Tuesday, September 22, 2009

P90X Review/Critque Part 3b: Workout Alternatives and Why to Consider Them - or "Life is Short & we're complex"

Tempus Fugit. Part 3b of this P90X critique/review looks at alternatives to P90X workouts. Three reasons to consider alternatives: length, variety, quality. A P90X workout week is about 7hours minimum, and, as we saw in part 2, despite what seems like incredible variety, it is all one type of effort: aerobic endurance. The question posed therefore, is, is P90X optimal bang for that 7hour buck? Does it benefit all our muscle fibers? Slow and fast twitch? Does it benefit all our physiological systems, like bones, ligaments, joints, visual, vestibular and proprioceptive systems? All our energy systems? For holistic well being - and fat loss and leaning up, for 7 hours - perhaps not, as we'll see.

Now again, if P90X makes a person happy and they want to spend that time doing lots of various cardio workouts, that's fine (well, see below on how fine). Lots of folks may say (and post) P90X is just fine. And that's fine.

My goal here is to ask about how does one define fine? How assess what's good, why it's good, and what might be missing for both better use of those precious minutes in a day that we never get back and more optimal benefit for our bodies beyond cardio/oxidative strength?

So why do this particular set of hour+ long cardio workouts? what's it doing for the ALL of you in that getting ripped paradigm?

Part 1 of this Review/Critique of P90X looked at concepts like Muscle Confusion.
Part 2 looked at how and for whom P90X might actually deliver on it's "getting ripped" mantra
Part 3b started looking at alternatives to the P90X diet approach and
Part 3b, our final part, looks at alternatives to the P90X workout approach.

What are you working this hard and this long to achieve? My concern motivating this discussion is that many folks think they *have* to put in this kind of time to achieve the P90X goals - getting ripped -- and, if that's the goal, they just don't. Even for cardio/endurance. We just don't. Work smarter not harder. And if we're going to work this long, is it the best long for our fitness goals and well being?

A fast example: lean with ripped abs in an hour/week; endurance in 6 minutes
As we saw in part two, if all a person wants is a six pack, the recipe is diet first to get to 10% bf and an ab hypertrophy program - two were suggested (as ab ripper x actually isn't an hypertrophy program). That's 20mins, 3times a week for effort, and the rest of the effort is diet. That's 1 hour vs 7.

Now sometimes folks just don't believe this is really all one needs to do to get a six pack. It's some kind of no pain no gain ethos perhaps. It can't be that simple. The formula is that simple. Application that's another thing. We'll see below examples of stunning recent research that shows 6mins of intense cardio a week has the same physiological benefits as an hour twenty.

Even if folks believe that a six pack is diet to 10% and 20 mins every other day of ab work, they may want to move more than 20 mins every other day. But why? well, one reason may be what's often put out as "muscle tone"

Muscle tone is another word for both more activation of existing muscle fibers and more muscle fibers to activate. Muscle fibers are densely packed and very small, so even while not incredibly massive, when lean enough to see, one looks pretty wiry strong.

And that might be another thing to check: muscular hypertrophy works on two angles: getting more *stuff* around muscle fiber bundles (sarcoplasmic) and myofibril. Workout type - especially load and recovery - effect hypertrophy type. Bringing more fibers on board, rather than mainly improving the oxidative capacity of the ones we have is what non-aerobic type training privileges - power or hypertrophy strength training rather than endurance (aka P90X)

Is 7 hours a week of cardio work the best way to lay down more muscle fiber? No. Really. It's not. Yes elite marathoners are wiry. But even endurance runners head to the gym for strength training. We'll get into some of the benefits to that below.

So if the goal is then leanness, 6 pack and muscle tone - and perhaps the consequent benefits of health to working out - then we have the first two covered. The recipe for leanness and 6 pack has been stated.

What Type of Muscle, what Type of Strength? If we're doing mainly fat burning/oxidative workouts, we're usually privileging slow twitch muscle fibers. The fast twitch that come into play for power strength or speed aren't getting taxed/developed. They may even atrophy or convert in favour of the growth of the slow twitch privileged muscle types. Faster take longer to get back, too.

You might think you don't care about going fast, but speed, along with a ready nervous system (we'll come onto proprioception) is also the ability to respond quickly to sudden situations, where moving fast can be critical.

But what about the rest of our physiologic systems beyond Muscle?
If we are interested in full body health, there's more to think about that muscle and muscle type. We have multiple energy systems. P90X privileges training one: the oxidative system. Yes really important for fat burning, but that's just part of us. Like the phosphate, glycolytic and lactate energy systems, too.

We also have bones, joints, ligaments and hormones (like insulin) being affected differently by different effort types. And we have a nervous system - a system that is always on and always adapts to what we practice. Immediately and all the time. What are we doing for these systems?

In this article the focus will then be on
  • Muscle tone - laying down new muscle fibers - is what we'll look at to consider alternatives to P90X.
  • General well being including more of the body's systems
  • checking time
  • and the role of checking quality of movement and mobility

Muscle Tone
I'd like to adjust the title here to "muscle tone and bone" as both components of our physiology, along with our lungs and heart and nervous system (and innards generally) need to be considered.

To get both muscle tone and bone building in one swoop, we're talking about resistance training. There are a couple approaches to resistance work that will impact both muscle and bone. This means dynamic work with load, pulling heavy, or both. An alternative for bones is playing squash or soccer. Apparently the stop/start nature of squash and soccer have tremendous value for bone growth. But so does axial loading: bringing force down directly in the direction of the bone. Which means lifting heavy, or lifting fast.

