I worked at a gym through college and have been a fitness junkie ever since, trying everything from P90X to yoga to power lifting.
Introduction to P90X: Chest and Back
This is the first in a series of reviews of the individual workouts within the P90X program. For all other reviews of the workouts, as well as a review of the overall program, please see the links at the bottom of the page.
I am a long-time fitness enthusiast who’s completed P90X twice. While I haven’t found the program to be the transformative experience it’s purported to be, I find it to be overall beneficial and very effective at keeping me on track fitness-wise when I don’t have reliable access to a gym.
Before I started on P90X the first time, I noticed that there was a dearth of workout-by-workout reviews, leaving me with little idea of what to expect from the program. I aim to correct that, and to give you an experienced exerciser’s perspective on the benefits and disadvantages of P90X.
Today we’ll be focusing on the first P90X workout you'll see as you start the program: P90X: Chest and Back.
An Easy Intro to P90X
This is, without a doubt, one of my favourite workouts of the entire series. It’s not too difficult, which makes it a nice way to ease into things, and it’s chock-full of old school, tried-and-true compound exercises such as push-ups and pull-ups.
A brief note on compound exercises:
Compound exercises are defined as exercises which involve two or more joint movements.
For example, a push-up is a compound exercise because flexion occurs at both your shoulders and your elbows. Two joints.
A bicep curl, on the other hand, is not a compound exercise, because flexion occurs only at the elbow. One joint. Exercises like this one are called isolation exercises.
Moving to the lower body, a squat is a compound exercise, because you’re bending at hips and knees. Two joints.
A hamstring curl is not a compound exercise, because the only joint which moves during a hamstring curl is your knee. One joint.
Not only do compound exercises mimic more natural motions which you’re likely to engage in day-to-day, such as lifting and squatting, but because more than one joint is involved, more than one muscle group is also involved, including both major muscles, like your pecs, and minor ones, like your triceps. This means that compound exercises give you more bang for your exercise buck.
During P90X Chest and Back, you’ll be concentrating on several muscle groups in your chest and back, as well as the complementary muscles which come along for the ride.
Let’s take a closer look at them.
In the chest, the pectoralis major and pectoralis minor bear the brunt of the work. However, they do not work alone. They are helped by the deltoids, or shoulder muscles, which give motions like push-ups and bench presses their added push. They’re also complemented by the triceps, which are the muscles on the backs of your arms.
To understand how your triceps are involved, try straightening your arm. Go ahead, try it. Pay attention to the muscles, and note that when you straighten your arms, your triceps will contract. (And your biceps, on the other side, will extend.)
When it comes to motions which involve pushing things away from you, your arms will naturally have to extend. This is why, very often, chest, shoulders, and triceps are trained together in the same workout. They have a natural synergy.
In the back, the muscles we need to know about here are the latissimus dorsi, the trapezius, and the rhomboids. The latissimus is used extensively during all back exercises, but is most especially targeted during a pull-up. (Or a lat pulldown.) The trapezius and rhomboid will also help you out during a pull-up, but are more active during back rows, when you’re pulling a weight towards your chest as opposed to down from above. The rhomboids and trapezius are what allow you to pull your shoulder blades in towards your spine, and what allows you to get a horizontal contraction across your back. If you've ever rowed a boat or had to haul open a stubborn door, you used those two muscle groups.
P90X Chest and Back: Putting it Together
P90X’s Chest and Back workout starts off with alternating sets of various types of push-ups and pull-ups, with three back row exercises thrown in the mix. The back rows will be performed with resistance bands or dumbbells.
I, personally, prefer dumbbells for any of these exercises, because I don’t like how resistance bands offer very little resistance at the start of each move and quickly ramp up to insane resistance at full extension. I also dislike how they really give you no idea of how much weight you're pulling. Dumbbells offer a more constant resistance, as well as a clear idea of exactly how much you’re lifting. However, your mileage may vary, and resistance bands may either be more effective for you or simply more convenient. If you travel often, dumbbells are especially problematic, whereas bands can be easily bundled up and stuffed in a suitcase.
In order to vary the exercises and work out your chest and back from different angles, Tony will guide you through a few changes in hand position during the push-ups and pull-ups, which will change which muscles are being targeted the most.
For example, military push-ups, which entail keeping your hands directly under your shoulders and your elbows tucked back along your rib cage, will target your front deltoids and triceps more aggressively than a standard push-up. Decline push-ups, performed with your feet elevated on a chair, will shift a lot of the work onto your shoulders.
For the back, wide-front pull-ups will hit your lats the hardest, whereas a chin-up will recruit your trapezius and your biceps a little more heavily than the standard pull-up.
Interestingly, this entire workout is designed as a series of what’s known in strength training jargon as “supersets”. If you haven’t encountered the term before, it may seem a little alarming, but it’s actually quite simple: supersets are sets of exercises which work opposing muscle groups one after the other. Because opposing muscle groups (like the pectoralis major and the latissimus dorsi) naturally do not work together in the same motion, and in fact will be at rest while the other works, this makes it possible to perform certain exercises without a rest in between sets. This also allows you to keep your heart rate up and calorie burn high, since you’re constantly moving.
