“If you look at the original Power 90, that was over 15 years ago—it’s six days a week and eating right,” Horton explains. “All we ever did was say you’ve got to work out all the time, just like you’ve got to breathe all the time. If you make exercise part of your daily life, you’re going to look better, you’re going to feel better, and you’re going to lose a lot of weight. You don’t need all that other stuff like the gym membership and the trainer. You just need 90 days to go kick some ass.”
This is the ethos, and the secret to success, behind Power 90, P90X, fellow trainer Shaun T’s Insanity, and a host of other programs that make up Beachbody, the billion-dollar company founded in 1998, preceding CrossFit, SoulCycle, and the whole class of nouveau-exercise upstarts that have metastasized into almost-cults. Given their rabid followings and ubiquitous studios, it’s shocking to realize that not only are old-school DVD workouts like P90X enduring—they’ve remained near the top of the hive mind.
P90X first became something of a cause célèbre in 2012 when it was revealed that Rep. Paul Ryan, then Mitt Romney’s running mate against President Obama, was a devotee. In addition to using P90X himself, Ryan led P90X sessions for other members of Congress. All of a sudden, Horton was being interviewed by Time about the man who could be our next vice president and explaining “muscle confusion” to a curious public.
The inhabitants of the White House have always been surprising fashion icons, and aesthetic objects of fixation for America at large. Ryan, a former personal trainer, had a health and vibrancy you don’t usually see in politicians, who tend to be either sun-shaded and doughy or else plasticine, perfect-haired Stepford husbands. (We’re looking at you, Mitt.) Ryan actually looked like a normal dude, or at least that one friend you have who gives regular updates on his squat PRs, and, we were led to believe, that was thanks to P90X.
“It’s multi-level marketing, plain and simple, but it’s not Tupperware and it’s not makeup.”
The 90-day program involves a mix of “strength training, cardio, core work, yoga, and flexibility” that runs alongside a high-protein diet plan. All you need are the DVDs showing you exactly what to do, as well as home gym equipment like resistance bands and dumbbells. While there’s no definitive demographic breakdown of any of the Beachbody workouts, anecdotal evidence (and the P90X website) has the program skewing male.
Although the Ryan Effect, insofar as it might’ve taken place—Beachbody did not respond to repeated requests for comment—happened on a larger scale, Horton says word of mouth has always been the driving force behind the workout. You get fit, people ask you how, and you tell them, “P90X.” The rest is internet shopping.
Horton and Beachbody’s latest innovation has been to conscript that word-of-mouth enthusiasm into an actual arm of the company. Known as Team Beachbody, happy customers (known as “coaches” in company parlance) work to sell the programs to their friends, loved ones, and schlubby strangers alike. Horton says there are a quarter of a million coaches now, with a goal of a million in sight, and that some have become millionaires from their hawking.
“It’s multi-level marketing, plain and simple,” Horton says. “But it’s not Tupperware and it’s not makeup—they’re actually building a business where they’re earning some income and sharing programs that help their friends and family get healthy.”
Joe Campo’s a good example. A resident of New Jersey whose job in finance requires a daily commute to New York City, Campo is 34 years old with three sons. He’s pretty much the target demo for an at-home workout program. He’s been doing Beachbody’s Insanity for a few years now, and says he’s in the best shape of his life, all for 30 minutes a day.
Much more so than the possibility of an actual beach body, this is the company’s promise: a grueling, productive workout that you can do at home, efficiently, without involving anyone other than yourself. At the same time, though, Campo’s also an example of the next generation of Beachbody user—someone who has the same community as those who adhere to, say, CrossFit. His just happens to be online.
“I take advantage of Beachbody’s coaching aspect, where you actually have someone motivating you through Facebook groups,” Campo says. “My wife and I run Facebook groups for workouts, where we check in on whether you did your workout, whether you’re on your diet.” Campo’s commitment even led him to join the test group for a new Insanity program, Insanity Max:30.
It’s easy to find examples on Facebook—spread among at least a dozen different multi-thousand-member groups—of people sharing their P90x progress and asking each other questions. Some of the groups are tailored to women, others parents, others for particular areas of the country. And those are only the open groups: there are many more that are members-only.
A typical post sounds like this: “Starting week 2. Already gained 3 lbs. I’m safely assuming it is muscle as I have been keeping my calorie count around 1800. I questioned whether to do classic or mass and decided on classic because I wanted to maintain weight. However, I want to build muscle especially in the upper body. Is there a method to doing so with Classic? Classic usually tones you up. Should I sneak an extra upper body workout in during the week?” It’s a mix of diet, habit, and strategy, plus the requisite progress updates.
