Monday, December 6, 2010

P90X (Part 1): The Absolute Intensity Argument

One of my readers, a young man who goes by Mr. Huntington, sent me a question about P90X a little while ago. He wondered if I would recommend P90X as a fat loss program because he personally felt that it was useless. He said that he knows a bunch of people who have tried it and quit because it was "too hard" or they got injured or that they just flat out didn't like it. I responded to him with a lengthy email. He subsequently mirrored some of my thoughts on an Internet forum and the response was enormous. Why was that?

You see, I am not a fan of P90X at all. However, I know that thousands upon thousands of people attempt the program. I also know that many of these same people are missionaries for the cause. You see, the marketing for P90X is amazing. What they have essentially done is created a tribe of people who will defend it to the death for no other reason than that they are convinced that "everybody is doing it."  Why do they think everybody is doing it? The advertising tells them it is so. The advertising also tells them that everybody gets ridiculously amazing results and that it is by far the best and most comprehensive fat loss program on the market. Let me tell you something. The marketing team for P90X did a FANTASTIC job. You can't avoid the commercials. You can't avoid the thousands of people that sell the product as part of Beach Body's multi-level marketing scheme. You can't type P90X into Google and find a bad review because they have flooded the Internet with hundreds and hundreds of pages telling everybody about how awesome it is.

So anyway, before I make a bunch of people mad at me, I want to say that this 3 part series will not mindlessly rant about how much I dislike P90X or anything like that. What I am going to do here is raise an intelligent argument based on sound training principles to hopefully open up a discussion about P90X as a fat loss program. Ready?

In Unit 1 of The Theory of Fat Loss, I spend a great deal of time discussing the theory of absolute intensity. The theory of absolute intensity states that "the greater the absolute intensity achieved with training, the greater the fat loss result will be." Absolute intensity is an objective measure of how difficult a workout is. It is not a subjective measure like relative intensity.

You see, relative intensity tells you nothing about how difficult a workout actually is. It only tells you how difficult a workout is for you. You can only give your 100% effort on any given training day. Unfortunately, that doesn't mean much for fat loss. You simply cannot train very hard even if you give your best effort if you are weak or out of shape.

So, how hard your heart is beating and how heavy you are breathing really don't mean much unless you are a superb athlete who would only get tired under extreme conditions. Where am I going with this exactly? Well, people tend to only think about how good a workout is based on how it makes them feel... which is not a very good approach. So when people tell me how much a P90X workout kicked their butts or how hard it was... it doesn't mean anything to me. Anybody can make a workout relatively difficult... it is called progression. In a nutshell, do more than you did before and you will get tired... P90X is nothing special in that regard since most people are completely untrained when they jump into P90X.

Okay... so far I have only made the point that P90X relatively intense. All good fat loss programs are relatively intense... in fact, the very last absolute intensity factor I describe in the book is relative intensity... so I haven't really established a good case against P90X yet. It actually fits one of my criteria! To make my case... I need to argue that it isn't absolutely intense.

How in the world am I going to do that? Well, luckily I have all that covered in the book. We can objectively measure absolute intensity with the intensity factors. They are:

1) Strength
2) Range of Motion
3) Power
4) Workout Duration (or Volume)
5) Time Under Tension
6) Rest Time
7) Exercise Selection
8) Cardiovascular Load
9) Relative Intensity

Now, before I go re-write my entire book, I think you can figure out that lifting heavier weights, lifting with more power, lifting through a greater range of motion, increasing the volume, increasing the time under tension, decreasing the rest time, and picking exercises that utilize a great amount of muscle mass are all ways to increase the absolute intensity of a workout.

The only thing that P90X really does is make you a little better conditioned. What I mean by that is that you get a pretty good cardiovascular workout by doing 90 days of this. Why? The rest times are low and there are a lot of reps. So... in at least one regard... P90X isn't the worst thing to ever be created.

