Tony Horton is the creator of P90X, the famous fitness series, and an array of follow-up workout programs. He is a professional speaker and the author of several books, including Bring It, Crush It, and The Big Picture.
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Working (It) Out with Tony Horton
Our guest is Tony Horton. He is the creator of the famous fitness series P90X and an array of follow-up workout programs. He’s a professional speaker and author of several books including Bring It!, Crush It! and The Big Picture. Welcome, Tony.
Peter, I’m supposed to be funny. Is that the whole deal?
I’ve had some funny people who were notably unfunny on the show so don’t feel pressured.
I’m not going to force anything. If it springs upon me, if I feel there’s a moment of humor then I will bring some levity.
If you weren’t working as a trainer, entrepreneur, author or speaker, what would you be doing with your life?
I’d be living in a box down by the lake for sure, feeding my fourteen cats and hoping to survive from moment to moment. I wanted to be an actor and a comic when I first came out here to LA. I dabbled in that. I was in a couple of little movies and I was in some commercials. I was with The Second City LA for about a year and I did a fantastic Colombo. I love making people laugh because I was an insecure kid with a speech impediment. I was last picked in every team and I was trying to fight through all these insecurities I had as a kid. Humor was the way to get out of trouble. It was also a way to appeal to women because I was looking for women as well when I first came out here. The fitness stuff came later, that came out of pure luck. That was happenstance. I wasn’t meant to be a fitness trainer.
I liked that part of your story. I call myself a late bloomer and it seems like you have that same part of your identity and experience. You did a lot of things prior to getting into the fitness thing. It was pre-Uber so you were working as a bartender.
I was a bartender, a waiter, a carpenter and I was a handyman. I was a go-go dancer at Chippendales between 10:00 and midnight. That’s what I was because I was a sexy mother hecker. I like to pop and lock. I used to watch The Lockers when I was a kid in the ‘60s. I wanted to be a black jazz musician. That’s what I wanted to be. This white stuff was killing me. I love the groove. I love the dance and I love funk, Sly and the Family Stone and The Temptations and all that music. I like Led Zeppelin too.
That music came out of blues style.
It came out of Motown. All that was Motown stuff. I was a huge fan of that. I loved the dance. That was the thing I love to do. That was one of my many jobs.
What was it like being a Chippendale?
It’s not as great as you think. I was not a Chippendales dancer. I was not one of the performers that were there in front of all the women. I was on a box after the doors open for men to come in. I was one of two or three go-go dancers. I had this tiny little space and it was about four or five feet off the ground. I would get up there and groove. I had my Capezio dance shoes, my tiger socks, my dolphin shorts and my cut-off tank top. It was the ‘80s. I was making $20 to $50 an hour. Every weekend I would go to these dance contests and I would try to win a dance contest. I happened to meet one of the girls who is the choreographer for Chippendales looking for go-go dancers.
I don’t know if you’ve ever gone down the YouTube rabbit hole of old Soul Train videos where people were doing the dance through the line.
That’s what I learned. I would study MC Hammer and the way he moves.
I don’t believe that you would be in a box by the lake with cats. You strike me as the guy who was hustling. You strike to me as someone who has a work ethic. Maybe your break came late and maybe you wouldn’t have as big a break, but if you were to play your life over 10,000 times, you’re not living in a box. You don’t have this life.
I’d be married with a couple of kids and maybe two times divorced or something. It’s hard to say because I didn’t have as much ambition as you’d like to think I had. I had the ambition to survive. I needed to pay my rent and I needed to feed my face. Every once in awhile I wanted to go on a ski trip and buy a new pair of sneakers. That was it for me. I lived in the same apartment for 21 years. It could have been 31 or 41 years, honestly, because it was going a certain way for decades without any real sign of a dramatic change. The only thing that changed for me was the fact that I began to try to get outside of my comfort zone more often. Do things, meet people, go places and participate in stuff that scared me more often in my late 20s or early 30s. That was the springboard for who I am now. A lot of that was purely based on personal development stuff, Deepak Chopra, Andrew Weil, Gary Zukav, Tony Robbins, Richard Carlson and Wayne Dyer. I had all the books and I read them all.
A lot of them didn’t resonate, but some of them did. I would beg, borrow and steal everything I could out of those books and start to try to apply them. Usually, a lot of it is met with, don’t be attached to the outcome. Keep your expectations a little bit lower. Make sure you always show up and try to pay attention to what’s going on while you’re showing up. What did you learn while you were there? Don’t make the same mistakes over and over again. I was like, “What do you do with finances? What do you do with the relationships? What do you do with the career?” I tried to apply these separate rules. That’s what The Big Picture is. It’s the eleven laws that changed my life. Whether they’re going to change somebody else’s, but their circumstances will be different. That’s what the book was about. I started to apply things. I stopped doing things that didn’t work and I started doing things that did. Somebody asked me, “If you had to pick one thing that changed your life,” it was always exploring the idea of new experiences and new people.
That’s one of your laws.
Indirectly but yeah.
You read a bunch of these personal development books. When you were working on The Big Picture, did you go back and revisit some of those books?
I look at Don Miguel Ruiz’s book, The Four Agreements. It’s a beautiful book. It’s not even more than 140 pages long. I read it over and over again. I read a lot of Wayne Dyer stuff and Gary Zukav, The Seat of the Soul.
In The Four Agreements, one of them is don’t take things personally.
One of them is to do your best. I stole part of that one and then Dan Millman’s books, the Way of the Peaceful Warrior, The Warrior Athlete. He’s written twenty books. Millman uses that interesting mix between personal development and how athletes should think, train and get better and that I liked too. That fit into where I was going.
Before we get to the fitness stuff, you were telling me separately, I was interviewing you for my own book, you did pantomime. There are a lot of very interesting things about you. That might be the most interesting. How did that happen? How did you get into pantomime?
There was a couple on TV, I think it was on ABC, The Shields and Yarnell Show. I was always fascinated with physical movement. It’s not the athletic movement, it’s different. It’s like dancing and miming. If you looked at a lot of the popping and locking that was going on in the ‘70s that you’d see a lot of these R&B artists were doing. Michael Jackson was walking in the wind, that little bit where he’s walking backward. I was so fascinated in learning how to do that and creating that space, whether it be a ladder, a balloon, a wall, a doorknob or a can or leaning up against something and then piecing that into a little show.
