Tuesday, February 9, 2010

P90X Chest & Back Review

It's time I got around to actually reviewing each of the P90X workouts, don't you think?

Let's start with Chest & Back -- right after the jump.

Looking back at the past six months, it's a little hard to believe that I've only done the Chest & Back routine eleven times. I've long ago committed the entire sequence of moves to memory, and Tony's corny quips feel older than dirt.

But when I first started, this workout was intimidating as hell. For a few months before starting P90X, I'd been regularly lifting weights, but not really challenging myself. After a few low-key sets of bench presses, chest flies, back rows, bicep curls and triceps kickbacks, I'd call it a day. I might hop on the elliptical or the rowing machine once in a blue moon, but my workouts were capped at 30 or 40 minutes long. The thought of suddenly doing an hour of different push-up variations and pull-ups(!) freaked the feces out of me.

But at the same time, I was excited about the prospect of starting P90X. After checking out the infomercial (which -- ironically -- I saw only after purchasing P90X), I figured this was just the challenge I needed to jumpstart my moribund exercise routine.

Naturally, the first thing you notice about Chest & Back is the freakishly animated Tony Horton.

I'm sure Tony strikes some folks as charming, funny and charismatic. But my first impression of Tony -- especially when I was just starting out and cursing his name after each set of increasingly challenging exercises -- was that he was a smug douchebag who: (1) thought he was funnier than he actually was; (2) spent more time showing off than providing proper exercise instruction; and (3) needed to shut up once in a while. It's odd, but K├╝bler-Ross's Five Stages of Grief can be applied to my reaction to Tony Horton:
  • DENIAL: "This guy can't be real. He's acting. Badly."
  • ANGER: "Stop with the fucking jokes, you asshole! Shut up shut up shut up!"
  • BARGAINING: "Okay. If Tony can deliver actual results, I'll put up with him for another few weeks."
  • DEPRESSION: "Oh, God, please end my suffering. I just want to crawl back into bed and go to sleep."
  • ACCEPTANCE: "Wow! P90X works! I guess Tony's not such a douchebag after all. Wait a second -- could it be that I'm actually starting to like this guy? Ohmygod, I do!"

After getting over the initial shock of learning that you're going to be spending 60 to 90 minutes a day -- for three months -- with this guy, you start with some light warm-up exercises. (Trust me: The static and ballistic stretches that Tony introduces in P90X -- even the interminable round of arm circles -- are a piece of cake compared with the crazy-intense warm-up moves in most Insanity workouts.)

By the way, if you're short on time, you might want to consider skipping some of the static stretches, and focusing instead on the ballistic moves. (Dynamic stretching's better for you than static stretching. And some experts say that stretching isn't necessary at all.)

The workout begins in earnest after a short break. This session consists of 12 different moves, alternating between chest exercises and back exercises. Tony leads off with something everyone's familiar with:

Standard Push-Ups: Nothing fancy -- just keep your hands about shoulder-width apart, and keep your body straight (and your head in line with your body). Pick a number and crank 'em out. If you're afraid you'll tweak your wrists but don't want to buy a set of push-up stands, use a pair of hex weights or turn your detachable door-frame-mounted pull-up bar upside down.

Wide Front Pull-Ups: I highly recommend getting a rafter-mounted pull-up bar, but any bar that'll support your weight should do. Start with your hands just slighly wider than your shoulders, and heave yourself up until your chin clears the bar. Tony shows you how to make pull-ups a little easier by keeping a foot on the back of a chair, but remember to use proper form (and don't make this a thigh exercise by overcompensating with your leg). If you have to use a chair, try to keep it in front of you; as Tony points out, the further it is from you, the harder you'll have to work. If you're still struggling to do a pull-up, check this out. And this, too.

Military Push-Ups: These are just like Standard Push-Ups, but with your hands directly under your shoulders, and with your elbows close to your sides as you go up and down. This move engages your triceps and shoulders to a greater degree (and, in fact, are more commonly known as Triceps Push-Ups -- even people in the military don't call them "Military Push-Ups").

Reverse Grip Chin-Ups: Remember doing chin-ups in school? You did them because you sucked at pull-ups, and for some reason, chin-ups were ever-so-slightly easier. The good news? They still are. The bad news? They're not that much easier than Wide Grip Pull-Ups. If you need to use a chair, do it. (The great thing about working out at home is that strangers won't point and laugh.)

Wide Fly Push Ups: Another push-up variation -- this time, with your hands a bit wider than your shoulders. (But not too wide. You don't want to hurt yourself.)

Close Grip Pull-Ups: Do a pull-up, but with your hands positioned on the bar about 6 inches apart. This variation targets your lower lats, and they can be tough at first. But if you're like me, after a while, you'll find them a lot easier than regular pull-ups.
Decline Push-Ups: These are the same as Standard Push-Ups, but with your feet elevated on a chair or bench, which increases the weight you're pushing. Fun! For more intensity, raise a leg off the chair every time you go down.

Heavy Pants: No, not those heavy pants. You grab a pair of dumbbells, bend forward at the waist, and crank out some back rows. Keep your back straight and your elbows close to your sides, and try to squeeze your shoulder blades together. You can also use resistance bands to do this move, as illustrated by Scott Fifer below.

Diamond Push-Ups: Put your palms on the floor, directly under your chest, with your thumbs and index fingers touching (and forming a diamond or teardrop shape). Then crank out some push-ups, touching your chest to your hands each time you go down. If this is easy for you, congratulations: You just wasted your money on a home fitness program you don't need. For everyone else: Stick with it. These will get easier with time.

Lawnmowers: Start in a lunge position, resting your elbow on your knee. With the other hand, pick up a heavy dumbbell and do a bunch of rows. Keep your eyes on the floor in front of you, and ignore Tony's attempt to mimic the sound of a lawnmower ("NENN-nenn-nenn-nenn-NUH!").

Dive Bomber Push-Ups: These aren't easy. You begin in a Downward Dog position, and then do a push-up. But as you go down, also move your body forward, so that when you push back up, you end up in an Upward Dog pose. Do another push-up, but this time, reverse the sequence, so that as you go down and back up, you move your body back as well. This is a killer move for your shoulders.

Back Flies: Grab a pair of dumbbells. Bend at the waist, and lift the weights up and to the side, keeping your arms straight. Squeeze your shoulder blades together -- you should feel this most in your back, and not in your shoulders.

After you've finished all twelve of these moves, you're more than ready to call it a day. But guess what? You're only halfway through Chest & Back.

A quick break later, Tony marches you through the entire routine all over again (but changes the order of the moves slightly to shake things up a bit). On the plus side, you know what's coming, and you know how to move. On the minus side, you're fucking exhausted.

The first time you attempt Chest & Back, you might need to take some extra breaks and modify some of the moves, but you'll be fresh enough to get through the entire workout. When you're done, you'll feel exhilarated, and justifiably so: You just accomplished something significant. When the soreness kicks in the next day, you might question whether you can get through all 90 days of P90X, but kick those thoughts aside. Stick with it, and you'll soon be kicking ass.

Another plus: On a relative scale, Chest & Back features one of the least annoying supporting casts on any P90X video. Maren is cheerful ("German Potato Soup!") without being overeager or chirpy, and she cranks out all the moves with aplomb. Bobby Stephenson is -- mercifully -- much less chatty here than he is in Back & Biceps. And Scott Fifer is just a machine. All three of them just kill all the moves.

In the end, you'll find that Chest & Back is one of the essential workouts in P90X. Push-ups and pull-ups are two of the best compound exercises you can do for your upper body, and Chest & Back is chock full of them.