Mentioning lifting heavy or fast sometimes freaks people out. Heavy seems scary; moving a heavy object quickly also may seem scary. There's a fear of hurting oneself, or that one is not strong enough. But everything is proportional. Load is progressive: i've worked with seniors who on their first lifts were parallel squatting for 5 resps with soup cans, built up to milk jugs, and from there to real weights. Point is, they were finding potent loads for them, causing their bodies to adapt.

Aside: Insulin Sensitivity. One of the best ways to get insulin sensitivity up (a good thing) is to include lifting heavy in one's program. Here's more on why from Dave Barr.

The difference: The key thing here is perhaps a couple points to distinguish what P90X does with weights and what we're talking about here.

P90X as described in part 2 does not include multiple sets of a single move with recovery between sets and staying fresh. The weights used in the circuits are light enough not just to get through a set but to get through multiple sets in an hour. They also focus on bodybuilding isolation moves rather than foundational strength work.

There are at least Four differences in resistance approaches in p90x and a strength/power/hypertrophy focused lifting program:

Compound Moves rather than Isolation Moves. A fundamental power/hypertrophy program would scrap the arm/shoulders/chest isolation work entirely and favour whole body "compound" movements. Bigger bang for the bone and muscle buck. Picking up something heavy; pushing something heavy (relatively speaking) means bringing the whole body into play. P90X has a few of these: pull ups and push ups are awesome. They engage everything. Other examples of such compound moves are deadlifts, squats, renegade rows and the amazing turkish get up as demo'd in Kalos Sthenos.

More Load; Fewer Reps. Getting to know the 1, 5 or 10 rep load maximum for a given move is a valuable thing. That way a person can plan sets to be a certain percentage of a maximal rep, understand that the best no. of reps at that percentage will favour a particular kind of strength building.

Actual Recovery for hypertrophy/power. Like understanding percentage of maximal load for effort, understanding recovery periods - and taking them (seriously) is an often overlooked fact of strength development.

Learn quality moves The above assumes that one seeks the instruction to learn how to perform compound moves well.
By balancing load, rep, recovery and quality, we can dial in the kind of strength program best suited to support true general physical preparedness.

Options for Adding Load to Your Routine.
So, suppose you think well, ok, let's try this resistance for real approach, i still don't want to have to go to the gym or get a whole bunch of gear. Far enough.

For the no or low gear desirous, Ross Enemait has the gold standard of body weight work, and home made gear that lets a person achieve any kind of muscular tone goals. Tons of vids on his sight and ideas on how to make strength apparatus to work for you.

TNT bands already used in P90X offer space saving, resistance challenging, forms of work. Jon Hinds who developed this version of band offers and awesome workout routine with a set of the bands. These can be great supplements to some basic weights.

The TRX is another space saving workout system that lets a person use bodyweight in a variety of challenging ways, including supporting pull ups and dips. I personally think that Rings are a gas, though. Elite Rings are awesome and fun. Find room for them and you'll feel like a kid anytime you workout with them.

To get into weights, Powerblocks are great space-saving selectable apparatus. But for that matter, a barbell with a sufficient set of plates can be had cheap regularly on ebay, and will really let you start to pull heavy. The best program for full body fitness with a barbell: two moves, found in Power to the People, always assuming diet (discussed in the last article) is dialed in. Here's a really fast approach to blend all three types of strength with a barbell by Charles Staley, too.

The Kettlebell Confession. What i personally find a very powerful tool for general fitness or wha't also called General Physical Preparedness (GPP - as opposed to Sports Specific training) is kettlebell work. If you have room to swing a cat, you have room for a kettlebell. Why i like the kettlebell so much is that its core simple move, the swing, lets a person do a range of work, from cardio, to raw strength, to power and vo2max, all with the same tool. I've written about why Enter the Kettebell(ETK) is a fabulous program - especially coming off P90X - because its approach captures both these attributes of fast movement for power and strength work for hypertrophy and dynamic work for endurance. It's a complete package. Can work fast and slow twitch muscles; all energy systems; complements related systems work like bone and endocrine etc.

Kettlebell work as spec'd in ETK satisfies the three advantages to lifting fast/heavy that no amount of aerobic movement confers: putting stress on the bones and ligaments to grow and stay strong; different workouts trigger the carbohydrate energy system to help with insulin sensitivity; the lifting effort causes new (fast or slow depending on work out) muscular tissue to be developed, thus leading to enhanced muscle tone.

Depending on your focus, there are a variety of approaches for kettlebell use. Anthony Di Luglio has developed follow along strength/cardio kettlebell routines (reviewed here). Mike Mahler focuses on Charles Staley's Escalating Density Training (also fabulous) applied to double kettlebell work for size and strength. Pavel Tsatsouline's latest book takes this concept even further for power work.

Inspiring examples of KB work may be found with Tracy Reifkind (story here, with excerpts right) and Andrea u-shi
Chang (story here).

One of the compelling things about Tracy's success is that she combined diet first, the importance of which we saw in the last article, with 20 mins a day of kettlebell work. That's it. Diet first (really. diet first. diet most important) & 20 mins a day. And has continued with that program and transformed herself and her health. And she has fabulous tone. Her blog is a great place to see how her workouts have grown in length to 45-50 mins over several years. That first year of 100lbs significant weight loss, diet, and 20mins of KB's.