But here is where it goes south pretty fast. Strength and power are not improved very much over the course of the program, and the full body range of motion is limited because of the use of bodybuilder splits (in other words, exercise selection is pretty poor for a fat loss program). As we know from before, bodybuilder splits are not conducive to fat loss. Muscular endurance is a big factor in maintaining intensity because constantly working the same muscles for an entire hour greatly reduces strength and power output and encourages sloppy form done through a cheated range of motion.

One argument that you might bring up is that the purpose of P90X isn't to increase strength and power. You are absolutely right. It is marketed as a fat loss program for beginners... and it isn't an ideal one because all it does is try to maximize relative intensity for 90 straight days without ever improving one's capacity for absolute intensity all that much (outside of the cardiovascular gains that you could get by doing anything). Beginners simply cannot jump into a program like this without first spending time getting stronger. When you focus on short term instant results, you usually end up spinning your wheels and failing miserably. Long term improvements in training habit and consistent progression are two seemingly forgotten aspects of fitness that will never stop working but that will continue to go ignored because of our quick fix culture. Quick fixes rarely work.

Okay, well now the argument becomes... "What about strong, experience lifters? Shouldn't P90X be great for them since they can already train at a high absolute intensity?" P90X, if completed by a great athlete, can get a fantastic fat loss result based on the theory of absolute intensity alone (although I will make another point about that shortly). However, one key word there is "completed." In P90X (Part 2): The Limiting Factor Argument, I will go into great detail about how P90X is not a worthwhile program because of several limits a person will likely reach when attempting the program. So, stay tuned for that.

Now, back to the point I began to make earlier. A great athlete can probably get great fat loss results with P90X simply because he or she is already in great shape. The great athlete already has a tremendous intensity capacity. Almost any program completed by a great athlete will get that person results! To truly judge a program, we need to compare it to other programs, and here is where P90X truly fails the absolute intensity test. When compared to workouts written by some of the best coaches in the industry such as Coach Dos and Alwyn Cosgrove, P90X is just plain average when it comes to absolute intensity. Mainly this is due to the exercise selection (far too much isolation work) and the programming of each individual workout. In my book, I spend an entire chapter covering what makes any individual exercise intense, and I spend another chapter describing in detail how to determine what makes an ideal fat loss workout, training phase, and long term program. It just doesn't fit the criteria. It even fails to maximize relative intensity because the whole body never seems to be involved.

Take away point if you got lost in the details: Just because P90X makes you tired doesn't mean that it is optimal. Relative intensity is not a good measure of ABSOLUTE intensity, the true measure of how effective a workout is for fat loss.

Agree? Disagree? Want to learn more about what THE Theory of Fat Loss is all about? Leave a comment below. I'd love to hear your thoughts!

Read Part 2
Read Part 3


  1. If I missed it on your site than I'm sorry but I don't see anywhere on your site saying that you've done P90X. Isn't it hard to compare something when you have not done it?

    I'm going to have to disagree about strength and power not being improved. Its the exact opposite of your take.

    Its not just a 90 day program. I did it 3 times in a row and saw gains each time in reps and weights. I've met 3 power lifters who now do P90X in their off season as it gets them more fit.

    I would not classify P90X as a fat loss program for beginners. Losing fat is a result of the program for most. I put on 10 pounds of muscle my first time as I was skinny before. The goal is to get in shape. Beginners and people who are in shape do well with the program because they show you how to modify each move to your abilities making it harder.

    I don't know what to say about your write up because you're trying to say P90X is not good but you actually make it look a great workout.

  2. I tried to do P90X a while ago. I thought it was tough at the time just because I couldn't keep up and my muscles burned. Since then, I've found some workouts that are much better that make me actually feel like I've accomplished something. I don't recommend P90X to anybody anymore.

  3. have YOU actually tried the workouts? i dont think you know what you are talking about. if you actually do them, youll know how great a program it is! i never finished the whole 90 days because i hurt my shoulder, but they are INTENSE!!!

  4. @ Anonymous 1: Thanks for the post! I think you show exactly what I mean by relative vs. absolute intensity.

