There’s only one primary source of bodybuilding information and results: the glorious house of gains, the gym.
But if you’re looking for something more: a better, proven training method, novel concepts to use in your training, or just inspiration from some of the greats of the sport, check out our list of the best bodybuilding books ever written.
Are you asking me to *gasp* read books?
You bet, gonzo.
With all the information available online, you might wonder what good can books do – after all, can’t I find it all on the internet?
And you’re right: there’s not much that you can’t find by Googling for hours on end. However, if you value your time (which you should), a book can be a great investment.
A good book on bodybuilding (like the ones below) will have all the information you need regarding building muscle: training plans, diet suggestions, exercise tips, motivation and more – in one place!
I don’t know about you, but I’d rather spend an hour more at the gym than in front of a computer screen. And think of all the good work you will be doing for crushing the stereotype of the dumb bodybuilder by reading a book!
To add to that, these books contain the knowledge of some of the best bodybuilders in the world. More importantly, they contain bodybuilding specific knowledge which you can’t find in other places.
Imagine what would happen if you could train with Arnold even for a day and get to soak up even a bit of his knowledge.
Well, in his book, you can get all of his knowledge and access to Arnie 24/7.
Now that to me sounds like a pretty good deal.
The Best Books on Bodybuilding
There are a lot of books out there, and most are honestly not that good.
The following list has been vetted ruthlessly to only include what every serious strength or physique competitor should have on his bookshelf.
In other words, you’ll find nothing but the top experts here, both from those on the competition side and those who come from a scientific background.
The New Encyclopedia of Modern Bodybuilding
Just like Arnold Schwarzenegger is the father of modern bodybuilding, The New Encyclopedia of Modern Bodybuilding is the daddy of all bodybuilding books. At 800 pages, it can almost be used for biceps curls.
Called “The Bible of Bodybuilding”, this book is the ultimate resource for bodybuilding. It covers everything: the most effective methods of training for each muscle, how to structure your workouts, details both on weight training and bodybuilding competition preparation and of course a complete guide on nutrition, health and supplements.
That is all to be expected, but the book also tackles sports psychology, advice on preventing and treating injuries and the history of bodybuilding.
Seriously, you will be blown away by the sheer volume of information included in the book.
To top it off, throughout the book you can sense Arnie’s signature style of humor and motivation. It isn’t quite the same as having him as a training partner – but it’s damn near close.
Pumping Iron: The Art and Sport of Bodybuilding
Have you heard about the movie Pumping Iron? Well, this is the book that preceded it.
Pumping Iron: The Art and Sport of Bodybuilding, written by Charles Gaines and photographer George Butler, is a historical account of the rise of the golden era of bodybuilding: the 70’s.
It did much to popularize the then mostly unknown sport of bodybuilding and it helped start the fitness craze that took America by storm in the decade. In particular, its makers noticed a particular young gentleman from Austria with a funny accent who would go on to become arguably the best bodybuilder of all time, and later a Hollywood star and the governor of California.
It is an inspirational account of those early years when bodybuilding wasn’t yet the multi-million-dollar industry it is today, but a pursuit of passion for a few athletes who have decided to see just how far the human frame can go.
Jim Stoppani’s Encyclopedia of Muscle & Strength
Written by a PhD in exercise science, Jim Stoppani’s Encyclopedia of Muscle & Strength is a science-based compilation of exercises and exercise programs.
It goes beyond just barbells and dumbbells: it takes a look at every piece of equipment you might find in the gym and how to use it, including kettlebells, BOSU balls and TRX straps. It also goes beyond just bodybuilding and includes plans for every common goal a gym-goer might have, from losing fat to building strength.
The book is meant as a complete guide: you can read it as a total beginner and come away with a practical understanding of what you need to do to get results. Everything is covered, from correct technique to muscle-building nutrition, all backed by research studies. No wonder this book is often found well-thumbed on the desks of strength and sports coaches.
If you’re looking for a reference book, this one won’t fail you.
Mark Rippetoe’s Starting Strength isn’t a book with a ton of breadth: it teaches the basic lifts (squat, deadlift, bench, press and row) and that’s pretty much it.
However, it has more depth than almost any other book.
What Mark has done so well is focused down to the very basics of what are the best, most efficient exercises for making humans strong in the shortest period of time and with maximal impact.
Turns out, those are the basic barbell exercises, which Rip teaches in incredible detail. As these exercises will stay with you for your whole lifting life in one form or another, it’s a good idea to invest in learning them correctly early on. The program he offers in the book is as basic as it gets, but the results people get in the first 6-12 months are in a league of their own.
For a total beginner to training who only wants to get in the gym quickly and gain as much as possible in the next year, this is the book.
Strength Training Anatomy
As the name suggests, Strength Training Anatomy by Frederic Delavier excels in one area: it offers the best look at the anatomy of strength training exercises.
