P90X3: Fitness Road Test

Several years ago, Touchline road tested the enormously popular P90X2 exercise programme. Hosted by pull-up star and part-time stand up Tony Horton, this series was the market leader for years.

In 2013, Beachbody dropped the third in the trilogy. It quickly superseded the previous versions and has since become the staple regime for folks who prefer getting ripped in the privacy of their own garage.

Three years after it first arrived, Touchline has again sent a representative into Tony’s house of pain, with somewhat mixed results.

To those who have never delved into the Beachbody back catalogue, the P90 series is based on new theories in fitness, designed for minimal outlay. You work out exclusively at home, needing only resistance bands or dumbbells, a pull up bar and a yoga mat. Oh, and will power. As it turns out, lots of it.

The new incarnation’s greatest innovation, and most attractive quality, is that each session totals to only 30 minutes. Sports science has started pointing in the direction of short and sharp, rather than draw out and painful.

According to much of the literature, the initial burst of intense exercise burns glycogen. Once the body realises that it is not in immediate danger, it switches to breaking down fat to produce energy. It should logically follow that the so-called “fat-burning” stage was the sweet spot for getting fit, but it appears that the first stage is actually more effective.

This is because the burning of glycogen on a regular basis results in metabolic changes that actually promote greater long-term fat loss and improved muscle gaining.

We’ll leave the rest of the science to Beachbody, because you are essentially paying them to do that stuff for you.
In terms of effectiveness, P90X3 is about as close to a sure thing as you could hope for. There is very little choice allowed in the routines themselves. There is a classic, bulking, slimming and doubles version. Once the goal is established, the calendar takes care of the rest.

This reviewer went for bulk, already being in intermediate shape. Like all the other versions, there are three phases. Each phase involved three weeks of intense exercise, the fourth being a rest/flexibility week.

Packing the moves into 30 minutes has the psychological advantage of being unthreatening. In the time spent watching a sitcom, you can instead burn 200-500 calories. Which is important, given that the commitment is to six days out of seven. But these 30 minutes are hard. There is no time to muck around.

It would be almost as exhausting to outline all the moves as to do them, so let’s take a close look at some of the author’s favourites.

In the cross fit arena, there is Agility X. This routine uses a light weight and splits dynamic movement with balance moves. You may be asked to stand on one leg and lift a dumbbell from one shoulder to the other, or to do side-skips across the room. This routine is designed to promote overall strength and power.

For pure fat-burning goodness, there are several alternatives. Probably the most fun –though admittedly stupid-looking- is MMX. This is a mixed martial arts hybrid where kicking and punching an imaginary enemy is used to get the heart rate roiled. Unless the user has a background in karate, it is hard to perform these moves with any grace at all, especially after the halfway mark when exhaustion creeps in. But it does the job and is rather fun in an embarrassing sort of way.

Stripping away fat is great, but there has to be something under that to show off, which is why the resistance routines are so important. The Challenge is a great one if you are working out with buddies and have a competitive streak. Here, you choose a number for push ups and a much lower number for pull ups. Each push up style is different, cycling through wide, military and plyo versions. The same goes for pull ups. You have to beat the number each time.

In all the resistance routines, the program skews to compound moves and away from isolation exercises: seemingly because with a compound move you are hitting more muscle groups and there simply isn’t time to pump up those biceps.

Finally, P90X3 has a range of flexibility routines designed to add flexibility and strength. The original version had yoga, but here it is again cut back to 30 minutes. Pilates X is mainly about core fitness, as well as protecting the lower back. Both of these routines help to protect against injury.

So does P90X3 work? Of course it does. Losing weight and gaining muscle are actually very simple, but there are a few rules. One: commit. Two: eating is key.

Diet in this program is as important as in any other. Eighty percent of body change comes through diet. So while the author was very committed to the work outs, there was a diet deficit which undermined the experience. Pizza and hamburgers are even harder to resist when you have just completed 30 minutes of frenetic power-exercise. Being committed all the way is tough.

The other downside of the programme is the relentlessness of its needs. Almost every day you have to dust off the dumbbells and strap on the shoes. At first, it is easy to think “Yeah, 30 minutes! Gonna crush this!”. A few weeks in, and getting home from work, the last thing in mind is doing plyo-jumping jacks. That sofa looks so much more attractive.

In a way, going to the gym is easier. It takes longer, of course, but the ceremony and the fact that there is nothing else that can distract makes for a more focused work out.

This aside, P90X3 is the sequel Beachbody wanted. Combining fresh, exciting exercises in such a tight timeframe, this will be the at-home go-to until P90X4 drops.