Book Review: The Reactive Training Manual

I don’t tend to buy a lot of fitness/sports/strength-related products. Don’t get me wrong, I have a shelf full of books and a hard drive full of documents – I love reading about all this stuff.

What I mean is that in terms of the sheer amount of products out there, and what I tend to see people actually shelling out money for, I don’t buy a lot of things.

It’s just not common for me to see something that interests me enough to bother with. Even the stuff that looks interesting can turn out to be lukewarm, worth a read but not worth the cost. So it goes.

That said, if it’s on the right subject I’ll still get worked up. When I first read that Mike was putting this together, I got excited.

Over on his board (http://rts.activeboard.com), Mike had been discussing a pet interest of mine – namely, how to regulate training on the fly, using feedback indicators. For obvious reasons, having such a system in place would be very useful, both for my own training and in training others.

The core of this system is the Rating of Perceived Exertion (RPE), which is a sliding scale of, well, perceived intensity. There’s been a good bit of research interest on this front recently, which has demonstrated that RPEs are pretty accurate when it comes to assessing relative intensity and capability with a given weight. That is obviously a good thing.

For a few years now, I’ve been using some variation on this idea after reading about it in Siff’s Supertraining. I can’t say I ever really recorded RPE numbers in any formal sense, but I did try to keep aware of the subjective difficulty. It’s a trick I experimented with back when I tried a hand at the online consulting gig, and it has benefits. Along with the Rating of Technique (paying attention to form), you can get a pretty good picture of how solid any given set was (or wasn’t).

That’s the gist of Mike’s RTS approach, and this is something I could get excited about. After some minor shipping issues (people don’t like sending things to Australia, apparently) and I’d have to say that overall he did a pretty good job of discussing the topic.

The premise is simple: at any given moment in time, your relative capability is going to vary. Life happens, and the body’s responses aren’t always going to fit any written-down program no matter how much we’d like it to. I wrote about this a few weeks ago before I got bored of blogging and went all emo.

So we have to adapt. The RPE numbers are where we start, using them to gauge our relative capacity on any given day. Mike lays out what I thought was a very good progression, from basic implementation to more advanced use of the concept. If you follow his steps as he outlines, adding bits and pieces with each step, you’re going to end up in a pretty good spot. It’s a good treatment of periodization, for those of you that like to see that kind of thing in practice.

Mike’s stated goal here is to quantify and systematize the style of auto-regulating training that advanced lifters tend to do automatically. Any time you hear an advanced guy just say “shut up and lift, labcoat”, he’s got a point – people stress over the crap that doesn’t matter. Over on EliteFTS, this is a big thing you’ll hear Dave Tate and Jim Wendler talking about, how to move past the numbers and learn how to just “shut up and lift”.

At the same time, you can’t help but think there’s something that people just aren’t getting. That’s a gap that Mike and the RTS are trying to bridge. While I’m not convinced this book will do it by itself, it’ll carry a person a long ways towards it – if somebody doesn’t “get it” after reading this, they’re just not going to.

Mike also includes some spreadsheets for you to help with tracking and designing your routines, which is a nice bonus.

The drawbacks – fortunately, there’s not many. The book is geared towards powerlifters, and it’s written with that in mind. Great if you’re a powerlifter or closely-related strength athlete, but anybody else is going to have to actually *gasp* think some to apply this in other contexts.

Some of this will be re-hash if you’re one of those that knows everything about periodization. I got a little chuckle reading some of the old DB Hammer information (DB Hammer being a fictional guru created by a guy named Brad Nuttall a few years ago), but I couldn’t say much about that – DB/Nuttall’s information on auto-regulated training was something I actually did like.

But it did remind me of one big complaint I had about that – there’s no real research support for some of the numbers. It seems to be “just do this cause….it sounds good”. But I can look past that to a point. As long as it’s working empirically, I’m not really gonna bitch.

The book is tiny, smaller than I’d expected, but I can barely count that as a drawback considering the content.

There’s some real gems in this book, and if you’re interested in periodization, auto-regulated training, or any kind of strength athlete or coach, you’d be doing yourself a favor to pick this up.

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