You were a busker, a street performer.
I had a speech thing as a kid and it was my way to perform without having to say anything and still being humorous without having to stutter, stammer or clutter.
Did you have a stutter?
I had a speech thing called cluttering. I was talking to my friend Chris Titus, who’s also a comic who you should probably talk to. He’s a funny boy and he has a very similar thing. He still struggles with it now, but he makes it part of his act, which is smart. It’s a matter of learning to slow down and being more secure with what it is that you’re going to say. When you’re insecure and you feel as if no one wants to listen to what you have to say, you sometimes have a tendency to speed it up so that they’ll listen, get it in, get it out of the way and hope you’ll have a response. That came with time and from practice. I would get books and I would record reading the books out loud as the way to cure myself, just to hear how I spoke. I was pigeon-toed on top of that. I remember walking into my school for years and there were these big plate glass doors. It was about twenty yards before from the curb and I would watch myself walk pigeon-toed. I would purposely try to straighten my feet. I would do that every day and I eventually worked my way out of it. I did the same thing with the speaking thing and occasionally I’ll still do it. It will pop in if I’m tired or if I’m a little bit nervous or something. It hasn’t gone away completely.
I don’t think I brought this up on the show before but I’m a little pigeon-toed.
It’s not that there’s anything wrong with that.
No, I like to think that it helps me be a little faster. A lot of sprinters are slightly pigeon-toed. I was born with my feet completely turned in. I have my hands out facing each other because of the way I was positioned in the womb. This was a long time ago. I’m sure there are better ways to treat this now. The doctors put me into two full-length casts, pushing my feet out with a bar.
My sister had a similar thing, but it was a hip issue.Stop doing things that do not work and start doing what works. Click To Tweet
My mom said that I destroyed a few cribs because you’re a kid, you’re a baby, you move around. I would be banging these casts into the side of the crib. It was fascinating because my father was in the Army at the time. I was being treated at an Army hospital.
Which Army hospital?
It was in Okinawa, Camp Kue.
I was at Schofield Barracks in Okinawa. My father was a tank commander.
Mine was in 1970.
I was ‘62, ‘63 to ‘64.
He managed to avoid Vietnam and was stationed there. I think about that. I had to take my physicality for granted in some ways and my good health and so on. Occasionally, you see someone who has that problem, especially I’ve traveled all over the world. You’re in some foreign land where you don’t have the means for that and someone can’t walk, barely can walk or walks awkwardly.
They’re ostracized as a result of it. Unlike in this country, we want to fix every single thing we can find.
I’m glad they fixed that for me. It’s weird, I forget about it. It’s probably been a few years since I’ve told that story.
I hope you don’t have nightmares as a result of me bringing it up.
I don’t think so. We’re living in a time now where you’re awash with personal development. There are many more books. Now, we’ve got YouTube and the reason is it’s hard to develop yourself or improve yourself.
You don’t get that in school typically. I never got it in the ‘60s and ‘70s.
You don’t get it now. I do a tiny bit of this in my MBA class and the students are amazed. It’s so fascinating that colleges pitched as a way or a place for development to turn people into productive adults and so on. We do nothing to teach people about what it means to live a good life. We create a system that doesn’t allow people to flourish mentally, physically and so on. For example, if you cared about students’ well-being, there’s no way you would run a semester the way that a university runs this semester where you give them all their exams in three days. You’re asking students to abuse themselves in order to do it and yet it keeps going because of the way it is.
I would not disagree. I never took a course in civility, altruism or mindfulness or any of the things that are important to me now, learning about balance in life and these simple things that are maybe common sense to a lot of people. A lot of people are clueless. A lot of people suffer needlessly because they’re constantly caught up in the grind. They’re trying to keep up with the Joneses and the Smiths and everybody else. It’s all about stuff, money, success and how big your boobs are. It’s gotten out of control, but it’s been that way for a long time.
There’s a small segment of society which begins to get it. I have this Paragon Camp coming up at my house. That’s what it’s about. It’s not just about, “Let’s see who can kick the other person’s butt.” There’s mindfulness there. There are mental and emotional things that go on with it. It’s about finding balance and being the tortoise and not the hare and staying in it for the long game and that kind of thing. A lot of people are exercising. They’re still doing cardio and resistance. Those are good things, but it’s not just about that. It’s about speed, balance, range, motion and flexibility. These other types of fitness, especially I’m 61 years old. The reason why I feel better than I did at 25 is that I’m spending as much time working on my recovery as I am beating my ass with six days work of fitness. It’s these simple things and people don’t know it. Why not be a mentor to people who still want to learn?
Even though we’re awash with this stuff, first of all, not all of it is good. Not everybody is paying attention and even when you are, it’s not easy to do. Two things that you said are of interest to me. I had a conversation with a good friend of mine. He’s in this liminal state. He’s thinking about his next steps in his career. He’s an academic. We had this far-ranging conversation about these possibilities. If he’s tuned-in, he’ll know. This will sound familiar. I said, “I hate to bring this up, but before you do any of that, you need to take care of your body.” He’s 30-pounds overweight and he’s in his 50s. We started talking about nutrition. We talked about working out. He’s like, “I do the elliptical for an hour.” I said, “The ellipticals are like AA. It’s not the pros.” You may sweat, you may burn calories, but it’s tricking you.
It’s a single A. It’s a rehab machine that got turned into a piece of fitness equipment. It’s a rehab machine for people who get injured because it’s zero impact. Do you remember the Gazelle? It’s a fancy Gazelle. It’s an upgraded expensive Gazelle.
I don’t know what the Gazelle is.
Gazelle was a Tony Little product where it was an arms and legs thing you get in your house. You could lean back and you could lean forward. It was certainly better than nothing. There is always something better than nothing. If people want to lose weight, they’ve got to learn something, there’s got to be a learning curve on them a bit. There’s got to be first grade, second grade, third grade, fourth-grade grad school. There’s got to be all these different stages. If you’re stuck in first grade and that’s what the elliptical is, it’s first-grade of fitness, then that’s as far as you’re going to get.