    @Anonymous 2: No, I have not ever tried the workouts. I have seen them, and I simply don't like them at all. I liken doing P90X to deadlifting a barbell with a flexed spine. I don't need to try it because I know it isn't good for me. Also, you hurt your shoulder. I'm sorry for that. Was it during a P90X workout? If you need a good shoulder warmup to prevent some injuries, shoot me an email.

  5. As a person who has not only done but completed P90X and followed mostly the diet guide and workout schedule, I can say without a doubt that it works as a fat loss program. Perhaps not the best but it isn't marketed as solely fat loss. In fact I don't remember fat loss being a major criteria of the workout at all. It's a function of the workout that you will lose fat but the objective is to build muscle and get the healthy body that you are looking for.

    Now the workout is certainly not perfect, but it was designed for a range of people and not specifically for any one type of person. Case and point, as a guy who had never one worked out in his entire life, I started 6' 185 lbs with a 18.6% body fat. I ended 150-155~ 11.2% body fat.

    I plan on continuing my use of p90x but I did not get the results I personally wanted so I plan on modifying the workout to hopefully get the Abs I want.

    I say again. A function of following p90x is weight loss, it is unavoidable. If you do the p90x program how it is supposed to be done for 90 days, you will lose weight and gain muscle which will cause you to lose weight faster and more easily. You need to make sure that when you write this p90x review and you want to explain why it isn't good, you have taken into account the diet and not just the workout. Tony even explains that if you do not follow the diet, you will NOT lose the weight or much of it.

    If anyone has any questions or if the writer of this has any questions, ill check here from time to time and answer

  6. Keith, thanks for the comment! I certainly like reading other people's opinions, especially differing opinions, provided they keep it courteous, which you definitely have! It's also good to hear that you got great results with P90X. Just because I dislike the program does not mean I want people to fail if they try it.

    I still don't recommend it to anyone because I have other issues with it that I will expand upon in my next two posts. Best of luck to you with everything you do!

  7. By the way, Keith, how'd you end up stumbling upon this site anyway? Are you t-nation subscriber?

  8. @Keith Courville - Being 6' and 150-155 seems really UNDER weight. I have no idea what my body composition is, but I am about the same height as you and 165-170 lbs, and fairly thin. If I were to start working out, I'd expect to gain a bit of weight as I put on muscle mass.

    Do you have low bone mass? Are you lacking muscle mass? No offense to you, but I can't imagine being "in-shape" and weighing 150-155 at my height.

  9. @Keith Courville - Just for fun I decided to calculate your weight in body fat. At 185 and 18.6%, you would have ~35 lbs of body fat. That means ~150 lbs of your body would be something else (muscle, skeleton, organs, etc). I'm beginning to think you made up numbers somewhere.

  10. @ Brad, I specifically mention in my comments that I've never done P90X because I don't approve of it. I especially don't like the warmups, the injury rate, and the dropout rates. I went to your website, and I see that you are a BeachBody coach. No offense, but if you are trying to sell a product, of course you are going to say only good things about it. You'd be a terrible salesman if you said your own product sucks.

    Next, you mentioned powerlifters using P90X as a way to "get in shape" and also mention that they can use it to get stronger. If it gets them so much stronger, why don't all powerlifters do P90X all the time? It's simple. It stinks as a strength program in every way, shape, and form. Sure, you can get stronger if you use progressive resistance as you would with any program, but people that do P90X do very little in the way of increasing rep maxes. If you want to increase your strength and power, then you are going the extremely slow route with P90X. P90X can't be an "everything" program that makes you thinner, stronger, more powerful, more muscular... etc, because there is no program that can be optimal for all those things.

    Now, if you follow my argument about the theory of absolute intensity, then yes, powerlifters would actually be the people that would likely see the greatest fat loss and conditioning benefits compared to anybody else doing P90X. No arguments there. I bet they'd see better results with a program I wrote, though. =]

    Also keep in mind this is just Part 1 of my series and far from being complete review. The second part will review critically review P90X based on factors discussed on Unit 2 of my book, the limiting factor theory.

