Lou Schuler

Author, Journalist, Presenter

Posted 07/22/2014

The Book That Lived

When my friend Ellington Darden released his new book, The Body Fat Breakthrough, it immediately rose to the top in Amazon’s Weight Training category. It’s still there as I write this.

Ellington noticed that a handful of books perennially rank in the top 10: Strength Training Anatomy, Arnold’s Encyclopedia of Modern Bodybuilding, Mark Rippetoe’s Starting Strength, and one that doesn’t seem to fit in that group: The New Rules of Lifting for Women.

He pointed out that all fitness pros know the same basic facts about human physiology. Alwyn Cosgrove’s training programs are both unique and effective, but they aren’t the only way to achieve the results our readers want. So he asked me a simple question: What’s different about NROL for Women? What separates it from so many other workout books written before and since?

I gave him my honest response: I don’t know. I’m as surprised as anyone. It’s the second in a five-book series, but in a typical week it doubles the combined sales of the other four. More than that, it’s a book for women written by a bald-headed, middle-aged journalist whose best work appears in Men’s Health magazine.

Ellington said some flattering things about my writing style, which I appreciate. But if you look through the one-star reviews on Amazon you’ll see the limits of my literary appeal.

So what is it?

I found one answer on a lively Facebook page dedicated to the NROL books. In a post titled “The New Rules of Lifting for Women Alumni Club,” Dana Smith wrote this:

For a lot of us, this was our first experience with compound, heavy-duty lifts. We went into the gym a little intimidated, clutching our book, and just praying we didn’t make complete fools out of ourselves in our very first workout. We leave the gym 7 stages later with a lot of swag and a sense of confidence that can’t be bought anywhere else.

That’s it, I thought. It’s the sense of adventure, of possibility. You never thought of lifting heavy weights as something you can do. But what if it is? What if you actually enjoy it? Thrive on it? How does that change the way you see yourself?

When I wrote to Dana to ask permission to quote her post, she added this:

Anyone who actually finishes the book as written comes out a changed person. It really is amazing how the transformation is just as much mental and, dare I say, spiritual, as it is physical. Most of us never knew just how awesome we could be! Finishing that book opens doors we never knew even existed. It really is a life changer.

It’s also interesting to me to see the women who don’t finish it. ‘It’s too hard.’ ‘It’s too confusing.’ ‘It’s too long.’ They are the same ones who never finish any program, and nothing ever changes. The ones who stick with it are never the same.

[The book] makes us feel like we have a right to be in the gym and actually have everything we need to be successful. That right there is mind blowing to a lot of us. Who knew?

Lots of people knew then. Lots more people know now. But back in 2006, when I first proposed the book to my editor, Megan Newman, what the experts and enthusiasts knew wasn’t reaching the average woman working out in the average health club. That woman was typically doing machine circuits, or using Barbie weights (a term I didn’t coin but did my best to popularize), or staying out of the weight room altogether.

NROL for Women made the counterintuitive case for doing the opposite, for training like men instead of fragile ornaments who’ll break if they lift a weight heavier than their purse. (The original title was Lift Like a Man, Look Like a Goddess, which we kept as a subtitle.) If we were wrong, the book would’ve died a quick and much-deserved death. But we weren’t. Almost every day I see readers’ testimonials in emails, on Facebook, on blogs, in Tweets and Pins. And of course I see it in sales, which is the ultimate validation for a writer.

Which brings me back to Ellington’s question: What is it about a six-year-old book that continues to resonate with readers? After all, the basic information in the book can be found in countless places these days. Female strength is celebrated in groups like Girls Gone Strong. My friend Jen Sinkler, a terrific writer and athlete, has become a hero to gym rats of both genders with her admonition to “lift weights faster.”

And no matter how good the message is, there’s still the unlikely-messenger problem.

I wonder if the key to the whole thing can be found in these lines from the Introduction:

What I can’t bring myself to do is find a hundred ways to say ‘you can do it!’ You can do it if you want to do it. I know it. You know it. Do I really need to say it over and over?

They’re echoed in the book’s final sentences:

Nobody can choose to be perfect, but all of us can choose to be better. So what’s your choice?