The 30 Biggest Exercise Myths
Still doing crunches? It might be time for a new routine.
Boil it down, and there are really only two reasons we exercise: to be healthier, and to look better naked (and in clothing, assuming your wardrobe fits properly). Speaking generally, more exercise, for the most part, directly translates to more of both. It’s not rocket science… Right? Well, despite what you believe, it kind of is.
[And for more ways to live your best life, check out these 100 Amazing Summer Buys Under $100!]
Between Instagram influencers, fitness bloggers, and self-styled “gurus,” there’s a veritable treasure trove of info out there—and not all of it is right. Did you know that you should always, always end your workout with cardio? Or that “spot training” is a complete and utter farce? And that’s not all! Read on, and see which high-profile exercise myths have broken into our cultural consciousness and pervaded to this day.
More cardio means more weight loss.
Sorry to burst your bubble, but spending hours on the treadmill isn’t a magic ticket for melting fat. Just look at the numbers. Per the folks at the Mayo Clinic, about 3,500 calories equals one pound of fat. So, to burn that fat, you’ll need to burn 3,500 calories. And, according to research out of the Syracuse University, you’ll burn a little more than 100 calories from a mile of running—no matter what your size or speed. In other words, to burn one pound of fat, you’ll have to run 35 miles, which is likely untenable.
To bring about serious weight loss, you’ll want to adopt and maintain a healthy diet and start taking up activities that trigger exercise post-oxygen consumption (EPOC, or “afterburn”, which means your body is burning calories after you’ve wrapped your workout up). High-intensity interval training (HIIT) will help you trigger afterburn. What’s more, HIIT is also The Single Greatest Anti-Aging Workout of All Time.
Cardio machines give out accurate readings.
Chances are, if you’re using a modern model, your treadmill or stationary bike has a small calorie-burn counter on the upper-right corner of the screen. But the machine doesn’t take into account your weight, height, or gender, all of which are factors in calorie burn. If you’re of average build, sure, the number might be in the ballpark. But still—take it with a grain of salt. And for more myths you should know, here are the 20 Worst Food Myths That Still Persist.
There’s such a thing as “lean muscle.”
You may have heard people throw around the term “lean muscle.” (As in, “I don’t want to get, like, bulky. I just want to build lean muscle.”) Let’s get one thing straight: There is no such thing as “lean muscle.” Or, put another way, all muscle is “lean muscle.” When people use this term, they’re likely talking about Lean Body Mass, which is the weight of your body minus any weight from fat. In other words, “I want to build lean muscle,” means “I want to increase my Lean Body Mass,” which itself means, “I want to burn fat and build muscle.”
You can “turn” fat into muscle.
You can burn fat and build muscle. (Sometimes even with the same routine!) But make no mistake: Fat and muscle are two different types of tissue. If you’re looking to build more of the latter, be sure to check out the 10 Best Ways to Build Muscle Fast.
Muscle can “turn” into fat.
Thankfully, the equation goes both ways. You can’t turn fat into muscle, and muscle won’t deteriorate into fat. You can lose muscle mass and gain fat, sure. But one is not turning into the other. And for more great ways to be healthy, know the 30 Worst Men’s Health Myths That Won’t Die.
You can crunch your way to abs.
Crunches, sit-ups, and other ab exercises are great for building core muscles and, if done frequently and properly enough, can tone your abs into a sheet of muscle—but only if you have a good diet in place. Before your abs will start to show, that means torching belly fat once and for all. The saying, “Abs aren’t made in the gym. They’re made in the kitchen,” rings true. Get a start by eating the 10 Healthiest Carbs That Won’t Derail Your Six-Pack.
Sit-ups are the best ab exercise.
Next time you’re at the gym, take a good look at the stretching and abs area. Chances are, you’ll see a bunch of people doing sit-ups. And while the sit-up is great at working your rectus abdominis—those are the muscles that define a six-pack—you run the risk of pulling your back or neck. So skip the sit-ups and instead try out a move called the paloff press, which shreds your abs, obliques, and hip flexors, all without the risk of any unwanted muscle injuries. Here’s exactly how to do do it.
Workouts should be an hour or longer.
According to a study in the Journal of Physiology, folks who exercised for only 20 minutes can show the same gains as folks who exercise for an hour. The catch? (Yes, of course there’s a catch.) If you want to see equal gains in shorter time frames, you have to do a HIIT routine. So if you can stand brief periods of intense exercise, feel free to start seriously slashing your workout times.
Stretching prevents injuries.
