By Pete McCall, MS, CSCS
As the dad of two young girls I know all of the words to ‘Let it Go,’ from Disney’s Frozen. The message of the song is that Queen Elsa must let go of her fear, of others knowing about her magical powers to control ice. We all have things we need to let go of, ranging from the tangible, like old shirts from college, to the intangible, like misconceptions or mistaken beliefs.
This is relevant because as someone who has been a personal trainer and group fitness instructor for almost two decades, I can’t tell you how many mistaken beliefs the average gym member has when it comes to how exercise affects his or her body. While a few of the common gym myths are based on fact, like the one about both a warm-up and cool down being necessary components of a workout, the reality is that when it comes to exercise there are many misperceptions and false beliefs that should be let go of and released into the ether. Some of these beliefs stem from the early days of fitness and have been scientifically proven to be inaccurate, while others are promoted by charlatans and said with such conviction that many of us have come to think they’re true. Here are five specific fitness myths that are better off being let go of:
MYTH #1: Cardio training is the best way to lose weight.
This is a major myth: It is true that losing weight relies on expending energy, but an important component of weight loss is the neuroendocrine system which regulates hormones in our body. Hormones are chemicals that control cellular actions. Too much cardiorespiratory exercise can elevate the hormone cortisol — which can convert protein, normally used to repair damaged muscle tissue, into energy, which lowers the amount available to repair and grow new muscle tissue. Strength training with weights is an important component of weight loss not only because it can burn excess calories, but because it can elevate levels of growth hormone which help metabolize fat for fuel as well as promoting the growth of new muscle. Muscle is more metabolically active than fat, 1 pound can burn 5-7 calories/day at rest; adding 5 pounds of muscle can help increase your resting metabolism over 200 calories a week, which is the equivalent of an additional 2 mile run.
MYTH #2: Muscle definition is the result of using light weights for a lot of repetitions.
FALSE. Muscle definition requires activation of the larger type II muscle fibers. Type II fibers are recruited when an external resistance is really heavy OR after the type I muscle fibers fatigue. Using lighter weights will rely on the aerobic type I fibers (meaning they use oxygen to produce energy), the type II fibers will not be activated until the type I’s fatigue. You CAN use light weights for high reps ONLY IF you do enough reps that you reach momentary fatigue — meaning not capable of doing another rep. If you do 20 reps but feel like you can do more, guess what? You won’t be using the type II’s which give your muscles their sexy shape. Which would you rather do, 25 reps of a light weight or 5-6 reps of a heavier weight? Either way to achieve definition you should lift to fatigue; if you have a busy, fast-paced lifestyle doing 5-6 reps takes a LOT LESS time than 25.
MYTH #3: Crunches are an important exercise for tightening and toning the abs.
NO, they’re not. The default pattern of human movement is walking — meaning that all the muscles in your body are designed in a way to work most efficiently as you’re walking upright over the ground. Think about how you walk, you DO NOT lean forward as you take each step, therefore doing crunches works in opposition of how the rectus abdominus (six pack) muscles are actually designed to function. When walking, the RA will decelerate anterior rotation of the pelvis (for more specific details read this article) as the leg moves behind the body, meaning the best strength training exercises for the RA will challenge the muscle to lengthen, not shorten. Examples include: forward lunges while raising both arms overhead (see photo above); inchworm walkouts or pikes where your hands are on the floor and legs on a stability ball (see photo below). Each of these exercises causes the abdominal muscles to lengthen under tension.
MYTH #4: High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) is the best way to burn calories.
It can be, but remember that exercise is stress applied to the body; the type of stress (exercise), the amount applied, and how frequently the body is subjected to the stress will determine the adaptions. HIIT can be effective for burning calories but it is also extremely effective at causing metabolic fatigue (meaning depleting all energy stores within a muscle) and mechanical damage (the actual physical damage to the involved muscle fibers). Muscle fibers will replenish energy (via glycogen) and initiate repair (via hormones and satellite cells) during the recovery time after a workout. Doing HIIT workouts too many days in a row will not give your muscles time to repair, replenish, and recover. You can do a HIIT workout, but the next day should be a different type of lower intensity activity. Here’s a great schedule: a high intensity cycling class on Monday, a yoga flow on Tuesday, dance class on Wednesday, HIIT strength circuit on Thursday, rest on Friday, your favorite HIIT workout on Saturday, and a nice long walk or yoga class on Sunday — your muscles will be working everyday, but with different types of loads and forces applied so you can reduce the risk of overtraining while promoting tissue repair.
MYTH #5: Taking a rest day will keep me from reaching my goals.
No, all top athletes schedule rest into their workout programs because that’s when your body repairs itself from the damage done by exercise. Exercise is only part of the equation, how you recover from your workouts is essential for ensuring that they deliver the desired results. Taking a day to allow your body to recover from exercise doesn’t mean avoiding any physical activity, it simply means doing a lower intensity workout that places a different stress load on your body. Another important component of recovery from exercise is how you sleep: Your muscles repair themselves during your REM cycles; if your sleep is interrupted or not long enough, you run the risk of insufficient recovery which could lead to overtraining. Doing a HIIT workout, running a race, or going for a PR on a Saturday? Don’t make that your big night out because you will need at least seven hours of good, deep sleep for a full and proper recovery. Had a big night out? Don’t try to push through a hard workout the next day — be active, but working too hard while fatigued is a great way to get injured.
If I ruled the fitness world, some version of the above would be given to every person when they buy a gym membership or pay for a workout. It’s disheartening to see so many people with such good intentions not hit their goals because they get injured while working out. In my experience, the two main causes of injury are from overtraining or doing too much of the same workout.
Another way to look at overtraining is being under recovered. The reason why the US Olympic Training centers and most professional strength coaches have structured recovery plans for their athletes is because that’s when the body adapts to the training stimulus. If you look at the training schedule of any top level athlete you will be surprised that only 15-25% of their training time is at a really high intensity, the rest of the time is spent doing moderate or low intensity work — yet in most gyms, health clubs, and studios, members come in every day trying to work their tails off. Sorry, it’s just not physiologically possible: Allow your body time to recover, be active but at a lower intensity.
In addition, EVERY exercise modality works, so try to do as many different types of workouts as possible. Limiting yourself to only one type of class or only one kind of workout will cause an overuse injury.
Pete is host of the All About Fitness podcast, which can be found at www.petemccallfitness.com or iTunes: https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/all-about-fitness-pete-mccall/id1115101341
Pete McCall, MS, CSCS, is a personal trainer, fitness educator, consultant, and host of the All About Fitness podcast. Along with being a Certified Personal Trainer, Pete holds a master’s degree in exercise science. He has spent a large portion of his career educating personal trainers, as both a workshop instructor and writer having authored numerous articles, online blogs, and textbook chapters. Currently Pete lives in San Diego, CA, where he is a content contributor for the American Council on Exercise (ACE) and an adjunct faculty at Mesa College.
Frequently quoted as a fitness expert in publications such as The Washington Post, U-T San Diego, SELF, Glamour, and Shape Magazine, Pete is a sought-after media resource for accurate, in-depth insight on how to get results from exercise.