Does P90X Really Work?

Since becoming a personal trainer 10 years ago, one of the most often-asked questions I receive is, “What do you think about P90X?” Like most people, I discovered P90X on an infomercial while channel surfing. It was the fall of 2006 and I had just come off an intense 12-week program my husband and I formulated. I thought P90X would be the perfect program to push me to a higher level. I bought the program and for the next 90 days I followed the program to a tee, with the exception of the meal plan and recovery drinks. I have to admit, after 90 days my strength notably improved (I couldn’t do one pull up at the beginning, by the end I could do seven, and I’m a female.), and my body changed dramatically. Since my first experience with P90X, I have gone through the program five more times, though not necessarily following it to a tee. So, after a great deal of experience with P90X, here is my opinion.

P90X is a ninety-day, six-days-per-week, very structured program which Tony Horton, the program’s creator, claims will change “your physique through muscle confusion, using a combination of resistance training, plyometrics, cardio training and yoga to keep your muscles guessing. Using the advanced science of Muscle Confusion, P90X is a well-organized training system that shows you how and when to change your routine for maximum results. All you need are a few pieces of equipment at home and about an hour a day.”

The “kit” includes:

Twelve DVDs:

  1. Chest & Back (resistance)
  2. Plyometrics (cardio and power)
  3. Shoulders & Arms (resistance)
  4. Yoga X (stretching)
  5. Legs & Back (resistance)
  6. Kenpo X (cardio)
  7. X Stretch (stretching)
  8. Core Synergistics (total-body resistance and cardio)
  9. Chest, Shoulders & Triceps (resistance)
  10. Back & Biceps (resistance)
  11. Cardio X
  12. Ab Ripper X

Fitness Guide:

  • Details the routines and exercises shown on the DVD
  • Provides an outline of the schedule in which the routines are performed over the 90-day period
  • Offers variations to the standard schedule if you prefer to make the program more intense or increase cardio
  • Provides exercise logs used for tracking your progress over the twelve weeks

3-Phase Nutrition Plan

  • “The diet fuels your muscles and helps your body recover more quickly from the intense P90X workouts. “

The basic program has two phases, which are organized as follows:

Weeks 1-3 – Phase I DVDs

  • Resistance training – Days 1,3 and 5
  • Plyometrics – Day 2
  • Yoga – Day 4
  • Cardio – Day 6

Week 4 – Recovery Week

  • No intense resistance training
  • Core training, Yoga and Cardio

Weeks 5 -7 – Phase II DVDs

  • Resistance training – Days 1,3 and 5
  • Plyometrics – Day 2
  • Yoga – Day 4
  • Cardio – Day 6

Week 8 – Recovery Week

  • No intense resistance training
  • Core training, Yoga and Cardio

Week 9 – Same as Phase I

Week 10 – Same as Phase II

Week 11 -Same as Phase I

Week 12 – Same as Phase II

Let’s begin by talking about the much-advertised “advanced science of muscle confusion.” In reality, muscles cannot be confused. However, muscles do adapt over time to routine movements. For example, if an athlete uses a chest press machine in the gym as the only exercise to increase his pectoral strength and size, his muscles will adapt to that same repeated movement resulting in a plateau where he sees no progress in strength or muscle size. If the athlete varies the intensity and the exercises targeting his pectoral area, his muscles will be less likely to adapt and he will see better results over time. Tony Horton calls this physiological impact “muscle confusion,” however, I’m not sure I would call it an “advanced science.” It’s more of change in training philosophy, and one in which I personally believe. With the use of dumbbells, resistance bands, bodyweight exercises and variation of routines, P90X does a good job preventing muscle adaptation.

Tony Horton does his best work with the resistance training and plyometrics workouts. I believe this is the strength of the P90X program. Each routine is an intense one-hour workout that will challenge the best of athletes. During the resistance exercises you can work at two levels: To increase muscle size max out at 8-10 reps (heavy weight, low reps), or to tone max out at 12-15 reps (low weight, high reps). During the resistance routines it is very important to journal your progress. Journaling pushed me to challenge myself to do at least one more rep or increase my weights each week. At the end of every workout you are spent, but for maximum impact you jump right into the Ab Ripper routine. This adds about twenty minutes to your resistance workout, but to get the ripped abs Tony Horton advertises, doing Ab Ripper at least three days per week with the resistance routines is a must. The plyometrics routine will literally make your heart feel like it’s going to burst. It is a high intensity, power-focused, interval workout, that will definitely improve your cardiovascular strength.

