Starting Strength Vs. P90X: Retrospective and random thoughts

Note: Do not look for coherence in this post.

The last two days I spent a lot of time reviving old memories from when I first started my pursuit of thick muscle fibers. I did an online search for some of the old gurus – the creator of P90X Tony Horton and the author of Starting Strength Mark Rippetoe. Their latest material seems to be a lot like their previous stuff.

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Those two have sold millions of books and DVDs which by default makes them successful. What is interesting is that they are the polar opposite of each other. Rippetoe plays the role of the tough coach who is all about strength and considers everything else a distraction. He does not care about appearance, at least on paper. To him people who care about visible six pack abs are brainwashed pussies. On the other hand, Tony Horton does not place as much emphasis on strength, but thrives on visual appearance. To him six pack abs are a must. He makes sure to push his in your face every time he’s on camera.


While both systems are different, what made them popular was a common tactic known as exaggerated great expectations. People look at the before & after photos of P90X users and open their mouths in amazement. Many are hooked in the program immediately since “being ripped” looks naturally attractive. However, there are things that many beginners fail to see.

The truth is that the before and after photos are altered. And by the way, you don’t need Photoshop to alter a pic. No matter how bad you look there are always ways to make yourself look worse or better in a photo. Even a simple change of the angles can make a huge difference.

More importantly, you do not know the history of the people doing P90X. I would not be surprised one bit, if some of the users got fat specifically to do the program and get paid to lose the weight. If you have eyes for the details and the needed experience, you can see that the most amazing after photos are of people who had decent muscle mass to begin with. They don’t tell you that in the purchase options.

I will made a lot of people mad, but I am convinced many of the transformations presented by P90X can actually be achieved visually by just dieting and doing three exercises – dips, pull-ups, barbell squats. That’s it. The diet will make you ripped while dips and pull-ups will build your upper body. The squat, of course, will develop your lower extremities and lower back. The medicine ball push-ups may look fancy, but in terms of physical composition, they do nothing. Also, many of the movements in P90X are hard to do for people of normal weight, let alone super obese individuals. Of course, they will tell you to do everything at your own pace, but even then, it is quite hard to keep up when you are 40% BF and your joints hurt.

There are also many questionable ideas such as muscle confusion. Every P90X version comes with a new pitch. As far as I understood, the latest one is supposed to be a compact version limited to 30 minutes, because after that “studies have shown that effectiveness of exercising decreases”. Nice. I guess all people working out for 45 minutes will burn in hell. It’s a pitch meant to get you on the hook. I understand that similar techniques are necessary, but it is also necessary to distinguish them. Experience helps a lot in similar situations. Here is a program that I dare to say will give you a ripped, P90X style physique with more strength.

  1. Diet – if you are fat, you need to reduce your calories. You can add cardio but know this: not eating a chocolate takes 500 kcal away from your daily intake; to burn the same amount you need to run for 1 hour (depending on how fat you are).
  2. Dips – best pushing exercise (according to my experience) ever. If you can’t do dips, you can start with push-ups or even knee push-ups. Build up to 3×20 dips and then add weight. Of course, you can replace this exercise with the bench press + the overhead press.
  3. Pull-ups – solid lat and biceps builder.
  4. Squat – you know it all. Can be replaced with the leg press, but then you need another drill for your spinal erectors. Add weight when the desired number or repetitions are reached. Reduce weight when you hit a plateau and build back up again.

Many people will be mad, but this is the exact truth. The above routine will produce P90X type of bodies while making you stronger. In the end of the day, how much strength do you think all of those funny drills in P90X produce? Seriously? How much? Don’t confuse soreness with effectiveness!

One thing that is really annoying about P90X is that you can’t really measure progress easily. There are so many different movements that you can’t exactly know whether you are improving or not. It’s much easier to stick to the basics. For example, doing weighted sit-ups on a Roman chair as your only ab exercise allows you to track progress. Doing all kinds of banana shapes on the ground while screaming Tony Horton style looks fun but in terms of actual progress it’s harder to measure. I would rather know for sure that I am progressing in one exercise than doing 15 to look Xtreme.

Finally, we arrive at all that shakeology propaganda. You know what; I think I have said enough on that topic. You already know my opinion.

With that being said, I do admit that I would rather look like Tony Horton than Mark Rippetoe. It is funny how both are the same age (or close), both have made the big bucks, both have completely different perspectives, and both programs offer extremely high expectations.

So, why Tony Horton? Because I have been 24% BF and I just don’t feel comfortable. When I was fat, I could not care less how much weight was on the bar. That is why. I am not even going to talk about the health benefits of not being fat. It just feels weird when your gut prevents you from reaching your toes. I though working out was meant to improve your everyday life? No?