You might lose a few pounds. That is if you eat right and your hydrated and all these other little things you do and your supplements but it doesn’t teach you anything. There’s no dare there. There’s no resistance there. There’s only one kind of cardio. When I do cardio, I have eight machines. I jumped from one to the next either every five minutes or every three minutes. I do that for an hour. I’m on my bike, my VersaClimber, my treadmill on my rowing machine. I get on the rope, the ski machine, the slide board and I go around and around. I’m preventing the boredom, injuries and plateaus that come from getting on the elliptical.
You’re sitting across from me and you are clearly fit and you look young. It’s interesting because after I gave this pep talk to him, I had a workout later that day and I was a little bit low energy, I admit. I decided to turn up the volume on the workout. I was going to do a very simple workout. I was going to do overhead squats, double lenders and chin-ups. I was trying to get the whole body in. That’s a challenging workout. We’re using lots of muscles and different types of things. I decided to put it on a clock.
I don’t know if it came out of CrossFit, but an arm wrap as many rounds as possible. I picked a weight. I picked a number of reps for each of those things, then I did as many rounds as I could in 25 minutes. It was only a 25-minute workout and I was ruined afterward. I was panting and drenched in sweat. This was at Equinox where everybody looked so beautiful. Everybody’s working out, but they’re working out to look beautiful. They look beautiful while they’re doing it and I’m the least beautiful person in that place. This is very exciting. We’re doing a workout. If I’m joining you and I don’t know who these other people.
I don’t either. They’re just random people off the street. I’ll open the gate, people come in, I ring a bell and we start.
In less than an hour, we’re going to be doing a workout, which I’m very excited about. One of the things that I did was I’ve been pushing myself hard. I’ve been getting a little lethargic. I’ve been sore at the beginning of the workout and so on. Even though I didn’t want to do it, I took a couple of days off. I’ve done some movement, I’ve gone on walks and I did some stretching. I moved my body around, but I didn’t exercise and only 10% of it was to try to impress you. The rest of it was designed to let my body heal. I think most of the population doesn’t work out hard enough or not at all.
I would say most if not at all.
That’s fair or when they do, they’re doing it as my friend does. There’s a small group of people like me. It sounds like you used to be like this where they don’t get enough rest and recovery at times. You need both of those things.
If you look at any decent professional, collegiate or Olympic athlete and they’ve got the right trainers, they’re all into the two-to-one ratio when it comes to exercise and recovery. For every hour they train, they’re spending two hours doing recovery, foam rolling, ice baths, Jacuzzis, infrared saunas and massage. They’ve got those compression sleeves on their legs. They’re going into some hyperbaric chamber. They’re doing all that stuff. You look at LeBron James and he’s still going strong because he understands the two-to-one ratio.
I read an article, he spends $1.5 million on his body every year, which is a good investment when you’re trying to do what you’re trying to do. The big one, which is hard for the average person is sleep. Evidently, of the recovery tools, sleep is the most important by far.
It’s the easiest. It’s the simplest. A lot of people, they’re on a lousy mattress, they’re on bad pillows. They’re in a room that’s either too noisy or too quiet. They’ve got all this ambient light going on in there that they don’t need. They’ve got their phones next to their bed. They’re watching TV before they go to bed. This is a sanctuary. We’ve got the princess and the pea issue here in our place, new pillows and new mattresses. I spent more money on mattresses, pillows and sheets. If everybody went out and got bamboo sheets and a decent pillow, they wouldn’t have to go to therapy anymore. I’m exaggerating, but that’s true. My bedroom is pitch black. Fortunately, I live up in the hills. It’s pretty quiet up here. There’s no traffic up here where I live and it’s a great place to sleep.
Most people are like, “I want to stay up late because I’ve got this to do. I’m on the internet. I want to watch my favorite late-night show.” The alarm is going off at 6:30 or 7:00 and maybe they’re getting five and a half, six hours of sleep. Their circadian rhythm at night, which is a very important scientific fact that there needs to be a certain amount of deep sleep and REM sleep and they come in 45 minute time frames. If you’re doing that consistently, most people go to bed whenever. You should be going to bed at whatever. You should be going to bed at 11:00 every night and waking up at 7:00 every morning but their jobs don’t dictate how that’s going to go well. Sleep is everything. Hydration is probably number two. There are other factors as well, regular exercise, yoga, meditation and dietary things are huge. It’s all chemical. It’s all what’s going on inside of your brain if you’re sleeping right, you’re exercising, not overtraining and not undertraining. You’re also bringing in the nutrients through food and supplements, then there’s no reason why life can’t be a whole lot easier for people.You can be great at everything if your brain works better, your mind is better, and your cognition is better. Click To Tweet
I’m adapting to a new sleep environment. I’m in the city and the room is not as dark and it’s not as quiet. I’m still working out getting the temperature right. I’ve run a white noise machine. I wear an eye mask. I have good sleep hygiene as they say. What’s fascinating is even though my sleep situation is not as set up and my schedule is a little less consistent than it usually is back in Boulder because I’m here in LA. It’s city living. My stress level is way down because I’m on sabbatical. I’m sleeping better because of that even though these other things aren’t exactly dialed in quite yet, but I’m working on it.
You take anybody who goes on a vacation. The fact that they’re on vacation, they can be on vacation in New York City with horns and sirens going off outside the hotel room. There’s something about not worrying about what time you have to get up and you’ve set up a schedule to go, “We’re going to have a nice breakfast with our friends in the city ready. We’re going to go over to the village. We’re going to go to Central Park and ride bikes. We’re going to go see a show and then we’re going to have dinner,” and you could get six hours of sleep. The worst sleep in your life, but you’re on vacation. You come home, you feel great, your skin is terrific and you’re completely rested. It’s purely because you’re away from your regular gig. It’s your regular career, your job, the bills and work, the scheduling and all that stuff makes us crazy. The only way to help relieve that is through sleep, exercise, a decent diet and meditation. In my opinion, meditation saved me when I got back from being sick.
