The Best Workouts for Getting in the Best Shape of Your Life

As a former athlete, I have been exercising and working out for nearly two-thirds of my life. Read: I’ve pretty much done it all. I’ve lifted weights, attended exercise classes, run a half-marathon, done high-intensity interval training, swum laps…the list goes on. Two workouts stand head and shoulders above the rest. Do these, and you’ll be on your way to getting in the best shape of your life.

While I still run and swim and do other types of exercise on occasion, these two workout programs have been the most life-changing and motivating and adaptable to my busy life. They are the two to which I default most often, at least in part because you can do these workouts almost entirely at home and with a very small amount of equipment.

Now, I must warn you: Both of these workout programs are tough, and each requires a certain level of fitness before you begin. But once you’re able to start, I’d be shocked if you didn’t see results and fall in love quickly.

So, what two workout programs are my absolute favorites?

1. Beachbody’s P90X

There are many reasons why I love P90X. A few:

  1. All-combined, the workouts are truly full-body. I’m talking every kind of push-up, pull-up, squat, lunge, curl, tricep press, shoulder exercise, and crunch you can think of, plus some of the best and toughest cardio and yoga workouts you’ll ever encounter.
  2. The instructor, Tony Horton, is the bomb. He talks you through every move in a way that is easy to understand, and he calls it like it is: “It’s a love-hate,” he says. “Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither was your body. Do your best, and forget the rest. Just keep pushing play.” It’s the best mantra you can adopt if you’re looking to make exercise a habit.
  3. P90X workouts work. Seriously, it’s one of the few workout programs with which I’ve seen consistent, positive results over the full course of it. When I first started P90X, I did push-ups on my knees and only made it through half of the harder workouts like plyometrics and yoga. Now, I do 10+ reps of every single push-up using regular form (doing almost 200 push-ups some days), and the plyometrics and yoga workouts are now my favorites. I like them so much that I often intersperse them with other workouts even when I’m not actively doing P90X.

The downside? P90X requires a significant (but not insurmountable) time commitment. Technically, the program asks that you do six, 50-or-more-minute workouts each week for 13 weeks straight. But you can easily modify the program to meet your schedule.

For example, these are the workouts that P90X asks you to do during weeks 1-3:

Day 1–Chest & Back, Ab Ripper X
Day 2–Plyometrics
Day 3–Shoulders & Arms, Ab Ripper X
Day 4–Yoga X
Day 5–Legs & Back, Ab Ripper X
Day 6–Kenpo X
Day 7–Rest or X Stretch

But these are the workouts I ACTUALLY do:

Day S–Chest & Back, Ab Ripper X
Day S–Plyometrics
Day M–Shoulders & Arms, Ab Ripper X
Day T–Yoga X (do half or skip if super busy)
Day W–Legs & Back (skip if super busy), Ab Ripper X
Day R–Kenpo X
Day F–Rest or X Stretch

As you can see, I never do the Kenpo/martial arts or stretching workouts, which are by far the easiest of them all, and I usually do the ab workout only once per week.

When I’m REALLY busy, I’ll also skip the legs and back workout because those muscles are worked in other workouts earlier in the week. Or I’ll skip half or sometimes all of the 90-minute yoga workout (though I discourage the latter because the yoga workout is phenomenal).

Notice that my schedule includes workouts on both Saturdays and Sundays. Working out on the weekends allows me the flexibility to work out only two to three days during the week when I’m most busy and apt to skip. My advice? Always work out on the days when you think you’ll be the most motivated, and fill in other workouts from there.

All said and done, you could reduce the program to four, 50-minute workouts weekly without seeing much dip in quality.

You could also probably do only 30 minutes of each workout and still get results. As Tony likes to say: “Modify. Modify. Modify.” P90X workouts are tough, and 30 minutes of P90X is better than most.

The other downside is the expense. You can sign up for Beachbody On Demand for $8 to $13 per month to stream all of the Beachbody workouts, including P90X, on your laptop, TV, smart phone, or tablet, or you can buy the P90X DVD set for $120 (three payments of $39.95) plus shipping. Not a bad investment when you consider the cost of most gym memberships, but a significant cost nonetheless. Not sure if P90X is for you? You can also try a free, 14-day trial.

Equipment-wise, you’ll need are a yoga mat, a pull-up bar, and about three sets of dumbbells that you can use for arm exercises like shoulder presses, bicep curls, triceps extensions, etc. Personally, I use 7.5-pound, 10-pound, and 15-pound weights, though I plan to upgrade to 20-pound weights soon.

The last thing I should tell you is that P90X and I have had an on-again, off-again relationship for about six years now, and I’ve never actually completed the full 90 days (though I have come very close, through week 10 of 13, and I HAVE completed all 10 of the program’s main rotating workouts). That said, it’s always been my go-to workout routine, and I’ve gotten stronger and fitter every time I’ve done it.

2. Making the Cut

On the opposite end of the spectrum, the other workout routine I love is Jillian Michaels’s “Making the Cut,” which is similar to her 30-day Shred, but in book form and with the added bonus of a 30-day nutritional guide with recipes.

When I first brought the book in 2007, that’s all it was, a book. Nowadays, you can buy an enhanced edition of the book that includes 80+ videos of Jillian demonstrating the exercises. (The original book has photos and descriptions of all of the exercises.)

The main reason I love Making the Cut? The workouts are super tough and effective, but they take only half an hour four days a week.

How can you get in the best shape of your life by exercising only 30 minutes four days a week?

Because the workouts are efficient. Whereas P90X works a few body parts most days of the week, Making the Cut works every body part every workout, often simultaneously. As in, you’ll do shoulder flies at the same time that you do lunges. Shoulder presses at the same time that you do squats. And every fourth move or so, you’ll hop on the treadmill and sprint for 30 seconds to a minute. Oh, and you’re only allowed 30-second breaks after you complete each “circuit” of 4-8 exercises.

All of this—the multi-muscle exercises, the cardio, the limited break time—keeps your heart rate high throughout the entire workout. Hence why it works in only 30 minutes.

Equipment-wise, you’ll need dumbbells for exercises like shoulder presses, curls, flies, rows, etc. (I use 5-, 10-, and 15-pound weights.) To follow the routines exactly, you’ll also need a body ball, a jump rope, a stopwatch, a treadmill, and access to various exercise machines. No gym membership or access to machines? No problem. Most of the exercises require only dumbbells or your own body weight. For exercises that involve something you don’t have, just substitute another exercise that works the same muscles (a pull-up for a lat pulldown, for instance).

To save time, I recommend listing each day’s exercises on a 4-by-6-inch note card, and carry that day’s note card with you while you’re working out. Also be sure to watch the videos or read the descriptions for that day’s exercises BEFORE you begin working out. Remember: Breaks are only 30 seconds, so you won’t have time to flip through the book to see what’s next.

What are some of your favorite workouts?

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