Flunking The Insanity Workout But Coming Away Wiser

(Update: Listen to our new podcast with more info on the Insanity workout here.)

My Insanity set in my recycling bin, waiting for re-gifting (Carey Goldberg/WBUR)

“Dig deeper!” Shaun T goaded me, and dig I did. “You can do it!” He assured me, and mostly, to my own surprise, I could. “Don’t give up!” he hounded me. So I didn’t — at first.

In the end, all his exhortations, all his gleaming and dripping muscles, all his tough-guy-heart-of-gold coaching couldn’t alter the fact that the Insanity workout was wrong, wrong, wrong for me.

Still, I came away wiser.

If you haven’t heard of Insanity, you must live on a planet without informercials. It has one of the most persuasive pitches out there, and its YouTube trailers get millions of views. (The one below is at nearly 4 million.)

It is Amazon’s most popular exercise video and most popular DVD overall — no small feat when the listed price is $144.80.

Insanity Workout trailer

Here’s the basic concept: Try harder. To wit: Typical “interval training” involves several minutes of moderate intensity and then a minute or so of high-intensity push — a sprint, if you will. The Insanity workout flips that formula, so that you do longer high-intensity intervals and then have relatively short rests.

That approach struck me as meshing well with a wave of recent research findings that shorter, very vigorous workouts can provide surprisingly strong health benefits. And, as I wrote when I embarked on my Insanity, I was inspired by a 58-year-old doctor I deeply respect, who reported that the program was certainly intense but did not have to be truly insane. He ended up with lower body fat and feeling great.

So I took the plunge — well, a discounted plunge. I found a set on Craigslist for just $60, and met the seller in front of a pizza restaurant for a transaction that felt oddly illicit. (My apologies to Beachbody LLC, the company that makes Insanity among other workouts. I’d naively assumed the Craigslist set was used, but the set was clearly brand new and I’ve now learned that Beachbody is plagued by piracy. If you suspect a set for sale might be counterfeit, you can report it to piracy@beachbody.com.)

Insanity was my first venture as part of CommonHealth’s summer fitness initiative, Shake It Up, a series of forays into new forms of exercise — at least, new to us. Rachel has tried Nia and a trampoline workout, and I figured that I’d commit to Insanity — or perhaps one should say, be committed to Insanity — for the full 60 days.

Ha. I set up a corner of the attic with floor pads and a DVD player. I watched the long warning about checking with my doctor, and Insanity not being for everyone, especially people with a history of knee or back injuries. I took the fitness test. I put up the poster and checked off the box for the first workout, the “Plyometric Cardio Circuit.”

Now do it as fast as you can

I mimicked the lithe crowd on the screen. Jogging. Jumping jacks. Hopping from side to side. Running with knees high. Running with my heels coming so high behind me they almost hit my bottom. Quick front kicks. In short, a whole bunch of moves that I hadn’t done since high-impact aerobics were hot in the 70s and 80s, and  John Travolta was courting Jamie Lee Curtis in lycra.

Then Shaun T, the gruffly charming trainer, kicked up the speed, extolling “The best cardio you’ll ever get in your life, y’all.” It was the same sequence of moves, but getting faster and faster — “Push through! Dig with me, I’m right here!” — and then, “Ready? Jack it out, as fast as you can!”

‘Their whole shtick is to get you ‘cut’ in the shortest possible time.’

That was the beginning of the end for me, though I didn’t yet know it. In the days to come, there were many more high and higher impact moves, and a recurrent theme of “Do it as fast as you can — but of course without losing your form.”

I worked up a very quick sweat with each workout, and an efficient half hour or so most decidedly felt like enough exercise for a day. But every instinct was telling me, “No. You’re asking for trouble. Your middle-aged woman’s body does not want this high-impact violence to your joints and muscles. Especially day after day with no real break. Stop.”

So first I tried doing Insanity DVDs only every other day, and then I finally quit altogether. (Judging by a couple of reviews on Amazon that blame Insanity for back problems, perhaps not a moment too soon.) But no regrets. I came away with several lessons, and exercise experts I spoke with afterward imparted many more.

My own lessons:

• Even fitness experiments that fail can still add valuable elements to our exercise repertoire. These days, if I want to warm up before doing weights, I sometimes use a few minutes of an Insanity routine, and enjoy it.

• Being pushed by somebody else — even an unseeing coach on a DVD — is a helpful reminder that we can probably try harder, if we choose. My big takeaway from Insanity is that I may sometimes want to extend my higher-intensity intervals to two or three or four minutes, and though they may not be quite so intense, I can squeeze more of a workout out of my limited time.

‘Extreme conditioning’

I spoke with Dr. William J. Kraemer, a professor in the department of kinesiology at the University of Connecticut and an expert on the biology of exercise, including “extreme exercise.” (One recent paper warns of common injuries in soldiers who try “increasingly popularized extreme conditioning programs.”)

