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Do You Have to Be Insane to Do Beachbody INSANITY?

Beachbody's website claims that “INSANITY is the hardest workout ever put on DVD." But does that make it the best workout? Or even an effective one?

By
Brock Armstrong
7-minute read
Episode #504
The Quick And Dirty
  • Just because a workout is hard doesn't mean it is extra effective.
  • Before you invest in a program like INSANITY, think about what will happen to your fitness after this 60-day program is over.
  • Because all humans are different, any workout that markets itself as the "perfect workout" should be considered suspect.

The Beachbody INSANITY program is not for the faint of heart. Invented by Shaun T, this 60-day workout program is designed to "push you past your limits" with cardio, plyometric drills, and intervals of strength, power, resistance, and core training. The marketing emphasizes that no equipment or weights are needed, and you "don't have to be in extreme shape to do it."

Yes, that's what it says: “extreme shape.”

Now, I am not going to lie. Having tried it myself, I can attest that the INSANITY program is definitely not for everyone. In fact, the warm-up alone is harder than many of my entire workouts. In my opinion as a coach who has worked with hundreds of clients, this is a serious workout for people who are already very fit. With a focus on “max interval training” that may intimidate even some seasoned fitness pros, this workout is not for someone who is new to formal fitness training nor is it for someone who is just building or rebuilding their fitness.

The warm-up alone is harder than many of my entire workouts.

Isn't a hard workout a good thing?

So, it's a tough workout. What's wrong with that? Well, the problem is that this type of maximum intensity comes at a greater risk of injury. Along with a solid base level of fitness, you also need to have good form and technique. Even though the videos do a decent job of demonstrating each movement, unless you have a mirror handy or a friend who can keep an eye on your form, as fatigue sets in, your form will suffer and pain will ensue. 

But I am getting ahead of myself. More on that later. 

How it works

Throughout the Beachbody INSANITY workouts, you alternate between explosive cardio drills, power and resistance moves, and plyometrics, with some core and balance moves sprinkled in for good measure. And in theory, that's a good thing! The diversity of moves means that Beachbody INSANITY checks the majority of the boxes for what I would consider a well-rounded workout program. 

The problem is that in most traditional interval training workouts of this length (most of the INSANITY workouts are nearly an hour long) the focus is on longer periods of moderate exercise with short periods of high-intensity exercise peppered in. For instance, a traditional interval training workout might have you soft-pedaling on a bike for one minute followed by sprinting as hard as possible for 20 seconds. This is the way we get the closest results to the lab experiments that show us how effective HIIT can be.

When you perform at 80% of your maximum heart rate or more for long periods of time, you can indeed see faster gains. But at what cost?

With INSANITY workouts, it’s the reverse: long periods of high-intensity exercise followed by short periods of recovery. To be fair, there is some solid logic behind this. Let's say that you simply go out running a few days per week at a moderate intensity (or what I call "comfortably uncomfortable") without changing your intensity along the way. As your body gets used to the intensity, you will quickly hit a plateau. Sure, you will get more efficient at running at that particular pace, but not much else will happen. On the other hand, when you add the type of high-intensity exercise that comes with INSANITY, performing at 80% of your maximum heart rate or more for long periods of time, you can indeed see faster gains. But at what cost?

For most of us, exercising above 80% of your maximum heart rate isn't fun. Although working out in the "red zone" can have some advantages, it is really quite unnecessary for overall good health. Research has shown that exercising at a moderate intensity most days of the week results in benefits like lower blood pressure and cholesterol along with improved fitness. So unless you really enjoy that high level of intensity, this intensity of exercise is not a good bang for your buck.

The workouts

According to the Beachbody INSANITY website, there are ten “insane” workouts, including a fitness test, plyometric cardio circuit, cardio power and resistance, cardio and abs, core cardio and balance, and a MAX interval circuit. Workouts range from 20 to 80 minutes.

Many of the workouts follow the same basic template: including some type of high-intensity exercise for three minutes followed by 30 seconds of rest. I should note that 30 seconds is not enough time to really recover—but that is likely the point of a workout called INSANITY (in all caps). Because of this, I have to wonder if Beachbody INSANITY is more of a mental workout than a physical one.

I have to wonder if this is more of a mental workout than a physical one.

The extremely limited recovery time after such high-intensity exercise makes for ridiculously hard workouts. And with workouts this challenging, I worry that the whole program will leave users unwilling (or unable) to live an active lifestyle outside of their dedicated (insane) exercise time. Personally, I place a lot more importance on what you can accomplish during the other 23 hours of the day when you're not sweating in front of your TV. 