I want to talk to you about that too. I was pooping on college campuses about how bad they are about helping their students flourish. I was talking to Allen Weiss at USC. He’s moving over from the business school to Mindfulness USC or something like that where they’re working on creating that. The problem though is that the student affairs side of campus and the academic side of campus have this Chinese wall between them. It’s very difficult to get. I led a session with my faculty on resilience and how do we cultivate resilience in our students. We had this free-ranging conversation or wide-ranging conversation about how to do this and to some degree, can we? How much do the decisions we make for ourselves and others either enhance or inhibit resilience in ourselves and students? There’s a lot to be done on college campuses. I agree with you about this idea of how foundational fitness, nutrition and so on is to living a good life, to being productive, to being happy, to being a good partner, to be a good entrepreneur and to be successful in your career.
It’s the advice you gave your friend.
I say, “Before you do it with all this stuff, you’ve got to cut back on the beer. You’ve got to improve your nutrition. You’ve got to start working out regularly and hard.”
Workout as hard as you can without getting hurt and that’s important for people to know what that line is. Most people don’t know they’re under the line, they’re over the line and they don’t have good supervision sometimes and they get P90X. A lot of people get hurt doing P90X and Insanity and CrossFit because they have bad coaches, mentors and teachers. I love it when I walk into a class and they say, “If you’re a first time in this classroom, I don’t want you to sweat it. I want you to back down by anywhere as much as 80% or whatever feels right to you.” If you’re super athletic, great. If you feel like you want to go for it, good. These are new movements. Don’t forget that new movements are hard even for athletic people. I never hear that from anybody. You’re going to hear that now. I’m going to say that to you during the workout, “Peter, we’re going to do 40 reps of this hard thing.” I would recommend you either decrease your range of motion or don’t do the last ten, fifteen, twenty. It feels weird when everybody else is jumping around and you’re standing there marching in place, but if you want to walk by Friday, it’s a good move.
That’s good. I’m glad I took my couple of days off. You’re working as a bartender, you’re doing stand–up, you’re doing pantomime, you’re doing all this stuff and you’re an actor back in the day. You start getting fit. You work out and you end up stumbling into becoming a trainer.
When I first came out here, I was mesmerized by the culture, the surfing and the skiing. It’s all happening within a twenty-mile radius and there are gyms in every corner. When I was growing up in New England, there were gyms at the high school and they were gyms at the college, but there were no gyms next to the hardware store. They weren’t on every corner and I didn’t know anybody. I had my buddy that I came out here with, but I wanted to meet some people and go on bars and clubs. I did that too, but that was an unsuccessful way to meet people. I stumbled into a gym. My roommates said, “There’s this place called the Sports Connection. It’s $99 for a year and you can go in there.”
I was blown away by all the machines. Treadmills lined up and I don’t think ellipticals were around. There were rowing machines and VersaClimbers and all these other kinds of hypertrophy type of Nautilus and things like that, cable machines over there. There were tons of women. That was another reason to go. These aerobics classes, I had never experienced that before. I was blown away and there were no men in those rooms. I looked and I’d say, “Can men go in there?” Yoga was another thing. There were these yoga studios and I put yoga off for years and years. I didn’t think it was anything. I thought it was sitting around and it’s super simple and it’s a form of stretching. Little did I know that I had my head, my ass handed to me in a yoga class and I was so fascinated by how horrible I was at it. I was determined and I didn’t know Baddha Koṇāsana from Shavasana or Warrior III from Frog pose. You go enough times and you get some good instructors and you learn. You get a whole lot better and you discovered that’s the fountain of youth because it’s balance, resistance, flexibility and mindfulness. There’s no other practice like it that has those four things all in the same perfect package and all you need is a mat.
I’m a once–a–week yoga guy, at least I was. My practices lapsed with this move. I’ve been there once a month so far. I’m going to get back to it because I agree with you especially to help counteract all the other things that you’re doing.
When I came to town, that’s how I learned how to be a trainer because I was going to the track with some friends running on the track. I was doing my yoga class and I was going to World Gym spying on Arnold Schwarzenegger and Lou Ferrigno. I’m taking notes from those guys, “45 sets of chest. It seems a bit extreme, but I’m going to do it.” Going into regular gyms were more social than anything else. There were these funny gyms that were like that. It was a big scene. I was a member of four gyms at one point and I was an actor. I was a pudgy guy with skinny arms and my agents said, “You’ve got to get in shape if you want to work more,” especially because I was modeling back in those days a little bit here and there. I got a bathing suit audition. I’m the only guy there flattening on over this bathing suit and everyone else with twenty–pack.
You were the inventor of the dad bod pack.
I am the original dad bod as a 24-year-old. When I was doing all these other jobs, one of the ones that I ended up with that I had for quite a while that only required me to do that one thing. I was a production assistant at 20th Century Fox for Julia Phillips. Julia Phillips and her husband, Michael Phillips, made The Sting with Robert Redford and Paul Newman, De Niro in Taxi Driver and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. They’re like, “Bang, bang, bang,” three pictures in a row. My buddy at that time got a job as a writer. Finally, he got a real job and he didn’t have to do that PA thing. He brought me in and they said, “Here’s what you’re going to do. You’re going to feed the cat, wash the towels, hide the pot, wash the cars, pick up stationery, deliver scripts and make coffee. You’re going to do what we say.” That wasn’t a lot. I was looking at movie stars everywhere. It was cool and they let me do my auditions.
I was still acting and trying to audition. They were cool about that. The guy that was in cahoots with Julia was a guy by the name of Harlan Goodman and he was a former music guy. He used to manage musicians. When the movie thing didn’t work out for either one of them, I started training Harlan in my buddy’s backyard in his garage. He had noticed the changes that I had made as a result of a young actor who was trying to get in shape to get acting gigs. He was complaining about his weight. I helped him to lose about 35 to 40 pounds. The leanest he had been since high school.
Back then, how were you doing that?
I was weightlifting and cardio. We would go for runs or we would hit a heavy bag. My buddy had a treadmill and a bike in his garage. He would rotate back and forth between those two. Sometimes on a nice day, we’d go for a run. We would lift weights like chest and back, shoulders and arms. It’s old school, hypertrophy, rotating those days my upper body and lower body stuff. He lost the weight and he was walking down the hallway of Easton Management on Sunset Boulevard. Tom Petty was walking down the hall in Times from Gainesville, Florida. He’s like, “Harlan, you look great. What happened to you?” He said, “I’m working out with Tony Horton.” “Give me his phone number. I want to call him up.”