We are just starting to learn more about “extreme conditioning,” he said, and there are many commercial programs like Insanity that fall into that category. Their number one target is body composition, he said, and “Their whole shtick is to get you ‘cut’ in the shortest possible time.” To do that, they exercise you very hard.

The trouble with that, he said, is that there tends to be very little variation or “periodization — it’s just going hard all the time. When you go hard all the time — you don’t ‘periodize’ between hard metabolic workouts with moderate workouts and light workouts — your body starts to accumulate stress.” The stress hormone cortisol rises; so do inflammatory responses and free radicals, he said. Without time to recover, the body has a harder time adapting to progressively harder demands – and that adaptation is the goal.

In exercise physiology, he said, “catabolic” refers to muscle breakdown, and “anabolic” to muscle build-up. With programs that push you hard six days a week, your body never gets a chance to build back up.

‘Catabolic nightmares’

“You may lose the weight and look good, but with such extreme catabolic programs, some of the people we are starting to look at are catabolic nightmares,” he said. “They look good because they’re young and can tolerate it, but in reality their measures of catabolism are two, three, four times higher than normal.”

Another problem: Workouts which use no weights, like Insanity, may build strength but cannot provide the type of heavy loading needed to fight bone loss in women, Dr. Kraemer said.

Not to mention that the dropout rate tends to be high, he added, “”and in preliminary looks at such extreme workouts, the injury rate goes up because you have all this breakdown stuff floating around in your body and you get injured.” A recent study, he said, found that when you do high numbers of repetitions, even of a simple exercise, your technique tends to start to fail.

‘They may just be genetic freaks with great bodies. Come on, in 60 days you’re going to look like that?’

In essence, he said, an Insanity-type workout is what body-builders do at the “cut phase,” several weeks before a competition: They’ve built up their muscles, and now “they want to get ripped, they want to get definition.” The trouble is, he said, the guys in the inspiring “after” infomercial photos may just be “genetic freaks with great bodies. Come on, in 60 days you’re going to look like that?”

Longer intervals?

Not that I ever thought I’d get a six-pack, but how I love the fresh ring of expertise-infused truth! Just one lingering question: What about my idea of lengthening my high-intensity intervals?

Dr. Kraemer sounded dubious. “You’ll never be able to do three minutes as intensely as you can do one minute,” he said. “It’s just physiological. You can do longer intervals to burn more calories but you cannot keep up the same intensity for three minutes that you can do for one minute.”

True, but is there any reason not to aim for longer intervals, if I’m fit enough? I checked with my favorite health book author, Tim Caulfield, author of “The Cure For Everything,” and a health policy researcher with encyclopedic knowledge of the literature on diet and fitness.

He replied:

Most of the studies that look at interval training use fairly short intervals on ONE activity (e.g., 15 secs to about 1 min). But some are longer.

I think the intervals have to be short enough that you can maintain a fairly intense level of activity. Again, it is all about adaptation. Also, I think it is important to mix it up.

This is a fairly solid sum of the benefits of Interval Training. So, not sure there is any documented harm to long intervals… beyond the usual associated with exercise, etc.

Mike Bracko, an exercise physiologist based in Calgary, offered further reinforcement for the idea that a truly high-intensity interval cannot last very long. “You can sustain a really high intensity for maybe 30 seconds,” he said, “and after that, just because of waste products and available energy, you’re still working hard but you’re going down to medium intensity.”

But research shows excellent results from medium-intensity intervals too, he said. As for workouts like Insanity, he’d suggest “Buyer beware.” But “if you can handle it, if you can do it, then it’s a great fun way to exercise. We’re in the industry to try to get people to be more physically active, so if they want to do high intensity interval training, go for it. And maybe that’s the start of their exercise program, and they think, ‘I like to exercise but I can’t do this, so I’m going to try something else.’ ”

A moment of deep sheepishness

That sounds about right. One last lesson: Dr. Kraemer, in his wisdom, pointed out that we all tend to be bad consumers of fitness products; “We want this thing right now.” When you’re thinking of buying a workout, he said, you should ask yourself whether this is the right time to do a particular workout, and why you want to do it. “Everybody can push harder, he said, “but the question is, why are you trying to push harder?”

Why? My first answer is, well, it looked like fun, and a respected source recommended it. But when I really looked into the mirror, I had a moment of deep sheepishness.

Damn. I fell for it. I really fell for it. Insanity has famously brilliant marketing, and those before and after pictures are just so powerful. Of course I knew I wouldn’t get “cut,” but somehow…somehow….I wanted to be more like the people in the trailers. At least, a little more.

Maybe I can settle for being wiser instead.

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