Which brings us to time.

But a last few quick notes about resistance workouts: recovery recovery recovery - with volume.
There are LOTS of program options from barbells to kettlebells to nada, pending what kind of gear appeals to you. I have not even begun to touch on the rich variety that's out there that also follow good principles. A few to consider within this to challenge the muscles to lay down new fibers. Power to the People and Greasing the Groove are two; Charles Staley's EDT is another; HST is another particularly focused on hypertrophy for mass/size.

Each of these privileges higher total volume in a workout but with lower rep sets with recovery to stay fresh. EDT for instance takes two moves in 15 min blocks. One knows their 10 rep max for a given move, does only 5 reps, and alternates between the two within the 15 mins. Fresh, never to failure, perfect reps. One of the great appeals of P90X for me was that it had real moves like pull ups and push ups. Imagine applying EDT to these moves rather than going to fatigue with each set, as in P90X? Thus privileging fast twitch muscle work, too.

The other thing about a heuristic for a health and fitness well being program is that in lifting, we're talking whole body. Body builders will do arm curls. Someone concerned with an efficient way to work power speed and strength will snatch or clean and press, or do weighted pull ups and single leg squats. They'll develop great abs, legs and arms without ever doing an arm curl.

Ok one other point: drop going to failure.
That is actually an advanced and specific bodybuilding technique that over the past 20 years has been shown to have minimal benefit overall, and not a whole lot of gain for the general practitioner, and new lifter in particular. It is also only induced in Heavy resistance - which P90X is not. And the down side can be overly taxing one's system. Again, advanced technique, and many hypertrophy techniques for mass (like HST) do NOT use it at all.

That and "the pump" sound great, but this is another finishing technique, not basic muscle development, and it's really speculative as to it's value for strength work. And where there may be a role within something known as occlusion training, it's a deliberate, occasional and specific application - not something for every set, every workout.

What will happen is that one will either feel fatigued
after such a workout, and/or sore quite quickly when the pump goes down. One will definitely feel like one has done work. But is this better or more effective than feeling strong and fresh at the end of a workout? It would seem to be a wrong focus and priority for the de-conditioned or less experienced trainee. But perhaps if someone buying this program doesn't feel like this - when they think workouts mean no pain no gain - then they'll think it's a crap workout. Hmm.

The Alternative to endurance/fatigue? Heavier, faster.
In a more balanced approach, a good part of the work in a week is focused on heavy/fast lifting where one has learned what their 1, 5 or 10 rep maximum is for the weight and movement involved, and where one is knowingly and deliberately taking advantage of reps/sets/recovery time and load to challenge the various energy systems and force an adaptation.

The P90X approach at best focuses on endurance, and that in only one way: surviving an hour+ of activity per day. That is missing the benefits of heavy lifting and recovery cycles for hormone efficiency - including insulin - joint health, muscular adaptation and bone mineral density maintenance. IT's just NOT a complete fitness program. And for some people('s partners especially), P90X just takes to long.

On Time
P90X is 7+ hours a week of aerobic work. It may be called, core, kenpo, plyo, arms, shoulders, back, legs, but it's endurance/aerobic/cardio, as seen in part 2, and it's long. Why oh why is it 7 hours of cardio-by-proxy? Again, 7 hours is dandy if that's your informed choice and matches your goals. But there is really nothing optimal for fitness in the design of P90X.

Some recent work showed over 2 years - not 12 weeks - obese gals who had the most success with their weight loss worked out 270-300 mins a week. 4.5-5 hours. Not 7. Those are two more hours a week available to spend with your family or your life than in the gym. This doesn't mean that more hours than that a week working out are bad. Not at all. It's just that one does not HAVE to go at 7hours a week for body comp success or health and strength success. While the study suggests five, i have colleagues who spend 45 minutes every other day working out and report being happy with their body comp. What they do in those 45 minutes is the magic.

As we've seen however,
  • consistent diet and 20 mins a day of one routine - Tracy Reifkind's kettlebell work - has been powerfully transformative.
  • Charles Staley's EDT program starts with 15 min blocks every other day, with only two moves in a single block, buidling up to 3, 15 min blocks, and they are killer. The approaches take advantage of varying intensity and including real recovery. They leverage the science of our physiology to effect adaptation.
So these are 15 min blocks every day or every other day. A far cry from an hour of bringing it.

Intervals compress Time. Another approach that as a side effect shortens workout times is Intervals. P90XPlus (the p90x follow up program) talks about Intervals, but it doesn't really use them. Intervals means working at a particular effort - usually hard - then recovering.

So far, the BEST tested fat loss interval approach with both conditioned and non-conditioned women is 8 secs of HARD pedaling followed by 12 secs of light pedaling - for 20 mins. That's it.
The group which did around eight seconds of sprinting on a bike, followed by 12 seconds of exercising lightly for twenty minutes, lost three times as much fat as other women, who exercised at a continuous, regular pace for 40 minutes
Quick note: the study tested with women, not guys, but there's good reason to think this will be effective for men, too, based on the results of other interval protocols studies.

With intervals, one burns more calories overall than with steady state cardio, that's one thing,. But the interval also entices other benefits for the physiology, including enhancing the sensitivity and effectiveness of our hormonal systems (from insulin to endorphins), nervous system, energy systems.

