P90X, Insanity and Similar Nonsense

Drew Baye performing chin ups on the Nautilus Omni Multi ExerciseHard workout today:

  1. MedX Neck Extension
  2. MedX Neck Flexion
  3. Weighted Chin Up on the Nautilus Omni Multi Exercise (OME)
  4. MedX Shoulder Press
  5. MedX Leg Press
  6. OME Wrist Curl with thick bar attachment
  7. OME Wrist Extension with thick bar attachment

Total workout time was around 15 minutes. I’ll do it again in 3 or 4 days. Normally I’d take a little longer, around 20 minutes or so – not because I do more exercises but because I rest longer between sets – but I had to get it done before my next client arrived for his workout.

Why so little? Because if done properly that’s all it takes. The most important factor in stimulating increases in muscular strength and size, as well as all the other possible benefits of exercise, is the degree of effort. The effort put into a workout is what determines its effectiveness, rather than the volume of work performed. If the level of effort is high enough, very little exercise is required, but no amount of exercise will produce much in the way of results if the effort is not high enough and if too much of any type of exercise is performed the results will be worse, not better.

I’m often asked what I think about programs like P90X, Insanity, and similar popular training programs, and one of the first things I usually point out is the volume of exercise is way too high while the quality – both in terms of type of exercise and the manner of performance instructed – is very low.

To save myself the time of having to answer the same questions about these programs over and over, the following is a brief summary of what is wrong with them, and what you should be doing instead.

Form

I’ve watched some of the videos and the form on the exercises is atrocious. Too fast, and little attention to proper form despite paying lip service to it. Very fast, sloppy reps.

What you should be doing instead: Move in a slow, controlled manner, especially when reversing direction between lifting and lowering the weight. Don’t just make the weight go up and down, take your time with it and focus on intensely contracting the target muscles throughout the entire exercise.

Volume

These programs include almost an hour of exercise plus an additional and completely unnecessary fifteen minutes or so of abdominal work a few days a week. These programs have you doing way too many exercises and sets. Unless you’re taking steroids this is overtraining, and even if you are this volume of exercise is completely unnecessary and counterproductive. With proper training and diet you could achieve the same or better results with less than one hour of training per week, and in some cases less than thirty minutes.

Speaking of which, the results you see in the testimonials have everything to do with the diet and almost nothing to do with the idiotic training program. I’ve had men lose over 30 pounds of fat and women around 20 with less total training time over a period of two months than the P90X or Insanity programs require in a single week.

What you should be doing instead: One hard set of only one or two exercises per muscle group, working out no more than three non-consecutive days per week. Advanced trainees should do less, rather than more exercise.

“Muscle Confusion”

The concept of ”muscle confusion” is nonsense based on a misunderstanding of motor learning principles. Muscles do not become resistant to stimulation from a particular exercise, they only appear to because improvements are faster initially due to neural adaptations and slow down after around six to eight weeks when adaptation starts to be more due to hypertrophy. Changing exercises too frequently is a huge mistake. I’ve already addressed this in detail in The Ultimate Routine.

What you should be doing instead: Don’t constantly vary your workouts. Consistently follow a well designed workout or routine that effectively works all the major muscle groups and focus on getting as strong as possible on that. If you plateau it’s more likely you need a reduction in workout volume or more recovery time between workouts and not to “confuse” your muscles by changing exercises.

Abdominal or “Core” Workouts

Fifteen minutes of abdominal work is neither necessary nor beneficial. One or two exercises for the abdominal muscles, a flexion and a rotation or lateral flexion movement are all that is required. Maybe four, if you’re doing an occasional abdominal specialization workout, but even this should only take a few minutes to complete, and the reason for doing so is to strengthen the muscles, not to improve abdominal definition. Getting ripped abs is almost entirely a matter of diet and has very little to do with abdominal exercises or workouts.

What you should be doing instead: Only one hard set of only one or two abdominal exercises at the end of your workout, which should take no more than one to three minutes. If you want ripped abs you need to focus on your diet.

Plyometrics

Plyometrics are incredibly stupid. They are relatively ineffective for building strength, unnecessary for developing speed or explosiveness or improving rate of force development, and carry a very high risk of injury. They have no place in any training program.

What you should be doing instead: If you want to develop speed or explosiveness simply focus on getting stronger. All these different things are expressions of strength, rather than different types as some people believe. You don’t need to train one way for “maximum strength”, another for “speed strength” another for “explosive strength” or any of the other types these people come up with to make their programs more complex and scientific sounding than they need to be.

Cardio

Cardio is included in these programs with the claim it is beneficial for both fat burning and cardiovascular conditioning, however it is very inefficient for fat burning and unnecessary for cardiovascular and metabolic conditioning if you’re already performing a proper high intensity strength training program. Additionally, the high impact and repetitive nature of the movements is more likely to cause injuries and contribute to joint problems in the long run, unlike high intensity strength training which is much safer for the joints when performed properly.

