6 False Fitness Myths
George Orwell once said “myths which are believed in tend to become true.” While Orwell was a great writer, an exercise scientist he was not. Over the years though, certain myths have seemingly transformed into fitness facts. Regardless of what human physiology says, if we tend to hear things enough we actually believe that they’re right. I mean, there are still people who think that muscle can turn into fat. If you still believe that one, consider this: muscles have their own cells. So does fat. So a muscle cell can’t mutate into a fat cell unless you’re a member of the X-Men. And if that’s your mutant power, I feel sorry for you.
No amount of wishing or finger crossing will make these things factual. However, while mass opinion isn’t always right, it’s still popular. Being a personal trainer requires telling people the truth and bursting a few bubbles along the way. So let’s throw our lab coats on, dig deep into what the science says, and play myth-busters to dispel these fitness “facts”.
1. Lifting Weights Makes You Big and Bulky
I wish this were true! For those trying to build muscle, it would be awesome to do a few sets of curls and see your arms magically double in size. This isn’t a gender-specific thing either. Sometimes I get male clients who throw a hand up in protest and say “I don’t want to get too big bro.” Gaining muscle takes focus. And a very direct approach. For one, you have to have ample amounts of testosterone to get “bulky.” So women, fear not, because men have around a 20-25 fold higher concentration of testosterone. It’s that hormone surplus that is largely responsible for those who look big and bulky.
Gaining size is also about calories too. You have to consciously eat more to build more. As muscle is added to your frame, your metabolism creeps up. This requires additional food. Starting to see the big picture here? Gaining size takes a conscious effort. It takes a methodical approach to sensibly add in more and more food over time.
If your body is able to develop massive amounts of bulk from just picking up a few heavy objects, donate your body to science.
2. Soreness Equals a Good Workout
Muscle soreness happens from too much stress. While inflammation takes place, your muscles are adapting to the workout so if you ever do it again, the body is more prepared. This is why repeating the same workout leads to less soreness.
Unfortunately most people use their pain as an indicator of an effective workout. As bodybuilding legend Lee Haney said, “stimulate don’t annihilate.” Anyone can cause muscle soreness. Working out to the point where it’s a struggle to get out of bed doesn’t mean you’re going to get in better shape. Gritting through constant pain is more of a badge of honor than anything else. I once had a hard working client who lost 20 pounds. Her boyfriend trained himself. She explained that he sometimes would limp the next day after a workout. I asked what kind of results he was having and she simply replied with “none.” All that work for nothing.
A good training plan means you’re getting better. So you’re stronger, leaner, faster – whatever you’re trying to work towards. In fact, excessive soreness is usually an indicator that you’re under-recovered moreso than working really hard. So catch up on some sleep, eat adequate calories, and drink plenty of water. Chances are you’ll have less sore moments and spend more time celebrating success.
3. Tracking Calories During a Workout
It would be nice to believe that our apps and calorie counters were on point. It seems like a nice trade off: do the work, your device spits out a number, and you lose weight. But sometimes (lots of times!), technology can’t be trusted.
These devices usually use some form of heart rate monitoring to track calories burned. In exercise science, there should be a linear relationship between your heart rate and breathing rate. Way back in my college days, we would measure oxygen consumption, which was called VO2 Max. Theoretically, the higher your VO2 Max, the more aerobically fit you are. This means you can train at higher workloads and burn significantly more calories than a couch potato. Hence the rationale for all these fancy gizmos.
But these watches aren’t monitoring your oxygen intake. Most are relying on a formula of your heart rate, age, and body mass. And they’re usually inaccurate. Sometimes they can be off by as much as 25-50%! There are a lot of factors involved in how many calories you burn during a session, and this can only be monitored by measuring your oxygen consumption directly. None of this really matters anyway, since you should concern yourself with what your metabolism is doing after the training session is over.
4. Tracking Calories During a Workout, Part 2
Even if you could track your calories precisely, it still wouldn’t matter. Your body has a store of different calories to burn. This could be fat, carbohydrates, or protein. If you’re burning a lot of protein then you’re in trouble. You’re pretty much wasting your own muscle mass during a workout.
Most of us burn a combination of carbohydrates or fats during an exercise bout. But workouts that are effective at burning fat don’t actually use a lot of fat during the workout. That’s because the intensity level is set pretty high. Your body uses carbohydrates to get through the workout, but since the workout was pretty tough, your body burns a lot of fat in the following 24-48 hours after the workout. We in the science world call this EPOC.
I’ve never used any of these devices with my personal training clients, and I never will. Focus more on trying to get better at whatever you’re doing, and the rest should take care of itself.
5. (Insert activity) is like 3 hours of (insert activity)
You see these a lot. Usually from people who don’t like to train. It’s the whole “4 hours of standing at work is like 2 hours of running!” Sometimes it’s used as a rationale to not exercise – as if hooking up some NASA-like gadget to your desk would be more convenient than packing a gym bag.
But again, not all calories are created equal. Neither is exercise.
In order to get a lean and powerful body, you’ll have to perform a lot of metabolic work combined with explosive exercises (so think rowing and then doing some medicine ball slams). If you want to add muscle, you’ll have to lift heavy weight coupled with some isolation work for a lot of reps. The point being is that different exercise causes unique responses in the body. So sprinting 200 meters will cause different reactions to your metabolism than running 5 miles. Some exercises are better at improving insulin sensitivity. Others have a more beneficial effect on your blood volume and stamina.
So while the numbers may say that riding your bike to work every day is like running a marathon a week, the two are actually pretty far apart.
6. Strength Doesn’t Matter
Strength DOES matter. It’s related to all activities. You can see this with people running. They have what we call a “low rate of force development.” They simply lack the strength and power to propel their body through space. As a result, their stride suffers. They also leak a ton of energy. That energy could be used to run further or faster.
With my personal training clients, I have to focus on getting them stronger first. Most lack the strength to actually do activities that will help increase their metabolism. Keep in mind though that you don’t have to turn into a powerlifter. I’m not saying that you should be able to lift a car to get in shape. But a foundation of strength makes life a lot easier. If you’re not concerned with getting superhuman strong, taking 6-8 weeks two to three times a year to get stronger will do wonders for your physique.
Hopefully I’ve helped separate fact from fiction. The fitness industry isn’t regulated, and thanks to the internet, anyone can throw a claim out there. These assertions can snowball into legend. Luckily though, UEFP has your back. So now you can save money on fitness gizmos, start getting strong, and start getting in shape!