P90X vs. Men’s Health

by Michael on June 7, 2010 · 6 comments

YOU wanna be the one to tell him he's been working out all wrong?

Acknowledging that the P90X Extreme Home Fitness Workout Program is one of their top search terms, Men’s Health finally decided to grab some Google juice from it, using a review/blog post titled “The Truth About P90x.” (Note: As of July 7, 2010, the original Men’s Health review was deleted. Read to the bottom for more to that story.)

The P90X workout system (now updated to the “Next P90X2”) is a combination of weight training (using light dumbbells or resistance bands and a pull-up bar) and aerobics that claims to get its users “ripped” in 90 days. The official marketing materials state:

These workouts are not for beginners. …P90X challenges participants by tapping into weight training, synergistic and core training, yoga, plyometrics, Pilates, Kenpo karate, stretching, and abdominal work. The 90-day program turns the challenge up a notch for those already in good shape, allowing them to further define muscles they’ve already started to develop while helping them discover muscles they didn’t know they had; it also includes one of the most comprehensive diet guidelines ever offered for individuals in training.

It sounds like a rounded, advanced fitness routine, and although I haven’t tried P90X itself, it has a number of the same components present in Crossfit, although it’s missing some particular elements I’ll get to in a minute. I would expect that if you adhered to the P90X plan as prescribed, including the nutrition plan, you’d look and feel much more fit after 90 days than you are today.

Confused About Muscle

Now back to the Men’s Health post. The element of P90X they’ve chosen to focus on is the term “muscle confusion”: it means that by switching up the exercises once every 30 days, your body doesn’t have a chance to “plateau.” This is actually an old principle that I’ve seen just about everywhere, including Men’s Health. They don’t call it “muscle confusion,” though—they call it “switching up your exercises to break through a plateau.” An example from one of my past posts, Break Through a Weight Training Plateau, is changing the angle of an exercise.

But now MH has brought out an expert (they’re everywhere) to suggest that you should rarely or never vary your exercises or your muscles will refuse to grow:

“Instead, follow the same strategy used by many elite athletes,” says [Bill] Hartman. “Rather than change the exercise, change how you do it.” Slight alterations in tempo, load, sets, reps, or rest periods are often all it takes to stimulate new muscle growth.

Who are these “elite athletes?” We know from the MH article itself that Donovan McNabb does P90X (and others like Jerry Stackhouse, Max Talbot and even Mike Tyson have followed the program), but the author couldn’t give us one example who consistently does the same exercises one day to the next? Crossfit, another program with varied movements (possibly even more varied than P90X) is the workout of choice for many mixed martial arts athletes. But wait, I’ve forgotten that even the MH post contradicts itself (italics mine):

Does all of this mean that you should never vary your workouts? Certainly not. Variation is key to any good training program—as long as it’s not too frequent.

No mention of what “too frequent” is (although I do know that Men’s Health offers an entire battery of new “killer moves” to try each and every month). Really, there are holes throughout the post, which remind me of why I became disillusioned with magazines like this one and Men’s Fitness: while criticizing P90X for not being “the total-body fitness solution that most people are looking for,” the post doesn’t suggest any alternatives, other than a standard bodybuilder’s weight training program. And that’s neither a “total body fitness solution” nor what most people are looking for.

Most people want to look good and feel healthy. They want to be able to occasionally run for the bus without gasping for air, to not have back pain, and to look decent in swimwear. Most guys don’t want to look like they stepped off the stage at Mr. Universe, most of us just want to have defined pecs and shoulders and abs.

What to Do

The real truth is about five football fields away from all of this: if you’re doing an exercise program you like and really get into, and you eat properly, you have miles of advantage over someone who takes an “expert’s” advice but then sits at the bench for five minutes between sets and is bored out of his skull by the third week.

You can vary your exercise from day to day and week to week and build muscle; the thousands of people performing Crossfit demonstrate that. But—and this is my one nit I’ll pick with P90X—to do so efficiently requires rotating in heavy loads. So if you want to build raw bulk, do as the Men’s Health post says and push heavy weights each day. To build while getting the other advantages of flexibility, endurance and coordination, find a rounded and varied program. And if you’re just starting out, consider a simple, easy workout. (You can get one free by subscribing at the top right of this page!)

Whatever you do, you should be motivated to do it. If your commitment wavers or you lose intensity, change programs. Feel good about your workouts and don’t let the nitpickers screw it up for you.

Update December 2010: several months after pulling the above critical article, the December issue of Men’s Health showed a complete flip-flop, with a piece called “The Power of P90X” declaring, “P90X—unlike the garbage heap of other “miracle” infomercial products—can deliver results. That’s because it’s built on such proven fitness principles as consistency, intensity, and variety…” Quite a different tune, eh?

I wonder if it has anything to do with the December release of Tony Horton’s book, “Bring It”, on Rodale Press—the publisher of Men’s Health.

The Truth about P90X [Men’s Health]

P90X2: The Next P90X DVD Series Base Kit [Amazon.com]

6 comments… read them below or add one

Schmidty - Man Vs. Style June 9, 2010 at 9:18 pm

I agree. If you do any physically demanding excercise for 60 minutes per day every day and eat right, like you do in p90x…then you are bound to get results. People always debate the small things between different methods and forget about the large things such as just getting out there and doing it.


Matthew Hillis June 15, 2010 at 4:36 pm

Nice Article. I love both Crossfit and P90X. I started with P90X because it gave me more structure since I had no clue on where to start. I now use Crossfit to mix in with my P90X workouts. Find the workout that you love to do everyday.


John Cowart July 8, 2010 at 10:10 pm

It works. At age 40 I was 200lbs at 5′ 7″. Not good for a not so tall guy. Now I’m 150 and ripped thanks to p90 and p90x! The truth is in my tranformation pics. See them at http://www.wheresmysixpack.com or http://teambeachbody.com/johncowart . I can run farther, think clearer than I could 20 years ago!


RK January 31, 2012 at 9:15 pm

You’re a BB Coach trying to sell. I used to be until BB decided to sell on Amazon and ESPN Radio! Love the WOs and have a multitude of BB WO Programs in my arsenal, but you’re a Coach trying to sell and make money. BB also told everyone, as a “coaching” selling point, that they only sell through the BB website and coaches. Not sure what changed, but it did…., maybe $$$$$ for them!

TJ Leeland June 13, 2011 at 3:04 pm

I’ve been working out for 20 years. I’m not in my best shape due to injuries NOT related to working out, but I’m still in much better shape than the average person. Again, due to my injuries, I only use about 70% the weight I used to at my peak. I started P90X three weeks ago — and it kicked my butt. I was sore after every workout during the first week. Even though I do bench, incline, and decline presses a couple times a week, my chest was sore after the Chest and Back DVD.

I’m obviously pushing myself harder on P90X, even though I thought I was pushing myself on the bench. Of course, since I workout at home and don’t have a spotter, I was holding back on that last rep or two.

Hopefully I’ll lose that extra 10 pounds I’ve put on. If I do that and add some definition, I’ll consider P90X a success. So far I think it’s going to be better than my old routine — and this is coming from someone who DOES workout nearly everyday.


Michael June 14, 2011 at 4:00 pm

Thanks for sharing your story, TJ. Stick with it and I don’t think you’ll have any problem finding that success.


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