Saturday, January 8, 2011

Book Review: "Bring It!"

Since the start of the New Year, I’ve been slowly making my way through a thick stack of just-published health-related books sitting on my nightstand, including:
As I finish ‘em, I’ll post reviews of each.

But first up: Tony Horton’s first literary work: “Bring It! The Revolutionary Fitness Plan for All Levels That BURNS FAT, BUILDS MUSCLE, and SHREDS INCHES.”

Read my review after the jump.

First impression:

This is an attractive book, with an eye-catching red jacket (albeit one that features a-creepy-looking airbrushed Horton and a big P90X logo). Visually, it pops, which I'm sure helps drive sales, but also deters easily-embarrassed readers from openly brandishing this book on the bus or subway.

Inside, the glossy pages are crammed with full-color photographs. Not surprisingly, most of 'em are of Tony himself. The page layouts are simple, with plenty of white space and easy-to-read type. (As a design nerd, though, I'm a little distracted by the fonts that inexplicably change from section to section.)

The heart of the book is a 100+ page section of  photographs and descriptions of countless exercise variations, with fair-to-decent instructions on how to perform each movement. Here, you get a sense of the limitations of print as a vehicle for exercise demonstrations; with just two or three snapshots of Tony doing each move, it takes a lot more effort and imagination to figure out what he's trying to show us. But overall, this section's the most useful. It's straightforward, and it offers workout junkies a bunch of new exercise variations.

But ultimately, the book’s text contains a few too many platitudes and rah-rah marketing slogans.

Don't get me wrong: It’s not that Tony’s entirely devoid of sound advice. Right at the outset, Tony makes clear that “quick fixes don’t work,” and that “if you’re searching for the magic bullet, you’ll be looking until the end of time.” He's right: If you want something, you’re going to have to work for it. Tony has some decent points to raise about the importance of periodization. And he discusses why he wants to make exercise fun: “The people who stick with exercise for the long haul are those who enjoy it. They do it out of fun and interest and because it’s a challenge.”

Tony also emphasizes managing stress, getting enough sleep, and stripping alcohol, caffeine, sugar and gluten from people's diets as much as possible. Hear, hear.

But here’s what I had trouble with:
  • Tony advocates way too much exercise.
Tony practices what he preaches, and it's certainly worked for him. But he does a crapload of work -- much more than what's necessary. Tony exercises with “free weights, body weight, and resistance bands for 45 to 55 minutes 2 or 3 days a week,” and “[f]or cardio, [he does] 45 to 50 minutes 2 days a week, with as many different types of aerobic moves as [he] can cram into that time period.” Oh, and he regularly practices yoga, of course. And stretching, too. Also: “a hard-core plyometric interval routine that hammers [his] legs and glutes.”

And he wants you to work out just as frequently: “[T]he old standard has been 3 days per week [of workouts], but I’m going to show you the benefits of working out most days of the week.” Why work out so frequently, you ask? “[I]f you work out on Monday and skip Tuesday, by the time Wednesday rolls around you could be in a full frontal funk -- because those feel-good chemicals [in your brain] are gone.” (Funny -- you know what puts me in a "full frontal funk"? Overtraining.)

If you subscribe to Tony's approach, you're doing hour-long P90X-type workouts every day. Forever. And don’t forget to do ab exercises “at least four or five times a week,” too.

Can you do it? Especially after one, two, three rounds of P90X? Probably not without boredom quickly settling in. That’s probably why Tony tries so damned hard to keep things “fun” by adding lots of variations to basic movements (why do jumping jacks when you can do “Wacky Jacks”?) and making up fanciful names for exercises (“Tick Tock Lifts,” anyone?). It also explains why so many P90X grads (myself included) are so quick to whip out our wallets to buy more fitness DVD sets from Beachbody: P90X+, Insanity, One-on-One with Tony Horton, MC2, etc.) -- we're desperate for some relief from the same old routines, sequences, exercises, banter and jokes.

