The Women's Health Big Book of Exercises is presented as an ultimate go-to resource for women looking to get in shape. Inside you will find 619 exercises, 100 core exercises, 74 biceps, triceps, and arm exercises, 64 different ways to work your chest, 103 different back exercises, 40 shoulder exercises, and 167 exercises for your legs and butt.
The question is - volume of content aside, is this book useful, easy to understand, easy to navigate, and just all around worth your time?
Here is a summary of what you will find inside -
Chapter 1 discusses the myriad of reasons women should lift weights. Topics covered include why weight lifting burns more calories and fat, how weight lifting improves one's health, and reasons weight lifting may improve your mood and how you feel about yourself. Many readers are likely to be familiar with some of the benefits of weight lifting, but not all, and many may learn for the first time the actual reasons behind many of the benefits.
Chapter 2 covers all the basics of lifting. In my opinion, this section goes beyond the basics. Many experts, books, and magazines are happy to tell you WHAT to do, but seldom do they explain WHY. This is a great section for anyone who is getting to the point where they want to know how to put together their own weight lifting or fitness training program. If you want to know how, how much, and how frequently to lift for muscle gains - it tells you. If you want to lift to burn fat instead, you learn exactly how many reps, how often, how much weight, and how quickly you should be lifting.
Chapter 3 - The World's Simplest 4 week diet. This chapter covers a simple nutrition plan to ensure fat loss. While many people like to make losing fat complicated, the process is as simple (or as hard) as eating fewer calories than you burn on a daily basis. The diet plan suggested in the Women's Health Big Book of Exercises is simply a higher protein, vegetable, and healthy fat program that suggests avoiding high calorie processed foods and any food high in carbohydrates (like bread, pasta, grains, and simple sugars.) Simply avoiding foods high in calories, like pasta and candy, can be enough to allow most people to eat fewer calories while eating the same volume of food. This makes it easier to eat less and still feel satisfied.
Chapters 4-10 cover specific body parts and how to train every major muscle group in that area effectively. Every chapter opens with the benefits of training the particular muscles discussed, The roles of every muscle are explained, the pictures are detailed (really really nice anatomical illustrations), and the exercises are photographed very nicely in full color.
Here is an example of how each chapter is structured -
First by major muscle group. The Chapter on the muscles of the back is divided into the exercised that work the upper back and the lats. Within each muscle section, exercises are further divided into major muscle movements - so in the section on the lats, you will find it divided into chinups/pullups, pulldowns and pullovers. The coverage given to training muscles on use - meaning the full range of motions - rather than just appearance is a significant improvement on most weight lifting books, and reflects the current trend in fitness towards "functional training.
Within each section on the major type of muscle motion you will find certain exercises are marked as "main movements" - these are the key exercises to master for that particular body part. Each "main movement" is then broken down into 10 or more variations (ways to make each exercise harder, easier, user different equipment, etc.)
Main exercises are those that are the most effective and useful at working a specific body part and specific way. This is a very useful feature. Too often people doing exercises that just repeat each other (overworking their muscles) or less effective exercises that don't really target the group they want to improve. This should solve that problem.
Additionally, there are also exercises highlighted as "the best exercise for x that you are NOT doing" - This is also a great feature. Sometimes the most commonly done exercises are NOT necessarily the most effective or safe. This feature instead points out less commonly used, but highly effective exercises.
At the end of each section you will also find the best stretch for each muscle listed.
At the end of every chapter you will find one or two specially designed programs that you can do just to improve that specific body part.
Chapter 11 covers Total Body Exercises. This chapter tells you how to take any major exercise and make it full body - working arms, legs, and core all at the same time. A good example would be a squat with shoulder press. There are about 14 exercises listed in this chapter.
Chapter 12 covers Warm up exercises. This is very comprehensive and there is a section at the end of the chapter to tell you how to "create your own warm up" by selecting exercises from specific categories.
Chapter 13 has the "best workouts for" programs. There are a lot of different programs listed. How to Get Back Into Shape, How to Lose the Last 10lbs, How to Fit into Your Skinny Jeans, How to Look Great in a Bikini, How to Look Great in Your Wedding Dress, etc etc. One of the greatest features of these programs is that each averages 12 weeks in length instead of the far more typical 30 day workout. Thirty days is simply not long enough for most people to see significant improvements. Each workout is then divided into 3 or 4 week phases. Each phase has a workout A, B, and sometimes C, which then the reader would want to alternate between each week. Essentially each workout program comes with six to 9 workouts.
Chapter 14 covers the best cardio workouts. This section is very basic as the focus of the book is primarily on weight lifting. However, one topic covered in this chapter is that of "finishers" which are brief, high intensity, cardio routines done with weights or body weight exercises after one's main workout in order to burn additional body fat and calories. This is a topic not covered in other books and may be of interest to intermediate to advanced readers
Who this book is for:
This is a great book to keep on hand as a reference. The intended reader level for "The Big Book of Exercises" is somewhere between highly motivated beginner and intermediate level. Anyone who is getting to the point where they want to start designing their own programs, working specific muscle groups every thoroughly, looking for new exercises, and anyone asking "Am I working x the best way possible?" etc would be very pleased with this book.
Is this book good for beginners? Yes and no. The teaching style of the book is excellent. Many readers will likely be able to learn just from reading and looking at the pictures how to correctly do an exercise. However, many beginners could be too overwhelmed by the choices inside. While the provided workouts are meant to provide simplicity, but a beginner may be better off with a book that focused on a high quality 3 month routine with each workout laid out month by month, chapter by chapter. Then, this book would function well as a reference on how to do specific exercises in your program, or modify a movement because it is too hard, or one does not have the exact equipment prescribed in one's main workout book.