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The “Insanity” Exercise Program

No, I’m not talking about mental illness but rather an exercise program.

As a martial arts instructor, there are several reasons I need to stay in good physical condition:

  • In class, I believe in leading by example. I have to be prepared to execute every exercise and technique I ask my students to perform more times than they will do them. That requires not just technical knowledge, but endurance and strength.
  • My own martial arts education is on-going. Even after 18 years, I am still learning new material as well as working to improve my execution and understanding of earlier material. (The depth of the syllabus is one of the things I find most appealing about Kuk Sool Won.) Of course the material I’ve learned as a 3rd degree black belt is more challenging. The Grandmaster has told me I should expect to begin testing for my next promotion within a year, and I want to be prepared for the testing process.
  • Marketing. Whether I like it or not, my outward physical appearance is an aspect of the marketing identity of my school. I don’t want potential students to choose not to train with me because I appear out of shape. (There is not actually as much of a correlation between body composition and fitness as most people assume; I have known plenty of martial artists and athletes who carried obvious body fat and yet were quite physically capable.)

Of course I am always training regularly, both with the basic exercises, self defense techniques, and tradition martial art forms that are a part of Kuk Sool Won as well as other cross-training fitness activities. As I prepared to open Kuk Sool Won of Clinton, I made an effort to increase my training and improve my fitness. However I still felt the need to further improve my physical condition.

Some fellow Kuk Sool instructors mentioned the “Insanity” program to me. They knew someone who was already trying it and were considering starting it themselves. It sounded like a program which might help me reach a higher level of fitness, so I decided to start it at the same time. We continued to discuss it and helped motivate each other through the program.

The Good

The program is entirely made up of body-weight exercises. Unlike some programs, that means you don’t need to buy any weights or other equipment.

Many of the exercises are quite challenging. Even as someone with a significant amount of fitness experience (18 years training in Kuk Sool), I was pleased by how hard I had to work at many of the exercises.

The structure of the program (typically 3 minutes of work followed by 30 seconds of rest) is also quite a challenge. I’ve experimented with different interval training methods (I often use the Tabata method or a slight variation on it), but the Insanity interval was different from any I had tried before.

The Bad

Because it’s entirely body-weight with no equipment, it focuses more on the legs and the core muscles than on the upper body. There are plenty of push-ups, planks, and other exercises which involve the arms and shoulders. However that’s only a portion of the exercises, and almost every exercise uses the legs, or the abdominals, or both. This isn’t necessarily a problem, and you could say the same thing about a lot of martial arts training, but it’s worth being aware of.

This is not a program I could recommend to someone who is not already reasonably fit. If the idea of doing 20-30 push-ups and sit-ups sounds like a big challenge, you should probably start with an easier program to prepare yourself before starting “Insanity.” However, if that sounds like a good start to your warm-up before you begin your real workout, “Insanity” might be right for you.

I did find the program to be a little hard on the joints, particularly in the lower body. I had a few points where I wore a neoprene knee or ankle wrap for additional support when one of my joints was bothering me. (It’s worth mentioning that I did the entire program on a surface that was very well cushioned; it might have been worse on a solid floor.) This might be less of a problem for some people (particularly younger people), but it’s something to be aware of and to pay attention to.

My Results

There are three ways I’ll characterize my results: body mass, work capacity, and heart rate.

I lost a total of 28 pounds (about 13% of my starting body weight). My lowest weigh-in was actually 30 lbs. down from my initial weight, but my average over the last week of the program was 28 lbs. down. After finishing the program, I’ve been taking it a little easier for the last two weeks and I’ve gained a small amount back (I was 25.5 pounds down from my initial weight this morning). That’s not terribly surprising as I’m burning fewer calories per day without the Insanity workouts.

Every two weeks, the program requires completing a fitness test. You perform a series of eight exercises, doing as many repetitions as possible in one minute. By recording how many of each exercise you completed, and you can track your progress. My average increase in work capacity by this measurement at the end of the program was a factor of 2. (It varied across the 8 exercises; one was only 1/3 more than my first count, but one was almost 3 times as many.)

The program recommended using a heart rate monitor for several reasons. It helps to track progress, it can be used to make sure you don’t over-exert yourself, and it can also help you tell when you may be taking too long of a break (for the inevitable times when you stop during an exercise because you’re having too much difficulty continuing safely and with correct form). Early in the program, my peak heart rate was typically in the mid-170s (beats per minute). By the end of the program, I never saw my heart rate get above the low 160s.

Other Thoughts

Similar to most such exercise programs, a dietary plan is provided as part of the “Insanity” package. A key part of the plan is counting calories, estimating your caloric needs, and restricting intake if you want to lose weight. I followed the plan fairly strictly in the beginning. As I got better at counting calories, I made more of my own meal choices rather than using their pre-planned meals.

I’m certain that control of caloric intake was an important factor in my weight loss. However I’m also sure that the workouts were an important factor. As I mentioned above, my weight has gone back up a little now that I’ve taken a break from the 6 days per week schedule of “Insanity.” I have no doubt that I could have lost weight with caloric restriction alone, but I would not have lost it as quickly. I’m not at all sure that I could have lost weight with the “Insanity” workouts alone if I didn’t also control my diet.

In the “Insanity” advertising, the sellers make a point of saying that their interval training system is an improvement upon others. While the interval method used during “Insanity” (3 minutes of work followed by 30 seconds of rest) is different, I don’t see clear evidence that it is inherently better than others. There have been some important scientific studies which have shown that interval training can be more effective than continuous exercise. As I mentioned above, I had used several different interval training methods before starting “Insanity,” and I’ve found all of them to be effective. In the absence of a serious scientific study (similar to that which established the efficacy of the Tabata method), I can’t put much stock in the advertising claims that the “Insanity” interval protocol is somehow better than others.


“Insanity” is an effective program for taking you fitness to a higher level. It’s well worth the cost, as long as you can commit the necessary time and willpower to follow through. I would recommend it if you’re looking for a new exercise challenge. However, I couldn’t recommend it for people who aren’t used to exercising or aren’t already reasonably fit. Pay particular attention for joint discomfort, and take appropriate measures to avoid injury. Be sure to eat well, and pay attention to your caloric intake if you want to lose weight.

2 comments to The “Insanity” Exercise Program

  • 28 pounds!! Congrats.

    I agree with everything you wrote. Insanity kicked my butt too. I mix it in with P90X now.

    Are you a Beachbody Coach? I did not see anywhere on your site saying you were. Go to http://www.BeachBodyCoach.com/wrkoutjorney and click on the Coach tab to learn more. You would be ideal for it as you know that the products work.

    Feel free to contact me.



  • Brad: I was actually planning on trying P90X next. I’ll look into BeachBody’s coach program.

    As I mentioned in the post, I used several other kinds of cross-training to supplement my martial arts before I started “Insanity”: kettlebells (this is one of my favorite workouts), rings, a weekly “boot camp” class that’s free for me (at the fitness center provided by my day job), and recently roller derby. In the summer I’ll occasionally go for a 20-30 mile bike ride. All of those are good fitness tools and activities, but the structure and the pace of a months-long program like “Insanity” is obviously key to its effectiveness.

    One thing I didn’t mention in the post was that I came down with a bad cold during week 6 of “Insanity.” I had to take a week of rest to get over that, and then I started over at week 6 again. So it took me 11 weeks rather than the planned 9 weeks to complete “Insanity”. It still worked though.

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