Why the P90X Exercise Program is Overrated

October 9th, 2009

P90X Exercise ProgramEveryone is talking about the P90X exercise program and ads for it are taking the internet by storm. In fact, I’ve even been seeing ads for it on websites like Miriam Webster. Is all of this hype justified? Not if you ask me.

Despite its gimmicky marketing, I was intrigued by the P90X program based on a number of people’s opinions and decided to check it out. Although my primary intention was only to learn more about P90X, I was actually planning to give it a try. That was until I watched it. Although this program may be well suited for some, which I’ll discuss later, it’s definitely not for me. I prefer fitness programs that are motivated by excellent physical function, high resistance to injury, and above all else, optimal health. Even though the P90X program can certainly bring the average person closer to these ideals, I think it does so in a manner that’s compromised by the program’s undeniable priority of burning calories and getting “ripped.”

There’s More to Fitness than “Getting Absolutely Ripped”

It’s not hard to tell right from the beginning that this product was intentionally designed to be mass marketed. I’m not mad at this, but in my opinion, it compromises the quality of the program by catering to a massive and mainstream audience that tends to value appearance more so than health. In my opinion, the P90X is nothing more than an exercise program of mediocre quality that’s designed to burn calories, get people fired up about working hard, and sell a few supplements. This may be fine for some people, but for me, it’s not at all what fitness is really about. A set of ripped abs may turn heads, but the more important concern should be if the actions you took to get those abs will help you function optimally well into your old age. Chances are that they won’t, and in many cases, they’ll likely do the opposite.

There’s a Healthier and More Functional Way to Develop “Ripped Abs”

Developing “ripped abs” seems to be the focal point of the P90X program and there are primarily two ways in which people develop them. The first way is by living a truly healthy and balanced lifestyle with an impressively defined abdomen being a natural byproduct. The second way is to compensate for an unideal lifestyle by doing a ridiculous amount of crunches and burning as many calories as possible which can be a significant and undesirable burden on the body. Most of the models that you see on magazine covers likely fall into this latter category, and despite how good they look, it’s very possible that they have poor internal function. Those who don’t believe this should read about fitness model Daniel Martin and the unhealthy practices he and his peers use to look their best for photo shoots.

It’s not necessary to do hundreds of crunches to make your abdominal muscles become visible. In fact, once I started eating a truly healthy diet, I lost 30 pounds in 3 months, and that was with minimal exercise because of the issues with chronic fatigue syndrome that I was dealing with at the time. I dropped to about 10% body fat and have stayed there ever since. The key to having a flat and defined midsection is losing abdominal fat, and the best way to accomplish this is through a truly healthy diet.

Your abdominal muscles have a much more important purpose than helping you turn heads at the beach. They’re crucial to the stability of your midsection and spine, and if you wisely choose exercises that work the rest of your body, your abdominals will get plenty of good training. Even if you’d like focus on your abdominal muscles directly, you still don’t need to do anything close to the amount of abdominal exercises that are included in the P90X program.

The P90X Nutrition Plan Falls Short

I didn’t expect much from the P90X Nutrition Plan, but was happy to see that it at least recommends a variety of whole foods. Although a few of the recipes surprisingly include steak, which I think is a good thing, the P90X Nutrition Plan is for the most part a politically correct low fat diet. Ironically, during the initial and easiest phase of the program, the diet plan calls for a “fat shredding” phase which is basically low in carbohydrates and high in protein. As the program continues and you proceed to push your body further, you’ll undoubtedly need an additional supply of fat and protein to rebuild broken down tissue. However, at this point, the P90X Nutrition Plan ironically decreases protein and fat intake to 20% each and increases carbohydrate intake to 60%!

During the three months of the P90X program, the Nutrition Plan has you eat a different way each month. Each of the three months actually correspond fairly well with the three general Metabolic Types which are the Protein Type, Mixed Type, and Carb Type. The philosophy of Metabolic Typing is based on a number of genetic and environmental factors that provide us each with a unique metabolism that will respond best to one of these three types of diets. The P90X Nutritional Plan basically has you eat as a different type each month which means that you’ll likely feel well for one month and possibly not so good for the other two. Why would you want to do that to yourself?

