Somewhere during 2022, I was browsing social media discussions between strength coaches. The goal was to see what I might have been missing from the stuff that I was already “bought in” to doing. One coach, a gentleman named Paul Horn, mentioned that he had an upcoming book. I liked what he was saying, so I found his site and signed up to be notified when he released it. Later in the year, I received notifications that the book release was imminent, and I grabbed it on the first day it was available. Titled Radically Simple Strength: A Practical Plan to Help Average Guys Build Awesome Bodies, I figured it was worth at least a read.
Paul began putting out videos explaining his goals, organized a Reddit community, and did all of the “go to market” things I would expect leading up to release. I received the book, read it, digested it, and even suggested it to a few people I was having conversations with. Eventually, Paul sent me a message in when he saw that I suggested his book to others and we had a short conversation. That resulted in him agreeing to come on for an interview.
Getting the interview scheduled ended up taking a few months, way longer than expected. Then I spent another good chunk of time with editing. I’m happy to post it today.
This article is a little strange in that it’s both a podcast interview with Paul, but also my review of his book. Obviously, I wouldn’t go to this level of effort if I didn’t think it was a good product, so let’s just get that out of the way up front.
Bottom Line Up Front
Radically Simple Strength is a good book. It’s not ground-breaking by any means, but few things are in the world of strength training. Steeped in the Starting Strength tradition, Paul’s book takes an approachable angle that is both clear and easy to follow.
Paul goes a step beyond to define a complete progression from novice to intermediate lifters. He also touches on advanced lifters, but admits that they aren’t his primary audience. It’s a very prescriptive model organized like, “These are your first 12 workouts. Then do these until X happens, then switch to these workouts.” This is a book to hand the “average guy” and say, “follow this.” If they do it, they’ll see real results. That is assuming they stick to it (which is one of the big battles, and I touch on it in the takeaways).
He also offers a good bit of advice on nutrition, but I’ll admit that the approach isn’t for everyone. It works, and is similar to what I’ve done for over a year, but the approach can also be a turn off if you crave a lot of variety.
Even if I’m not following Paul’s guidance myself, Radically Simple Strength is the book to beat for the uninitiated looking to get started. Once someone has been on the intermediate program a while, the world is their oyster and they’ll have a strong foundation to branch out.
Paul doesn’t talk about conditioning much, if at all. So if you’re looking to blend a conditioning program on top of this, then you’ll have to add that separately.
Who is Paul Horn?
I like Paul, and I think you’ll hear in our conversation that he’s a very personable fellow who is interested in everyone’s story. He describes himself as a professional meathead, and has the credentials to back it up.
After an introduction to weightlifting in college, he started as many did with a huge emphasis on how he looked rather than how he performed. After a shoulder injury, he found himself drawn into the world of Starting Strength and the ever-charismatic Mark Rippetoe. That inspired him to abandon bodybuilding and turn to powerlifting and becoming a certified Starting Strength coach.
He opened the first Starting Strength gym in California and taught hundreds of clients from high school athletes to octogenarian grandmothers. Throughout all of it, he continued getting stronger, but also saw that he had to control his nutrition in order to look the part, so he worked on that too.
COVID eventually shut his gym down, and he moved to Idaho where he became the head coach of Starting Strength Boise and began working on this book.
Paul is not just drawing his advice on what worked for him. Rather, he’s looking at the entire history of clients he’s trained and generalizing that progress into a single program that he wished someone would have provided to him when he was getting started.
Radically Simple Strength
Now let’s talk about the book. As I mentioned earlier, the world of strength training tends to get over-complicated. Trainers make their money by convincing you that effective training is too complicated for you to figure out on your own. Because of that, you should pay them for their product or services or else you’ll never be successful.
Frankly, this idea is wrong, and Paul rightly points out in the opening pages that the fitness industry is rife with dishonesty and unrealistic expectations.
Paul goes on to caution that while the process is simple, it is not easy. That is why so many people fail at it. When things become challenging, typically as the end of the novice period approaches, that’s when people quit or start looking for “easy” solutions.
I’m sure you notice the similarity to the world of shooting. Marketers take advantage of our desire to hit the easy button, and they’re quick to sell us a new widget or “secret technique” to take us to the next level the easy way. Unfortunately, that’s not real. The harsh truth is that most people are better off sticking to the basics and performing them until the point of mastery. It’s tactical minimalism in action.
In this book, these basics take the form of what you’d expect of a program born of Starting Strength:
- Bench Press
- Overhead Press
As the program advances from late novice to intermediate (and beyond), a few more movements appear in the lineup:
- Chin-Ups/Lat Pull-downs
- Bicep Curls
- Lying Triceps Extensions
- Lateral Raises
- Barbell Rows
And that’s it. Every workout after the first few months is some mixture of the base strength movements (the Big 4) and the additional movements adding a touch of bodybuilding to enhance your physique.
Surrounding this simple program is a lot of good advice around general strength and hypertrophy principles (especially stress & recovery), nutrition, effective progression of your goals, and mindset.
Compared to other books in my library, I appreciate that Paul errs towards the “just do this” approach rather than providing dozens of options and variations on everything in order to satisfy variety junkies.