I've done the 7-days-a-week thing -- both with Beachbody fitness programs and without. Ultimately, I've concluded that it's a boring and unnecessary grind. Even CrossFit -- with its ever-changing WODs -- isn't something I'd want to do every single day. I prefer the "less is more" approach.
  • Tony’s workouts overemphasize isolation exercises.
Three different workout routines are described in “Bring It!”: one for beginners (i.e., people who are entirely sedentary), one for “strivers” (i.e., infrequent exercisers), and one for “warriors” -- the exercise addicts among us. For all three groups, however, Tony devotes a lot of attention to biceps and triceps development, with a total of nine different exercises focused on just these few muscles.

I get that one of the aims of this book is to help people “look good,” and that these bodybuilding routines targeting your "glamor muscles" are aimed at that achieving that goal. But if you’re a beginner / couch potato, spending that much energy on biceps and triceps exercises isn’t the most effective or efficient use of your time. As with P90X, Tony doesn’t shy away from compound exercises (which is good), but the energy devoted to isolation movements could certainly be spent on better things, like developing/improving functional strength.
  • Tony never, ever stops pitching.
No wonder Beachbody loves Tony. The guy’s a marketing machine -- one that's missing an off switch. He never seems to shut up about the stuff Beachbody’s shilling. But it’s still jarring to see so much product placement for his employer within the pages of his book. Tony recommends that we buy the P90X Chin-Up Bar, and clearly wants us to shell out for his overpriced push-up stands, too: “I developed a piece of exercise equipment called PowerStands. It helps people put more depth into their pushups, without having to place their hands on hard surfaces or straining their wrists.” Right. Because God forbid someone should attempt push-ups on "hard surfaces."

And let’s not forget the book's recommendation of the sugar-spiked P90X Results & Recovery Formula. “Why sugar, you say?" Tony writes. "The first reason is flavor... [S]ugar tastes good.”

Wow. This is a perfect segue to my next point:
  • Tony’s nutritional advice is less than solid.
Tony spreads the misinformation cascade, claiming -- without citing any support -- that weight loss is nothing more than “calories in, calories out” (wrong -- it's not that simple) and that because “the protein in animal products is not as easily digested or assimilated by the body as plant- and grain-based proteins are," you should switch to a grain-heavy, meat-free existence. (Of course, I'm biased; as a Paleo eater, I'm a firm believer in the inclusion of meat in one's diet.)

(Read this if you want my take on nutrition, with links to resources, studies and citations.)
  • Tony name-drops like crazy.
Yes, Tony, we know you trained Billy Idol. And Ewan McGregor. And Marlee Matlin. And Mike Golic. Shut up already.
  • Tony writes like a cheesy motivational speaker.
Perhaps the Stuart Smalley school of writing is right up your alley, but I find it annoying and unhelpful.

“Apply each turn of the wheel in the Cycle of Success, and you’ll learn to treat yourself well (with kindness, self-acceptance, tolerance, and no criticism),” Tony writes. Be your “real self.” “Be amazing.”

What does that even mean?

The bottom line:

As the creator of P90X, Tony Horton has my everlasting gratitude. At the time, his 90-day program was just the thing I needed to get me off the couch and on the path to better health and fitness.

But Tony's not perfect, and neither is his book.

If you already have the P90X DVDs, you don’t need this book. It doesn't add anything that the videos and accompanying guides don't already offer. Plus, by dint of their medium, the P90X DVDs do a much better job of demonstrating movements and motivating people to exercise than any book ever could.

And if you're a cheap bastard who's thinking about getting Tony's book instead of the DVDs, don't. Save up for the videos. Better yet, if you’re looking to boost your fitness level without dropping a load of cash, get one or more of the three books I listed at the top of this post, along with Robb Wolf’s The Paleo Solution. They're not perfect, but in my opinion, they're vastly superior to (and much more substantive than) "Bring It!"

Of course, if you do that, you won’t get page after glossy page of Tony Horton and his inky, shellacked hair. But come on: Haven't you seen enough of this guy already?