What you should be doing instead: If you want to become leaner you don’t need extra activity to burn calories – which is generally a very inefficient waste of time – you need to eat fewer calories and consume a diet which creates a hormonal situation conducive to fat loss. If you want to improve cardiovascular and metabolic conditioning, high intensity strength training will do that, and you can emphasize it further by limiting rest between exercises.

Supplements

The P90X and Insanity programs also encourage the use of supplements, including a meal replacement shake and other products sold by Beachbody. While some supplements are beneficial, they are not at all necessary to achieve incredible results from training. The same seems to be the case with other companies and makes me wonder if the workout programs were developed secondary to the supplements as a means of marketing them, kind of like every new training program introduced on certain bodybuilding web sites.

What you should be doing instead: Whatever your training goals, whether you want more muscle, less fat, better performance or health, your biggest nutritional concern should be your diet. Get that in order first, then if you can identify a legitimate need or benefit, consider supplementation. Be very skeptical of supplement advertising, though. Most claims are complete bullshit.

But what about those testimonials?

Beachbody, the company that sells P90X, Insanity, Hip Hop Abs and similar nonsense have done one thing right – marketing. Their infomercials are well done and they have some impressive testimonials. However, as I already mentioned, the results those people achieved were mostly due to the diet. They could have done the same or better faster and with only a small fraction of the total training time. As Nautilus inventor Arthur Jones was fond of saying, the fact that a particular method produced some result is not proof the same or better results could not have been achieved by some other means, more quickly and more efficiently.

In combination with proper nutrition a high intensity training program will produce better results than any of the currently popular DVD programs, and it will do so more quickly, more efficiently, and more safely.

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94 Responses to P90X, Insanity and Similar Nonsense

  1. PTB June 17, 2011 at 2:57 pm #

    @ Bear, I agree with you.

    I think one thing to keep in mind is the growing number of gym franchises and their decreasing membership rates.

    6 years ago, it seemed like you had only 2 options @ gyms – pay $50+ per month, or get a lifetime membership @ Bally’s or something. When LA Fitness made their way out here in NJ, everybody was floored by $35/month w/no contract. You have a lot of newer franchises with sub-$20 fees now, which makes P90X, which came out 6 years ago less of a bargain.

    As for the discussion between Drew, Chris, and Dwayne, it’s the same in anything you’re looking to promote – either a product, philosophy, even religion. How can you market something while staying true to your core principles.

    And to Dwayne’s point, even if you did come up with product via joint efforts, there will always be haters saying “this isn’t true HIT” and like crabs in a bucket, pull it down. It may not be true HIT, but it’s a start.

    I know Dorian Yates came out with a series of workouts on bodybuilding.com. They were 4 separate workouts every other day. If you want to be picky, they were maybe 20% HIT, but then everyone brings up Dorian as one of the true HIT success stories.

    Is it perfect, no, but is it better than what’s going on currently? I would think so.

  2. Andrea June 20, 2011 at 10:55 pm #

    So Drew what do you think its necessary to get rid of cellulite? For a 13 year old girl.

    • Drew Baye June 21, 2011 at 10:31 am #

      Andrea,

      To lose fat you have to eat properly to create both an appropriate energy balance and a hormonal environment conducive to fat loss (meat, fish, eggs, lots of leafy and cruciferous vegetables, moderate amounts of fruits and nuts) and strength train properly to maintain lean body mass while fat is lost, improve glucose metabolism and insulin sensitivity, increase storage capacity for glycogen (so less ends up converted to triglycerides and stored as fat), etc.

      If you spend some time reading the articles on this site you’ll find almost everything you need to know.

  3. Daniella June 29, 2011 at 1:55 pm #

    Dear Drew,
    Do you think high intensity strength training is appropriate for all ages and fitness levels or is this more of an advanced technique for people that are already quite strong.
    It seems to me that to train at the intensity that you speak of one needs to have very strong joints. My joints are delicate and do not allow me to move the amount of weight I could if my joints were stronger. I know this because when I attempt to continually move heavier weight I injure my joints repeatedly. It is very frustrating! I have been weight training for three and a half years and I push myself. Do you think that I have achieved as much strength as I am ever going to achieve.
    I really enjoy reading your blog and you are are a very good looking man. That is not a pick up, I’m just stating the facts.

  4. Bill White September 11, 2011 at 12:10 am #

    You really sound like a salesman for your product only. Many other programs work, and work very well. HIT is not the only type of training that works. I’d bet on any professional athlete to be faster, stronger and more conditioned than any HIT user, and they workout way more then HIT. I understand that using HIT you can look good, but I just don’t see how the performance/endurance is there. I love high intensity training, but I think there has to be more of endurance, and hit is all about the diet, because with training that infrequent you have to have an insanely good diet.

    • Drew Baye September 11, 2011 at 11:52 am #

      Bill,

      High intensity training isn’t a “product” it is a set of principles, and those principles will produce better results, more efficiently and more safely than the “many other programs” people typically do.