    @The Captain
    This is something I always wondered about with P90X. Everybody tells me they got really strong and grew big muscles following it, but then I see their numbers and say... no way you have big muscles if you are x height and only y weight. You can't have BIG muscles and be 6 feet tall and weigh less than 155. Nobody would be winning any bodybuilding competitions with that build.

  11. @Theory Np, I prefer to keep discussions civil online. Getting angry and arguing is pointless over the interwebs.

    @Captain That being said you are coming dangerously close to being a jackass. I never said I got great results, in fact I got results only in areas I did not want results, but the program did exactly what it said it would do.

    Everyone's body is different. Yes, I am 6' and i currently weigh 160. I'm up from 155 because i stopped working out for 3 months. I have no reason to fudge numbers especially on a site dedicated to helping people lose weight. I am thin, but it is a good looking thin, not an eat something thin. I'm a southern boy, I love food. Anyway I don't have huge muscles, I only went through one set of 90 days with the program. I got lean and cut in areas of my body but i failed to get the abs I wanted. Remember every body is different. By doing the program I learned about working out and did my own research to figure out other ways to help me get the abs I wanted so my second time through will be different. I'll have extra workouts and likely more weight.

    Remember, I had never worked out before, I only got up to 10 unassisted pullups and 20 unassisted pushups and I never went beyond the 25 lbs freeweight set I have due to a lack of finances to get lots of equipment. Essentially I was forced to do more of a lean workout rather than the muscle building workout.
    Don't get me wrong, the most dramatic changes came to my biceps triceps and shoulders, they just didn't swell as much due to a lack of heavier weights.
    Basically, number crunch all you want but don't come on here and start assaulting my character when i posted a friendly post for p90x on an unfavorable review. No it isn't for everyone, but it does work if you do it right, particularly because it has no choice but to work. feel free to facebook me if you want to see my looks

  12. @Theory didn't see your second post. I had a random facebook link I saw

  13. @ Keith, perhaps instead of trying P90X again, why not try a program designed specifically for your goals? I believe you may be reaching or may already have reached the point that I stress repeatedly in my book... where you have maxed out relative intensity and can no longer make big improvements with the same program (or even a modified version, whatever that means). Good training isn't about feeling tired and working your butt off alone. It needs to be designed intelligently. Loading, sets, reps, and rest times can be modified for your specific needs to get the physiological responses you want. Do you track all these in a log, or do you just mindlessly follow along with a DVD set? I also don't know how you plan on modifying the program, but a word of caution is that more is rarely better. In fact, it often leads to frustration and injury. If you want, send me an email. We can set up a phone call to discuss exactly what you might be looking for. I noticed that Lauren Bee is a mutual friend of ours on FB. I actually worked with her for a short time. Just ask her for my email if you want to talk shop. Let her know I said it was okay.

  14. @Keith I don't think Captain was being an ass at all. He brought up a very legitimate point that your numbers only reinforce Tim's assertion that P90X is not an optimal fat loss program. I don't believe you made numbers up. I too did the calculation...and although you did lose fat, it appears you have also lost 14 lbs of lean mass while losing 17 lbs of fat. So best case scenario alot of this is water...worst case you lost up to 14 lbs of muscle in your efforts to get "ripped." This hardly seems optimal for fat loss.

    Additionally, I have a hard time believing you look healthy at 155 lbs at 6'1". Check out my transformation here:
    In my "after" picture, I am 170 at 5'10"...and I am quite the skinny bastard there. You are underweight my friend.

  15. Keith, I ran your numbers as well. If you were at 185 and 18.6% body fat, you had 34.41 pounds of fat. If you finished at 155 and 11.2% body fat, you had 17.36 pounds of fat. That means you lost about 17 pounds of fat total. That is absolutely fantastic to lose that much fat! So, good work there. Unfortunately, you lost 30 total pounds meaning that you also dropped 13 pounds of muscle. I think I see the blogger's point about P90X not being a muscle building program. I don't want to say your results were bad or anything, because it is quite an accomplishment to lose all that fat, but you also lost a comparable amount of muscle mass as well if the numbers are correct.