It includes over 600 illustrations, which cover in detail not only all common and less common exercises, but also stretches and common injuries. If you really want to see every detail so you can get a better knowledge of what’s actually happening with your body as you do the exercises, this is the best book for that goal.
As a reference, it’s a must have for every serious coach and athlete, but it is a book better suited to people who already have some knowledge and experience in the worlds of bodybuilding and strength training. But, as it doesn’t contain any workout programs, beginners should get something else, like Starting Strength or The New Encyclopedia of Modern Bodybuilding.
Encyclopedia of Bodybuilding: The Complete A-Z Book on Muscle Building
Another possible dumbbell replacement, the Encyclopedia of Bodybuilding: The Complete A-Z Book on Muscle Building written by Robert Kennedy offers awesome detail for the competing bodybuilder.
Like Arnold’s heavy hitter, it is 800 pages long and full of bodybuilding’s rich history, as well as all the information one would need to get started in the sport himself.
About half of the book is devoted exclusively to the intricacies of the sport of bodybuilding: contest prep, posing, tanning, how to buy posing trunks, what to expect from the judges, contest psychology…everything an aspiring bodybuilder should read. If you are planning on competing in bodybuilding, this is the first book you should buy. It has more details, and they’re more modern, than any other book.
However, compared to Arnie’s book it is lacking in the exercises section, which could be explained better. But, if you’re preparing for a bodybuilding contest, you should already know your lifts and nutrition.
The Poliquin Principles: Successful Methods for Strength and Mass Development
Charles Poliquin is known as one of the foremost researchers and innovators in the field of bodybuilding and strength training. When he speaks, wise people listen.
It is aimed at bodybuilders who want to incorporate scientifically proven methods into their training, and it does an excellent job at explaining those advanced methods in terms that are easy to understand for anyone with some experience in the world of strength training.
However, the book does assume some previous knowledge of basic concepts of training, so I can’t recommend this book to beginners. If you are one, Rippetoe’s Starting Strength or Arnold’s The New Encyclopedia of Modern Bodybuilding would be more appropriate.
Brother Iron, Sister Steel: A Bodybuilder’s Book
Mr. America, Mr. Universe and Mr. World. That is who Dave Draper, the author of Brother Iron, Sister Steel is.
The book is an insightful look into a career of a pro bodybuilder. It contains many gym stories and other wisdom from Dave. He clearly has a passion for bodybuilding that goes beyond just getting big and strong. His philosophy of loving the process and his other insights into the mental side of training and competition are immensely valuable. It is also written in his unique style, which is fascinating to read, but might not be for everyone.
The strong point of the book is definitely Draper’s cerebral approach to training. While the book doesn’t offer as much as the others in terms of training information, it is still worth owning it for one of the most unique insights into the sport of bodybuilding.
The Ultimate Bodybuilding Cookbook: High-Impact Recipes to Make You Stronger Than Ever
If you’ve ever tasted the pain that is chicken breast, broccoli and rice every day, you know that the bodybuilding diet can be a bit bland.
Despite the name, The Ultimate Bodybuilding Cookbook by isn’t just a cookbook full of recipes: it’s a full-fledged nutritional manual. It provides you with an easy-to-understand general overview of nutrition, sample meal plans for different goals, and of course a ton of delish recipes.
If you’re a bodybuilder who’s struggling to get some much needed variety and taste in your diet, this is the perfect choice for quick, easy, and in most cases cheap recipes that come in at under $5 per serving. The recipes will keep you busy for quite a while, even without modifications. If you’re into meal prepping, this is as useful a resource as your meal containers.
The Verdict: …and the Best Bodybuilding Book is…?
All of the books above are great resources and fascinating reads. But you’re hardly expected to buy all of them. So, here’s my recommendation.
Before I give you my all time favorite and all around best bodybuilding book, here are some specific book recommendations:
- If you are a total beginner, the best bodybuilding book for complete beginners is Starting Strength. It covers the basics like no other, and it can take you quite far on its own.
- The best bodybuilding book for serious pros who are planning to compete or are already competing is Encyclopedia of Bodybuilding. No other book has as much information specifically on the preparation for a bodybuilding competition, which is the information you’re more likely to be missing compared to exercise instruction and training plans.
- The best historical bodybuilding book Brother Iron, Sister Steel. I would also say it is the best if you like a more psychological approach and enjoy a well-written story.
But the best, biggest, baddest book about bodybuilding is still the time-tested classic:
Arnold’s New Encyclopedia of Modern Bodybuilding.
While other books excel each in its own area, the “bible of bodybuilding” has it all inside one. If you forced me to only buy one of the books above, this would be it.
What are your favorite bodybuilding books?
Share your own favorites with us in the comment section below and tell us if you think there’s another title we should have included on our list and why.
Eddie Johnson is an ex-bodybuilder, fitness addict, writer, editor and founder of Anabolic Bodies. Also a proud father of two boys and passionate about bodybuilding, nutrition, and the science behind modern-day supplementation.