While 8/12 for 20 sounds great compared to 60+ mins of slog, here's another study where the focus was on aerobic/endurance fitness. 6mins. A WEEK. resulted in the equivalent physiological benefit of 4.5 HOURS of normal cardio a week - p90x type effort. 6mins vs 390.

We just don't have to go long to get physiological benefits; we have to go hard and recover and hard and recover and hard and recover.

Now it's all fine to go long if we're doing something we enjoy. My fat loss hero Lyle McDonald talks about the total comparative benefits of intervals to steady state cardio where going for an hour of steady state burns more total calories than 30 mins of intervals. That's true. When looking at the raw numbers from the specific session. And there is a role for both. McDonald does not talk about the physiological/energy system differences between the two approaches (he starts to in follow ups); just immediate calories burned. And there's more to us than calories burned (as the 8/12 for 20 study shows). We're complex interconnect systems. Optimal approaches to fitness respect this.

And that's why variety in our workout lives means more than going through a bunch of exercises that are all cardio/endurance based, but variety in terms of systems worked.

So we might ask, do least some of our sessions in a week include optimizing benefit for bone, muscle and the rest of our physiology? is this all time well spent for our whole health? Less can be more, with the right less optimized for all the mores. One approach is a third resistance, a third intervals and a third cardio. And also NEPA's

On Practice: Quality and Quantity. Not either/or

I've said throughout this series that P90X is fine if it makes you happy, and as long as you know that it's an endurance program, is that all you want; it takes far longer than it needs to to deliver the lean effects it advertises. But actually, there is one place where i'd suggest one might want to reconsider P90X and might even say it's flawed. P90X is sloppy. Let me explain.

Skill is not mentioned in P90X. And that's understandable in terms of selling a product for the widest appeal. If one needed training to carry out any of the work in P90X that would detract from its immediate do-ability. And as said, that's fine for someone trying to sell something.

But what about the human being buying it? What have we learned we can apply?
We endure beyond the 90 days, and what do we learn? Any transferable performance skills? Perhaps a person doesn't care about learning any athletic skills: the goal is to kill calories; burn fat. But have we therefore potentially compromised movement quality?

Let's consider possible skills that could be addressed in some of the programs if we cared about their value rather than endurance from faux verions:

For folks doing Yoga-x, one might assume the tree pose with eyes closed. How stable does the person feel? In that position, eyes closed, turn the head quickly to the left. Is the person still standing?

The image is of Kettlebell Master Trainer Mark Reifkind, former gymnast and powerlifter, whose main activities now are kettlebells, bikram yoga and z-health mobility. See his blog for blending strength, power, endurance, mobility - and yoga.

Actual yoga, as seen in Part 1 is also about breathing first, is also not about gratuitously holding isometric poses - which is just more (non-transferable static) endurance work. What do we learn about breathing techniques that we might use from yoga to lift heavier weight?

Kenpo is an art that uses kicking and punching. Both the kick and the punch have more going on in them - such as timing of forces - than simply looking like a kick or a punch. What is the benefit of risking putting one's back out or throwing a shoulder in this de-skilled version of Kenpo looking moves, other than another attempt at entertaining cardio? Wouldn't it be cool to actually learn a kick, how to harmonize the forces, and do those high quality kicks? Or punches. How do you know if your upper cut is effective or bleeding energy? Dunno here.

Plyometrics as discussed in part 1 is usually used to enhance speed and power, very much not endurance, as it's used in P90X, but speed or power aren't tested in this program, so hard to say if a person has gained any speed skills. IT's also very very much about form, where the deceleration is a key part of acceleration: plyometrics is about developing rapid conversion of stored elastic energy into force. So depth jumps and kettlebell overspeed eccentrics work this property (see the Elastic section of this article on Plastic/Elastic in human performance). Getting as many joints involved as possible, in the right way, is key to that energy conversion.

While bounding is great, and hopping on one foot can seem taxing, because these moves are done largely to a kind of fatigue, the notion of developing fast eccentric use of the stored energy goes away - the energy stored by a little hop has already dissipated by the time of the conversion. And so what can be a great speed/power strength effect becomes another endurance effect, fighting fatigue. Likewise, the skill of moving even in the hop to a good landng and from there up into a new hop is never discussed. So what's the point of jumping about in the P90X context called plyo? Another version of cardio?

Even the humble pull up and push up have particular biomechanical features that, when taught, make the performance of the exercise easier but also leverage better use of the body and so better transfer of capacity from one movement to another that use the same muscle groups.

As an example of the degree of attention a simple move can require, the one arm pushup, rushed through one part of one disk in P90X, is the subject of half a book for coordinating muscular activity along the core; speed of shoulder joint to elbow joint is a technique called bone rhythm that assures the physics of the body is working together for optimal efficiency.

In resistance sections, quality of movement is mentioned from time to time, but the notion of quality seems at best very not old but dated school.

In the resistance parts, quality (as poster Brad points out) is quitting a set before "things get squirrelly." And that really feeling the last three reps is what you're going for. Hmm. So kind of going to failure in long *endurance* sets. Why? We know from well the best we know of hypertrophy and strength training that we can get tremendous effect by doing lots of volume with higher quality sets not going near fatigue ( ie where one really feels those "last three reps.") As pointed to, Staley's approach (and HST) is quality short sets with increasing volume.

In the Staley/Tsatsouline seminar DVD, Staley demonstrates convincingly that the most power is in the first three reps of a set. Why not recover to be able to continue to produce best power and force most adaptation? Actually staying fresh and NOT feeling it, and going long (volume) has greater benefit for strength and power - and adjusted appropriately - hypertrophy.