Loosen your muscles up, the thinking goes, and you’ll be nice and limber for your workout, thus minimizing the chance of any muscle tears or pulls. But, according to researchers at the CDC, stretching doesn’t prevent injury at all. Instead, to truly stay safe, you’ll want to find a way to increase blood flow to your muscles, which prepares them for impending exercise. About 10 minutes of light cardio should do the trick. And for more fascinating facts about your body, here are 20 Amazing Facts You Never Knew About Your Body.
The entire concept of “spot training.”
“Spot training” is the idea that you can burn fat cells from a specific area on your body. In other words, if you do 4,924 leg lifts, you’d incinerate fat off your lower abdomen. Or, if you do 7,210 squats, you’d do the same to your quads. (These rep counts have been exaggerated for effect.) But before you let anyone talk you into spot training, you should know that not a single reputable study has endorsed the practice. The scientific consensus is that, when you do burn fat, you burn it all over your body.
You should hit the gym every day.
Simple logic dictates that more exercise means better health, and that, if you can swing a daily visit to the gym, you should. But your body needs to rest and allow muscles to cool down. Skipping rest means that, once you get back to the grind, your muscle fibers will be too worn out to grow. For best results, take a day or two off each week. In fact, among exercise circles, there’s even a term for this: Active recovery days. (Since the word “active” is right in there, you needn’t feel bad about taking a day off.)
You start losing muscle mass after just a week of inactivity.
It may be true that, if you’ve just taken up a routine, taking time off can quickly eradicate your gains. But if you’re a regular exerciser—someone who works out several times per week and has been doing so for more than a year, which, as far as scientists are concerned, qualifies you as an “athlete”—it’ll take longer than seven days for your strength to evaporate. According to research in Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, for athletes, “strength performance in general is maintained for up to 4 weeks of inactivity.”
You get worse at cardio after just a week of inactivity.
If you’ve ever skipped a week of running, gone back to the grind, and found yourself struggling, chances are, those struggles are just in your head. Per a study of endurance cyclists in the Journal of Applied Physiology, for the first month of inactivity, these long-distance athletes didn’t see any decline in their ability to take in and circulate oxygen (or VO2max, in other words). However, at the four-week mark, their VO2max declines precipitously: Up to 20 percent, in some cases. In other words, if you want to keep your 5K time relatively the same, don’t take more than a month off.
When benching, the bar should touch your chest.
Good bench press form dictates that, at the nadir of a rep, your arms should be parallel to the floor. For many people, this means lowering the barbell until it’s directly in contact with the chest. But this form can put undue strain on your shoulders and even cause injuries down the line. Instead, when you’re benching, stop about one inch before the bar’s at your chest. You’ll get the same movement but without putting any strain on your shoulders.
Lifting will make you bulky.
Sure, when you starting undergoing a lifting routine, you’ll start to add some muscle to your frame. But it takes a lot of work—from counting macros to spending countless hours in the gym to methodically increasing your loads on schedule—to truly get bigger. So, unless you’re putting in the effort, don’t worry: You won’t be Hulking out any time soon.
Squats are bad for you.
This myth actually holds up—if you have bad form, that is. But if you have the form down pat, this compound exercise is one of the best moves for building strength and muscle tone through your lower back and quads. To be sure you have good squat form no matter how much you’re lifting, start small and work your way slowly up to greater weights: Whenever you feel like you need to increase the load, only do so by 5 pounds on each side.
When squatting, your knees shouldn’t pass your toes.
All the way back in 1978, research out of Duke University put out into the world the idea that, when you’re performing a squat, you shouldn’t let your knees extend past your toes, for fear of hurting your knees. The thinking is that, by extending your knees that far with a heavy load, you put strain on the joints. In recent years, however, experts have realized that slippery feet happen to be the true culprit for blown out knees. As long as your feet are firmly planted throughout the entire range of motion, if the rest of your form is good as well, you’ll be fine. Speaking of fitness: Don’t miss President Obama’s Age-Defying Workout Routine.
For maximum gains, you have to gain protein immediately.
In your gym’s lobby, you may see dudes guzzling protein shakes. They’re doing this because of the idea of an “anabolic window,” or the timeframe post-workout where your body’s protein synthesis—or muscle-building period—is at its max. Common thinking decrees that this period is roughly 30 minutes.
But, according to a study in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, the anabolic window is somewhere in the 4- to 6-hour range. The good news? Per the researchers, there’s no harm in immediate protein consumption. So if you’re the rare person who actually enjoys a protein shake, there’s no need to stop.
