In this paper we study post-penalized estimators which apply ordinary, unpenalized linear regression to the model selected by first-step penalized estimators, typically LASSO. It is well known that LASSO can estimate the regression function at nearly the oracle rate, and is thus hard to improve upon. We show that post-LASSO performs at least as well as LASSO in terms of the rate of convergence, and has the advantage of a smaller bias. Remarkably, this performance occurs even if the LASSO-based model selection ‘fails’ in the sense of missing some components of the ‘true’ regression model. By the ‘true’ model we mean here the best s-dimensional approximation to the regression function chosen by the oracle. Furthermore, post-LASSO can perform strictly better than LASSO, in the sense of a strictly faster rate of convergence, if the LASSO-based model selection correctly includes all components of the ‘true’ model as a subset and also achieves a sufficient sparsity. In the extreme case, when LASSO perfectly selects the ‘true’ model, the post-LASSO estimator becomes the oracle estimator. An important ingredient in our analysis is a new sparsity bound on the dimension of the model selected by LASSO which guarantees that this dimension is at most of the same order as the dimension of the ‘true’ model. Our rate results are non-asymptotic and hold in both parametric and nonparametric models. Moreover, our analysis is not limited to the LASSO estimator in the first step, but also applies to other estimators, for example, the trimmed LASSO, Dantzig selector, or any other estimator with good rates and good sparsity. Our analysis covers both traditional trimming and a new practical, completely data-driven trimming scheme that induces maximal sparsity subject to maintaining a certain goodness-of-fit. The latter scheme has theoretical guarantees similar to those of LASSO or post-LASSO, but it dominates these procedures as well as traditional trimming in a wide variety of experiments.