All of this adds up to a total of two sets of twelve moves, or twenty-four sets. An extensive warm-up and somewhat perfunctory cooldown bracket the workout, which lasts a total of 54 minutes. (And 45 seconds.) Oh, and if you do the fifteen-minute ab workout immediately afterwards, be sure to keep a little gas in the tank so you don't pass out in mid-crunch.
Speaking of warmup and cooldown, one of the aspects of P90X which I’m never happy with is the stretching. For one thing, the post-workout stretching is generally very brief and half-hearted. For another thing, traditional pre-workout stretching has shown to be questionable in terms of reducing the risk of injury, and may actually hinder your workout more than help it.
For more on that, see this article in the New York Times.
In the meantime, consider doing what I do and basically skipping the static stretching portion of the warmup and tacking it onto your cooldown, instead.
In order to get the most out of your push-ups, it’s important to remember a few things.
First of all, maintain good form. This means that your back should be flat with no hip or belly sag towards the floor. (If the fat on your belly sags all on its lonesome due to the inexorable downward pull of gravity, that’s okay. Hopefully P90X will fix that. We’re talking about spinal position and muscle control here.) Conversely, make sure that your butt doesn’t stick up in the air, either. Do not round your shoulders, but keep them lightly pulled back. Your head position should be neutral, neither drooping towards the floor nor looking up. Keep your neck as straight as your back. As a matter of fact, focus on making yourself into a straight line all the way from neck to ankles.
To help you maintain that straight line, concentrate on contracting your abdominal muscles by ‘pulling’ your belly button up and in, squeezing your glutes, and making sure to drive your heels backwards rather than leaning forward on your tiptoes. This will stabilize your “plank” position.
In case you’re wondering why a straight line is so important, it’s because the goal in a push-up is to lift a static weight – in this case, your body weight – primarily by using the muscles in your chest and shoulders. If you sag, you’re changing the mechanics as well as shifting the weight in ways which may be more likely to cause injury.
For a visual demonstration of a perfect push-up (and there are a lot of mediocre demonstration videos out there), have a look at this video:
Some Common Push-up Problems
I can’t do a full push-up.
No problem. If you can’t do a push-up on your toes, drop your knees to the floor and do one on your knees. Just make sure to keep that straight line from neck to knees. If you're working out on a wood, tile, or concrete floor, you may also want to use a gym mat or a folded-up towel to cushion your knees.
If you’re able to do a couple of full push-ups but struggle for more, feel free to just do as many as you can and then drop to your knees to crank out a few more.
My wrists hurt.
Bearing your weight on your hands can be problematic for people with wrist issues. The easiest way to address it is to have a set of dumbbells with hexagonal heads, like these, and to use them as push-up stands. Position them wherever you intend to put your hands during your push-up, then hold on to the handles. Just make sure not to use dumbbells with rounded heads - they'll roll out from under you. You need those flat sides of the hexagon to keep the dumbbell stable.
Alternatively, you can buy a set of push-up stands (a quick search at Amazon yields quite a few), though this means buying extra equipment for the sole purpose of doing push-ups. I prefer the dumbbells-as-push-up-stands solution because you'll probably already have a few dumbbells, and if you don't they're cheap and easy to get and can be used to do a wide variety of other exercises to boot.
Pull-up Problems and Pointers
Right now, I want you to do something for me.
First of all, you’re probably slouching over your keyboard. Don’t worry. Everybody does it.
But, just now, I want you to stop slouching. Sit up straight. That's it.
But don’t just sit up. Think about what's happening as you sit up.
Your abs have probably tensed a little. Contract them a touch more. That’ll help hold you upright.
Next, pay attention to your shoulders. Are they rounded forward? They probably are. It's a natural tendency to let them fall forward while you're at your desk, especially if you don't have great shoulder flexibility. So go ahead and roll them back. Feel the light stretch across your chest as you do so.
Now, pay attention to what that does to your back.
When you pull your shoulders back, you’re not only moving the shoulder joint, but you’re also pulling your scapulae, or shoulder blades, in. (This happens primarily with the help of those rhomboids I mentioned earlier, by the way.)
Pay attention to your shoulder blades. Try pinching them in towards each other. Pull your shoulders back and really squeeze through your back.
Now, hopefully, you’re sitting with your abs tight, shoulders back, and your back strong. The muscles of your back are fully engaged. To counterbalance them and keep your torso straight, your abs are also engaged.
Feel the strength in this posture. Feel the stability. Feel how your back is active and engaged.
This is the feeling you want to aim for every time you do a pull-up.
Okay, but what if I can’t do any pull-ups?
Don’t feel bad. Lifting the weight of your entire body off of the floor and up over a bar is a hard, hard thing to do. Many people can’t do it, especially if they’re overweight.
