Tony Horton, is an American personal trainer, author, and former actor. He is best known as the creator of the commercial home exercise regimen P90X.
Tony Horton was was raised in Connecticut and was a self-described “98-pound weakling” with a speech impediment. By the time he was 10 years old, his family had moved more than five times. Tony became interested in fitness when he took a weightlifting class while attending the University of Rhode Island and moved to Southern California after graduation where he worked in various jobs, including as a stand-up comedian and gofer for 20th Century Fox where he learned how to act.
He trained an executive at 20th Century Fox, working out of his garage and charging $20 per lesson. His clientele grew, eventually including Tom Petty, Billy Idol and Annie Lennox.
Later, he combined his both strengths: Personal Training and Acting. He appeared in the Thighmaster infomercial and starred in a number of exercise videos including Power 90. He later created a sequel, P90X—or Power 90 Extreme—which was his breakout hit. He went on to create variations of P90X, such as P90X2 and P90X3.
Tony, Thank you very much for the interview. It’s so great speaking to you, so let’s start: can you describe your passion?
My passion is to help other people find theirs. I would say in a nutshell that’s pretty much it, and I use fitness and food as a means to get there. If you can make better choices when it comes to your diet and find a routine that you can do 5 to 7 days a week without getting injured, then you’re going to change your outlook about your life. I honestly believe that that is the foundation to true success and happiness, because a body that does not exercise and a body that is consuming processed foods and fatty foods and sugary foods and foods filled with chemicals is a body that is negatively affecting the brain’s ability to be able to help solve simple questions, simple problems in your life.
If you follow my routine, I’ve written a book called The Big Picture: 11 Laws That Will Change Your Life, and it’s not an exercise and diet book as much as it is a book to help you make better decisions. It’s all about choices, and some choices are difficult. Typically the difficult choices are the ones that are going to improve your life, and the easy and simple choices and decisions you make fade off and don’t have a whole lot of impact on what you want to be, and where you want to go, and what you want to do. There’s the person that you are and the person that you want to be, and I think everybody has that to some degree. As you move through life and are willing to take some risks and confront your fears and make difficult choices, then your life is filled with more adventure, more success, more happiness, more love, better financial situation.
That’s what I do, and I do it with what I feel is really a foundation, which is a better diet and regular exercise. Then it opens you up to other opportunities because you’re not in just survival mode anymore, you’re in thrive mode. A good diet and regular exercise automatically puts you in thrive mode because it changes your brain chemistry. It changes the way you also look at the world. Instead of short-term fixes, like drugs and alcohol and garbage food and just being lazy, when you make a more difficult choice, even if it’s a 10-minute workout and eating healthier breakfast to start, then you’re opening some more windows. That’s basically what my passion is, is getting to help people understand that, believe in that, and do that.
It’s also a lot about creating a mindset that [people] basically make better decisions that are then also sustainable and not only exercise. It’s a whole package, right?
Correct, it is a whole package. Things need to be consistent. I think there are too many people who are starting and stopping and then restarting again and stopping again, and so they go through this health and wellness bipolar disorder situation, and that’s very frustrating. It’s really about being consistent. If you’re going to stop eating a particular kind of food because you know it’s bad for you, then you’re going to have a much greater advantage over others if you’re just eliminating that food permanently. Some people can do things in moderation, others just need to cut things out completely, and you have to understand which one of those two things you are.
For me personally, for example, I’ve tried to cut out most of the sugar and the processed carbs that I can. Before, I was eating them in moderation and it just was not working for me. I don’t have chocolate chip cookies and pie and cupcakes anymore. When I would have them occasionally, thinking it was okay, but that sugar cult creates inflammation, and that inflammation feeds cancer cells and all those negative things that go with it. Took me about a month to be able to just cut it all out. It was a very difficult process. I said to myself, “Man, this is what people must feel like when they’re trying to get off of drugs or alcohol.” I had withdrawals, I had weird skin, I had real mood swings, I had difficult sleeping.