  16. @sausage- Hence why I said dangerously close. I can't imagine muscle loss. Every part of me that I can tell is stronger and recuperates faster. I haven't had anyone outside of my grandmother say I look too skinny, but again southern, I have to be much much heavier to not be too skinny for a grandma :P

    @ theory- I noticed Lauren too, I haven't spoken to her since highschool. Small world no? What I mean by modified is using the program as a basis but cutting in specific workouts in order to work the muscle groups I want targeted as well as some interval sprinting for fat loss.

    Don't get me wrong, You've obviously done far more research on this subject than I have. My main point is the program isn't specifically for fat loss, it is for total body.

    I'm waiting for the next two parts, i'm interested in reading them.

    I look at p90x this way, P90X is a computer you can buy from the store. It comes prepackaged and ready to use. It's good and fast but it comes with some factory parts.

    Then there are people like me who can build you or myself a computer for a little bit more money than you spent on the store bought and it'll be significantly better.

    Likewise you can go to a personal fitness trainer or do some significant research yourself and build your own routine, diet, workout plan but it'll cost you a bit more time and money.

    As a package deal it isn't bad. Simply via working out and calories in/out you will lose weight your body simply doesn't have a choice. The only negative is actually a positive in that if you don't lose weight, you are replacing fat with muscle so you'll gain weight but look good doing it :)

    Looking forward to the rest of your blogs

  17. @anonymous Remember I basically followed a lean workout schedule due to a lack of heavier weights. Regardless of what the numbers say, I am stronger quite literally in every area that I can physically test, legs, core, arms, everywhere. So lets just assume there was muscle loss. It was dysfunctional muscle :P We can also guess since I self tested muscle mas using a tape measure, poor college student and all, I can't afford anything special though I do have a scale that supposedly gives accurate body fat %, we can assume that my numbers aren't perfect.

    or we can assume that there is something that is missing and the numbers are spot on, or that the bonus weight came from a change in diet due to having a better vitamin and nutrient intake. Or any one of 100 different things that I doubt any of us can fully understand.

    I'm going to go with noticeable results. I look better, feel better, am stronger everywhere, and have visible muscle where there was none before.

    Again being that I'm no leading expert, just a semi-successful completer of p90x I am merely pointing out some pro's and offering a positive feedback on the program in the midst of a negative feedback. And probably going to learn something to boot :)

  18. @ Keith, I love your positive approach to this discussion. I also like your performance approach to your success. If you continue to improve in the gym and feel better, it doesn't matter how much you weigh.

    However, I have to say one very important thing about strength. You can get extremely strong without any increase in muscle mass. Strength and size are not the same thing, and the correlation is poor. So you can lose a great deal of muscle mass and not notice any loss of strength or endurance. Strength is largely neurological, and endurance is largely a function of strength. Bigger muscles have more potential for strength, but it is all under nervous system control to maximize that potential.

    As far as cost, P90X is far more expensive than any of the training books I recommend, and also far less effective. I think marketing has gotten the best of you.

    Final thought for this post... you would be much better served using a full body approach to every training session (or even an upper/lower split). There are more flaws to isolation training than I can reasonably point out in this little comment. I obviously suggest waiting a week to buy my book, but if you want a highly recommended source, I suggest Built for Show, Maximum Strength, or The New Rules of Lifting.

  19. @ theory- I'm not going to lie, i'm more than open to learning as much as I can about working out so as to be able to reach the specific goals I want, which is visible abs and slightly larger in the chest area with more definition than I have now, but at this moment I lack the mental capacity to focus enough energy on self research. College and money issues are huge for me right now so perhaps in the future I will take you up on that offer and get with you, but I cant even afford a gym membership let alone the nutritional needs or food in general :P
    Perhaps in the future my friend, keep doing what you're doing, it's a service to the community.


Commenting and asking questions about fat loss is the first step towards investing in your own health. You might also have comments that help other people or questions that other people are too shy to ask, so please leave a comment or ask a question.

Note that comments on posts older than 7 days are moderated to discourage spam.