27 January 2019

Review of The 4-Hour Body and Starting Strength

The 4-Hour Body by Tim Ferris

The 4-Hour Body is a book covering many topics around diet and exercise. Tim himself doesn’t recommend reading it from cover to cover, so I read about 2 thirds that were interesting to me.

The diet part is the longest. His recommendation to start the day with a high-protein meal is sound, I often do that myself (5 or 6 eggs). However, his obsession with insulin levels seems unnecessary (see Guyenet and Masterjohn). There’s plenty of people who lost a lot of weight on the diet, but I haven’t tried it, since I have the exact opposite problem.

I’ve tried the Occam’s protocol, which is a training program for maximal muscle gain. I ran it for 2 months and gained about 6 kilos of weight, some of which was fat but most was muscle. My rate of weight gain was lower than what Tim promised, which was most likely caused by the following two factors.
  • I ran a few orienteering races while doing the program, but Tim doesn’t recommend any cardio. This was intentional on my side.
  • I started eating as much protein as Tim suggested, but felt horrible. 7 days into the program, a blood test revealed that my kidneys couldn’t keep up with the protein intake. I immediately started eating less and then slowly increased protein intake, but I’ve started feeling strange “in the kidneys” again. This must have been the first time I was aware of my kidneys.
Part of the weight gain might have been regression to the mean, since people’s weight is typically the lowest at the end of the summer which is when I started the program. Regression to the mean could only explain half of the weight gain, though.

I’m convinced the program works, probably much better if you’re able to tolerate more protein. However, my biggest gripe is how Tim sells it. Tim likes to mention the 80/20 rule: you can get 80% of the results by only doing the important 20% of the effort. The title of the book comes from the 4 hours Tim spent in the gym during the month he gained an enormous amount of muscle mass.

The hard part of Occam’s protocol is eating enough protein and calories, which Tim mentions himself many times. I had to think constantly about food and when I managed to hit the protein target, I felt full, lethargic and overall terrible. It felt like 80% of effort for 80% of results.

When the 2 months ended, I switched to Starting Strength which in my opinion achieves what The 4-Hour Body tries to be. For example, Tim has a separate section on how to fix tight muscles by time-consuming exercises or expensive methods for which he flew to another city, but I managed to fix my tight hamstrings just by doing the exercises in Starting Strength. I got much more bang for the buck by following Starting Strength, but more on that in a separate review.

Over the years, I’ve listened to a couple of Tim’s podcasts and some of his interviews, but I have never become a big fan. After reading his book I think I know why. He's a great salesman, but the things he's selling aren't that good.

Starting Strength by Mark Rippetoe

Starting Strength is a beginner barbell program with only 5 exercises (squat, deadlift, over-head press, bench press and power clean). All exercises are explained in great detail—just the squat chapter has about 60 pages.

I didn’t run the Starting Strength linear progression exactly, but rather went with Phrak’s Greyskull LP Variant recommended on Reddit. The two programs are close enough: 4 out of the 5 exercises are the same and you also do 3 sets of 5 repetitions. Weight increases and deloading are the same too.

Starting Strength focuses on strength gain. However, the best part about doing the program were bonus improvements that I didn’t expect.
  • Improved hamstrings flexibility: I suffered from tight hamstrings whenever I played hockey or rode a bike. I’ve tried massages, foam rolling, hot baths and stretching, always achieving only a short-term effect. Just before starting the program I couldn’t touch my toes and now I can press all my fingers against the ground (no palms yet). And no, stretching is not part of the program, so such a huge progress was very surprising to me.
  • Much less muscle soreness: I used to have too much muscle soreness from my semi-regular sport training, but now that is not an issue anymore. I also don’t remember this being promised anywhere, so that’s another surprise.
  • Muscle/weight gain: Even though it’s primary a strength program, I’ve gained about 1 kilogram per month on the program.
  • More strength everywhere: I used to subconsciously search for things to lean against while standing. These days, standing is just easy. Also, free-ride skiing used to be very hard on my legs, but now it feels at least 3 times easier. This is not that surprising, as the exercises hit almost all the muscles.
In the end Starting Strength fulfills the goals of The 4-Hour Body much better, at least for me. Only 5 exercises packaged in a simple-to-follow program feel like the 20% of effort that bring me 80% of results. Yes, my hamstrings could get more flexible by doing more specific work, but as it is now it’s all good.

Note that Mark Rippetoe can be dogmatic, e.g. he repeatedly says in the book that the squat works your hamstrings a lot, but there’s now good scientific evidence that that’s not true. Starting Strength is a great start but it’s definitely not the end.


I’m now well in my 30s and I think now is the right time to get serious about health. Thanks to a lot of trial and error in the last 5 years, I’ve conquered regular insomnia and migraines. Barbell training is another great addition, especially the squat and deadlift feel like cheat codes to life.

The conventional thinking is that your health deteriorates with age but I’d like to keep improving as long as possible. What if there are more cheat codes to be discovered?