Now I’m coming out the other side. I think that happens to anybody when there’s a little bit of deprivation that goes on when you do a diet. I haven’t drank in 20 years, I haven’t smoked a cigarette ever, I never drank coffee. A lot of people would think that’s pretty extreme, that life’s too short and get to enjoy those types of things, but I want to perform on the highest level, and so if you’re going to perform at the highest level you have to eliminate certain things. I find that salmon tastes very good, and chicken and broccoli and asparagus and fruit. I can live on that very fine and quite a bit I don’t feel deprived. This is my path at this time. I don’t think everybody else is going to do that, but it certainly helps me.
Okay. Understood. What motivates you to get up every day or to stay that consistent? What is your motivation? Why are you doing it?
I don’t want to age in a traditional way. I saw what happened to my parents. Both my parents have passed away. My mom died at 76 and then my father died at 80, and they just couldn’t physically do things anymore. They had all those aches and pains, and they were surviving based on what their pharmacist was providing them. I just don’t want that big tray of pills to keep me going. I don’t need to do that. I’m 57. I just turned 57. My goal is to feel as good as I did when I was 27, and oddly enough, based on my behavior I do. I certainly look older. There’s nothing I can do about that. I could. I could go to the plastic surgeon, but I’m not there yet. On the inside, I go to a track workout and run with these kids, and … To finish up, regular exercise and a good diet is the fountain of youth. If you think you’re going to find it in a pill or potion or something. It’s not going to happen. I try to look for sources inside of myself. My work ethic, my discipline, my diet, as a means to stay as young and as active as I can as opposed to trying to find sources outside of myself via my pharmacist or some weight loss diet or something else. It’s rare. It’s rare that people can do that, but the few of us that have made those choices ultimately have a much greater sense of adventure and energy and enthusiasm for life than people who are just surviving.
To look a little bit into your life, how does your weekly, daily routine look like? Where do you live and how does your lifestyle look like?
I live in Los Angeles. I live on the west side, in Santa Monica. The air is much cleaner over here. The temperatures aren’t as drastic. I picked this area because I’m near the beach. There’s a lot of places to run and to exercise, and I have a gym in my backyard. I have a separate building that’s a gym, and I’ve constructed that gym the way I want it. I’ve got three different kinds of pull-up bars, I’ve got plyometric boxes, I have BOSU balls, and I have dumbbells from 3 to 90 pounds, a little lat pull machine. I’ve got a stationary bike, a treadmill, a VersaClimber, a ski machine, a rowing machine, and area to jump rope. I’ve given myself enough space and equipment and variety so that I don’t get bored, injured, or plateau when it comes to my fitness.
My average week is Monday nights, which was last night, was an hour-long plyometric routine, and I do that with anywhere from 3 to 15 people. We had a full house last night. Tuesday morning, this morning, I did shoulders and arms. A lot of handstands, a lot of dips, bicep curls. I use stability balls, a lot of people call them Swiss balls, for balance and core and proprioceptive fitness. I try to do the kinds of exercises that require as much full body muscle recruitment as possible. I don’t do a lot of stagnant stuff where I’m just sitting and working. People sit down and do one-arm bicep curls, and I just think that’s silly. I’m doing exercises that require a lot of skill and balance to execute them now.
Then Wednesdays are typically a day where I’ll get on the treadmill and the bike and the VersaClimber and jump rope and get on my ski machine and my rowing machine, and I’ll just cycle, 3 to 5 minute cycles. That way I don’t get bored. I couldn’t get on a treadmill for 45 minutes if you paid me. When I get on each of those machines separately, 3 to 5 minutes, it just keeps me more interested. There’s more muscle recruitment, heart rate still stays up, but I’m training a lot of things as opposed to one thing.
Thursday is chest and back. A lot of pull-ups, a lot of push-ups. My favorite day. I like that day a lot. Then Friday is a routine called boxes and balls. I do a lot of core work on Swiss balls. I’m in plank on a Swiss ball. I do a lot of plyo boxes. On Monday it’s just using the surface of the earth to be jumping, but on Friday I’m actually jumping on boxes, anywhere from a 1-foot box to a 3-foot box, laterally. Then Saturday’s yoga. It’s always yoga. I usually either do it in the morning or do it in the afternoon depending on the schedule that day.
