We all want to be stronger, faster, fitter. Look no further than the $22 billion fitness industry, with its fad workouts, would-be gurus and gimmicky products, for proof. But, as any scrawny, pimply, hormone-wild teen can tell you, it ain’t easy.
It takes hard work and dedication to improve athletic performance (and to look good in a tailored shirt), sure, but it also takes specialized knowledge that few possess. Long, slow distance alone won’t earn you that sub-three-hour marathon, and marathon bouts of machine-based circuit training won’t make you massive. That’s where personal coaches come into play, if you can afford them.
And if you can’t, well, there are these books. Chock-full of training plans, practical tips, hard-won advice and timeless wisdom, each offers invaluable information for taking your fitness — and thus your sport, whether it’s running, golf or CrossFit — to the next level. Some have stood the test of time (our oldest selection is 22 years old — almost ancient in the world of sports physiology) and others outline the latest research-based innovations. But all of them will improve your athletic performance from the comfort of your favorite reading chair.
Enter the Kettlebell!
Russian strongmen have been swinging, lifting and pressing kettlebells for over 200 years, so it’s fitting that immigrant Pavel Tsatsouline would bring the kettlebell revolution to America. In Enter the Kettlebell, he cuts through the noise of overcomplicated training plans, offering two simple programs that use four moves to build functional strength that benefits all athletes.
Author: Pavel Tsatsouline
Best For: All athletes.
Key Wisdom: Exercising your muscles to failure is a workout FAIL; you should finish every session feeling fresh and ready to do more.
Becoming a Supple Leopard
Dr. Kelly Starrett has made his name teaching CrossFitters how to aggressively self-treat pain and, if you believe the claims, become injury-proof (a tall order given the sport’s recent history) via mobility exercises and proper movement. Supple Leopard is an essential source for athletes with nagging injuries and, thanks to its 32 painstakingly described and photographed common CrossFit movements, pure gold for CrossFitters.
Author: Kelly Starrett w/Glen Mendoza
Best For: Crossfitters and chronically the injured.
Key Wisdom: All people should be able to perform basic self-maintenance; it’s a human right and responsibility to understand how your body works.
Starting Strength: Basic Barbell Training
When it’s time to graduate from bells to bars, there’s no better guide for perfecting the form that you need to stay safe and properly perform essential lifts like squats, dead lifts and presses. Its extensive diagrams and unparalleled depth — the squat alone gets 50 pages — make barbell exercises foolproof.
Author: Mark Rippetoe
Best For: Machine training refugees.
Key Wisdom: The full-range-of-motion squat is the single most useful exercise in the weight room, and our most valuable tool for building strength, power and size.
The Ultimate Training Guide
For more than two decades, Hal Higdon has been prepping runners for the sport’s classic (grueling, humbling and — against all odds — rewarding) long-distance race, the 26.2-mile marathon. The Ultimate Training Guide contains all of his accumulated tools to finish the race, including programs and nutrition and workout tips, plus reassurance that you’re not as crazy as everyone thinks.
Author: Hal Higdon
Best For: Runners who want to go the extra mile.
Key Wisdom: It’s not how many miles you run, but how you use those miles that counts.
This exhaustive tome by former competitive gymnast and physical therapist Steven Low contains over 300 pages of reference materials — routines, diagrams and progressions — alone. But if you can wade through the technical language and use it as a reference, it’s got everything you need to build an effective, gym-free bodyweight routine and get that gymnast’s body you always wanted.
Author: Steven Low
Best For: Gym haters.
Key Wisdom: Et harum quidem rerum facilis es
In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto
Pollan’s well-researched, concisely argued manifesto reminds us that even the most vitamin-packed, “healthy” processed foods are still junk compared to real, whole foods. And since you can only get out of your body what you put into it, perhaps your biggest fitness gains could be made in the kitchen.
Author: Michael Poolan
Best For: Anyone who eats.
Key Wisdom: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”
The Triathlete’s Training Bible
In this definitive volume, multisport guru Joe Friel captures the essence of triathlon — both the methodical, science-based training and the art of the sport — to help even the most experienced athletes improve their performance. When private coaching is out of the question, turn to the Bible for the painstaking detail necessary to craft a winning training plan.
Author: Joel Friel
Best For: Self-coached ironmen.
Key Wisdom: Finishing strong — i.e. racing negative splits — requires self-control and, during workouts, practice. Ignore your competitors who go out too hard; there will be plenty of time to catch them when they fade.
The First 20 Minutes
New York Times “Phys Ed” columnist Reynolds digs into the latest scientific research to uncover startling tips and useful insights for getting the most from your workout. Her findings — sitting is killing you, pre-workout stretching is counterproductive and the first 20 minutes of cardio are most beneficial — will make you reconsider conventional fitness wisdom.
Author: Gretchen Reynolds
Best For: Desk-jockeys and weekend warriors.
Key Wisdom: No matter how hard you run (or bike, or lift…), you can’t outrun the negative health impacts of sitting at a desk all day.