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For wonks, stars and average Joes, Tony Horton is 'the man' with the workout plan

By Monica Hesse
Friday, April 30, 2010; C01

There are push-ups and then there are Tony Horton's push-ups, which might involve medicine balls, might involve balance balls, might involve scuttling from sphinx pose to plank pose then back again, summoning your muscular reserves as if they were flagging troops in battle. There are enough push-ups for every day of the week, month of the year, dead character on "Lost"; there are push-ups that go fast, go slow and one that goes literally up the wall, as Horton walks his feet toward the sky while keeping his arms in push-up position.

"There was one," Horton says, "that I called the Impossible Push-Up." The Impossible Push-Up looked like this: Position each hand on a basketball. Position feet on a balance ball. Push up. "When I first invented it, I couldn't do a single one. But now," he says, spreading out his hands as if envisioning a title on a marquee, "I call it the Possible."

Tony Horton is intimately familiar to those who spend too much time watching television at odd hours of the night, surfing fitness infomercials while eating Doritos and thinking, Man, I need to do something about this flab. There they have seen Horton's fitness system, P90X, which he sells with a mix of charisma, charm and chiseled man-pecs.

Horton was in Washington recently to whip into shape congressmen in their private gym.

"It's probably the most bipartisan thing we do in this place," jokes Kevin McCarthy in a phone interview. McCarthy is a Republican congressman from California who participated in Horton's private workout along with about 20 other lawmakers. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), Heath Shuler (D-N.C.) and Bart Stupak (D-Mich.) are also reportedly members of the Tony tribe, which hovers around a dozen.

"Even during [the] health-care [debate]," McCarthy says, many would come together for a morning workout.

When McCarthy can't make it to the congressional gym, he travels with his own set of DVDs. "I keep [P90X] in my suitcase wherever I go," he says. "Then [the hotel staff] knocks on my door and says I'm being too loud."

The P90X charge was led by Ryan, who learned about it from a Navy SEAL buddy. "I asked him, 'How on earth do you stay in shape and hang with those younger guys?' [He] said P90X."

While in Washington, Horton also swung by the Results on G Street SE to lead a workout for about 140 average blokes.

"When I first started the leg workouts," says Results workout attendee David Shahoulian, a Hill staffer who has been doing the X for a few months. "It made me want to puke at the middle."

One woman here has flown in from New York just for Tony; she's lost 73 pounds on the DVDs and speaks beatifically of P90X's signature muscle confusion exercise theory, the way the converted are prone to do.

At Results, Horton finishes up one workout while the next class waits outside. A beefy guy with a wrestler build stops a woman who has just left the first session. "How bad was it?" he whimpers. "Seriously, how bad?"

Inside the gym, Horton had earlier adjusted the volume on his headset.

"Hello, this is God," he says playfully. "Do push-ups."

'Bringing it'

America wants fitness to be effortless. America wants to just take the stairs, get off the bus one stop early, skip the soda. America wants workout DVDs that will fit into the commercial breaks, that are described as "Easy" or better yet, "EZ."

Therefore, the success of P90X, which has sold more than 2 million sets at a steep $119.85 a pop, is counterintuitive. Its selling point is that it is really, really hard.

You have seen the high-octane infomercials, yes? In their "Before" pictures the participants are pale and fleshy, like the dough that explodes out of a Pillsbury Crescent Roll tube. In their "Afters" they are ripped: rolling pectorals and half-moon buttocks. P90X is the workout for studs -- which doesn't mean it's not for women, it's just that the women are also studs, like that mom in the DVDs who has six kids and is probably the studliest of them all.

The 12 DVDs are only a portion of P90X. The Nutrition Plan tells Xers what to eat and how much and when. The message boards teem with people who speak the P90X language, which is a language of "Bringing it," the phrase that can be affixed to the end of any declaration: Even my eyeballs hurt today. Bring it!

"I think a lot of companies that have made fitness products have underestimated people's desire to work hard," Horton says. He's sitting in a French restaurant near Eastern Market after the Results workout, avoiding the bread basket, requesting that his salad be made without cheese and his fish without cream.

At 52, he looks 32, with dark wavy hair, an unlined face and biceps that are ads for the proverbial gun show.

