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Friday, May 11, 2012

Product Review: Complete Keys to Progress

The Complete Keys to Progress
John McCallum 

This is one of those books that always popped up in my "Amazon recommends for you" feeds, but I never paid a lot of attention to it until I finished Dan John's excellent Never Let Go. In the bibliography at the end, Dan recommend this book with the notation "we are all just footnotes to McCallum"

That struck me as a pretty bold statement, so I figured this was probably worth reading. And it turns out it is, up to a point.

The Complete Keys to Progress is a collection of articles by the same name, originally published in a magazine called Strength and Health in the 1960s. The articles cover a range of topics related to strength training, from basic bulking programs, to ways to specialize on particular body parts, to how to train for general health and fitness (and even one article for scuba divers, of all things). In reading it, I can see exactly what Dan John means. In these articles, you'll find things like the 20 Rep Squat program (Super Squats), the importance of a high protein, low-carb, grain-free diet (Atkins/Paleo), and a whole bunch of other "modern" ideas. There is enough information in here that someone could easily spend years just working on the ideas in this book, and probably make some very solid progress to boot. I have no doubt that some of the science is outdated, and certainly, some of the products mentioned probably no longer exist, but a lot of the basic ideas seem quite sound.

The articles do have a heavy bodybuilding bias, which is understandable, but may not suit everyone.

The writing is...interesting. McCallum doesn't write in a particularly direct way. Instead, he shares his information in the form of stories and dialogues. Throughout the articles, we are gradually introduced to a recurring cast of characters, including the lecherous but amazingly health Uncle Harry, the disappointment of a future son-in-law Marvin, an unnamed suffering gym owner who is plagued by foolish questions from foolish members, and more.

This is the kind of writing that most readers will probably really like, or really hate. I waffled, personally. Initially, I enjoyed it and found it rather endearing, but as the book wore on, I found myself getting as impatient with McCallum as some of the characters in his stories. Sometimes it felt less like he was using the story to really convey anything useful, and more like he was using it to pad out an article. Maybe he was, for all I know. In any case, I found myself alternating between irritation and enjoyment by pages.

But if you get past the writing, a lot of the information is good, probably just as good or better than you'll find in some modern training manuals.

If you are a strength and conditioning geek, this is worth reading if for no other reason than the historical understanding. Agree with him or not, McCallum clearly had a huge influence on the world that followed him. If you're a casual weightlifter (in the generic, not Olympic sense), this book could give you some great information and programs to work with, if you like the writing. There is definitely a strong bodybuilding bias to the book, so combat athletes or others looking for a sport-specific program probably won't find it here. It might not be the first thing I'd give to someone looking to start training, but it might be the second or third. There's a lot of good stuff in here.

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