Facebook gives plenty of incentive: What’s achievement without the photos to prove it?
Some posts go heavier on the progress: “So I am a week in p90X3 and was really dreading doing The Warrior workout today from other people’s reviews and I am happy to say I LOVED IT. I had to take a few extra breaks but my god what an all around fabulous full body work out!!! Thanks Tony for the 30 mins of getting my butt handed to me, it felt great!” Facebook gives plenty of incentive. First, you’re tapping into a readymade community. Second, you have knowledge and experience immediately accessible. And third: what’s achievement without the photos to prove it?
Horton says that both the Facebook groups and actual, in-person group workouts are a huge component of P90X in particular.
“A lot of the coaches are starting these things called Fit Clubs, which gets its name from Fight Club,” he says. “They’re cleaning out the garage and saying, ‘I don’t necessarily like doing this on my own, so why don’t you come over and do it with me?’ My sister has a deal with a local school where anywhere from 10 to 20 people come and do her Fit Club there.”
The Beachbody workouts are not a panacea, though. Like all physical activity, they pose a potential for harm: You can’t get fit without putting your body through stress, and stress comes with risk. A few years ago, after deciding it was finally time to get fit, Charles Goulding started Insanity.
“It’s so intense that, especially if you’re not in great shape to begin with, you’re just hurting constantly.”
“I did it on and off for the better part of half a year. I don’t still do it because I ended up in physical therapy at the end,” Goulding says. “My view of it is it’s for people who are in B+ shape who are hoping to get into A shape—really, really fit. It wasn’t for me, particularly at that time. I don’t know what grade you would’ve given me, but it wasn’t a B+. You’ve got to be careful. You’re jumping around like crazy, doing real high-intensity stuff, and I hurt my back pretty badly.”
Horton and Beachbody have both made much noise out of the fact that their programs can help even the most obese get into peak physical shape, but Goulding’s experience belies one of the stranger elements of doing a new program on your own, at home—there’s no one there to correct you.
“It’s so intense that, especially if you’re not in great shape to begin with, you’re just hurting constantly,” Goulding continues. “That time period just feels like a blur—you feel exhausted when you’re not doing it, and I found it impossible to adhere to the schedule as it was planned out.”
Dr. Justin Lin, the executive director of Rehab and Revive Physical Therapy in Orange County, California, says that Goulding’s experience isn’t an anomaly. Because of the demands that P90X and Insanity place on your body, the chance of injury does exist, though it’s tied to a few different variables, including body type and how well the exercises are being done.
“Out-of-shape people already have a lack of form and conditioning that would aid someone that was more athletic,” Lin wrote in an email. “I do believe that the type of bodies we have, like fast twitch or slow twitch, could also favor us; fast twitch would be better in high-intensity lifting. I think the right education and foundation for moderation is the best solution.”
But Lin took an even stronger stance in an article he wrote for The Notice: “I want to tell you all that programs like these KEEP ME IN BUSINESS AS A PHYSICAL THERAPIST,” attributing injuries to lean muscle building faster than tendon strength in individuals who aren’t already equipped to handle the stress. Of course, injury is a risk with all exercise, and even Horton’s gotten hurt.
Part of the appeal of classes like CrossFit and SoulCycle is that you’re under constant, and often very intimate, supervision; it would be tough to do anything incorrectly for long before some instructor swoops in to correct you. This kind of close scrutiny makes plenty of people bashful about the prospect of group exercise, but it’s also a safety valve. It isn’t that the Beachbody programs are unsafe; it’s that there’s no guaranteeing what you’re doing is, in fact, the program as it was explicitly designed.
Goulding eventually found his way to a steady routine of eating well and fundamental exercise like cardio and weight lifting. Insanity did represent an attractive way of getting into working out that had some momentum, even if that momentum went in a different direction.
Herein lies the riddle of P90X, Insanity, and their ilk. On the one hand, especially to those in coastal cities, they may seem to pale in comparison to the glimmering boutique fitness studios on every block, filled with beautiful trainers and happy participants, future versions of ourselves if we just buy enough classes.
On the other, there is a whole subset of the country that, for reasons of accessibility, convenience, or money, can’t tap it back or do the Workout of the Day or [insert hyper-specific terminology here]. For them, DVDs that you can watch at home, prescribing exercises you can do in 30 minutes, with a network of other people across the United States who you can find easier than you can a decent gym, might still be painful. But it still beats lurching nowhere on a treadmill.