But such sets with lots of breaks perhaps is not providing the variety, entertainment and boredom fighting of changing to a different move every minute, and *feeling* well worked out. Instead such a focused approach says one or two moves done very well for reps with appropriate attention to quality and recovery lead to fabulous health rewards. The focus required to consider the whole movement does not allow boredom, when every rep is a practice of achieving perfection. Our bodies practice and remember what we do (see the SAID principle below). Imagine the benefit of remembering and practicing optimal reps rather than fatigue?

It's not complicated. It's not confusing. But it is important. Because at the end of the day - whether day one or day 91 - quality is always important.

Now some folks have said - me too - that some movement is better than no movement, and isn't it better that folks do something than nothing and didn't i write a positive review a few years back about P90X? Well, ignorance is bliss. We do the best we can with what we know. But what about knowing better?

Analogy: Radial Confusion (or why not start with quality?) To use the oft cited analogy of fitness, the car: suppose we have a car and it's not tuned up - one of the things wrong with it is the pressure in the tires is uneven and the tires haven't been rotated in awhile. But also the timing's off; the seals need to be checked and possibly some replaced, fluids replaced, belts checked or replaced, alignment done, sparks done, air filter done, break seals and fluid checked, rad level checked, etc. There may even be some better types of fuel available for the engine, or better oil for the conditions. The exhaust pipe may be starting to rot through. We don't know any of this; we just know that the car feels abit sluggish. and seems to go through gas quicker than previously. We seek out Someone Who Knows This Stuff.

And we come upon a mechanic that says boy, i know exactly what you mean: the thing used to run great, it doesn't now, but have i got something great for you that's gonna heal this machine. Change the fuel to this great of octane and rotate the tires and you're gonna be so happy. And you'll be even more happy if you wash the windows every time you fill up with gas and be sure to keep the engine really clean. Get under the hood and degunk it. That's a big part of good care.

And that's what we do. And lo and behold! a performance increase: the mileage has improved, it's nice to see better, and the car doesn't feel like it's pulling quite so much to one side. Super duper.

Isn't that great? Plainly we now have the solution to car well being. That mechanic is a genius. We're going to tell everyone that this is the best mechanic around and to get his radial confusion program.

Is rotating the tires - doing something better than nothing? Is it a false sense of security too?

The point of this series has been to help folks make informed choices. I think, based on what we do know about how we work, that we can do better for ourselves right out of the gate in terms of quality and quantity of practice, and we do ourselves a disservice not to treat our bodies as the incredible systems we are.

And our systems adapt immediately to whatever we do with them.

Our nervous systems, as modeled in the SAID principle (see Plastic section of this article), adapt immediately to exactly what we're doing. If we move poorly our nervous system practices that pattern. Going for 60minutes of crappy reps is a lot of reps, reinforcing a lot of poor movement.

Part of the point of showing that shorter workouts can be just as or more effective than hour long ones is also to support the capacity to do quality work. Always going to sweaty fatigue is not actually a sign of strength success. Leaving a strength workout feeling fresh, like there is more in the tank, is also a very good strategy. Pushing to the limit, testing that 1 rep maximum, is a cyclical not constant thing.

Mobility Work and the VVP

So here's one other alternative to P90X or at the very least an important complement - joint mobility. Far better than faux yoga would be 10 or 20 mins of mobility work combined with 10 or 20 mins of progressive balance work (see middle of this post on balance work).

There are loads of mobility programs available Qi Gong is an ancient form of such. The one approach i prefer is z-health because it is very precisely and deliberately focused on improving the visual, vestibular and proprioceptive systems (vvp). VVP is how our bodies know where we are in space when standing still or moving. These systems are trainable. The pay off of working with the VVP directly is that it seems we also enhance the nervous system's information channels, and that has benefits for feeling better and moving better. I've written a lot about this approach to health, and why it's particularly great in an athletic awareness context. Practicing z-health is also applicable in a sports movement context to help get that precision of movement for quality of movement.

P90X Critique(s) Confession

So yes, i confess, that is actually my third big criticism of P90X: it's drive i suppose for entertainment, to make sure things pop pop pop that results in movement slop. And there are costs to reinforcing poor movement.

My first criticism is that diet is second in importance and my second criticism is that it's dressing up endurance work as plyo, yoga, hypertrophy etc etc etc. All these amazing forms of activity have been stripped of their skill component and particular benefits, and translated into cardio circuits entertainment. It's selling folks words like plyo, yoga, kenpo, resistance so folks feel like they're doing all these various forms of exercise when we're just not.

Examples of Success in Reasonable Contexts.
Sometimes it's useful to see success stories from *other* places than a routine we're considering and look at the differences.

Here's some folks who are blending diet and some hypertrophy training over 6 months, not 90 days, and not working out 7 hours of endurance a week. These are mainly young lads, but you get the idea. Scooby also has a free alternative plan to p90x. His recipe and mine (and others) for a six pack is slightly different, but not hugely.

Likewise i've pointed to these before, here's some 16 week success stories of real and reasonable people combining diet and workouts for real and reasonable results. With real before and after pictures.

