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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