Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Don't Fall for the P90x Gimmick

Ever hear of the Hawthorne effect? Back in the 1950s a researcher went into a factory (called the Hawthorne Works) and announced he was doing a study.

He turned the lights up, then sat down to observe.
Productivity increased.

He turned the temperature down, then sat down to observe.
Productivity increased.

He ordained two 5-minute breaks instead of their preferred two 10-minute breaks. Productivity increased.

He shortened their workday 30 minutes, then again, then back to the original length. Productivity increased, increased, and increased again.

What the hell happened here?

(1) Worker productivity increased in all instances simply because they were being observed.
(2) Workers were increasingly aware of their own productivity, and this made them more productive (I'll call this the Powertap effect).
(3) Workers responded to increased expectations ("the Pygmalion effect").
(4) Humans in tedious conditions perform better when changes--any changes--are made to their environment (the "novelty effect").

P90x applies the principles observed in the Hawthorne Works factory to your body. It's creed: "change in routine increases muscle productivity." Maximize change to maximize muscle productivity. That's the idea.

The question is: is constant change ideal?

There are currently no studies on P90x, and a Google Scholar search on "muscle confusion" yielded exactly zero relevant results. There are a lot of testimonials, people whose fitness improves. But we're not interested in whether muscle confusion improves fitness--anything that stresses muscles and raises your heartrate does that. We're interested in whether it is optimal--whether it's right for you and I, semi-trained cyclists.

In this case, we'd have to compare it to periodization training.

The principles of periodization are the same as "muscle confusion," except for one thing: duration of focus. In P90x, you switch focus within workouts; in periodization training, you switch focus every week or several weeks.

I don't think P90x is ideal for a simple reason: you have to have a routine before you can change a routine. In other words, instead of changing focus every 30 seconds or even every day, it's better to focus for longer periods on one thing.

This is not just a psychological truism; it's also physiologically substantiated. Your body doesn't adapt to a focus for at least several weeks. For example, if you start squatting today, you won't begin to plateau for at least two months. You'll improve steadily, seeing large gains in strength. It doesn't make sense, day-to-day, to "confuse" your muscles by switching your routine next week when the whole point of exercise is to focus on one element of your overall fitness for as long as you can, bring it to the point of plateau, and then switch to another element. That's why periodization allows elite athletes to build fitness over six months.

Because P90x is all over the place, almost every day, it doesn't allow the kind of focus that periodization allows. For this reason, and until I see evidence of its benefits, I'll stick to what has been shown to yield results over time.


TheJerkbeast said...

What's your take on Crossfit? They appear to also use a type of muscle training that seems similar in ways to P90X?

Calvini said...

Like P90x, Crossfit looks like a good overall fitness program, but not something for serious cyclists. Both Crossfit and P90x promote broad fitness measured in aerobic and strength indicators. Cycling is an incredibly specific type of fitness that rewards those of us with bird-like torsos.

I am trying to find serious scholarly articles on this approach to fitness, but they're hard to find. I can see why--it's very hard to measure something like "overall fitness," because it's a very difficult thing to define. This is in contrast to something like muscular strength or cycling functional threshold power (FTP).

To definitively reject these programs, we'd have to see some studies backing up what I'm arguing, so we'll have to wait and see.

Cliff said...

Plateaus in training have been around since people have been training.
ALL of that mumbo-jumbo is just the latest terminology for ways to get through a plateau.
Ever heard of Frank Zane; competed against Arnold and others at Mr. O and Mr. Universe. His awesome book from decades ago is still golden "Fabulously Fit Forever" no surprise that Cross-Fit style stuff is in there- shocker. I have been apart of the nations TOP collegiate training programs; studied on my own, I hold at least one relevant certification.
Ain't nothing new.

About your other multi-part posts on MST etc. I love it. You know the "what to do"; the other half ot if is "how". Elements of focus, breathing, intensity, time under load, rest, fatigue, etc etc etc. it all matters to get from gym to bike.

Calvini said...

You're right, Cliff, about the plateau-busting aim of these approaches. I'm not really convinced.

In all fitness, we make large initial gains, then the gains come more slowly. That's just how it is.

At least in periodization training you get proven results.