Ignore the label; what's really in the Tin. My hope is that, by the end of this three part series, folks considering a program like P90X know to ask of the workouts, no matter what someone says they are, can look at what's going on in them to see what kind of workout they REALLY are, and this can be assessed by looking at load, reps, recovery and quality.
Less Can be So Much More. Likewise a take away from this article in particular is that workouts to be effective do not have to be long. Intensity can be used effectively whether the goal is fat loss and cardio well being, or getting toned (getting more muscular density).

Real Resistance Training. While one does develop a certain kind of tone from aerobic effort, i have also suggested complementing that with heavy/fast lifting practice because this kind of effort works other systems that are part of us that straight endurance work does not. A whole athlete/person trains the whole system. You may want to privilege one, but learning how to work with all of them can only be a Good Idea.

Quality and Mobility. The unlooked at aspect of these programs is the skill level, and the benefit of better movement form and quality. Here's a quick note on the benefit of movement quality looking at the deceptively simple front squat by way of example. And here's a general related tip about knowing a bit about mobility and movement, with the arthrokinetic reflex - aspects missing from P90X and most 12 weeks type programs that sacrifice quality for non-stop variety.

Summary for Workouts
I gave a lot of possible nutrition/diet approaches in part 3a. Here, in 3b considering workouts, these are some heuristics i'd suggest for choosing a life time general physical preparedness (gpp) program.

  • Lift heavy and Lift Compound, full body several times a week
  • Ramp in aerobic training with intervals on some days; sports or spots/steady state cardio on others as you feel you wish to do so.
  • stay fresh - not failed: use recovery wisely
  • include some joint mobility work into your daily practice for the neurological benefits as well as musclo-tendinous ones.
  • Give yourself a chance to adapt: it takes more than 90days to become conditioned, but that's a great start. We have the rest of our lives to practice; why not begin as we mean to go on?

And to take a page from Pavel Tsatsouline, may i suggest think of workouts as Practice to value the skill of what you're doing with a most precious resource: yourself.

And as a finale, here's an example of putting everything together in the real:

Thanks to RKC Team Lead Franz Shneiderman (his blog) for sharing this video.

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brad said...

This critique is very compelling, and you make some great points. I am a fitness novice and I am currently on day 28 of P90X. I committed to doing the program before I found your critique and am going to stick with it because breaking commitments with myself is something I just don't do. I'm stubborn like that. After reading this blog, I will probably look into kettlebell work after I am done with the 90 days.

Now, the only problem I have with this article is where you state that the quality of moves is not ever mentioned in P90X. Well, that's just not true. The "tip of the day" in one of the videos is "quality over quantity". I think it's either the chest&back or legs&back video. You can argue that quality is not emphasized ENOUGH, but you can't say "Quality of movement is not mentioned at all ever", because that's just patently false.

Randy Hauer said...

"One of the compelling things about Tracy's success is that she combined diet with 15 mins a day of kettlebell work. That's it. 15 mins a day. And has stuck with that program and transformed herself and her health."


"Friday KB swing combinations w/ 26
Warm up
40 2 hand swings 1 min. on 1 min. rest x 5 sets = 10 min.
Work sets
40 1 swing, 1 transfer, 2 min. on, 1 min. rest
20 L, 20 R, 20 L, 20 R, 1 hand swings, 2 min. on, 1 min. rest
40 2 hand swings, 1 min. on, 1 min. rest
These 3 sets took 8 min. to complete. I alternated sets #1-3 in order x 5 = 40 min. Total WO time 50 min.

from a random 2006 blog entry

dr. m.c. said...

Brad, glad to hear you're interested in kb's - thanks for dropping by.

could u check which vid and how far in you're thinking of? i can find no demos of "this is how to do the move" and just saying quality is important doesn't help much do you think? thanks for your help there.

Randy, i was thinking of Mark's write up in Vitalics which i ref'd, and have now embedded in the text. and it's 20 rather than 15 mins.

I've also clarified that in that first year, tracy according to mark, did 20 mins. only with a 12k bell - the year she lost 100lbs+

The 2006 blogs is two years after she started her weight loss and fitness journey. It's cool to see that these efforts were ramped up over time; they didn't start at that and the work was still fabulously successful.

best all,

brad said...

Okay, towards the end of the warmup section of Legs & Back, with about 49:12 left in the workout, he says, "Every workout has a tip of the day. Do you know what today is? Quality over quantity. I don't want you fighting to get more reps just because you're all jacked up about the numbers. Quality over quantity. Form is everything here with legs and pullups. If you start to get squirrely, you're done. Move on to the next thing."

Today I did the chest/shoulders/triceps workout, and I was more conscious about how often he mentioned that form was important, and how often he demonstrated proper form. He mentioned it a lot. One issue was that he did a lot of the demonstrating and correcting while the moves are being done, so if it's your first time through, you might start off doing it wrong and then correct yourself halfway through. Next time you should get it right though. It's also somewhat difficult to watch the video while you're doing pushups or whatever, for obvious reasons. So, there definitely could be some improvement there, but it's not like proper form just gets thrown by the wayside.

I should also note that I did karate in a style similar to Kenpo for 8 years, and so the Kenpo workout is the one that I am most comfortable doing. All of the corrections and tips he gives, I already know about. And I am with you in that he does not fully describe the proper technique for all the moves. Someone who had never done karate is bound to do a sidekick wrong, and he doesn't come close to describing all the nuances of a perfect sidekick, for example. Can you do imperfect sidekicks and still burn calories? Yeah, probably. Will you be able to kick someone's ass with your crappy sidekick? Hell no. Is a perfect sidekick harder to learn than, say, a perfect pushup? I'm guessing yes, but I didn't study pushups for 8 years, so I don't know. Maybe there are more intricacies than appear at face value.