Then on Sunday I go to the track at UCLA and I run 100, 200, 400, sometimes 800, and I just run for two hours. Do a lot of prep and warm-up for that because your body needs to. If I don’t do that on Sundays, I’ll go in my backyard and I do sort of an adult gymnastics routine. I do a lot of handstands, push-ups, and we have a peg board. We have a high bar. We do muscle reps and pullovers. I have a 16-foot rope, and we’ll climb the rope upside down, legs out in an L. We do flips sometimes, sort of a two and a half hour extravaganza. That’s my routine.
I always make sure I have plenty of healthy food in the house, a lot of real, natural whole foods, organic foods. No processed foods, no dessert. A lot of vegetables, a lot of salad. Some meals are vegan, some are paleo, some are Mexican, some are Italian, some are French or Indian. Some are sushi. I just make sure that I look down at my place, I see food I recognize and that I can pronounce. That’s my routine, typically, in a week.
How did you get started? How did you decide on doing personal training, and what led to [your life] that you just described?
Pure accident. Never my intention. I was a terrible athlete. I had no endurance, no strength, very limited hand-eye coordination, but I moved from the east coast of the United States to California, and the lifestyle here really drew me in. Everybody was playing volleyball and softball and basketball, and there were gyms on every corner. There were aerobic gyms and bodybuilding gyms, and they were all very social. I was new. I didn’t have a whole lot of friends. The club scene was one way to do it, but I really enjoyed meeting people that were exercising.
I just got very lucky. I ended up surrounding myself with some pretty interesting people, and after a couple years I was a member of four different gyms. If one was aerobic classes, I would go to that gym. If I wanted to hang out with my bodybuilding buddies, I would go to that one. If I just wanted to go to a general all-around club, I would go to the third one. I had four different circles of friends that were members of all these different gyms, and so I was exposing myself to as much as possible.
It was a slow process. I didn’t really do much with the food right away. I wasn’t really conscious of how to eat and what to eat. I just ate burgers and pizza and hot dogs. Go to McDonald’s for a Egg McMuffin in the morning, and I’d have my 6-pack of beer on the weekends. I was doing two contrary things. I was exercising but not taking care of myself nutritionally. That changed after a while. I cut out the booze after a while, and I cut out a lot of the junk. Now I’m super strict.
That’s how things started. Now, I was not a trainer. I was just going to the gym, and then I just started training my boss. I was working at 20th Century Fox and my boss was a movie producer, and he noticed the change in me and he said, “Hey, you’re looking great,” so I started training him in my buddy’s garage. I didn’t have the ability to train somebody in a gym because the gyms wouldn’t like private trainers to come from the outside and train their friends, so I was in my buddy’s garage. He had some basic stuff.
Once that movie producer introduced me to Tom Petty, the rock and roller Tom Petty, and I got Tom ready for this tour and he looked great. No one had ever seen Tom look so good and be so healthy, and then my phone rang off the hook and all of a sudden I was training Tom Petty and Billy Idol and Stephen Stills from Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young, Annie Lennox from the Eurythmics, Sean Connery, Shirley McClain, Ewan McGregor. Then I had this celebrity client list, but at the same time I was also trying to be an actor. Not very successful, but I was trying. I was learning how to read a teleprompter, and I was learning how to audition, and I was learning how to do an act, the acting. I was learning how to be very comfortable in front of a camera or on stage, doing a play or something.
At one point when I was acting to do a commercial for a fitness product in Minneapolis, I was able to do both. I was able to be entertaining and also just get up and talk about the fitness equipment as an authority. That was unique. Then before you knew it I was working for Beachbody, and one product turned into another, and P90X became the biggest selling fitness program in history. I would have never thought that that would have happened, but it did, and here I am today, 17 years later. I’m still with Beachbody, developing more programs and in the middle of developing another one now.