      Unless you are specifically practicing for an endurance event you don’t need more endurance training. Exercising or performing endurance activities for fat loss is almost entirely a waste of time. The reduced frequency of training has little to do with it because training is not done to burn calories, it is done to increase or maintain lean body mass and very little volume or frequency is required for this purpose.

      As for professional athletes, many collegiate and professional sports teams use high intensity training in their strength and conditioning programs.

  5. Bill White September 13, 2011 at 12:10 am #

    Hi Drew,

    Thanks. That really make a lot of sense to me. I agree with you on the calorie thing and trying to “burn” them. I just keep thinking back that it seems sports athletes are constantly running or practicing near daily, and that seems like it plays a huge part in how conditioned they (their stamina or whatever you call it). I really like the idea.

    Here is another big question that concerns me (for myself). What happens if I cannot put up very heavy weight at all, would it still be beneficial to do a lighter weight I could handle for 2 sets of each exercise instead of 1 (I would still be going hard and fatigued, but just not very heavy)?

    • Drew Baye September 13, 2011 at 6:27 pm #

      Bill,

      An athlete’s practice does affect their conditioning, it just isn’t necessary for someone who is not also practicing a sport and only wishes for general improvements in metabolic and cardiovascular conditioning.

      As far as training loads go “heavy” is a relative term. As long as the exercise is challenging for you it doesn’t matter whether the weight would be considered heavy by someone else. If you have to reduce weight because of an injury that’s another situation and the best approach would depend on the specifics of your situation.

  6. Adam October 5, 2011 at 11:56 am #

    I completely believe in high intensity training, but as far as a calories in/calories out understanding of fat loss goes, are you really saying cardio is unnecessary if I’m doing high intensity weight training and want to get leaner?

  7. wedward October 8, 2011 at 4:26 pm #

    Excellent post! I’ve done P90X and tried Insanity. I did very well with P90X (only did 80% complete) but mainly due to the muscle gain. I also was too heavy to do too much repetition, so thankfully kept reps down. I train BJJ also which gained momentum from P90X but now I’m in better shape and trying to do it again sucks. I hate it now. Insanity was ridiculous from the start and I dropped it quick. Too much joint impact and calf strains.

    After 30 years of lifting and exercise – age 15 cross country runner starting at 115 lbs of body weight and going to 202 and back down to 170 again, I’ve tried may different approaches in diet and exercise. What I read here so far is just plain simple and makes sense.

    Thank you and great job on how you handle all the critics!

  8. Avi October 31, 2011 at 5:55 pm #

    Great posts. I have to say that I’ve personally run the gamut. I started with HIT years ago but did not have the discipline for the hard work and the clean diet. A couple of years ago I decided to try P90X and stuck with it through several rounds and ate properly, and I did see results. I felt like I had more stamina but not on the other hand I didn’t feel stronger or show significant increases in the weights I was moving.

    Several months ago I gravitated back to HIT as I don’t have an hour to work out each day, but this time I’ve been more disciplined with the weight and the diet. I’ve definitely improved my strength and size, and I don’t appear to have gained any measurable amount of fat (this is strictly subjective though my girlfriend agrees) so I was curious about my stamina.

    I had no problem going for a run or a high volume of push ups and non-weighted pull ups, so I feel that the principles of HIT do work to maintain stamina and endurance. Personally I would rather be able to perform 8 chin ups with 20 pounds on me than 12 or 15 chin ups with no weight.

    I know that this is all personal and anecdotal, but I’m glad to be back in the HIT fold. All of my workouts use the same equipment I got for P90X – a pull up / dipping station and dumbells.

  9. Ron December 2, 2012 at 3:08 pm #

    Hello Drew, I’m slowly moving myself into the “tiptoe” world of personal training (certificated, et al), I find that I disagree with the perspectives shown in the various CPT books regarding (especially) nutrition. I am of the firm conviction that “it all starts with food,” first and foremost. However, the current thought on what constitutes lean gain, fat gain, and other ingrained concepts …I find I differ with broadly.
    That said, I am hopeful, with my clientele (seniors), that I can guide them through the maze into a proper way of training.
    Baby Boomers are a very interesting group of people. They have witnessed an enormous amount of history, over the last 25 – 35 years, within the exercise arena and the dietary/nutritional side of things. It seems to be, at best, a very confusing field for these folks to try to comprehend. My goal is to provide a base perspective, simple to understand, and simple, predictable evidence in the results gained. What a concept, right?
    Of course, adaptation is key for me and for my clients, but I say bring it on, status quo come what may.
    Thank you for your perspective re: HIT. Again, adaptation is key and I intend to pursue my goals head on.
    Can you comment on the topic of Baby Boomers and HIT and routines and dietaries?
    Much appreciated.

    • Drew Baye December 3, 2012 at 1:49 pm #

      Ron,

      Since most of what is taught about exercise and nutrition by the major personal trainer certifying organizations is wrong if you disagree with them you’re likely on the right track.

      As for baby boomers, all the information here applies to them the same as any other group. The general principles of exercise and nutrition are the same for everybody, you just have to adapt the application of them to the individual based on their goals and how their body responds.

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