Horton grew up in Connecticut and Rhode Island. After studying theater and communications at the University of Rhode Island, a then-waifish Horton moved to Los Angeles, where he still lives. The wannabe actor got work as a mime and as an assistant on movie sets until his agent told him he might get more acting jobs if he bulked up. The options at his gym were boring, so he joined three additional ones for variety, cobbling together his own homemade workouts. In the late '80s, an exec at one of his jobs noticed his physical transformation and asked Horton to train him as well.

The exec later ran into Tom Petty, who remarked that he was looking newly buff; Horton soon became the rocker's trainer.

"He said, 'Hey, Tony, can you get me in shape? I got a tour in three months,' " Horton says.

Three months. The groundwork for a 90-day body revolution. Horton's initial workout program was called Power 90; P90X came in 2004 after a year of consulting with fitness experts in various fields.

Petty, Horton says, led to Annie Lennox and Bruce Springsteen.

"I introduced Bruce," Horton says modestly, "to an early version of muscle confusion."

Ah, yes, "muscle confusion," the cornerstone term of P90X, referring to the varying workouts that he says are necessary to combat workout plateaus.

Muscle confusion contains "absolutely nothing new in it whatsoever," says Todd Miller, an associate professor of exercise science at George Washington University, who is an expert in strength and conditioning. P90X "is very high-intensity exercises that you're doing for an hour a day. That's a lot of freaking exercise. If you do any high-enough-intensity workout and couple it with a [healthy] diet, you're probably going to get pretty much the same results."

What Horton calls "muscle confusion" exercise scientists call "periodization," and they've been calling it that for decades.

"Maybe the videos are well produced, or fun," Miller says. "But the reason the program works is ultimately because people do it." That's not a slam -- the hardest part of any exercise program is getting people to keep at it. And Horton manages to do that, despite the fact that . . .

"It's awful," says Richard Burr. "It doesn't matter how many times you do it, it still makes you cry."

Burr is a U.S. senator, a Republican from North Carolina, and one of the members of Congress who have embraced the gut-busting doctrine of Tony. He is speaking of the dread Ab Ripper X, the supplemental abdominal workout that is the topic of many a P90X discussion board. (Do it before the workout. Do it after. Do it after, but first drink some Recovery Formula. Do it occasionally. Do it often, but only if you can then pass out on the carpet.)

The legislative grunt sessions are perhaps the most illustrative examples of the bonding power of the X, the camaraderie that comes through sweat. P90X speaks to something primal, a return to a time when there were no at-home elliptical machines, when all you had was gravity and your own body.

Many of P90X's legislative followers say they got into it to reclaim old levels of fitness, or because the program's portability fit their travel-heavy schedules. McCarthy says he sleeps better; Shuler says he's had fewer exercise-related injuries. Burr says he hasn't been in such good shape since college football more than 30 years ago.

Shuler, a former Redskins quarterback, recently went to a Colorado Rockies baseball game to catch up with Todd Helton, an old buddy who plays first base. Helton noticed that Shuler had slimmed down; Shuler told him why. Helton replied, "I love P90X!," and pretty soon several men were huddled in the clubhouse, bonding over Tony.

Horton swings by the congressional gym whenever he's in Washington. He's no lobbyist, but he hopes that by teaching lawmakers about exercise, he might persuade them to support legislation that supports health.

"We did one-legged dip jumps," says Shuler of a workout held one morning. "Thirty reps on each leg, 40 minutes into the workout. . . . I certainly got my workout."

"Today I got a 'Perfection' from Tony," McCarthy says proudly. "Not just a 'Good Job,' but a 'Perfection.' "

In the home stretch

Back at Results, Horton is leading his class through a final round of squats, offering encouragement to pull them to the end.

"The lower you go, the more pert your [butt] is later in life!" he calls out to one struggling participant. "You see that back there?" he says to another, gesturing toward the exerciser's posterior. "You need to squeeze that!"

The last set completed, he beckons everyone to the ground for a post-workout stretch before dismissing the class, which responds with applause.

"Tony is the man," says one attendee, whose shirt is sopping. He staggers out through the door and toward the showers. "Tony is the man."

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