I’m actually subscribed for the Beachbody On Demand that’s very interesting. How do you think personal training and fitness, fitness training, will look like in 10, 20, 50 years from now? How do you think that will change?
I don’t know. I think there’ll still be one-on-one trainers. I think people will still want that. I think certainly having to call an 800 number to order DVDs to stick in a machine and to play, that’s going away very quickly. Everything will be On Demand. Everybody’s TV’s going to turn into the computer and then a lot of people already have that sort of situation now. Television will be a place where you just download things and watch it instantly. That’s going to be popular.
I think gyms will still be popular because it’s such a social thing, but we have revolutionized in-home training. More and more people are exercising in front of their television or their phone or their laptop or their tablet than ever, and I think that will continue to grow because it’s portable and it’s convenient and it’s instant. People will still want person trainers, and people will still want gym memberships. I don’t think that will go away. The group fitness is still popular. People still want to do that. I think a lot of the traditional things will still be around, but there will be new, more interesting and exciting ways. We’ll be working out to holographs of ourselves then, too. I think that’s probably coming.
What are your other plans? What are your plans now for the future and where you want to focus on and participating in what the future will bring?
I’m a big believer in self-development, so I think I’ll be certainly. I’m already moving in that direction. I do about a dozen seminars around the world with people that are based in food and fitness but ultimately on understanding how those two things are the foundation to becoming the human being that you want to be, being a more altruistic human being, being a happier human being, being a more productive human being. Being more adventurous as well and confronting fears. I think so many people aren’t as far along as they need to be because they’re struggling too much, just playing with finding a workout program and a diet plan that works for them. Helping people lock those two things in so they begin to expand their life and their experiences, that’s what I want to do.
I’m building a course now to help trainers basically do what I do. Getting their electronic press kits in order, getting their YouTube channels up online, getting a website that’s fun and interactive. A lot of trainers don’t have those things in place. Helping people teach their client to modify, teaching trainers how to cue better, how to help people. Quite often I’ll take a class, and I’ll be in a class with somebody who’s supposed to be great, and they’re telling me to do something but they’re not telling me how to do it. They’re just saying to do it. He’ll tell me, “You need to straighten your leg more.” Well, that’s nice. I’m wrapped up in a ball here and you want me to do something that’s physically impossible for me. What is another version of that, and teaching trainers how to be better trainers. Teaching coaches and mentors how to explain things better to their clients so their clients aren’t frustrated, they’re enthusiastic. Too many people are frustrated and quitting because their mentors, teachers, coaches, and trainers aren’t very good at explaining things better. That’s really what I enjoy doing.
I’m also going to be writing another book pretty soon. It’s a diet book. Then I’m doing other projects. Clothing lines. I’m starting my own skincare line and shampoo line that’ll be out in about a month called Tony Horton Care, or TH Care by Tony Horton. Clothing, cosmetics, and seminars to build my repertoire outside of just doing fitness programs.
It sounds like you love to train the trainer and teach others to do a better job and explain how are things done. On the other hand, you not only teach people about the food and the exercises they should do, but also about having the right mindset to make the right decisions and to sustainably change their life.
We all make decisions based on what we know. After high school or college, a lot of us start out and think that that’s all we need to know because the education process is over, so now I’m just going to apply that and try to get through life. What you know becomes antiquated pretty quickly, and so my job is to help people understand that life is a constant education. It’s always expanding, it’s always changing, it’s always new. Cars change every year, phones change every year, architecture changes every year, art changes every year, but we don’t. If we can’t figure out why we’re not as happy and successful and productive as we need to be it’s because we’re relying on old information to try to be able to survive in a new world, an ever-changing world. You’ve got to change.
