the joy of strength training


February 27th, 2009 at 4:43 pm

Review: The complete guide to training with free weights

complete guide to training with free weightsThe Complete Guide to Training with Free Weights by Graeme Marsh was published in 2008 and is part of the Complete Guides series from A&C Black, which also includes Anita Bean’s The Complete Guide to Strength Training.

It is great to see a text book dedicated to free weight training that is designed to have broad appeal. Books like Starting Strength are invaluable and have grown a fantastic reputation on the internet, but I’ve never seen a copy in my local bookshop or library. So I was pleased to see that my local library was stocking this guide.

This book does appear to fill a gap in the market. There aren’t many books devoted to free weight training and those that are take a different approach. Most are limited in some way – either they focus on exercise technique and skate over other topics or they are devoted to a particular training goal such as muscle building and don’t have much to say about other types of training. This book, as you would expect from the title, covers all bases in reasonable detail.

I should also mention that I’ve had some contact with the author Graeme Marsh in recent times and was probably predisposed to like the book, knowing something of his views and approach to strength training.

Graeme has more than met those expectations and I think he has done a great job with this book. It is never an easy undertaking to write a ‘complete guide’ to anything. I’m sure he spent a lot of time agonising over what should go in and what could be left out but I think he’s got the level of detail right.


The book is split into three parts. Part one deals with issues around getting started, safety, use of equipment and so on. Marsh makes a persuasive argument for the use of free weights over machines. He also answers common questions and explains the basics of strength training – adaptation, types of strength, muscle fibres and so on.

If I were a complete beginner, I might be tempted to skip over this section as it wouldn’t mean much to me, but it is important to have the information there and readers can go back to it later once they are into the swing of training. This section is probably most useful for people who have already been training for a while, perhaps doing a programme that someone else has written for them, and now want to dig a little deeper into the concepts behind strength training and the different training methods available.

Exercise technique

Part two is a guide to performing the exercises themselves. Marsh has included a wide variety of exercises so the technique guides are necessarily brief but sufficiently clear to be followed safely. The colour photographs accompanying the exercises are clear and useful.

There were one or two surprises: a couple of exercises that I hadn’t come across before and others that I had almost forgotten about, so there is material here for the more experienced trainee as well as someone new to free weights.

This is probably an area where compromise has been made in terms of space. Some of the exercises are I think dealt with a little too briefly, especially major lifts such as the squat and deadlift. More information could have been provided on common errors and weaknesses. However there is certainly sufficient guidance to get people started.

What brought joy to my heart was the inclusion of the Olympic lifts. This section rightly focuses on exercises that will develop the necessary skill and flexibility for the Olympic lifts rather than the full versions of the lifts themselves – which would be a whole other book. Exercises include the hang versions of the clean and snatch and the front squat, overhead squat and the jerk. Following this, there is a short section on kettlebell movements – a bit limited but better to have it included than not.

Programme design

Finally there is a section on programme design. Surprisingly, it is almost as long as the exercise section. Often programme design is tacked on to the end of a book about training and dealt with in a perfunctory manner. Marsh has chosen to devote a lot of space to the topic and it pays off. For me, this was the most interesting part of the book. There’s plenty here that intermediate and even advanced trainees can benefit from. Particularly in an age where people are getting much of their programming knowledge from the internet – where myths and extravagant claims abound – having a clear and professional analysis of the various methods and protocols, together with explanations as to how and why they work is incredibly useful.

There is information about all types of training goals, including strength, muscle building, explosive power and fat loss.


The overall style of the book is unthreatening and professional. There are no extravagant claims, such as ‘this exercise is the best ever’ or ‘this method will pack on muscle’. The models are all fairly normal looking people, albeit athletic types (they are generally trainers themselves).

Sometimes the prose is a tad dry and jargon is occasionally used unnecessarily. Most of the jargon is explained in the book’s glossary but it can make it harder for a non-experienced person to read and understand. Words such as ‘contraindicated’ and ‘pronated’ are not part of every day vocabulary. Perhaps they should be explained briefly the first time they are used in the text. Alternatively words that appear in the glossary could be emboldened.

I noticed quite a few proofing errors. This is not a disaster but does detract from the reading experience. I am pretty sure that in one case a table is incorrectly titled (8.17) and could therefore be misleading.


I was surprised that there wasn’t a ‘who this book is for’ paragraph. Perhaps a ‘complete guide’ is necessarily for everyone! Generally the book seems to be aimed at people who are new to training with free weights but sometimes it seems that a different audience is being targeted, for example fitness professionals or people who are fairly experienced and require a deeper knowledge of the topic.

I think this book is suitable for a number of audiences:

Beginners will find it a useful reference book, even if they don’t understand or need a lot of the information at first. It is the sort of book that will remain relevant for a long time. If you yourself are quite experienced but you have a friend or partner who isn’t, this would make a great gift.

Experienced trainees will find a lot that they didn’t know, especially if they have holes in their knowledge. For instance you may have a lot of practical experience with different types of exercises but relatively little knowledge about programme design. This book will help to plug those gaps.

Fitness professionals should find this book invaluable. I’m not a personal trainer or fitness instructor myself but judging by the level of general knowledge I encounter at gyms around the country, a book like this is desperately needed in the industry. Fitness professionals should understand the benefits of free weights and should be able to instruct in their technique and design programmes that incorporate them. It’s not necessary for every gym instructor to read Zatsiorsky and this level of secondary material will be sufficient for most cases.

On that point, a bibliography is included but it might have been useful to annotate it in order to point people in the direction of further information on particular topics.


This really is a good effort and I look forward to seeing it in my local bookshop (I checked the other day and it wasn’t there). It is the kind of book that needs to be included alongside those oversized strength training books with pictures of roided up bodybuilders on the cover, otherwise people will continue to misunderstand weight training and assume that it is not for them.

Click here to see The Complete Guide to Training with Free Weights on Amazon.

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