My least favorite DVDs in the program are Yoga X and Kenpo X. While Tony Horton does a great job with the resistance and plyometrics routines, which is where his expertise lies, he is not a qualified yoga or Kenpo instructor. He appears to be student of these disciplines, and obviously consulted with experts in each field, but users of the P90X program would have been better served if qualified instructors led these two workouts instead of Tony. The yoga routine is ninety minutes long. Many of the stretches and poses are challenging, but there are a few which are dangerous for beginners to attempt. Tony talks incessantly throughout the yoga workout and on several occasions he is virtually yelling – not very conducive to the meditative and relaxing experience yoga is intended to be. As for the Kenpo X DVD…being a black belt in Tae Kwondo, I know a little bit about form and control for martial arts moves. Tony does not take the time to teach proper form (remember, he’s not a qualified instructor) and rushes many of the exercises, leading to a very frustrating experience. If you really like the idea of a martial arts-based workout, I would suggest a Billy Blanks Tae Bo video – he really knows what he’s doing and the workouts are great. As my time with P90X progressed, I substituted Yoga X with videos by known yoga experts, and on Kenpo X days I went for a run – a much less frustrating experience.

As for the P90X Nutrition Plan, I did not follow the meal plan so I cannot honestly comment on its effectiveness. Many programs on the market include a meal plan because the developers want to present a complete package and, let’s face it, good nutrition and exercise go hand-in-hand for a healthy and fit lifestyle. All I did was eat as clean as I could and my overall results were great.

I like how the P90X program builds in recovery weeks, giving your muscles a chance to rest from the intensity and focusing on stretching (yoga) and core work. I am a huge believer in benefits of developing core strength. Although it’s hard to start back after the recovery week, the rest allows your muscle fibers to heal enough so you reduce the risk of injury during the next phase.

Now, here is the first caveat: YOU WILL BE EXTREMELY SORE for the first couple of weeks of this program, and during the entire twelve weeks you will feel it. Many people quit early on because they are so sore. Also, many people fail to get the results advertised, because, after the first recovery week, starting the second phase is intimidating and they don’t continue. So, if someone says P90X didn’t work for him you can be sure he didn’t follow the program and perform it at max intensity and/or he just stopped.

The second caveat is: POOR FORM WILL RESULT IN INJURY. Many people attempting P90X for the first time have little to no experience with weight training. P90X IS NOT DESIGNED FOR BEGINNERS. In fact, it is designed for people who are already fit and want to reach a higher level – the Fitness Guide I received with my P90X kit specifically states this. Many inexperienced P90Xers do not understand proper form and while struggling to keep up the intensity level can open the door for very serious injury. In fact, I personally know two individuals who injured themselves when they were following P90X, one had to have knee surgery. If you are inexperienced and considering P90X, I would strongly recommend first working with a personal trainer to develop a good foundation and learn proper postural alignment for various exercises.

The third caveat: TONY HORTON IS ANNOYING! The man just doesn’t’ shut up. He talks incessantly throughout all the videos and tries to be funny but isn’t, and because it’s his program he apparently believes must be in front and lead, which diminishes the Yoga and Kenpo workout experiences. By the end of twelve weeks you’ve had enough of Tony Horton. Fortunately, the videos give you the option to silence cues, virtually silencing Tony. Thank you, P90X producers!

So, what do I think about P90X? In general P90X is a great program, but needs serious tweaking in the areas of Yoga X and Kenpo X. Tony Horton needs to step back from the front and let qualified instructors develop and lead these workouts, and in general he needs to just shut up. You will only get the P90X body if you fully follow the entire program. People fail to get the advertised results because they fail to follow the program as prescribed and maintain the required intensity levels. In addition, many people never complete the program due to the initial soreness or they don’t want to commit to 60-90 minutes per day six-days-per-week. Let’s face it; you’re not going to get the P90X body on a 20-30 minute three day per week schedule. Finally, P90X is really designed for people who are already physically fit and want to reach a higher level. Individuals who are completely out of shape or who have never really worked out risk serious injury and would be better served working with a personal trainer for a while before attempting this very advanced and intense program.