P90X: I Hate It, but I Love It

I Hate It, but I Love It

For those not already in-the-know about Tony Horton’s infamous X-treme workout series, P90X was a collection of video workouts released in 2005. They’ve achieved something of a cult following in the years since, and Tony has returned in several reprisals – though none seem to have gained the fame of the original P90X. The workouts require minimal equipment: just a pull-up bar, a yoga mat, and a modest collection of dumbbells. This of course makes them ideal for a home fitness routine, something especially well-suited to 2020. They’re also very intense by the standards of most recreational workout routines; videos are usually about an hour long (though one is 90 minutes!) and focus heavily on pushing yourself to your limits. The full program includes a diet plan, 11 videos meant to be completed over 90 days, and a specific calendar of when-to-do-what.

I’ve dabbled in P90X videos in the past, but only dabbled. At different times, I got into the cardio and ab workout videos for a month or so, but I never made any attempt to actually complete the 90-day program – I had only even tried maybe 5 of the videos. But starting at the beginning of August, I leapt into P90X. I had extra time on my hands, and (as I’ve mentioned on my podcast, Premature Optimization) my focus for all of 2020 has been on building better health and fitness habits. P90X fit right into that vision.

The program is a huge commitment. You’re expected to work out six times a week, for about an hour, over 13 weeks. I knew life would get in the way – I’d have a friend visit, or would go see my parents – and I couldn’t stick to that schedule perfectly, but I wanted to do all the workouts and generally follow the plan as much as possible. Today is my 88th day since beginning, and I did my 51st P90X workout. If I include some off-schedule strength training I added for variety in the middle, that’s 57 workouts in 88 days, or about 4.5 a week – a full 1.5 below the recommended. I’ve also skipped the supplementary ab workouts, which you are supposed to do 3 times a week.

All that said, I’ve greatly exceeded my expectations for myself. I’ve seen great improvements, both physically and – more importantly – mentally: what I care most about is building sustainable habits, and consistently showing up 4+ times a week to a grueling workout does seem to have strengthened my discipline. But this isn’t intended to be a self-congratulatory post (whoops, maybe too late), but a series of observations I have about my experience so far.

The Grind Is Real

No surprises here: it’s hard. Even on the days when you’re at your most motivated, the workouts are a grind. It’s tough to “bring it” (as Tony regularly urges you) 4+ times a week, when you have other things in your life going on too. I work a fairly flexible job, don’t have kids or other family commitments, and generally have my life together (or so I think); still, rallying the energy and time for an hour-long workout is almost always difficult. Getting in a routine helps, but in my experience it’s almost impossible to work out at the same time each day – your lunchtime sometimes has meetings scheduled over it and your evenings are sometimes occupied with social activities. Maybe some people could do mornings, but I don’t find them conducive to seriously intense exercise. Plus, you’re going to be dripping with sweat after every P90X video, so you really need almost an hour and a half once you account for the shower afterward.

The workouts do become more manageable as you build your fitness, but I have found that effect to be offset by the dread of the repetitive videos. By the end of the program, you’ll have done each video an average of about 8 times (13 weeks * 6 workouts / 11 videos). Yes, plyometrics will be physically easier in week 5 than week 1, but it’s just as tough mentally. Keeping up the intensity is difficult.

Being Results-focused Only Goes So Far

I think there’s a common culture in some workout communities of using the promise of physical results to drive yourself. This isn’t the worst thing, as some people seem to thrive with that mindset, but I don’t think it’s ideal when jumping into something daunting like P90X – especially if you already exercised regularly before, so you aren’t going to see wholesale changes in your body immediately. Physique development happens extremely incrementally, over weeks, and if you’re looking in the mirror every day you’re going to be let down a lot. Don’t get me wrong, physical results are extremely satisfying – when they’re detectable. After a month you’ll probably feel pretty good, but getting through that initial month is going to require some other kind of motivation.

Personally, I found a better strategy to be focusing on other ways you’re improving yourself. It sounds cheesy, but reflect on the difficulty and commitment of what you’re doing, and consider that you’re strengthening something less tangible than your biceps. Additionally, rigorously recording your sets and weights in the lifting workouts will help you see gains on a spreadsheet before they’re reflected in your body, which is validating and can help you keep going when your motivation wanes.

Eating Well Really Helps

Luckily, I quickly noticed some things that made workouts more doable – or rather, I noticed some things that were making the workouts harder, and I tried to stop doing those things. Most were around food: eating too soon (or too much food) before a workout, not eating close enough to a workout, relying on meals high in simple carbs, and drinking too much caffeine. Though it ran contrary to my expectations, I found that shifting to fattier, lower-carb meals for breakfast and lunch helped a lot. Big meals in general are bad, even if I have them after I’ve already worked out for the day; they make me slow and even impact how much energy I have the next morning.

Full Commitment Isn’t Compatible with Life

From reading the above, you might get the impression I’m a hyper-disciplined workout junkie who puts fitness above all else. Not so! I wouldn’t want to be that person even if I could be. A life in which you never indulge is probably not a very good life; lots of my best memories are around sharing unhealthy food and drinks with friends. I’m glad I skipped workouts during times of my life when I had more important things going on, and I fully expect to keep doing that.

The tricky balance is between indulging when it’s worth it and resisting temptation when it’s not. Don’t eat cookies until you feel sick (been there), or get in the habit of having soda with dinner, or take days off for no reason and feel guilty afterward. In my experience, the best situation is when healthy eating and regular fitness become the norm. Then the occasional junk food tastes better and the day off is more refreshing – and neither brings as much guilt.

Just Show Up

If I had to distill what I’ve learned into a single lesson, it’s this: just commit to starting and finishing the workout every day. Everything in between will take care of itself.

I can’t count the number of times I’ve very nearly given up on the prospect of working out because I didn’t have the energy, but forced myself to just start the video and after fifteen minutes forgot that I had been feeling down. Even if you don’t push yourself hard for a day, that’s okay; the danger of these hardcore workout plans is that they can feel all-or-nothing. But an okay workout is a far better result than a day of doing nothing, and reminding yourself of this can get you off the couch. Plus, if you’re like me, you’ll plan to sleepwalk through the video and then suddenly find yourself getting competitive by the third exercise (Tony is a great motivator, even when you see him every day!).

Everything Feels Better

It almost goes without saying, but the effort and commitment really are worth it. I’ve consistently felt better as the weeks have gone by. Surprisingly, this hasn’t just shown up in strength and stamina, but I’ve noticed a significant reduction in general aches and pains, and I just feel good more of the time. One interesting aspect of P90X is the time it spends on flexibility, balance, and stretching, which I suspect was pretty unusual for a regimen developed in 2005.

It’s a brutal road but the benefits in self-discipline, physique, and general health make it exceptionally rewarding. Wish me luck in sticking with it for 5 more weeks.

Tony Horton and Me