In March of last year, after a couple years with little vigorous exercise, I decided it was time to whip myself into shape. Since I was somewhat familiar with P90X and had no interest in joining a gym, I opted to give the newer version, P90X2, a try. Hosted by the amiable Tony Horton, P90X2 is a home fitness regime with intense, hour-long workouts designed to make you stronger, faster, and generally more athletic. After completing each of the three 30-day phases (hence the 90)--and particularly if you follow the nutritional plan--you will have the rockin' bod typical of the California beach goer. I stuck it with it, and in the past year-and-a-half I've gone through the prescribed program three times (though I stretched it out to 120 days per), and am now mixing and matching workouts as I please. I've watched these videos for hundreds of hours and have often find myself admiring the production choices as I huff and puff through a workout. Reviews of X2 understandably focus on the fitness, but the fitness would be lost without a solid production behind it. Thus, my P90X2 production appreciation.
- Set Design
The P90X2 set is probably intended to look like part of a warehouse gym, but the lighting, colors, and size make it feel as much like a space in someone's urban loft. It's a comfortable place you don't mind hanging out in for an hour every day. I don't know about you, but it feels odd for an exercise video to be set on a white-hot beach if I'm working out in my pre-dawn apartment bedroom.
The small set is possible thanks to a wise decision to limit the cast for each workout to three people plus Tony, who introduces you to your workout partners during the warmup. Many videos instead have a phalanx of faceless extras, which means your only personal connection is through the instructor. While Tony's great, it's nice to see him bounce off other people, who are often his real-life friends (Shawna, who appears in X2 Yoga, also happens to be his girlfriend and every P90Xer knows sister Kit.) Though not everyone lets their light shine (I'm looking at you, Dan from "Balance + Power"), each cast member is allowed to have a personality.
The four-person cast also allows for a savvy setup that gives the viewer multiple simultaneous angles of each move. In addition, one person in each workout is the "modifier," which means they do variations of each move that are easier or don't require special equipment. In the first few viewings especially this setup keeps frustration lower since you're more easily able to see what's going on.
The X stands for "eXtreme," but Tony Horton mostly motivates through humor rather than fear. Though he will snap into drill instructor mode when necessary, he's mostly content to josh, joke, and sing. Occasionally he lets his vanity peek through as he flexes, or out-competes one of the others, but hey, he's 52 (YEEHAW!).
Beyond personality and motivation, Tony provides good instruction. Each move generally involves multiple parts in order to fulfill the vaunted muscle confusion stratagem, and Tony ably takes you through the how and why of it all. That said, Tony often exhorts you to use the pause button because it usually takes a couple times through to get a handle on things. Because you can pause and rewind, X2 does not pander to beginners in terms of pace, which you hate at first but appreciate as you progress.
- Camerawork and Editing
P90X2 is filmed and edited much like a live sporting event. I’m good at seeing editing seams and X2 doesn’t have many. My guess is they record each workout twice, but I’ve never noticed intercutting, only some compression. This staid editing almost extends to a fault, however, as the camera can feel unresponsive to Tony’s occasional special requests (“Come on in, Carter!”). Dialogue is left alone, even when cutting a line would have made things clearer, like when Tony misstates the length of a break. Overwhelmingly each workout feels live and left alone, which both comforts and challenges you that no one on-camera is getting a post-production boost in performance.
Tony is also not afraid to break the fourth wall, and draws attention to the fact that you are a viewer looking at a screen and not some ripped voyeur stumbling into an enhanced reality fitness class. He often refers to the cameras, and talks about 'cueing' a move, getting 'deeper in the set' or repositioning himself for the jib. Occasionally someone will stumble, but it's all taken in stride: during the "Chest + Back + Balance" workout one of the guys is having trouble doing pushups on the stability ball because of sweaty hands. Tony grabs him a towel and declares, "So this is a real thing, we're not gonna cut just because his hands are slippery." A lesser program would smooth out these rough edges, but the result would be a less approachable feel.
Also see: You're holding up America, Wayne!
X2's music is the average rock song from 1992 with a whiff of the blues (here's a taste). Electric guitar and snare aplenty. While the music is instantly forgettable, it does help in a couple ways. The percussion helps maintain the pace of the workout, and the music is often used as an audio cue for starting moves. That's a nice touch since you spend a lot of time looking at the thread of your carpet rather than the screen.
In X2 the two key graphical elements are the "Tools" title card and what I'll call the progress bar. The Tools title card lists all the equipment you'll need and is the first thing you see when starting a workout. While I like the list on a conceptual level, in practice the preview montage (essentially a ten-second-long commercial version of what you're about to do), which immediately follows it is more helpful to remind me of what I'll need.
The progress bar, on the other hand, is graphical gold. Though perhaps leaning too much on the skeuomorphism of the Monday Night Football variety, the progress bar is essential for keeping you on track. At a glance you'll see the name of the current move, the number of reps or time until the move is completed, and the master clock which counts down, second by agonizing second, to the end. Many a time I would've washed out of a workout early had that clock not been there.
What happens when you don't foam roll or do enough inch worms? Why you get the Achilles heel of P90X2, of course: DVDs--are you kidding me? Encrypted, so the average person can't create soft copies? No bueno, Beachbody, particularly for a program that spends a lot of time talking about how easy X2 is to do on the road.
I'm hopeful the upcoming P90X3 has a digital download option, for it is sorely needed and makes business sense. For the love of fitness, Beachbody, do not force people to flip through a DVD wallet to find their workout. And for the love of business, Beachbody, offer a digital download (preferably DRM-free). You can even charge the same price as long as you waive the ridiculous $20 shipping charge (And why wouldn't you?). You can offer compressed versions suitable for tablets and smart phones for an additional charge, or even charge for access to secure streaming versions which would display always-current ads before each workout. The possibilities are as exciting as they are commonsensical.