I was vegan for a while, then I was vegetarian for a while, and then I was flexitarian for a while, and now I’m probably as close to paleo as I’ve ever been. Not completely, but I evolve. My techniques evolve based on the fact that I’m conscious that things aren’t working anymore. People will do the same damn routine on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday in their 50s that they were doing in high school, and they can’t figure out why their neck hurts, or their knees are jacked up, or their hips are tight. It’s because they’re getting older, still exercising hard, but doing the same things they did 25, 30 years ago. Unless you’re willing to expose yourself to yoga and Pilates and proprioceptive fitness and skill-based exercise and core and functional fitness, I don’t care how hard you train, you’re still going to screw yourself up.
That’s what I try to tell people. I say, “If you’re not evolving, you’re still aging at a rate that’s faster than you need to because you’re not willing to educate yourself.” I don’t mind a challenge. I don’t have to be perfect and great and strong in everything, especially if it’s new. That’s why if you look at my weekly workout, like today’s routine was different than any routine that I’d done before. I never do the same exercises all the time. I never do the same amount of reps every time. I never use the same weight all the time. More weight, more reps, less weight, less reps, all body, no body, all machine, no machine, five minutes on machine, three minutes on machine, ten minutes on machine, no machines at all, body weight only, yoga once a week, yoga three times a week. Indian, Mexican, Italian, paleo, flexitarian, vegan, vegetarian, raw. Eat it all, just make sure it’s healthy. That’s how I operate now.
What were the top three main “ah-ha” moments [key learnings] of your life? Maybe one is you have to educate yourself constantly. You cannot do that what you did 20 to 30 years ago. You have to evolve yourself, you have to grow, and you have to educate yourself and change all the time. Change and do stay healthy but change your routine and grow your routine kind of thing. That would be one big key learning.
What would be others?
I would say I struggled the most, but don’t struggle anymore, because I don’t have to worry about money so much anymore. I was constantly broke, constantly in debt, owing people money, all that. I just made sure that I figured that out. It certainly helped that I started making more money. I’m in this new career, the career started to grow, but not be stupid with my money. A lot of people, they start making money and they buy a house they can’t afford and a car they can’t afford and they start buying everybody and they’re playing the bigshot, and then they get right back where they were. They have more money, more problems. With me, I ended up with more money, less problems. That would be one.
I think the other one, too, was the more I put myself in situations where I was scared, the less scared I became. I don’t get nervous doing that much anymore. I did a back flip out of a Chinook helicopter at 13,500 feet. I was a little bit nervous, but I had had enough experience in my life where I didn’t throw up before I did it. I was on stage the other night singing, I’ve never sang ever, but I rehearsed this song so that I could get up in front of 20,000 people and sing. Turned out pretty good. There’s another fear that I confronted that makes me feel like, “All right, that’s not so bad.”
I fell in love with a girl that I’m going to marry in October, and I’d had terrible relationships one after another, but then I changed the way I looked at how to be in a relationship and it got easy. It got easy because I stopped doing the same things over and over again, I stopped going after the same kinds of women over and over again, and I found somebody that was not the opposite of me because it was interesting and attractive. I found somebody that was more like me so that we could continue to do things together and share things together and laugh together. We always go after the opposite because of whatever weird upbringing we had or whatever the heck it was. I don’t know. I would really say that I kept putting pressure on my nervous system confronting fears so that I wouldn’t keep making the same mistakes over and over and over again.
I think, three, it was just recognizing what didn’t work and having the courage to be the opposite of what I had been doing before and knowing that that would probably turn out okay. It’s scary because it’s new and it’s different. You can’t predict the outcome, but in most key areas in my life, they’ve changed dramatically, so I don’t become complacent because of it.
Along this journey of growth, what were your biggest mistakes or your biggest wastes of time and money? Maybe also, if you were to do it all over again, what would you do differently?
Hiring the wrong people. When you become a little successful, everybody comes out of the woodwork to tell you how you’re going to make the next million bucks, and what they’re doing is they’re using you as a means to lift themselves or create some notoriety for themselves or build something for themselves. I said no a lot when I was a kid because I was afraid to say yes to opportunities that might have challenged me or exposed me or whatever it was, and so I started saying yes to everything. Saying yes to everything forced me to spend a lot of money on lawyers where I didn’t need to, and I should have just stuck with what I know. I just surrounded myself with the wrong people, and then saying yes to too many things. There’s only so many hours in a day, and if an opportunity comes along, it’s got to be something you’re excited and passionate about and believe in and really want to attack. You can’t endorse everything, you can’t promote everything, you can’t help everybody, because you’re just going to get spread too thin.