One of the big ironies of doing body weight exercises to get in shape if you’re overweight is that, thanks to your higher body weight, you’re actually forced to lift substantially more weight than someone who isn’t overweight – and if you’re also out of shape, you’re forced to lift more weight with less muscle!
That being said, if you can't do a pull-up, I still would not recommend taking the alternative that Tony Horton shows you and performing pulldowns with a resistance band. I do not like resistance bands. I do not like them, Sam I am.
But that's not the only reason to avoid the bands. Like it or not, pulldowns do not work the back in quite the same way as a pull-up, and no matter how much you do, you will not get half the results by working with the bands. Plus, as is always the case with the bands, you’re not really getting the benefit of full resistance for the full range of motion. You’re just getting extreme resistance at the bottom and sort of ‘meh’ resistance at the top, which means that you're only actually working for about one-third of each pulldown.
What I would suggest is this.
Make sure you have a sturdy chair or footstool and take Tony’s other suggestion: keep one or both feet on the chair or stool and use that extra assist to help you up. This works by taking up some of your weight and thus reducing the amount of weight you’re actually lifting.
Another excellent way to work up to a full pull-up is to do a negative-only pull-up. The negative of any exercise is the downward or “releasing” motion. In other words, the positive portion of the pull-up is the part where you pull your chin up to the bar, and the negative is the portion where you lower yourself back down again. To do a negative only pull-up, simply stand on your stool or chair, grasp the bar firmly, and basically push up and off through your legs o jump up to the bar. Hold for a second at the top, with your chin just over the bar. Then lower yourself slowly for a count of ten.
If none of that works, you can try the next step down: body weight or inverted rows.
This is what you’ll want to do to do body weight rows at home:
Find two very sturdy, non-wobbly chairs which have their seats at the same height.
Then find a bar of some kind. This can be a metal bar, a broomstick handle, a body bar, a barbell, or any number of things, but what I want you to make absolutely sure of is that this bar is strong enough to hold your weight without breaking. I cannot emphasize this enough. This exercise can easily be done at home with this setup, but you must, must be confident that your bar will hold. The last thing you want is for the whole thing to come crashing down while you’re in the middle of a row.
With this setup, you’ll be able to do body weight rows, which are not quite the same as pull-ups but will still strengthen your entire back in a way that pulldowns can’t.
But I’m a woman. I can’t do pull-ups. I’m too weak.
I’m a woman, and I can do pull-ups.
Mind you, I can only do six of them unassisted. I hope to someday do eight or more.
Once, I couldn’t even do one.
And I haven't even been trying for much longer than a year, because I, too, was intimidated by the entire idea. Don't be me: ignore the doubts and find out what you can really do. Chances are that it's leaps and bounds more than you think.
Just because you can’t build the huge muscles a man might be able to build doesn’t mean you can’t be strong. You can be strong and feminine.
Work at it, and you’ll get there.
And, as you'll probably hear Tony say a million times throughout this program, just remember:
Do your best and forget the rest.
Next up: P90X Plyometrics, or "How to cry for your mommy in ten minutes, and pray for mercy in twenty."
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
Amanda Zahorik (author) from Philadelphia, PA on August 21, 2012:
tindercd: Yeah, I didn't get much weight loss, either, but neither did I observe the meal plan. I did get stronger, though. Maybe I should try the meal plan next time. If you can eat 3000+ calories and still lose weight there must be something to it. :)
Thanks for the comment!
tindercd on August 21, 2012:
Great hub. When I started P90X I couldn't do half the exercises. By the end, I was pro. I didn't see much weight loss like most confessionals, but I'm pretty sure my chest grew about 4-6", and I have much more endurance. To be "life-altering" successful with P90X you have to observe the meal plan. I didn't until recently and it is extremely hard to stay on. It required me (5'11" 197lbs) to eat over 3000+ calories including 9 servings of protein. It works very well (lost 3lbs in a week) but that is a lot of food!
Amanda Zahorik (author) from Philadelphia, PA on February 03, 2012:
Well, while it's not necessary for you to be able to lift heavy weights to do P90X, it's also true that if you do have any injuries, ailments, or medical conditions that compromise your ability to exercise, P90X may not be the best option for you. From the sounds of it, you have a specific problem with your left side, and I'd recommend holding off on anything intensive until you've had that taken care of.
That being said, if it is just a matter of weakness and not an injury or physical condition that's hampering you, the only way to get stronger is to start lifting whatever weight you can! You'll never get anywhere if you don't take the first steps, after all. :)
I suppose you could try the base P90 program, though I'm not familiar with it personally and therefore can't give a strong recommendation either way. Or, if you don't want to try that, I'm always happy to help people figure out how to design their own workout routine.
Thanks for the comment!
MarleneWheeler on February 02, 2012:
Great Hub. I always have dreams of working out but excuses keep getting in my way, however a problem I have is I don't have strong upper body strength I can only lift 2 - 3 lbs on my left side, so this curtails how much I can lift so P90X probably wouldn't work for me.