Genius or Insanity?

They say it’s a fine line between genius and insanity. I have recently come to the conclusion that success – the recognition of genius, if you will – is rarely more than having an idea, the quality of which is seldom extraordinary, and being in the right place, with the right people, at the right time. I’m drawing closer and closer to the conclusion that genius is often just insanity with a pretty face and a good dose of luck.

So when a client lent me the Insanity DVDs, I was curious to see how much of a part luck played in the phenomenal success of the high-intensity workout regime.

Now, one major disclaimer: I didn’t actually take part in the routines. I didn’t feel the need to; I have no doubt that a circuit of full-body movements and plyometrics will make me sweaty and tired, and I have no doubt I would break at some point during the routine like most of the demo people in the videos. My aim in this was to see how the workouts were put together, how Shaun T. motivates people watching from the comfort of their own homes, to think about the potential for success and the risks of injury. I wanted to go to the puppet show to see the strings, not to enjoy the plot and laugh at the jokes.

Safety first

Obviously this was going to have to be the main point. To get my personal training qualification, I had to take a first aid certification with defibrillator training. I take my clients’ safety very seriously, and I would have a real had time as a personal trainer disseminating workout recommendations en masse with no knowledge of the viewers’ abilities or facilities. I know, I know, they have lengthy and detailed disclaimers and I have no doubt that from a legal standpoint that’s all cool – but as somebody who has decided to dedicate myself to the health and wellbeing of others, I am really uncomfortable with home workout DVDs.

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So, some risks in life you have to accept. However, if I were to put out a workout video, I would still try to minimise high-risk movements. Occasionally people will hurt themselves bending down to pick something up, and that’s life. Now, I don’t have any stats on this, but I’d assume it is much more likely that people will hurt themselves by throwing a switch kick (kicking one leg out to the front as pictured, then alternating, as fast as possible). As the abdominal muscles and hip flexors fatigue, our bodies will want to lean backwards to swing the leg up easier. As you lean backwards, you can obviously hurt your back but you also leave yourself open to slippages, resulting in falling backwards and possibly smacking the back of your head. How many of us have risk-assessed our homes for high-intensity plyometric exercise?

Diminishing returns

I get it; some people don’t have time to go to the gym, just don’t enjoy being in a gym, can’t or won’t pay for a monthly gym membership, and a high-intensity workout DVD is a great investment. However, it is rare to see people in gyms performing exercises correctly, especially when they are plyometric exercises, and even more when they are fatigued.

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Take the 1-2-3 Heisman for example, pictured. You take three steps and bring your knee to your chest, loading the standing leg and contracting the core. In this photo, most people shown appear to be performing the exercise correctly, though I saw many instances where the majority of the demo people ended up pretty much high-knee running instead of leaning over to the side to load their leg and squeeze their abs.

So I have to question whether people are actually getting the workout that they are shown on the videos. I know I certainly would cheat – it’s what our bodies are designed to do, to make our lives easier and conserve energy! Unfortunately, sloppy form means the muscles that need to be worked are failing to do their job, and of course as more muscles fatigue and give up, the risk of injury gets greater.

No gym membership nor personal trainer can compete with the price of a DVD set you can follow for months, but is it worth it if you’re not getting the most of it?

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Moving goalposts

People need to understand that fitness isn’t just one thing. Think about the different meanings of the word “fit”; it can mean able, or the right size and shape, or appropriate, as well as physically fit from exercise. A big part of what I do as a personal trainer is help people work towards their goals, around their lifestyle, and according to their needs and preferences. Being able to perform plyometrics for an hour won’t necessarily make me a faster swimmer, or a stronger lifter, or a better grappler. It might help, but it is not the be-all and end-all. Plus, I won’t necessarily get the six-pack abs that Shaun T. keeps highlighting on his demo people (who are, by the way, all pretty much the same sort of build).

The implications of this attitude – the emphasis on a certain type of physique, on a certain type of fitness – are obvious. The tall-and-lanky endurance-trained post-partum thirty-something year old who wants to get back into shape? The short-and-stocky power-lifter with a high-pressure day job who wants a workout for the late nights where the gym isn’t an option? How are these possibly quite healthy, strong, and athletic people going to feel if they can’t get through the workout? Unfit? Lazy? Worthless? Like there’s no point even trying? I know I would. That’s not cool.

One trick pony

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Basically, almost all the exercises are variations of squat-jumps and running drills. Very quad-heavy, with lots of high-knee work. That’s fine for one or two workouts a week – and it is a smart choice if you want to burn calories quickly, as you are constantly working the biggest muscle group – but it’s only one part of the fitness equation. An important part, certainly, but it’s not like there are no good hamstring, calf, and upper- and lower back-specific exercises you can do in the course of a 60-day programme.

Even the core workouts, for example, are pretty much all standing exercises involving pulling your knee up to your chest. Shaun T.’s big thing is that you never need to do crunches to work your abs and while these exercises will work the core, as we’ve discussed, once the fatigue sets in I highly doubt your average participant will be so hell-bent on squeezing those abs to bring the knee up… And anyway, it’s not like you’re not getting enough of the jumping-knee-tucking-torso-curling action in the other nine DVDs!

Personally, I just found the workouts pretty boring after a while, and couldn’t really see any major differences between all the DVDs. That wouldn’t motivate me not to skip a day, or two… or all the rest.

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Wait… what?

Just one thing made my brain completely short-circuit; in the Fit Test, you perform an exercise called Power Knees (pictured). You perform as many as you can in one minute, then… wait – you don’t perform the exercise on the other leg?!

Apparently I’m not the only one to wonder; when I began typing “Insanity power knees” into Google the second suggested search term was “[…] why only one side?”. There is no convincing answer – just that they are just designed to test your fitness. Am I the only one who thinks maybe a bilateral exercise would have been more appropriate?

Also, I can’t help but notice that although participants are given the Fit Test and a way to track their progress, about 90% of the hype is based around before-and-after shots of people getting ripped. I thought this was about getting fit, not about getting bikini-ready (whatever that means).

Anyway, you get my point. To sum up, Insanity isn’t nearly as bad as it could be, and I have no doubt it is highly effective – at achieving one thing. As part of the bigger picture of health and fitness though, this programme is far from replacing all the work a personal trainer – or even a properly informed gym routine – could do. It’s just a bit scrappy, really, and it reeks of somebody having one good idea and then running too far with it rather than putting time into developing it. More importantly, it just doesn’t live up to the hype, in my opinion. Which is fine by me – I won’t be out of a job anytime soon.