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.

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.

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.


To distinguish Insanity from P90x, Beachbody picked to star in its videos a relative unknown named Shaun Thompson. He had been teaching classes at the local Equinox in Santa Monica when he met Ross, who invited him to submit demo videos for another Beachbody program called Hip Hop Abs. They ended up being so good that he was signed not only for that series, but also for Insanity.

"It was obvious from the get-go that Shaun was extremely talented," Ross said. "Sometimes in fitness videos because of space constraints we end up doing movements that seem super contrived, super restrictive. But Shaun used to run track, he used to dance, and you can really see that in his posture, how he holds himself. He brought a natural athleticism to the exercises."

Insanity was nearly a year in development. In a way that would have been inconceivable to the likes of Jane Fonda, the modern fitness video is a meticulously choreographed beast, the product of concept meetings, design docs, A/B testing. Thompson spent hours working through single movements at the gym. Versions were edited, then re-edited. His last name became the snappy, monosyllabic T. The final version was tested on a focus group of 60, whose physical transformations were then sliced into a twenty-minute infomercial that would form the lion's share of Insanity's publicity plan.

"From the beginning, we knew that Insanity would be marketed primarily on television," Ross said. "We just had no clue that it would be so successful. And so every year, we've reshot the video. We send out a call, people mail in their before and after photos, their testimonials, and we feature those right alongside the professional stuff."

The result was a surprisingly seductive grassroots production -- people who started out looking like you and I, gradually doing things that you and I couldn't do with two more legs and a sledgehammer. In one segment, a forty-year-old mother of three whipped out a set of pull-ups, nary a love handle in sight. In another, Daikeler himself appeared shirtless, mugging for the camera. "Why didn't I have this body in high school?" he asked breezily. "Do you know how much more fun it would have been?"

The emphasis in the infomercials, as on the forums, and in the myriad YouTube testimonials posted by ecstatic users, is partly on the results but mostly on the process. Finishing the program seems to inspire unique pride and satisfaction. You conquer Insanity. Can you ever really say that about StairMaster?


As for my own experience with the program, well, so far it's left me in awe of what a body can accomplish when faced with a HD screen and a buff man screaming, "Jack it off!" I've always been naturally thin, but I've never been strong. Insanity changed that. A couple weeks ago I went rock climbing with friends, and for the first time I felt that I was in control of my movements. I could trust my arms and legs to go where I wanted them to go.

Of course, the price for strength is consistency. You'll find hundreds of accounts about Insanity online that all begin with "I never missed a day," and it's true: the program works best when you do the workouts on schedule. It also works best when you follow their diet plan, when you drink their recovery formula, when you sacrifice your first born to the God of Good Abs. What's less publicized is how effective it can be even when you slip up a little. Sometimes I'll miss a workout and that's okay. I'll gorge myself on my roommate's chocolate chip cookies just to rub it in and tomorrow pick up where I left off.

Maybe next time, I'll try Beachbody's new Focus T25, a ten-week series of 25-minute workouts for self-proclaimed busy people. I like the idea of working out during my lunch break -- and eating lunch, too.