What I find most disappointing about the P90X Nutrition Plan is that it relies fairly heavily on protein powder, protein bars, recovery drinks, and protein shakes, all of which are highly processed and nutritionally inferior to natural whole foods. The ingredients of the P90X Peak Performance Protein Bar includes 26 grams of sugar, 5 different sources of soy, and a bunch of synthetic vitamins. In addition to the health risks associated with sugar, soy can cause digestive issues and contains phytoestrogens that can cause health issues and interfere with fitness progress by altering testosterone production. Finally, synthetic vitamins don’t always have the same benefits as vitamins that naturally occur in whole foods and may not be assimilated as well either. If you’re going to physically punish your body for 3 months, the least you can do is feed it as much high quality and nutritious whole food as possible.

Ironically, if more people avoided processed foods like the Peak Performance Protein Bar, there would probably be much less of a market for extreme weight loss oriented exercise programs like the P90X.

Eliminating the Unessential

The success of any fitness program depends mostly on how long you choose to keep up with it. Many people are extremely busy, very stressed, deprived of sleep, and as a result, are chronically tired. The P90X program requires a considerable amount of energy and time which a lot of people don’t have. Although it seems that many people are making room in there lives for three months of P90X, I think it’s appropriate to question if they’ll be able to make it a lifelong habit or if it will be like The Biggest Loser where many of the participants regain most of the weight they lost because they didn’t properly instill healthy and sustainable long term habits. More importantly, I think it’s also appropriate to question if a rigorous program like P90X is even a good idea to pursue as a lifelong habit.

Some people may have the physical capacity to easily handle the 6 days of intense exercise per week that the P90X program prescribes, but it’s more likely that many won’t. While it’s healthy to challenge your physical limits, doing so nearly every day will take its toll and likely cause chronic tiredness or even adrenal fatigue.

Fortunately, whether you’re concerned about overexercising or simply don’t have 6 hours per week of free time, it’s still possible to make a great deal of progress with your fitness. If you insist on using the P90X program, here are a few suggestions that I think will make it a more practical, useful, and sustainable workout routine.

Ignore the P90X Nutrition Plan

It would be much better to simply eat natural whole foods such as meat, fish, fruit, vegetables, and nuts. Don’t fall for the hype that you need an excessive amount of protein to build muscle or that you need to load up on a lot of bread and pasta to fuel the exercise that you’re doing.

Use Your Own Warm Up Routine

Soft tissue work, or self massage, should consistently be part of your warm up routine. By loosening tight muscle tissue, it will help to promote increased flexibility, range of motion, and strength. In turn, this will facilitate the execution of proper exercise technique and reduce the potential for injury.

To save time and reduce the performance impact that stretching is known to have, it makes sense to only stretch tight muscles prior to a workout. More specifically, you should only stretch the tight muscles that might prevent you from performing exercises with a full range of motion or correct technique. The stretching chapter of How to Eat, Move and Be Healthy by Paul Chek has an excellent and easy to follow self assessment that you can use to determine which muscles you should consider stretching prior to a workout. It also has a number of great strength training exercises that you might choose to replace some of the P90X exercises with.

An even better way to assess yourself for physical limitations and design a corrective warm up routine that will help to prevent injury is to use the Assess and Correct program created by Eric Cressey, Bill Hartman, and Mike Robertson.

Don’t Do the Plyometrics, Kenpo X, or Cardio X Workouts

When proper safety precautions are observed, plyometrics is a great way to improve performance and injury resistance. However, the P90X Plyometrics workout is more of a long calorie burning session than a true plyometrics workout. Along with Kenpo X and Cardio X, these workouts are very similar to aerobics, step, or spin bike classes which means that they’re relatively high in intensity and are a significant physiological burden that can easily wear down the body and require more time to recover from, especially when done on a regular basis.

The P90X schedule typically includes 2 of these 3 workouts each week. I think it would be better to replace one or two of them with a half hour to an hour of mild exercise such as walking, hiking, an easy bike ride, or whatever other type of activity that you might enjoy. It should be just enough to get your heart rate up to 55% to 75% of your maximum heart rate, but not enough to make you out of breath. If you have the capacity, high intensity interval training would make a good replacement for the remaining workout, and even just 10 to 15 minutes is fine. If you’re feeling up to it and really want to physically push your limits, interval training is the time to do it! This is also an excellent and efficient way to promote weight loss because the intense effort will cause your body to burn calories at an accelerated rate for up to 48 hours.

