Sunday, October 8, 2017


My 5/3/1 Forever review ended up being so popular that I started getting requests for other book reviews.  There’s a big backlog of stuff to talk about, but “The Complete Keys to Progress” was specifically requested by a reader so I thought I’d give it a go.

I got this book for Christmas in 2016 and read it off and on over the course of 8 months, primarily when traveling.  As such, my memory of it may be a little spotty, but I can still talk general impressions and takeaways.


Image result for the complete keys to progress

Over the span of about 12 years, John McCallum regularly wrote a column for “Strength and Health” magazine that contained a parable style article covering a wide variety of iron related topics, to include a span of lifting programs for various goals (strength, leanness, specialty programs for body parts), nutrition, recreation and general advocacy for lifting weights.  McCallum liked to teach these lessons through a recurring cast of characters, to include himself as the crusty old gym owner, his daughter’s boyfriend Marvin as the airheaded new trainee who only cares about his looks and doesn’t want to work hard and a variety of other foils along the way.  A good amount of articles are multi-part, where the first article in the series essentially “sets the story” while the second article and on dive into the actual meat and potatoes of the whole affair. 


Image result for reg park
Hey look; a 5x5 workout creator who actually looks big and strong

As someone that has read more than his fair share of dry technical reads on lifting, books like The Complete Keys to Progress are a total breath of fresh air.  McCallum’s writing style is very fluid and able, not cumbersome or clunky.  The book is 280 pages of VERY small font and it goes by in a flash.  And, quite frankly, you don’t want to put it down once you start.  Each section is about 1.5-2 pages, very easy to pick up and put down and incredibly self-contained.

However, the REAL benefit of reading through this is gaining an understanding of the Iron game back in the 60s and 70s, during the Golden Era of bodybuilding.  John talks a great deal about some of the all-time greats, to include Reg Park, Bill Pearl, John Grimek, Steeve Reeves, etc and in doing so both demonstrates what a force of nature these folks were back in their day while at the same time taking away a good deal of the mysticism about them.  Wanna know how Reg Park actually trained?  Why not listen to a guy who was actually there, instead of some internet yahoo extrapolating from a 3rd hand article that was posted on a site that doesn’t exist any more.

AND, in hearing about how folks were training back in the 60s and 70s, you realize just how stupid a lot of us have become despite being so much “smarter”.  There isn’t a single mention of a “beginner” routine in the book, nor is there any concept of “scaling” things to some sort of arbitrary level. The routines posted are for any one to train, beginners will simply use less weight than advanced lifters.  There are plenty of articles in the book specifically about bringing up some poor scrawny specimen to a more manly status, and the routines posted would make most beginners today faint, but back then people knew it was simply hard work that was going to get you where you wanted to go.
And hard work is really the biggest crux of the book.  Many times McCallum explains to the trainee in the book and the reader of the article that it is going to HURT getting big and strong.  They had some brutal old school methods back then that were surefire ways to up some size.  It should be no shock that 20 rep squats make a regular appearance, but there is also some brutal circuit style training for fat loss and specialization routines sure to make your arms explode.


Image result for J C Hise
A gallon of milk a day and you too can look like this...ok, don't get me wrong, JC Hise is an OG

I have written about this more extensively in the past, but on the topic of nutrition, you have to remember WHERE we were in the time that these articles were written.  Obesity wasn’t an epidemic, and fat people were pretty rare, while scrawniness amongst males was a more primary concern due to a tendency to overwork and undereat.  As such, there are a lot of nutritional portions of the book with recipes that, if followed by a modern trainee, are a surefire way to get diabetes.  Another part of that to consider is just how fresh and unrefined food was back then compared to now.  A brick of chocolate ice cream is a regular feature in one of the “Get big shakes” McCallum whips up for a trainee which, back then, was probably just a combination of milk, cream, sugar and salt.  These days, it’s a goddamn science experiment on the back of the tub when you buy the cheap stuff.  If you’re willing to pay the cost, you can get some great food, but something to beware of.  And in general, keep yourself reigned in when reading this stuff, because McCallum is an excellent salesman.  He had ME convinced that I needed to go home and throw about 3000 calories in the blender, which, if I was 140lbs in the 1960s, wouldn’t be the worst idea.

The timeframe also lends itself to a few articles that are a little nonapplicable today.  Apparently, SCUBA diving was all the rage in the 60s and 70s, because there was a big article dedicated to how to weight train for that hobby.  Having exactly zero interest in that topic, I honestly ended up skipping over it.  McCallum also pitches for a lot of supplements that aren’t on the market anymore, with some protein powder by Bob Hoffman making big waves in the book.  Just stuff to skim over.


Hell yeah you should.  If you have any interest whatsoever in the history of lifting, you owe it to yourself to get this book.  Even if not, simply having an awareness of how others used to train SHOULD keep you pretty grounded whenever you feel like you’ve come up with a groundbreaking new idea.  Pretty much everything has already been thought up, and we’re just tweaking it as we go, but if you take a close look you may notice that the things that lead to success tend to always be surrounded by effort, consistency and time.  And if you ended up buying the book and getting brainwashed into doing some 20 rep squats while chugging down a Get Big Drink, it probably won’t be the worse training decision you’ve ever made.


  1. Bought it for Kindle and I'm really digging this. Thanks for the recommendation.

    1. Awesome dude; glad you're enjoying it. Such a fun, quick read.

  2. I like how you also think about ( and write about ) the context of the era vs today's context. Seems like a pretty useful skill to have.

    1. Thanks Joe. Having been training for a while and reading a lot, I've been able to see just a glimpse of the changing of eras. Always helpful to know why and when things were written.

  3. I bought the book after reading your review and noticed just how different his strengths standards were from today's internet culture.

    These days beginners get told to reach 1/2/3/4 plates within a year (with nobody knowing if that's supposed to be a calculated 1RM or work weight) with most trainees falling well short of that.

    McCallum on the other hand tells people in his very first article to get their squat to 150% bodyweight for 15 reps and do so fast. Later on he says time and again you need to squat at least 500 pounds if you want to get huge.

    I can only imagine the reactions you get on reddit these days, if you tell people they NEED a 500 pound squat.

    Surprisingly enough, despite his emphasize on heavy squats, I didn't read the word "buttwink" even once in the whole book.