Sports drinks are good for you.
They’re not. In fact, because these drinks are loaded with sugar—for instance, your standard 20-ounce Gatorade contains 34 grams—by drinking one, you’re just inhibiting any progress. Stay away from sports drinks, before, during, and after your workout. And yes, we’re well aware that Gatorade is a typical go-to for crippling hangovers. Even in your suffering, stay strong, ignore the beverage, and instead try out any of the 10 Best Science-Backed Hangover Cures of All Time.
Lifting doesn’t help with weight loss.
When it comes to losing weight, many people head straight to the treadmill. But if serious calorie burn is your goal, don’t sneeze at the weight room. For every pound of muscle that exists on your frame, you’ll burn 6 calories per hour. That adds up.
First light is the best time to work out.
Working out first thing in the morning is a great method for kickstarting your metabolism—and as a bonus, you needn’t worry about slating in an inconvenient workout later in the day. As such, many people swear by the practice. But, according to a study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, you’ll perform your best if you hit the gym around 4:00 p.m. Plus, if you hit the gym at 4:00 p.m., you’ll be out of there before the place gets unbearably congested with the rush hour crowd.
To get large, you must lift large.
A recent study out of McMaster University seems to disprove this pervasive exercise myth. Researchers tested two groups of lifters. One group lifted heavy weights (75 to 90 percent of one-rep max for 8 to 12 reps), while another lifted light (30 to 50 percent at 20 to 25 reps). At the end of the timeframe, participants from both groups gained the same amount—on average, about 2.4 pounds of muscles. So, if you don’t have a spotter, don’t worry about maxing out. Just reduce the weight and do a boatload of reps instead.
More sweat means more fat burn.
During an intense cardio session, you may feel like the pounds are literally sweating off. Sadly, that’s not the case. According to ACSM’s Health & Fitness Journal, you will indeed lose weight when you sweat. But “any weight loss in this manner … represents lost water—not fat.” Sweating is your body’s way of cooling down by releasing stored hydration. And yes, that means you need to rehydrate.
Bigger is better.
Or rather, stronger. But even if some guy or gal is positively jacked, they’re not necessarily stronger than a tinier, wirier person. Per research in Experimental Physiology, power athletes (weight lifters and sprinters, in the case of this study) actually have stronger muscle fibers—at least on a cellular level—than bodybuilders. However, the action hero–sized individuals turned out to have more muscle fibers. It’s a classic quality versus quantity scenario.
Weight gain means you’re getting fat.
When you first start exercising, your weight might stay exactly the same. It also might increase. And while seeing this happen in real time could be dismaying, it’s no cause for alarm. More likely than not, it’s just your body adding muscle tissue, which is more dense—and therefore weighs more per volume—than fat.
To build muscle, you only need to eat chicken and spinach.
Lean meats and leafy greens are great dietary cornerstones, of course. But if you want to truly tone up, you’ll need more nutrients than what you get from a mere two food sources. Be sure to get a fair share of whole grains and fresh produce into your diet.
The entire concept of “winter weight” and “beach bodies.”
Many people use the holidays as a justification for any annual weight fluctuation. But, as it turns out, those claims are exaggerated. Recent research overwhelmingly indicates that the gain is only about a pound. The scary part is that, according to a study in The New England Journal of Medicine, folks rarely, if ever, shed that pound over the following year—and then add another one during that holiday season too, compounding weight gain over a lifetime.
In other words, if you hear someone use Thanksgiving as an excuse for why they have abs on Independence Day and not on New Year’s Eve, they’re likely covering up some inherent laziness.
You should do your cardio first.
It’s nice to get your cardio out of the way at the start. But strength training and lifting uses anaerobic energy (brief bursts that don’t require extra oxygen intake) while cardio uses aerobic energy (long-lasting energy that requires additional oxygen intake). Generally speaking, using aerobic energy tires you out more than using anaerobic energy, so you should save exercises that require it until the end of your routine.
Working out with a friend is distracting.
Sure, if you hit the gym with a pal, you may be drawn into conversation or gossip. But tag-teaming your efforts can supercharge your routine. According to a study in the Journal of Personality & Social Psychology showed that exercisers work harder when they’re doing it side-by-side with a friend. Plus, it ensures you’ll actually make it to the gym, since skipping out means you’re letting someone down (in addition to just letting yourself down).
If you can do a pull-up from a dead hang, you’re in good shape.
For the most part, this rings true. But see if you can’t do ten. If you can, that’s inarguable proof that you’re in prime condition.
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