Insanity: The Rise of the Supercharged Home Workout

In the era of instant gratification, the unexpected success of "the hardest workout ever put on DVD"

Shaun Thompson leads an Insanity workout.

Insanity came by airmail, bound like a prized first edition. The first time I tried it, it didn't seem too bad. A little sore in the thighs maybe, a little weak in the hip flexors, but nothing insurmountable. The second week, too, stayed within the limits of my psychological health. Then at the end of the third week, there was a pure cardio workout that culminated in what were called level two drills: four regular pushups, four tricep pushups, eight high jumps. I was on my fifth set when I realized that I had forgotten to inhale. Or exhale. My sweat was pooling on the floor, sliding in rivulets down the tip of my nose.

No discipline? The program could fix that. Romantic troubles? Insanity would make my boyfriend rue the day he ever looked at another girl.

Afterward, I spread it all out, these instruments of my torture: 10 DVDs , a calendar, a pin-up poster, alluringly illustrated, and a diet booklet espousing the benefits of salmon and kale. Together they comprised the 60-day Insanity fitness regimen, of which I was currently on day 22. Billed as the hardest workout ever put on DVD, Insanity purportedly used max-interval training (an inversion of the usual short anaerobic exercises followed by less intense recovery periods) to get fast, durable results. These exercises included burpies, mummy kicks, and Spiderman push-ups, served up by a cast of leggy fitness instructors whose very muscled-but-not-too-muscled-ness spat in the face of Just the Way You Are. And why not? The premise of Insanity, after all, was that soon I'd be leaving my old body behind, and with it, my old mindset, my old bad habits. No discipline? The program could fix that. Romantic troubles? Insanity would make my boyfriend rue the day he ever looked at another girl.

But first -- and this is a cardinal rule -- first, drink your protein.


Insanity is the brainchild of Carl Daikeler and Jon Congdon, co-founders of BeachBody LLC, an outfit that, despite its hammy name, had in the 15 years since its establishment seen meteoric success. Their first breakthrough came in 2003 with the launch of P90x, a ninety-day fitness program developed with workout guru Tony Horton. It combined resistance training and muscle confusion exercises and sold a million copies in its first season. Four years later, they looked to expand their line with an even more intense workout, one that could deliver the same results in just sixty days. It seemed they had a winner in high-intensity home fitness.

They also had impeccable timing. The 2000s were a complicated moment for first world health. Advances in genomics and computing had opened new vistas on diseases like cancer and HIV. Yet certain fundamental health issues were, if anything, getting worse. The obesity rate soared; the pharmo-medical-industrial complex that catered to its accompanying problems ballooned accordingly. By 2011, Americans were spending $1.2 billion a year on liposuction, $6 billion on yoga studios, $24 billion on gym memberships. They ran a collective two trillion steps on the treadmill. Yet even as the industry grew, it also split into two groups distinguished not only by their marketing, but by their ethos.

The first group consisted of what I call the easy sells -- cookie diets, tone-as-you-walk shoes, vibrating machines that claimed to shake your fat off -- products sold at corner stalls in strip malls and in banner ads squashed between the bad variety shows and soft-core porn that characterize certain stretches of the internet. They were most often ineffective, but people bought them on the off chance that they weren't.

By 2011, Americans were spending $1.2 billion a year on liposuction, $6 billion on yoga studios, $24 billion on gym memberships.

Hard sells, contrastingly, embraced the workout. They demanded the workout. They not only acknowledged how many glazed fritters the customer was going to have to give up, they made it a veritable mantra. Dig Deeper. Push Harder. Get Fit or Get Out. The hard sell was perhaps best embodied by NBC's The Biggest Loser, a sixty-minute prime time blitzkrieg of sweat, tears, and drill-sergeant-esque instructors. Contestants came on at 300 pounds, left at 150; weighed in at 250, weighed out at 120. Meanwhile, its host, Jillian Michaels, parlayed the show's success into a media empire as sprawling as Martha Stewart's.

The genius of the hard sell, of course, was that it wasn't a sell at all. As Beachbody executive Laura Ross put it, "We were just trying to be honest. If you wanted to get results, you would have to work your ass off." And therein lay the savvy of it: in an era of quick fixes, Insanity made logical sense. It asked for sixty days, every day. It asked you to sweat like it's monsoon season. And in return it promised a body as tight as rubber and as hard as sin.

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Yiren Lu is a writer based in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She writes regularly at I Don't Date Athletes.

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