My thoughts on P90x, Insanity, Crossfit, and similar programs

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As a health professional I am frequently asked about P90x, Insanity, Crossfit, and others like them.  It is one of the most debated topics among those in the strength and conditioning world.  For the record, P90x/Insanity are similar, Crossfit is very different, but both programs are very hotly debated.

P90x/Insanity and other DVD home based programs:

Pros:

  • Being a home based DVD, you can do them anywhere and anytime.  This is important for those who have minimal time available to commit to exercise.
  • Minimal equipment needed.  Easy on the budget, and not much space needed.
  • Interval based workouts.  Long and slow cardio is not the best for fat loss, intervals (short, intense bursts) are.
  • Although I haven’t looked at the nutrition programs in depth, they seem halfway decent (at least an upgrade from most diets)

Cons:

  • These workouts are very intense, and not suitable for many people.  People with health risks, both internally (cardiovascular, etc.) and external risks (shoulders, knees…susceptible to injury) should be wary.
  • Non progressive.  They do not start people out with basics, it expects you to be able to do pullups, jump squats, etc.
  • Form is questionable.  Without basic movement patterns perfected, the exercises are downright dangerous.  There is also nobody there to correct you even when you think you have it right.
  • Even if someone can get through it injury free, the intensity is not sustainable.  These workouts cannot be done long term, I don’t care who you are.
  • I’m sure you know people who rave about it.  Ask them again in 6 months….

 

Crossfit

Pros:

  • Team atmosphere.  They have this part right.  As humans, we like groups and a supportive atmosphere.  You are a part of something, and people are rooting you on.
  • Along with being a team, there is a bit of athletic competition.  Many of us enjoy the competitive nature, especially people who played sports in their youth.
  • Accountability.  You are less likely to be absent and get off track when you know people will notice.
  • Non machine based.  In a way this is progressive, technology does not make us stronger, time tested free weights and body weight stuff do.
  • Paleo diet.  Do I totally agree with the Paleo approach?  No.  However, going non processed foods, fruits/vegetables/lean meats is certainly better than the typical diet.  You will lose weight and feel better, no doubt.

Cons:

  • Playing with fire.  They utilize all the goods…..kettlebells, barbells, pullups, etc.  However, I seriously dislike the form and programming.
  • Form:  I will just give a few examples.
  •   Kipping pullups (pullups with an explosive hip thrusting motion). By far, a terrible choice for anyone.  Look at elite gymnasts who do these type of motions.  They know what they are doing and have incredible strength….yet many suffer from poor shoulders and other injuries later on.  Most people can’t do a strict pullup, why should they do an explosive one that allows the upper arm to come forward on the shoulder joint?
  •  The American Kettlebell Swing.  Please see this article from crossfit explaining why their version is better than the Russian swing. (http://www.crossfit.com/journal/library/25_04_kettlebell_swing.pdf)
    However, this article only helps prove my point.  They explain that more work can be done with a swing overhead, and at lighter loads.  However, even in the picture showing the Russian style (my preferred version), they do it with a back that is bent backward, precisely what the Russian style teaches against.  Most people do not have the shoulder flexibility to safely put a weight overhead with their hands together, so they must bend at the back.  The Russian Swing expects control and strength of the entire body…..learn it, get strong, avoid the shortcuts.. it is worth the time.
  • Olympic Lifting.  Olympic Lifts (explosive barbell exercises, like the clean and snatch) are wonderful for the right person and taught correctly.  They are meant to be mastered, and meant to be lower reps.  Get in, get it right, and get out before form breaks down.  However, I see too much abuse of this in crossfit programs.  The lifts are ruined as much as Indiana Jones was from the last movie.  Cleans are not meant to be done to excess, bruises on your shoulders aren’t cool, and form is generally terrible.  I just call them crossfit lifts, and olympic lifts are something separate.
  • The randomness of programming, or WOD (workout of the day) can be a good thing, but for technical lifts and for pure strength, progress can be stunted.  I prefer to pick a few things, master them, get the benefits, and move on after that.
  • Instructors do not need much of a background, a few weekends of workshops.  Hard to criticize though, because just like trainers, most aren’t qualified enough, but good ones do exist.

 

 

For these programs, there will always be the people who love it, thrive in it, and get great results.  These people are usually genetically gifted and could get success from almost any program. That’s great.  I think the Crossfit people have their own sport, I have no problems with that.  They will be OK in strength, power, and endurance, but not great at anything.  This isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  However, as a professional, I cannot recommend them in good conscious.  I question the safety.  Most people who have a job and family life don’t want injuries, cut up hands, etc.  That being said, if not crossfit or these dvds, what else?

Here is what I would recommend:

A few hours with a qualified strength coach/personal trainer to have a program put together (for a few months) is worth the money if you cannot afford one full time.  Learn things right, progress slowly, safely, but effectively.  Learn a sustainable way to make gains.
No way of telling for sure if someone is good just from initials, but if you see CSCS, FMS, RKC (or SF now), you may have found someone  good.  However, many good trainers are out there without the letters, look for recommendations and result history from current clients.  Watch them train someone.  In 5 minutes or less, you will know.

Small group training.  Similar to crossfit in group size.  However, you get a program tailored to YOU.  That means your warmup is for correcting YOUR posture issues, your workout is tailored to your goals, and your program as a whole is specific.  You workout with a small group, but each person is doing something different.  Group atmosphere, but specific workouts.  These workouts are supervised by a trainer who makes sure you do it right.  Think of it as perfect practice.  Usually in the same price range as crossfit or as much as the dvds for a month.

 

The crossfit and P90 crowd will certainly take issue with this.  I’m not bashing them like many of the strength coaches.  I like to be constructive.  There are some good parts of each.  My job is to 1.  Do no harm, and 2. Get results.  I can’t sacrifice safety for results.  The quick and easy path is for immediate satisfaction, but I also need to think long term.  If you do one of these programs and are getting results, that’s awesome, it is working.  I won’t recommend them, but I can’t fault the people who get results.