Tom Petty calls me up and my roommate picks up the phone. He says, “Tony, somebody’s pretending to be Tom Petty.” I said, “Hang up the phone.” Bob hung up on Tom Petty and then Tom calls back. “I think we got disconnected.” Bob Looks at me. He goes, “This sounds a lot like the real Tom Petty.” I pick it up, “I’m Tom Petty. I was talking to Harlan Goodman and he looks fantastic and I’m fat. Nobody likes a fat rocker. Can you come to my house and make me not fat anymore?” I went to his house the next day of the following Monday and there he was up the long driveway with a gate. He lived in Woodland Hills at the time and all his Golden Platinum Records on the wall. I met him, he put out a cigarette and we started working out. I had him for four months and I got him in the best shape of his life.
How old was he at the time?
This was the early ‘90s. He was in his 40s. It’s right shortly after he first met Ringo Starr and Wilburys and all that then. It was all happening when I was training him.
Was Tom a good client?
He’s awesome. He did everything I said. I was there from Monday through Friday. I was there every day except for the weekends. We would do the bench press and the push-ups. We didn’t do pull-ups back then. We had a lat pull machine and he would play with that. We hit the heavy bag. I wanted him to hit that heavy bag and learn that hand-eye coordination stuff. He loved it and he got good at it too. We’d get him on the bike to get him warmed up and get his heart, lungs and legs going. We’d get off and we hit the bag and then we do weights. We do different workouts depending on the day, much like the same type of sequence that you saw in the early Power 90 and P90X videos, but without the equipment.
Suddenly, you’re a celebrity trainer. To be a celebrity trainer, all you need is one celebrity.
You need the one and you’re a celebrity trainer and then Billy Idol called, “Right mate, bloody hell, fantastic. What did you do to Petty? He looks fantastic. Can you go to my house because I want to get buff,” and then he would throw a couple of F-bombs around?”
Billy Idol has always seemed like a fit guy.
He was a pretty wiry thin guy like anybody. If your behavior isn’t spot on, you’re going to start to grow a little belly on you and get a little pudgy. I got him to the point where he was muscular and he was built like me. Now, he’s a Pilates-only his only guy. I saw him at a show a few years ago. He pulled me up on stage and we sang Rebel Yell together. That was freakish. We didn’t sing the whole song together, but he pulled me up.
Are you a singer? Can you sing?
No, I can’t sing at all. I need some lessons, but I think in my next life I’m going to be a blues singer for sure.
Now, you’re training a bunch of people. Some are more successful than others.
Billy Idol, Tom Petty, Annie Lennox, Bruce Springsteen and Sean Connery. I had The Boss, Bruce.
He’s a big workout guy. I remember he got really fit.
Way back in the day before everybody else was doing it, they all thought he was crazy but he’s stayed fit. If you look at the shows that he does, that stamina that he has, it’s purely as a result of his willingness to stay as fit as he can stay.
This has become a thing with these older rock and roll people. Madonna and the Stones, they trained for these tours. You must if you’re going to be in your 50s or 60s.Thinking outside the box and finding what is appealing can lure your target audience. Click To Tweet
Sting still is a big fitness guy. The ones that have these careers and they want to keep going, they take care of themselves.
Now you’re a celebrity trainer doing all this work. How do you become the Tony Horton that everybody knows from P90X? That’s where you made a big splash.
It goes back to the personal development stuff. One of the books I was reading, there was a lesson at the end of every chapter. The particular lesson at the end of this chapter was, “Go out your way and do something nice, a real favor, something extraordinary for somebody that you don’t like or somebody that you’re in conflict with like somebody you spend button heads with.” As Tony Robbins would say, “Change the paradigm at that moment and forget that you’re having this argument or you’re having this issue with somebody and do something wonderful for them.” I thought, “I don’t like doing anything for anybody, even people I like, so this is going to suck.”
I used to play with this basketball league on Saturdays with all these lawyers. It was a lawyers’ league. I don’t know what I was doing there. I knew one of the lawyers. There’s this one guy who was big gruff CEO of this company, a really smart guy. We were always getting after each other and we didn’t like each other, I thought. In between games, he was complaining about his weight and I thought to myself, “I don’t like this guy. I think I’ll try to offer some workouts to this guy.” I went, “Ben, do you want some workout?” I figured he’d say no. I’d just get that list out of the way, check that box and go on.
He said, “Yeah, don’t you train all these celebrities?” I was amazed that he even knew my name, never mind that I trained celebrities. I said, “Yeah.” He says, “I could use your help.” He called me up and I started training him on Monday, Wednesday, Fridays at my apartment in Santa Monica. About a year later, he was about to hire this young kid. His name was Carl Daikeler out of Philadelphia. He was a go-getter, funny, animated and ambitious. Ben taught him and I would get along because we had very similar personalities and we did. Carl came over and he was a blast. He was a great funny guy. He’s now the CEO of a $1.4 billion company called Beachbody.
He came to me and he saw my style, he saw my humor and he said, “Let’s get outside of the box and let’s do this little project called Great Body Guaranteed or Great Abs Guaranteed.” We did it and it worked and it made money. That’s rare in the infomercial industry. He said, “What’s the next thing?” Investors came along and said, “What are you going to do next?” Carl came to me and said, “What did you do with Petty and Springsteen and all these people? What’s your routine? How did you get them in great shape? How did you get Petty in shape?” I said, “It was five to six days a week, cardio resistance.” He said, “Can you do it without all the stuff, without the heavy bag, the bike, the treadmill and all the extra stuff.” I said, “I’ll figure it out.” We use bands, we use dumbbells, we’ll have a pull-up bar, whatever it takes.
There’s so much you can do with your body.
