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Does Exercise Order Matter? [P90X Phase III and Final Review]

Posted Apr 24 2012 12:09am

Chest, back, legs, shoulders, biceps, triceps. (Oh and calves. Stupid calves. Always skipped those.) For years whenever I lifted weights my exercises were done in this order. The actual exercises would vary – dumbbell flys one day and flying dumbbells the next (Kidding! Sorta!) – but the workout stayed the same. Why? Well because I was new and I didn’t know any better. But mostly it was because this was what my first trainer taught me. For reasons I cannot now recall she said that it was important to go from large muscles to small muscles and to alternate working the front and the back of the body. There might also be some Body For Life mixed in there. Either way, I lived and died by that order.

But does the order in which you do exercises really matter? Is there some kind of workout synergy from super-setting chest and back that makes them more effective than if done alone? I don’t know. But I do know that a lot of fit pros believe it. Rachel Cosgrove used this principal with the “complexes” in the final phase of her Female Body Breakthrough (still my most effective Great Fitness Experiment ever) and I remember those workouts as some of the most brutal we’ve ever done. Jillian Michaels also used the same theory in Making the Cut. Turns out Tony Horton is a fan as well.

Phase III of P90X is all about the order of the exercises based on a principal called post-activation potentiation or P.A.P. PAP is described as “combining high load strength movements with biomechanically similar plyometric/ballistic movements as a means of taking advantage of Post Activation Potentiation (PAP), a phenomenon that refers to enhancement of muscle function as a result of its contractile history. P3 has found that complex training is far superior in developing athletic power to either resistance training or plyometric training alone.” Sounds pretty sweet to me! I love a workout that gives you more bang for your sweaty buck.  The PAP workouts promise you’ll torch fat, increase strength and make grown men cry.

In Phase III you are given two “PAP” workouts – upper and lower – and told to alternate them on lifting days.  You are given two complexes made up of four exercises and you go through complex A four times followed by complex B four times. They’re tough workouts. Really tough. I was a shaking puddle of sweat by the time we finished the first complex and the second one felt like death the first few times. For this reason I liked Phase III the best out of all the P90X 2 phases. There weren’t any so-crazy-I-can’t-attempt-them moves like there were in Phase II and yet the moves we were given were challenging.

The downside however was that you are only given those two workouts for all of phase III (you do P90X 2 yoga, plyocide and other previously introduced workouts on the other days) and phase III is supposed to last 3 – 9 weeks. Those complexes get old fast. Especially since each one is repeated four times per workout. Some people enjoy the predictability of the same moves every time – the better to measure your progress by? – but I prefer variety.

And I may just be showing my ignorance here but the order of the exercises – the whole point of PAP, right? – felt completely arbitrary to me. Some days due to equipment being used by other patrons I had to mix up the order or even sub in a different exercise and those workouts didn’t feel any different to me. I also didn’t drop any body fat during this phase. The science behind PAP seems pretty sound but I’m not sure that P90X 2 implemented it in the most effective way. For instance, a huge part of PAP (as I understand it) is that you do some heavy lifting move immediately followed by a plyo move that works the same movement and yet in one of the upper body complexes you do a pull-up move followed by an ab, then a shoulder and then a stretch. Out of the four only the shoulder move could possibly involve heavy weights and there are zero plyometric or ballistic exercises in the whole complex. Color me confused. But  as we have already established I am not an expert of anything (including potty training and after 4 kids I really ought to be) and I could be misreading the research and/or Tony’s explanation. If you have an answer for this please educate me in the comments and I’ll update this post with your explanation!

Science questions aside, I did like Phase III a lot. I would definitely mix in these workouts into our regular routine.

Now, onto my overall P90X 2 assessment. I really wanted to love this workout. Really, truly. And yet I didn’t. I’m not sure if it’s just because my expectations were so high from the first P90X or because I’m not good at the elephant-on-a-ball circus tricks and therefore dislike anything I’m not good at. But I didn’t love it. Mind, I didn’t hate it either. It was a good, solid workout and I enjoyed it but if in the future if I get feeling P90X-ish again I’ll likely return to the first version.

What I Liked About P90X 2

1. Creative moves! So much of fitness can feel like there’s only one person actually taking the test and everyone else is just copying their answers so it was fun to have some genuinely unique and interesting exercises to try. Hello crunchy lever pull-ups, I love you!!

2. Lots of variety! You get the 12-14 DVDs (depending on which package you buy) plus Tony offers lots of options within each video.

3. Tony Horton is a riot! I know that some of you have commented before that his jokes are only funny the first eleven times and then you must mute him but since I did the workouts at the gym I was able to chuckle freely to myself at home when he looked straight in the camera and crooned “Was that as good for you as it was for me?” after some miserable exercise.

4. Standout Yoga. I loved the first P90X yoga (although confession: I generally did it on double speed so the 90-minute workout ended up being 45 minutes with a lot less standing around in Dancer.) And P90X 2 yoga is also fantastic. Many yoga videos get too into the whole spiritual side of things and I like to keep my workouts shallow, er, moving, and this is “fitness” yoga at its best. Seriously you have to try this amazing yoga progression for your butt: crescent lunge to warrior III to half moon to rotated half moon to standing split to single-leg knee-to-forehead crunches and back to standing split ALL WITHOUT PUTTING YOUR OTHER FOOT DOWN. Your butt will hate you but you will love it.

What I Didn’t Like

1. Creative moves. I know, it’s a love-hate. I went into this more in my Phase II review but some of the moves were too crazy for me. I love me a good challenge but some of them – like falling into a push-up position from standing – just seemed too risky to be worth it. Even if I landed it – which I did eventually – I took all the impact in my wrists, something that just seems like a bad idea. And as Gym Buddy Krista noted, there were quite a few moves using different sized balls that were not easily modified. Either you did it right or you ate carpet.

2. All the marketing. It’s Beachbody. There is a special P90X line of supplements now. They have a fancy website. All of which they like to remind you of every 4.5 seconds. I mean, I get it – it’s a necessary evil but that doesn’t mean I didn’t throw my dirty socks at the screen every time the commercials came on.

3. No leg work. I truly don’t understand this one. From 25 different variations on the pull-up to 50 variations on the push-up, there was tons of upper body work – my shoulders and lats were pretty much continuously sore for 3 months – and yet the only leg moves this workout offers are some non-weighted plyometrics. Where are the crazy sumo squats? The Mary Katherines? Heaven help me, the Sneaky Lunge? I need weights danggit! Our legs felt so neglected that the Gym Buddies and I took to adding 3-5 legs moves to each workout just to feel balanced.

4. No emphasis on heavy lifting. One of the things I loved best about the first P90X was how it got so many people to try lifting heavy. And yet this time around the weights definitely took backstage to all the balancing ball moves. I missed the heavy lifts.

5. No book. I whined about this before and I may be the only person who cares about this but having the instruction booklet for P90X 1 was invaluable to me. I don’t have all that equipment at home and the book allowed me to do it at the gym and track my progress for each lift. I sorely missed that book this time around.


I didn’t lose any body fat although I do think I got stronger as I definitely increased the number of pull-ups I can do. I lost a Gym Buddy . That doesn’t seem like a great trade off…

Your Conclusions

Do you think that the order in which you do certain exercise is important? Do you follow a particular order? So those of you who’ve been doing P90X2 as well – am I missing the point? How did you like it?

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