Now it is time for Rippetoe. I believe Rippetoe’s stubbornness has been his savior and destroyer at the same time. People love his hardcore Texas beard style macho behavior, but at the same time you have no idea how hard it is to argue with him. I’ve done it a few times on StartingStrength.com and in the end I got banned. One time he got really mad because I kept on saying that chin-ups on rings are much more easier on the joints that the straight bar.

I also don’t believe low bar squats are better than high bar squats. He always finds a way to back his ideas through crazy data manipulations. The low bar squat allows you to lift more weight and provides more work for the hamstring; therefore, it is better than high bar squats. Sure. Looking like you are about to fall while taking a shit before squatting good morning style is the way to go. In my eyes, that’s not even a squat. Everybody knows that the low bar squat is a powerlifting invention that just allows you to lift more weight because you bend over more and usually people only squat to parallel with this style. Doing A2G squats with the bar low on your back is close to impossible unless you have incredible flexibility.

Anyway,  the biggest downfall of Rippetoe’s methods is that he expects of naturals way too much. NO! You can’t gain 30 lbs of muscle in three months naturally, unless you are bouncing back to your normal weight from some disease.

All of the “I gained 70 lbs. of muscle in six month on Starting Strength. It must be the insane testosterone release from those I-am-about-to-take-a ****** squats.” success stories can fool a beginner, but not me.

I WISH THIS WAS TRUE. I really do. I remember doing my squats religiously. I would put everything aside to make time for my squats. At one point in my life, my happiness depended on my squat workouts. Good sessions used to equal good days. I was recording most of my lifts and watching them while traveling on the bus. Good times. I guess I have developed some sort of a Stockholm syndrome, or maybe I am getting emotional looking back at the time when I was younger and extremely naive stupid bastard. I guess 10 years from now I will read this text and laugh. This is how this reality works. It is all about time and space. A few years pass by, and you are nothing but a copy of what you used to be.

Back to the project. Today, I decided to see  what my good old friends from the Starting Strength forums were up to. I used to have three accounts there. All banned now. Guess what? In one of the most recent posts, somebody said that 5’10 @ 200lbs @ 10% BF is possible naturally. Many agreed, albeit some people were informed. Regardless, I had a good laugh.

What I like about Rippetoe and Starting Fatness, sorry “Strength”? I like the simplicity and the incredibly detailed approach to the lifts. If you want to learn the basic lifts, this is the place to be, although I would do high bar squats.

I believe in the linear progression approach, but you should not have extreme expectations. NEVER screw your diet. What you put in your mouth is much more important in terms of physical appearance than your training. Who do you think girls like more? The skinny teenager with abs who doesn’t train but smokes a lot or the fat sumo wrestler who trains two times a day but looks like a sumo wrestler?

I also believe barbell strength is overrated. Yeah.

Rippetoe says it’s the basis of everything, but it’s not. Strength is important but only in terms of performance. Who is the better swimmer? The person who can deadlift 300 lbs. or the guy deadlifting 600 lbs. Stupid question right? For many people developing more and more barbell strength can be useful but only up to a certain point, which is much lower than Rippetoe wants you to believe. Eventually adding more weight to the bar becomes like increasing your hard drive. So, you have 2 TB of space now. Who cares when you are a writer and all your lifetime work takes 250 MB in text files? The hard drive will remain empty. You should get the idea by now.

In his latest interview, Rippetoe says that getting stronger by doing the squat and the deadlift can eliminate steroids from NFL. Are you serious?

No amount of exercises will ever eliminate steroid usage in the muscle sports, and NFL is definitely a muscle sport. No matter how much the players squat and bench (which is not a lot when you are natural unless you are also very fat) steroids will be used.

Here’s a fun fact: If you take steroids, the right kind, you will look better WITHOUT training than all natural bodybuilders in your gym. I am not joking. They are that powerful. I would even add that there are “strength steroids” which will add hundreds of pounds to your lifts in months that would otherwise take years of programming, calories, fat guts…etc. You will probably ask what is the proof? Well, you have to agree that many men are naturally stronger and bigger than women who train. Why? Because men have higher testosterone. That’s why. When those female bodybuilders start taking every drug under the Sun, they get stronger than male NATURAL bodybuilders in no time. Why? Well, you should know by now.

Anybody who thinks steroids in professional sports can be replaced by any kind of exercises is wrong.

Overall, it was pretty fun revisiting my old online lifting masters. Of course, nothing has changed. It is still the same path. Anyway, I still feel nostalgic about the times when I had such high expectations. If I didn’t know any better, I would still doing my jumping jacks, drinking my milk and waiting for a shredded muscle monster to appear in the mirror.

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