Your number one piece of equipment is your body. We’re going to do it and we’re going to get out there and do plyometrics. We’re going to use you, me and the yard. That’s what I did with Tom and he said, “How long do you think?” I said, “Realistically, it’s got to be three months.” The first month is an adaptive phase where most people feel like, “If I’m not in shape on day 30, I quit.” We want to get them past day 30. We want to get them up to day 60 where they begin to see some transformation, then we want to fine-tune between day 60 and day 90. That’s usually how long it takes. For men, if you’ve got to lose fifteen pounds and you’re a former lacrosse player, it’s going to happen quicker for you.
If you’re a mom of four kids and you’re in your 40s, it’s probably going to take you 120 days. It depends. Let’s look at the long game here. Let’s go from first grade to grad school. We’re going to give you 90 days to do it. That’s what we did. Some people got there quicker and some took a little bit longer. Some people needed three rounds. Jeremy Yost lost 180 pounds. He didn’t do that in 90 days. He did it after three rounds, but three rounds, nine months, 180 pounds, that’s a freak show. He also lost the desire to eat crap and drink booze. He got off the hooch and he started eating better. That had a lot to do with it as well.
When you’re pushing yourself with these workouts, you don’t want to be eating a big slab of cake because you know how bad that is for you and how it’s going to come to get you the next day.
It’s going to get you now. Not everybody learns that lesson. I can’t tell you how many people I’ve met who are fitter, stronger, and more flexible, but they weigh more because they didn’t want to change their diet.
You arrive at this concept that comes out as P90X. You film these workouts and there are lots of workouts.
It’s twelve plus ab repair, so there are thirteen.
You have a particular style that seems different than the typical fitness guru who has a VHS tape thing. I think that’s fair to say. You’re a lot more irreverent. You’re a cheeky guy.
I say things that come to my head. There’s a very little filter. A lot of times we had to cut tape because this stuff was too much. I’m doing Hitler jokes, me and Mel Brooks. He got away with it and I didn’t. You never had to pump me up. You always had to tone me down, but they gave me the freedom to do that. That was not my original intention. I had a conversation with Carl and he said, “I want you to have fun. Get out there. I want this thing to be serious, but if you get too out of control, we’ll shut it down and we’ll do another take. I want you to be able to feel like you’re training your friends or me or whatever it is. You want to keep the profanity out of it.” I said, “This is going to be fun,” because it wasn’t even like it was work. We hired my friends and we hired the people that were in the test group, people that I spent over three months with.
You developed this stuff with people doing these workouts and scripting these things.
No, it wasn’t scripted, but the sequences of the exercises had to be a certain way. If you look at whether chest and back, it’s going to be push, pull, push, pull. A lot of people give me credit for sequencing exercises in such a way so that you get the most out of the movement and you don’t get hurt in the process. Some people are hammering their knees and back over and over again, four or five days a week and you think, “What percentage of people are going to survive this?” I love CrossFit. There’s a CrossFit group in Jackson Hole that I go to when I can. It’s an awesome workout. It’s nasty. We’re getting the snot beat out of each other but the coach is cool and he explains things very clearly. He lets you know what you need to do so that you get the most out of the session without getting hurt.
A lot of people aren’t doing that. I was all about queuing. Queuing is everything as a trainer. How are you going to communicate a particular movement so that people, no matter what spectrum they are on as far as intelligence, are going to be able to absorb that information? They can go, “Left foot in front of the right, keep my chest and head up, make sure I’m breathing in the process, decrease the range of motion as I get tired, hit the pause button?” These are the things that came naturally to me because I want people to get results not to get hurt.
You seemed like a grassroots fitness guy. You went to all these different gyms. You were trying lots of stuff out, then you get these training things dropped on you, so to speak. Did you have any training? Were you reading books?
Not yet. It was all spying on other people and reading up on stuff. There’s no internet yet. I’m going to the library and the bookstore getting bodybuilding magazines and getting how to track athletes, train. I do my own personal research and a lot of it was talking to people. It was like the personal development stuff that I was doing. I’m gathering all this information but a lot of times I would think, “It doesn’t work for me. It doesn’t resonate for me. I don’t think Tom Petty or Bruce Springsteen are going to like that, so I’m not going to do that.” A lot of it is reading. As a comic and as a performer, it’s about knowing your audience.
Bruce is an audience, Billy idol is an audience, Annie Lennox is an audience and Sean Connery is an audience. What is it that they need? Do they need stamina? Do they need strength? Is it more of an ego-based aesthetic shift that they’re looking for? Does this client need more cardio? Does this one need more weight? Does this one, because they’re so inflexible, they need more yoga or stretching stuff? It was reading and that was easy for me because I was a member of a yoga studio. I was a member of three different other gyms. I’m getting different information that way on top of the reading and then the certification came later.
I’ve always had this pet theory about successful people in entertainment, science, business, the arts that I’ve always thought that these people are supercharged. They have a higher than normal level of constitution and they’re robust, as an idea. The reason is that the average level of the constitution, I wouldn’t call it fitness, but like having a motor. I think that when you have these really successful people in the world, they tend to have a motor. They don’t get sick as much. They can work long hours and because part of success is putting in the time, spending the hours in the studio, spending long hours working in your laboratory, pulling all-nighters as a startup founder and so on. I’m curious, even though these people that you were training weren’t fitness people, did you notice that they have that little special motor in terms of ability to work?
Sean Connery, Bruce Springsteen, Billy Idol, all of them were willing, at least from my point of view, to reinvent the wheel. They weren’t trying to be like anybody else. I always felt like when I’m hanging out with Tom that he loved being unique. He stole a little from Elvis, the Beatles and Rockabilly. He was stealing or whatever you want to call it. There were certain things that resonated with him that he liked that he incorporated in his music. Shirley MacLaine was one of the most interesting people I’ve ever met in my life. She had such confidence, such spark and such an opinion about things. She was an interesting lady to hang out with, but all of them did.
I look at my own case. I didn’t like the way things work because they didn’t work. They were boring and repetitive. They weren’t fun at all and exercise is hard enough. I said and this was for me like, “I don’t want to do yoga, I want to lift weights. I don’t want to lift weights, I want to go to the track. I don’t want to go to the track, I want to do some cardio.” Everybody’s on the same machine for 45 to 50 minutes. “What if I bounce around from one to the next?” I don’t see anybody else doing that, but I’m going to do it because I want to.