Forget About Your “Beach Muscles”

While different exercises strengthen different muscles, they all rely on the limitations of a single recovery system. In addition, functional strength is about much more than how much weight you can lift with a single muscle. It’s about how effectively you can incorporate your muscles into basic movement patterns. For these reasons, properly executed compound movements such as squats, lunges, deadlifts, pulls, and presses are preferable because they train multiple muscle groups and movement patterns and conserve energy and recovery capacity by doing so through fewer exercises.

The P90X program refers to the shoulders and arms as your “beach muscles” which is something that I’m sure will motivate many people. However, you don’t need to do specific exercises for your biceps and triceps to have impressive arms, and you certainly don’t need to waste time and energy by practically dedicating an entire workout to it. All of these muscles are sufficiently challenged with demanding compound exercises including the push-ups and pull-ups that are used in the P90X program. I think it would be better to pass on the arms and shoulders workout and replace it with some relaxing activities to help support your recovery from previous workouts.

If you insist on doing isolation exercises for your arms, you can replace a few of the exercises in the back and biceps video with a couple of the shoulders and triceps exercises.

Add Resistance to the Strength Training Workouts

It’s difficult to make significant gains in strength without eventually increasing exercise resistance beyond body weight. If this is a desired goal, it can fortunately be accomplished without going to a gym or spending thousands of dollars on a home gym, but it does require a few pieces of basic equipment.

Although the P90X program does suggest using dumbbells for some exercises, even this can be limiting unless one buys a complete set which can be quite expensive and take up a lot of space. Instead, a set of adjustable dumbbells such as Powerblocks can be a much more favorable option. Likweise, a dip belt will allow you to hang weight plates from your waist and do pull ups with more resistance than just body weight, and a weight vest will allow you to do push ups with more resistance as well. Alternatively, you can save money by using the weight vest for both push ups and pull ups, but the vest may restrict movement during the bottom portion of a pull up. Finally, if you have the space and budget, an adjustable weight bench will dramatically increase the variety of exercises that you can do.

Use Your Own Core Routine and Don’t Go Crunch Crazy

As I mentioned earlier, the abdominal muscles are for stability, and since most of us tend to sit for many hours each day, there’s no reason to worsen this imbalance by doing crunches. There are a number of great core exercises that you can do with minimal equipment such as plank variations, the ab wheel rollout, and perhaps even some reverse crunches. If you want your core training to be more advanced than this, you can include some of the swiss ball exercises described in How to Eat, Move and Be Healthy. You certainly don’t need to dedicate an entire workout or even 20 minutes to core exercises. Just add one or two of them to the end of each workout and that should be plenty.

Don’t Do Yoga X Unless You Truly Enjoy It

Yoga can be surprisingly strenuous, and in addition to that, the P90X Yoga X routine is an hour and a half long. You could be using that time to prepare yourself real food rather than eating the processed powders and bars that are recommended by the P90X Nutrition Plan.

Stretching is certainly important, especially if you have any tight muscles, but you certainly don’t need to do an hour and a half of it. Furthermore, it would be a much better use of your time to focus on stretching the muscles that you know are tight and in need of attention.

Self message and stretching are an important part of maintaining a physically healthy body and should be done on a regular basis. An excellent time to stretch and do soft tissue work is right before bed because it doubles as a relaxing bedtime routine that will help you fall asleep more easily.

Reduce the Workout Volume

The P90X workouts tend to be focused on many variations of a just few basic movements. For example, the chest and back workout contains 6 different variations of push-ups and a total of 12 different exercises. These 12 exercises are done in sequence and then done again in reverse order. In my opinion, this is an unnecessary amount of volume for just a few different muscle groups and is another example of the program’s emphasis on burning calories.

In addition, I really don’t think that you need to do 6 different types of push-ups, and even if you insist on it, you don’t have to do them twice. Either way, there’s plenty of opportunity to trim these workouts down to a size that’s much more manageable in terms of both time and energy.

What I Like About the P90X Program

I’d like to end this on a positive note, and fortunately, I do have a few good things to say about the P90X program. One thing that’s great about this P90X craze is that it’s inspiring a lot of people to exercise and stay committed, at least for three months. However, a healthy commitment to exercise needs to last for a lifetime and needs to be more about health and wellbeing than weight loss and ripped abs. If you choose to follow the P90X program, embrace your ambition, but don’t get carried away. If you notice that you’re feeling more tired on a regular basis, take a few steps back and reassess what you’re doing.

Another thing that I think is excellent about the P90X program is its emphasis on functional exercises, particularly lunges, pull-ups, and push-ups. These are basic movement patterns that we should all be doing.

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