Anyway, long story short: quality over quantity is mentioned many times throughout the program, and quality is demonstrated and mentioned, but there are probably many cases where it should go more in depth.

Mister Suss said...

Don't know anything about P90X beyond what you've written here and enjoy interval-type training as much as anyone, but you seem to be anti-steady-state in favor of cardio pretty much across the board. I used to think the same thing. Then I came across Lyle McDonald, Alan Aragon and Will Heffernan. Check out this series by Lyle about steady state and intervals, which starts here: http://www.bodyrecomposition.com/fat-loss/steady-state-and-interval-training-part-1.html.

dr. m.c. said...

Mister Suss,

i'm not sure where you got that i don't think steady state is good.

For one, i quote the article that you mention by Lyle - perhaps you missed the "my fat burning hero Lyle McDonald"

Likewise also you may be interested in the several other articles i've done celebrating cardio - including steady state in particular

Cardio workouts vs Vo2Max workouts

this sites a whole bunch more of mcdonald and other resaerch.

and there's
does cardio
interfere with strength work - how 'bout no.

So, in these articles my intent is not to praise intervals in lieu of steady state.

Indeed at the end of the article, i say a good program would mix resistance, steady state and intervals.


dr. m.c. said...

Brad, thanks for coming back.

I went over the resistance dvds too again and last night and yes "quality" is mentioned for sure. You are right.

I'm not sure it's demonstrated particularly tho in the resistance any more than it is in kenpo. For instance in the chair dips, there's no discussion about really what correct form actually is. Are we to infer that not letting one's arms braek parallel is correct? that going to parallel only is correct? (i'll leave off the debates about chair dips like these being not so great period)

Also, there's no excuse for what's taught as a one arm push up, really :)

And i guess, fundamentally, that it's a methodology thing. I hear a lot of folks on twitter talking about p90x celebrating being exhausted, wiped or sore after their workouts. What is the value of picking a max no. of high reps to do in a set without a break and going to the edge of squirrelly, rather than staying fresh?

Is that optimal for practicing quality movements where every single rep is quality?

So Brad, i thank you and take your point that P90X does talk about quality; does advise that form is important. yes. and i agree with you that it would be great if it went further to explain what that is in each move.

Really appreciate you taking the time to come back on this.


danfaz said...

I enjoyed reading this article, as it's one of the few that doesn't praise P90X. I am on my last week of P90X, and have achieved the goals I set out to. I was one of those deconditioned folks that needed a structured change. I dropped nearly 30 pounds of goop & have a BF% of about 13% now (from 25%). So, as a strictly fat/weight loss routine, P90X certainly works. However, I don't plan on repeating it. I think I will also check out the kettle bells as I want to focus more on total body fitness & muscle gain rather than fat loss. Thanks for a different perspective!

dr. m.c. said...

Thanks Daniel.

Congratulations on your progress, and thanks for your kind words. Glad this may help with the planning ahead.


Jason said...


Outstanding analysis. Truly well done. You've really provided a great service with this. As it's done with myself, I think it will help many others critically and intelligently how best to spend their time in pursuit of their fitness goals.

Thank you very much.


Unknown said...

Excellent writeup with some very compelling evidence. I picked up P90X from a friend that quit and didn't bother to get a refund for only 20 bucks so I think I got my money's worth. Right now I'm about half way through, I'm close to losing 20 pounds and I feel better in my daily life. Going into the program I wasn't expecting some ridiculous change or focus on catch phrases like getting 'ripped,' I just wanted a structured plan to get me into the habit of working out. For that P90X has been great and certainly worthy of my investment. My biggest worry about the program was what to do after, and as such this was my favorite part of your article. Overall I really enjoyed the time and effort you took to research and write about this subject.


dr. m.c. said...

Jason, thank you.
Adam, congratulations with your body comp work and all the best with your next steps in your own practice post p90x.


MarkAlanConley1 said...

Part One:

I think your review is impressively thorough and overall quite well-written. It certainly provides considerable food for thought, particularly among those who wish to move on past P90X. But to my mind, it is precisely that last part where I think your analysis is a bit too glib, if you will pardon me.

Kettlebells didn't motivate me to get back to fitness. Nor you, even, judging from your previous review from just having completed the program. No, it was P90X, the program, and it was Tony Horton, and it was Beachbody. And you and I it appears lost weight and returned to a fitness regimen AS A DIRECT RESULT OF THIS PROGRAM.

Your excellent research makes it quite clear that this is not the best fitness program for all results desired. Anyone who thinks it would be is probably truly an infomercial sucker. But it DOES get results. It does transform lives. It does motivate in a way that perhaps kettlebells might not at the same stage in one's life.

I appreciate your criticism of P90X' yoga program and take its points as being important to note. But again, what motivated you to look at yoga as part of a fitness program to begin with? Might others be similarly inspired? I know I have been.

MarkAlanConley1 said...

Part Two

Finally, you cannot assume that the comments on the message boards accurately reflect the general populace's experience with the product. Myself, I am just finishing my second round of P90X. I am thinner. I am stronger. I have been proud of the process and have been motivated to change my life. That is priceless to me. I have no doubt some of these results could have been achieved more efficiently otherwise. But no other program had ever motivated me to get going before. This one did. And it has for many countless others. And that is worth far, far more than your review gives credit.