I remember when I was training Stephen Stills, we had six machines in a half-circle in front of a big-screen TV. We would go back and forth three minutes each because that’s all he wanted to do. I would think, “That’s pretty smart, Stephen. I think I’ll do that for myself.” It’s years and years of trial and error and being creative and being curious. It’s about curiosity. All those people, one thing they have in common is they’re curious to think outside of the box. They reinvent the wheel for themselves and see if other people find what they’re doing is appealing.
You were reinventing a lot of stuff with P90X. It was tremendously successful and selling millions of copies. You also mentioned to me that it was, at the time, the most pirated.
The single most pirated disc in the history of mankind. I’m not even exaggerating that, more than Gone With the Wind or Terminator 2.
What makes P90X successful while it works?
If you do it right and you’ll change dramatically.
You’ll transform your body and it’s fun. One of the things is that the look and feel of watching it is appealing. You’ve told me in a separate conversation that you mic your fellow trainers.
The cast members, everybody had mics on. We’re having a conversation. Here we are warming up. We’re doing this shoulder warm-up thing and we’re trying to entertain each other, the test group before we even shot these things. It was like we were stirring a big pot of soup, “What’s your soup?” Everybody says something different. You’re commenting based on the dialogue that’s going on back and forth. I was entertaining partly as a result of the people I was with and the fun stuff that they were doing too.
The P90X puts you on the map. You have all these follow-up programs you do. I’m sitting in front of you. You’re super fit. You’ve been super fit your whole adult life, but in the not so distant past, you got sick. You had shingles.
I had chickenpox. As a kid, you get chickenpox, that virus is in your body forever and it’s activated for any number of reasons. Stress is probably the number one reason why people get shingles. I never thought I would. I never even thought I was under that much stress. It got into my ear, which is not a good place to get it because there are a lot of nerves in there that are attached to your brain. Those nerves get fried and that affects your balance, which makes you super nauseous. Your balance is crap. You’re nauseous and vomiting all the time. You have no appetite and I’ve felt as sick as I’ve ever felt. I felt like if I died it would be better at times. I would crawl up in a ball and weep in my wife’s lap. It was that miserable. Think about the worst flu underwater or on top of Mount Everest and it’s constant. It’s like having your arm cut off and it’s constant like nobody fixes it. I can’t describe it. The level of misery was twelve. I can’t do anything. All I do is sleep all day. I can’t drive. I can’t earn any money and I’m wasting away.
How did you treat this?
I had meds. I had pain medication, nausea medication and medication for the virus. I had all kinds of tinctures and going to the acupuncturist. I went to the otorhinolaryngologist, the ear, nose and throat people. They were always testing me. I was like a 90-year-old man. I was really sick.
There was a picture of you in a wheelchair. How long did that last?It doesn't matter if you are the best speaker in the world if you have no way of allowing people to learn that about you. Click To Tweet
It was a horrible couple of months and then it very slowly got better a week at a time and then it would backtrack and get a little bit better. The end result is something called bilateral vestibular hypofunction, which is not vertigo. It’s not going around in circles. It’s more shaking. I still have it and I’ll probably have it for the rest of my life or maybe I won’t. I was telling my wife, “I have one of those days where I felt strong. I had a lot of personal best on exercises that I’ve been struggling with. I felt phenomenal. My balance was spot on. It almost felt normal for most of the day. Not 100% normal, but it almost did. I remember stopping in the hallway upstairs and giving thanks for feeling normal for a whole day, then now it was not as good.
We were talking about how this foundational element of good health is to all the things that we want to accomplish in the world, whether it be to become a great scientist, a great artist, a good father or whatever that might be.
Because you sleep better, your brain works better, your memory is better, your cognition is better and your sex life is better. You have endorphins, dopamine, serotonin and brain-derived neurotrophic factor inside your temporal lobe. You get this from breathing heavy. You’re going to start out. You’re going to be miserable for about 95% of it, but when you’re done, you’re going to feel like Gandhi came down and tapped you on the shoulder. You’re going to be miserable again on Wednesday because you won’t be able to sit down on the toilet without screaming. It’s the ebb and flow of earning it, using a source within yourself to get after it as opposed to using illicit, illegal and improper sources outside of yourself to give you temporary fixes so you can feel better. You still get the same dopamine dump, but then your brain doesn’t work and then you become an alcoholic, fat or something. One thing about exercise and a decent diet is it’s a gift that improves the present and your future. It gives you a whole new outlook and it allows you to think clearly, be more constructive and be more productive.
For a lot of people, they’re going to see doctors to deal with these things and yet they need to be working out and eating better. What’s interesting is, as demonstrated by your shingle story, there are times where Western medicine matters. We over-prescribed Western medicine for the average person when a lifestyle change would help them. For someone who has a healthy lifestyle, occasionally something comes along and you need penicillin or something else, radiation therapy or whatever that might be.
It’s a mixture of both. If I had dealt with the stress better, I probably would have never gotten this. I was super stressed out.
I’m working very hard to improve my professional speaking. It’s one of my things. My professional speaking for a long time was limping along and I didn’t have a great talk. While I’m a good teacher, I wasn’t an outstanding speaker. What I realized was I either had to stop doing it or I needed to put in a 10x effort to become good at it. Every time that I’ve ever done anything in life that was worthwhile and important, it took 10x effort. A lot of these things were academic, but sometimes they were athletic and so on. I made a commitment that I was going to do that. I’m on that path right now and I now have a total killer talk. I’m getting good at giving it, but yet I still have ways to go. What advice or tips do you have either for me or for someone who’s contemplating a life as a professional speaker on the side or full–time or whatnot?
There are many people like us now that are out there giving advice to small groups and big groups. Number one, you’ve got to figure out the best way for you so that you become known for that. People know me for public speaking. They hire me partly because I was a C-minus celebrity, that helps. People were asking me before I was even a public speaker to be a public speaker, “Could you come and speak?” “I don’t know what to speak about.” I had written the book, The Big Picture, so that’s material there. For me, that’s one. I’m already well–known. Whatever that is, whatever media blitz, whatever PR people you’ve got to be involved with, whatever social media people you have to have in your life. What’s your budget to get those people in your life so more people find out about what you do? That’s it because you can be the best speaker in the world and have the most unique material in the world. If nobody knows you do that and you have no way of allowing people to learn that, then you’re going to be stuck all alone being a great speaker in your house. Number two is what is your angle/personas/delivery technique? What types of rhetoric do you use? For me, it’s super–animated and a lot of humor. It’s irreverent animated humor. I get up there and pop on stage.
