while being good lessons on these topics in their own rites, almost serve as “scared straight” types of discussions. If you ever wanted to know just how diabetes works and what it will do to you (if, say, you don’t implement the tenants of this book) you’ll get a description of it that is somewhere between college textbook and layman’s terms.
Although the authors state multiple times throughout their “brief” discussions of each exercise/movement that they aren’t really covering them in extensive detail, their descriptions are more than adequate for the self-sufficient lifter to get started and to get strong.
Finally, for the ageing lifter who has no idea where to begin, Sullivan and Baker do an excellent job of helping such a lifter to pinpoint exactly where they are and what they need to be doing right now.
The merits of other forms of fitness are outlined…and revealed to be wanting in relation to barbell training. For the ageing lifter, there simply is not a better option.
All in all, if you’re looking for a casual, “airplane read”, this probably isn’t the book for you (at least after the wonderful opening segment relating the sad tale of Phat Phil). If you go in with the knowledge that the book is equal parts blueprint, manual, and reference guide, you’ll better be able to appreciate the wealth of knowledge conveyed…even if you have at least a few more years before hitting the big four-oh.
I’m not sure how much weight my opinion holds, but consider that Fred McGriff was born on October 31, 1963. Let’s see what this 40-plus year-old MLB superstar has to say about the book.
Thanks, Fred for never leading us astray! If I recall correctly, you were also a yuge fan of our Knees Over Toes Guy program review! I’m sure you’d agree that our creaky-kneed readers would love to read it next!