From here, I have no doubt I will increase in knowledge - due in no small parts to reviews and articles such as yours, which I will be re-reading a few times now. But not for one second do I regret any of the time or money I spent on this program. It brought me, through its approach, to the point where I might care what others would have to say about fitness and other approaches. And that is far, far more important than is acknowledged in your review.

You cannot separate the program from those who are on the videos, from the message boards, from the attempts to get people to even think about what they eat. Rudimentary? Probably. But the entire package makes one have a sense of pride and a desire to learn more - to get even better.

After all, look what it appears to have done for you....

Anonymous said...

The very attractive thing about P90X is that everything is laid out for you. But after reading this post, I lost my desire to do it. Can you provide as an alternative that has good layout like P90X? I saw the TRX at the mall earlier and it was too expensive for me. I already have the equipment for P90X.

Thank you very much.

Aaron A. said...

Thank you for writing this review/critique. I've seen more than a few guys complaining on YouTube that P90X was stupid, or that the exercises don't work, or that Tony Horton's stuck in 1982. Rarely did they explain their reasoning, never did they back it up with published and peer-reviewed research, and more often than not they'd throw in a plug for their own website while criticizing Horton and Beachbody for trying to make money.

As you say, Horton didn't invent muscle confusion or plyometrics; those have been around for decades. The only truly unique thing about P90X is his personality, and for many people, that's enough.

Motivation is a huge factor in short- or long-term success. I don't like exercise bikes; they're too awkward and the seats are too hard. I'd rather spend an hour on the treadmill than ten minutes on an exercise bike, even if it would burn the same number of calories. P90X may not be the most efficient program, and they use the same rose-tinted marketing language as other fitness products do, but there is one area in which P90X really delivers: motivating people.

Like Billy Blanks or Jane Fonda before him, Tony Horton's personality resonates with people, and motivates them to work through the tough times. If you find Horton relatable, if his corny jokes help you get out of bed at 5:00am when you'd rather sleep in, that's the most important thing. Targeted training is a good thing, but I'd rather graduate with a B-minus average than be the straight-A student who burns out during his junior year and drops out. The best exercise for you is whatever you'll keep doing.

runr said...

I am so grateful for your critique and the time you put into this as you have saved me a lot of time and energy. I bought P90X at a garage sale last spring and tried it for a week but it left me pretty wiped out as I was running 40+ miles a week on top of the X workouts. Now I am running 60-80 miles a week and was thinking of revisiting at least some of the P90X workouts in an effort to be "more well-rounded". Thanks to you I see this would not be the case but would just add extra cardio which I obviously don't need! I used to weight train with heavy weights and so much of what the P90X was touting did not ring true but I guess I just didn't really think it through until I read your review. I can't thank you enough for putting the time and effort into doing it.

Kenny C said...

Amazing article.... I have been die-hard with p90x for a while, but the time commitment is just killer and am always looking for more efficient ways to improve.

I would LOVE to get a bit more direction/suggestion from you on a specific schedule or routines to replace p90x though... A little too overwhelmed with options after reading this

After all... That's really the biggest up-side to p90x for me - I don't have to think about it, just follow the plan.

So.... What's a better plan?

Владимир said...

My friend suspected you're paid by P90X competitors.
The more I read your article the more I think he is right.
While there is a lot of information and interesting links, you are clearly biased against P90X. It wasn't that obvious in your older articles. One more reason to believe he's on a payroll of competitors - you did not approve any of my comments or other negative comments, only complimentary comments are being approved. I don't trust you anymore.

dr. m.c. said...

hi folks,
vladimir, all i can say is wow that would be really cool to be in the "pay of p90x competitors" - whatever that means, but it sounds very like a luxurious kind of secret agent. Very James Bond. As far as i know you've written four comments; they're all up. It's a shame you feel that critique and offering alternatives is "bias" rather than critique and offering alternatives. As i say repeatedly, if P90x floats your boat, more power to you; my point has been to show, as the name of the article here suggests, ALTERNATIVES - there's more than one way to skin a cat - which people who do not care for p90x or who have other goals may appreciate. Hope that makes sense.

Kenny C as for alternatives - it really depends on you or your goals for your shoulders: for example if it's overall strength pull ups, push ups, kettlebell swings, snatches and presses are great; if it's for endurance or for sprint work, doing sprint technique practices is also grand, as is band work for sustained resistance at awkward angles. If you check out my coaching page, would be happy to chat.


Владимир said...


First of all, let me apologize. I hope you won't keep bad impression from my post. Forget offending part if possible.

Then, despite being BB coach I'm open for alternatives as well. (I'm a mountain climber first of all, everything else is secondary to some degree.) I found a lot of interesting links on your site. Doing TRX Force for a second week and enjoy it. I'm starting with kettlebell training (Art of Strength, Kettlebell Clinic by Anthony DiLuglio.) I'm listening for a very interesting Hormone Optimization class by Mike Mahler (your link.)

Still, my firm believe is that P90X makes a perfect and necessary foundation for all this advanced stuff and is more versatile / all encompassing. I wouldn't lock myself on P90X, but I would definitely suggest to use it first. I keep my opinion on P90X as more strength training than cardio, while being is beautifully balanced. And I still think that your latest article (as opposed to old one) is unreasonably negative on P90X.

Vladimir Kelman, Aging Fitness Addict


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