I’m curious about how you dress for your talks.
I wear a nice pair of slacks, super comfortable, good–looking shoes and a polo shirt.
You’re showing off the guns.
You’re looking at biceps down. It’s not a long sleeve shirt. It’s because I move on stage. I did cartwheels, handstands and yoga. I want to make sure that the clothes I’m wearing allow me to feel physically able to do what I want to do. The other thing too is does your talk have information that’s hard to find, that has a huge impact on the people that you’re talking to? That’s everything like, “Peter’s seven laws on how you can have the most awesome life that you never thought you could have.” People love lists of threes, list of fives, lists of sevens, lists of tens, and a PowerPoint that people look up and go, “Whoa.” I get up on stage a lot of times nothing. It’s just me and my picture behind me and I can riff for an hour.
As a public speaker, look into Brendon Burchard’s stuff. Go study Brendon Burchard. Go take one of his masterclasses. He is the man. He is the Tony Robbins of the 21st century. He is known. That guy is a machine and his techniques are different than mine. He’s got some very rote-specific things that he likes to do. He’ll say to me because I’ve been on stage with him. He’s asked me to come and speak at his events. He’d say, “What do you do? Do you pat yourself on the back? Do you count 100 backward in Chinese? What do you do?” I go, “I don’t know. I sit there and wait until they call my name.” I don’t do any extra crap. I could turn it on and turn it off because, for me, it’s readily available.
You said to be able to cut through the clutter, be notable in some way, have your angle, your style, your thing and then have some unique content.
Very unique and something that stands out that people are like, “Whoa.” I remember reading Don Miguel Ruiz’s The Four Agreements. It’s stuff that we already know, but it was the way he packaged it.
When you hear it, it seems self-evident.
It’s like, “These are the four simple things,” and people can remember four simple things. You want to make sure that people have massive takeaways. When you talk about personal development and public speaking, what is the takeaway? I’m walking into the room not knowing what you’re about to tell me, but when I walk out, I go, “I cannot proceed with the rest of my life until I start applying this stuff.” It’s got to feel that powerful, that fresh and that new. It’s all repackaged. Tony Robbins’ stuff was unique, but it’s some repackaged of who knows what old stuff that he was reading back in the day, Andrew Weil stuff or Dale Carnegie.
I want to finish with one last question. Tony, what are you reading, watching or listening to that’s really good? Not run–of–the–mill good but outstanding.
I’ll tell you what I’m watching, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.
This has come up a number of times. What is it about that show that is so good for you?
It takes place in an era where I was a kid. I was born in ‘58. It takes place in ‘57, ‘58, ‘59. It’s two seasons in. The production value is insane. The acting is insane. It’s a movie, a musical and a play, all three every week. I’m re-reading Dan Millman’s The Warrior Athlete. This book is ‘74, ‘75. It’s an old book and it’s antiquated in a lot of the stuff that he does. It’s outdated but there are some nuggets in there that I love. They’re terrific. I’m also a news junkie and I’m fascinated with what’s going on in politics. I had a presidential candidate here at the house helping raise some money for that person. I’m interested in making sure this country moves in the right direction. I think we’re stuck a little bit in a lot of ways. We’re divided and we shouldn’t be because we’re all Americans. If aliens came in from outer space, it wouldn’t matter what side of the aisle we’re on, we’d all fight those aliens.
Is your political involvement new?
No, I’ve been a political wonkish since I was in my teens. I’m not involved. I always donated to candidates, but to have one here at your home and doing that at that level.
I only ask this because I interviewed Matt Walsh of UCB. You know him, he’s in Veep. He was talking about how he’s gotten involved and started supporting candidates and so on. Regardless of how you feel about what’s going on, one of the good things that are happening is people are getting involved. People were asleep at the wheel for a long time. Regardless of what you think and maybe the near future seems a little bleak, but in the long run, this is good for the country in terms of having young people and not so young people getting involved in politics is a good thing.
A lot of people think that our government has no impact on us whatsoever. Other ones feel like it’s got way too much impact on us, but to sit around and talk about it doesn’t do much. If you get involved, then we all have a say. It doesn’t have to be national. It can be local stuff. There are a lot of things locally that you don’t like. When it comes to our general health or the quality of our food or whether we have plastic bags. It gives people a purpose. It unites us and it helps our whole society. I always tell folks, work on yourself first and then finally get your act together. Help the people around you, your community, your country and then your planet.
That also ultimately says you had one life because it wasn’t about you the whole time. You’re trying to figure out how to get your act together while everybody else around you suffered. Figure that out because it isn’t that hard. Exercise and eat right, meditate and sleep, get a job that you like and then stack a few dollars in the bank so that you can begin to focus on other people. That makes for a phenomenal life. I don’t know how many good people are going to be here, maybe ten or twelve. We’ve had as many as 25. I don’t think we’ll have that many, but I do this voluntarily. Nobody pays. They all drive to my house and we crank up some music from the ‘70s and ‘80s and we jump around and everybody feels better afterward. That’s how I give back beyond selling five to six million copies of stuff I’ve made.
Tony, you can very easily point to have changed people’s lives. I appreciate you taking the time for this show. Thank you for that and thank you for the pain you’re about to put me through.
Thank you for participating in this level of pain. Do your best, forget the rest and you’ll be okay.
- Bring It!
- Crush It!
- The Big Picture
- The Four Agreements
- The Seat of the Soul
- Way of the Peaceful Warrior
- The Warrior Athlete
- Paragon Camp
- Matt Walsh – previous episode
About Tony Horton
Tony Horton is the creator of P90X, the famous fitness series, and an array of follow-up workout programs. He is a professional speaker and the author of several books, including Bring It, Crush It, and The Big Picture.
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