Nutrition Advice: It’s Not For Everyone
The nutrition portion of Paul’s book is interesting because of it’s simplicity. Most books and programs that touch on this go down the path of teaching you about macros, calories, and then showing you how to log food. They’ll either provide you with long complicated meal plans, or point you to one of several calorie calculators. The expectation is that you would carefully log every bite of food that goes in your mouth. That works, but it does burn you out.
For over a year, my wife and I have settled on a different way of doing things. We plan two “menus” tailored to our individual nutritional goals for protein, fat, and carbs. Each menu is a full day of food including breakfast, lunch, dinner, and anything in between. Then we plan to eat the same “menu” for 3-4 days in a row. That means preparing up to four days of food all at once and then storing it in containers for easy eating. It’s boring, but it works great for life with a toddler and reducing any stress around “what are we eating tonight?”
Paul takes the same approach in Radically Simple Strength. He offers a few recipes for meals and asks you to pick a handful that you could eat over and over again. Then you prepare your food the same way that we do, and eat the same relatively few meals over and over.
Most people I talk to find the idea of this eating style very boring. They think they couldn’t do it because it would be too restrictive- and hey, they might be right. But personally, I find that most people don’t actually eat as much variety as they think they do. This is about eating to fuel your performance and not about eating to entertain yourself.
Interview Key Takeaways
The interview we had went for over an hour and a half. I edited it down to about 55 minutes, which meant cutting several things out, but there’s still a lot of fantastic nuggets in there that I think you’d enjoy.
Here are some of my biggest takeaways.
Mental Benefits are Just as Important as Physical
Most people start lifting for physical reasons. They want to be stronger, look better, or perform well. It’s probably some combination of all three. Eventually, people who stick to it long enough come to realize that the main reason that they keep showing up is the mental benefits they didn’t expect.
Lifting heavy weight teaches you a lot about yourself. I’ve heard the phrase, “character building” tossed around here and there about it. Becoming stronger teaches you to set goals, work for them, fail along the way, and overcome. It teaches you to push your limits and deal with struggle in ways that few other activities can.
Paul also pointed out that the process of setting difficult goals for yourself and consistently pursuing them also forces you to set up some guard rails in your life. If you know that participating in that extra vice is going to cost you in the gym, then maybe you set that vice aside for a while.
Guardrails make us better.
What is Strong Enough?
A question I’ve been trying to figure out for a while is the idea of “strong enough.” What is the point at which your time and energy might be better spent pursuing other life goals rather than continuing to get stronger.
After all, it only takes a fraction of the weekly volume to maintain whatever strength you’ve built.
This is probably worth a post of its own in the future, but I thought Paul had an interesting answer here. It’s not about a specific weight, but rather an individual calculation about much time and effort it takes to reach the next level.
Paul gave an example comparing beginner and intermediate lifters against professional lifters. Beginners and intermediates can still add weight to the bar every workout, every week, or even every month. Truly advanced lifters cannot. In fact they might reach a new personal record only a few times in a year. Every time they do, it requires months of careful planning and work to get there.
When you get to the point that making that next PR takes months of committed work and discipline, never missing a training session and sacrificing your social life, then you have probably reached the point of “strong enough” to go pursue other interests while working to maintain what you’ve built.
Arguably, the point of “strong enough” may come a good bit earlier than that, such as the Tier 2 bodyweight goals Paul listed in the book. But that’s a topic for another day.
Riding the Grind
My last big takeaway is a bit of an amalgamation of many things Paul said during our discussion. The biggest mistake people make when starting to get stronger is bailing out of the program when things get difficult. Whether it’s because they miss a rep, get injured, boredom, or start exerting more effort than they’re used to- people just decide to go pursue other things.
Or, if they don’t quit, they go look for another program claiming to have the “secret sauce” to make them better.
The end result is that they never make progress. Every program switch results in “resetting” their lifts, and they’re stuck in a cycle gaining and losing the same ground over and over again. This pattern continues until it ends in frustration or turning to drugs to “fix it.”
The harsh truth is that it’s supposed to be hard. You’re supposed to struggle, grind, and keep pushing, especially when it gets difficult. Don’t abandon the plan.
Paul also pointed out that as we get to more advanced levels, the late-intermediate as he put it, then the vast majority of our time is going to maintaining what we have or retaking ground that we’ve lost either through injury, vacations, or not focusing on certain types of lifts.
This is perfectly fine, and goes back to the mental benefits. At some point, for everyone, showing up to the gym consistently is no longer about just making new gains, but becomes part of life and your mental well being.
And there we have it, my combined review of Radically Simple Strength as well as an interview with it’s author. Even though I have a stack of books all full of great advice and programming, and my own personal routine is different than what Paul suggests, I think this book is now my default suggestion for beginners from here on out. It strikes just the right balance of explaining the “why” behind things and providing a straightforward plan to progress.
You might ask why I’m not switching myself, even if I think I could benefit from the program. The answer comes down to what Paul said in our interview: the rules are simple and well understood, the trick is sticking to what works and continuing to push it. As good as I think Radically simple Strength is, my own plan is sound as well- and I don’t want to get caught in that “reset” cycle Paul mentioned by jumping programs.