Beachbody meal plan

The program also includes a basic meal plan, which will undoubtedly help participants reach their weight loss goals. Based on the marketing for the program, INSANITY seems to focus disproportionately on weight loss as a goal (as opposed to other benefits of the workouts like added strength, mobility, and improved health). I would guess that up to 80% of the weight loss results you may see from this program would be due to the meal plan, with only about 20% coming from the actual exercise regimen.

Now, losing weight due to diet changes isn't uncommon for a program that incorporates both nutrition and exercise advice. Most weight loss (especially the type that lasts) comes from dietary changes and not from exercise alone. This is why I spend so much of my time trying to separate the joy of movement from the number of calories you burn, and why I encourage my listeners to focus on the truly wonderful benefits of getting more movement into your day.

I would guess that up to 80% of the weight loss results you may see from this program would be due to the meal plan, with only about 20% coming from the actual exercise regimen.

The meal plan includes all the usual meal components: carbohydrates, vegetables, whole grains, fruits, and fats. But it also includes their very own branded Shakeology meal replacement shakes. And while I am guilty of keeping a canister of whey protein powder in my pantry, I do not consume it daily or even weekly. Real-food nutrition is the best foundation for good health. And from what I can tell, the shakes in this plan are simply there to bulk up the calories, which could be achieved without a shake, by simply increasing the portion size of the meal itself. 

Speaking of increasing portion sizes, the “Elite Nutrition” plan is based on eating five meals per day. Why? Possibly because of some antiquated (and unscientific) idea that eating more meals per day helps keep your metabolism revved. But on the contrary, Monica Reinagel, the Nutrition Diva, has an article called Can You Lose Weight by Eating More Often? that concludes:

... eating more frequently—in and of itself—is unlikely to have a measurable effect on your metabolism or abdominal fat. And if you do favor more frequent meals, be careful that eating more frequently doesn’t lead you to eat more than you need.

And that's without any added shakes!

Pros and cons

The best part of any review is getting to list the pros and cons. So here we go!

I place a lot more importance on what you can accomplish during the other 23 hours of the day when you're not sweating in front of your TV.

Pros

  • It's a zero-guesswork program. Everything is laid out for you. So if you are someone who doesn’t like having to think about their workouts, this can be alluring.
  • They make it easy to get started. There are no fancy dance moves or tricky choreography. You also don’t need any gear or special outfits.

Cons

  • It's a zero-guesswork program. This is a con as well as a pro! A one-size-fits-all approach doesn't do individual participants any favors. There is no way to know how quickly you will recover, what other stresses will impact your performance, or how your sleep, mood, or health will turn out on any given day. So a program that is laid out so specifically makes my inner coach cringe. Even the National Strength and Conditioning Journal has gone on record stating, "Is there a single, perfect workout? A workout with the best weight training, plyometric, flexibility, and endurance exercises? A workout with the precise number of sets and repetitions? A workout that tells the athlete exactly how much weight to use? The answer is no."
  • It’s expensive. The on-demand pricing is quite confusing. Their cheapest three-month plan starts at $49 (without all the shakes) and there are tiers all the way up to $186 for a year (including the shakes ... but please don’t buy the shakes). If you still have a DVD player at home, you can buy them for $145 on Amazon.
  • HIIT is HIIT is HIIT. Insanity is not a magic formula for fitness. It is just an extreme form of High-Intensity Interval Training. You can get the same basic results for free by running up and down a set of stairs. 
  • You could get hurt. Most of the exercises are high-impact and high-intensity, which means there is a risk of “too much, too soon” for many of us fitness mortals.
  • It's boring. Most of the workouts follow the same template. This makes them easy to remember, but the whole routine gets pretty dull after a while.
  • Plyometrics are not for circuits. Dr. Yuri Verkhoshansky (who is said to have invented plyometric exercise) does not advocate using plyometric training when an athlete is fatigued because this would be counterproductive to this form of training.
  • No exit strategy. There's no educational component to either the exercise plan or the meal plan. So when you're done, you're done. This means you'll be left floundering and searching for the next fad workout to latch on to. Or, more often, it means going back to previous habits and lifestyle choices that result in losing fitness and slowly regaining any lost weight back.

So my bottom line is this: Instead of signing up for an extreme program like this and swallowing it like yucky medicine, I suggest looking for something more sustainable, permanent, and fun! Like the old saying goes: Give a person a workout plan and they will get sweaty. Teach a person to exercise and they will stay sweaty for life. Or something like that.

About the Author

Brock Armstrong

Brock Armstrong is a certified AFLCA Group Fitness Leader with a designation in Portable Equipment, NCCP and CAC Triathlon Coach, and a TnT certified run coach. He is also on the board of advisors for the Primal Health Coach Institute and a guest faculty member of the Human Potential Institute. Do you have a fitness question? Leave a message on the Get-Fit Guy listener line. Your question could be featured on the show.