Another mistake, and one I’m still learning, is just to be more patient. Things are not going to happen overnight. There’s going to be bumps in the road. It’s always been that way, but it continues to be that way. You think because you have some success it won’t happen as much, but it still happens as much or more. That can be frustrating. You have to wrap your arms around that and go, “Okay. That’s just the way it is and not much I can do about it.” Yeah.
If you hire now someone or work together with someone as a partner, what is important for you?
What’s important is making sure that they are who they say they are, and calling around, emailing, asking, looking into their resume, and really assessing them out better. Making sure that their references are 5-star and that people are honest, to just based on a good interview. People have interviewed really well, but they don’t hold out over time. I’ve been through seven assistants. All seven seemed great at the beginning, but they didn’t last very long because they couldn’t do what they promised they could do. It’s not fun to re-train people over and over again. I’m just down to my fiancé and my sister, because I like them and I trust them, and they have a lot more faith than an employee. My fiancé is my assistant and my sister runs all my public speaking events and does all my promotional things. It’s your family. People think that family’s the worst people to hire, but in my case it was the best.
Last question: What’s your advice for people that still think about following or creating their passion, following their dreams? What would you tell them?
This is so simple, and I think I learned this in a book by Keith Ellis, The Magic Lamp. It’s been a lot of years. We have jobs and we have passions, and our jobs and passions might not be the same thing. In most people’s case, it’s not. You need your job because you’ve got to pay your bills and you’ve got to feed your face and you have to pay your rent or your mortgage, right?
Let’s say your job is not the greatest thing in the world, and you have to provide for you and your family so you do it anyway. I would say that if you watch a little less TV, sit on your butt a little bit less, then find those three or four hours a week for whatever your passion is. If it’s stamp collecting or taking apart your mountain bike … I don’t know what it is. Hiking or climbing. Maybe it’s physical, maybe it’s something not, but don’t ignore it completely. Too many people are too exhausted from work to be able to spend a second on their passion, and so it goes neglected.
If you like to sing and you haven’t sang in 20 years because you’re overwhelmed and crushed by your job, then I would say, “Man, get on the phone, find out who a teacher is, and spend a couple hours a week just singing,” because who knows? Something could happen where your confidence goes up, you’re at a certain place. You want to be ready. That’s what I did. I had two careers at once. I had my job, which was training people, and I had my passion, which was acting. I was working on both at the same time, and so the acting actually helped my passion. One built upon the other.
Great example is a guy who was an accountant. He worked in an office building in a cubicle, and he was good at his job and he banked up pretty well, and it paid the bills and fed his family, but he was a bike nut, a bike enthusiast. On the weekends he’d go down to the bike shop and just hang out. He’d bring his kids down there, and he’d go on bike riding rides, and he’d buy new brakes and new tires and the latest and the greatest. The assistant manager said, “Man, you’re in here all the time. You want a part time job?” He went to his wife and she said, “Sure,” and so he worked there on Saturdays. He would work all week, because he was so excited to be able to work in this bike shop on Saturday. He was just an employee. Five years later he owned the place.
It wasn’t a one day a week job working for somebody else. It was a guy who ended up owning … He went from employee to weekend manager to full time manager to co-owning to owning. That’s how it went. Now he’s got more than one bike shop, and he’s the happiest guy in the world because he didn’t ignore his passion. If you’ve got to sing, sing. If you’ve got to dance, dance. If you love bikes, then go hang out in the bike shop and see if you can get a part time job. That’s when your spirit stays alive, and too many people’s die. I had a job running around as a production assistant, but I was still training some people on the side, I was still doing my acting thing, and the training and acting thing became one and now here I have this brand new life. That would be my advice, for sure.
Thank you, Tony. Thank you very much.