The fitness industry is brimming with tons of rules and guidelines that are contradictory and/or downright wrong. And there are many more ideas that are not wrong or right – they live in the gray area. The fact of the matter is there are many more complicated non-definitive guidelines than absolutes about fitness. We have the desire to oversimplify complex ideas and adhere to easy to understand dogma. Here is a list of my favorite exercise myths and fallacies:
1. Crunches will flatten the stomach – You can not spot reduce fat by exercising a specific area. Situps and crunches cannot widdle away abdominal fat. In fact, crunches put a lot of stress on the lumbar spine (about 674 lbs. of force) and may open you up for injury. Excess fat storage around your midline has more to do with hormonal imbalances, diet choices and overall fitness than whether or not you can do a million crunches. There are better ways to train the abs than crunches.
- Proper clean eating habits and core stabilization exercises will do a lot more for flattening your stomach than a crunch will ever do. If you are properly doing squats, deadlifts, and other Olympic lifts you probably don’t need to specifically target your abs with lots of exercises.
2. Pronation and “over-pronation” of the foot is bad – This is a normal and healthy function of the foot which refers to the multi-plane ankle joint action (everts, abducts and dorsiflexes) that accompanies lateral rotation of the knees and hips during the gait cycle. During a normal gait cycle, the foot rolls inwards and the subtalar joint everts (the heel rotates slightly outwards), and the arch flattens with weight being transferred to the inside edge. This is pronation and the foot is very loose at this time. It is considered ‘unlocked’. Some over-pronation moments can be excessive but simply there is no criteria that actually defines it and no simple way of measuring the movement. You may pronate more than others but that doesn’t mean it’s a bad thing. Despite what the sneaker salesman says there are no studies that state controlling pronation leads to fewer injuries.
- Many athletic shoes are made with stiff medial posts which are designed to prevent pronation. In other words, many sneakers are made to prohibit the human foot from doing what it naturally is supposed to do. Of course, your body will learn to compensate, and it may even feel good, but these compensatory patterns usually lead to problems down the line. New research in the British Journal of Sports Medicine reviewed decades worth of studies and concluded that individuals are much better judges than professionals in deciding what type of sneaker is best to reduce injury risk. “People can usually tell right away which shoe feels the most comfortable,” Dr. Nigg, the lead researcher said. “That is the one to choose.”
3. Pilates, Yoga, and stretching lengthen muscle – Simple understanding of human physiology dictates that all muscle have a predetermined length. Muscles shorten when contracted and lengthen when relaxed….their respective insertions and origins don’t change. Viscoelasticity may increase after hard stretching but this is only temporary. Static stretching will only increase your tolerance to the pain of the stretch – not actually change the length of the soft tissue.
- Better posture (more upright) will give you the appearance of ‘longer’ muscles and even make you seem more confident, however, to actually lengthen muscle would require either surgery or an accident resulting in a complete tear. The origin and insertion points are set not long after conception.
4. Stretching is necessary – There is no research proving the need for a separate stretching session to improve performance or safety. The greater degrees of flexibility garnered with stretching are likely the result of boosted tolerance to the pain of stretching, not actual lengthening of tissue. In other words, you get used to the pain and can go farther in the stretch. The evidence for stretching to decrease soreness, increase performance, prevent an injury or be used as an effective warm up is not good. Stretching does improve flexibility but why do you want to be more flexible?? Stretching is good for stretching and maybe bragging rights. But the cost/benefit and time it takes to increase flexibility is rarely worth it. Find a 60-year-old dancer or gymnast and ask them how their arthritis is in their hips, knees, ankles etc. Stretching can cause joint instability which can lead to injury and pain. Moreover, there are some tissues in the body like tendons and certain muscles that should not be stretched or cannot be stretched.
- Simply participating in a smart exercise program will actively move all your joints through their normal safe range of motion; this may be enough.
5. Lifting ‘heavy’ weights will make women bulky – The word ‘bulky’ means different things to different people. That being said, lifting heavy weights will certainly increase lean muscle mass just not that much in a low testosterone environment (like a woman’s body with 15-20 times less testosterone). It takes lots of dedication, time and effort (not to mention crazy genetics) to develop thighs like Serena Williams.
- When you pick up heavy things, your muscles get STRONGER (but not necessarily bigger). If you pump yourself full of testosterone and eat way more calories than you are burning every day, you will get bigger…otherwise don’t worry bout it.
6. Soreness after exercise is because of lactic acid buildup – Simply not true. Lactic acid is not the demon it is made out to be. In fact, lactic acid does not exist in the human body….lactate does. Delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) is not fully understood. However, it is believed to be the result of eccentric exercise which in turn causes micro-tears within the muscle cell and localized inflammation from the stress of training. It has nothing to do with lactate. Lactate is a fuel released from the muscle and converted in the liver to glucose, which is then used as an energy source. So rather than cause fatigue or burn it actually helps to delay a lowering of blood glucose concentrations and slows down the rate at which the cells become acidic.
- You do not need to experience soreness in order to benefit from workouts. Studies have shown that soreness itself (using a scale from 0 to 10 to assess the level of soreness) is poorly correlated as an indicator of muscle adaptation and growth. DOMS is multifactorial and in many cases can alert the individual to an overtraining incident.
7. Cardio training is necessary for weight loss -Weight loss, particularly, fat loss is a multifaceted phenomenon in the human body caused by several factors. Let me be clear, cardio is great for a whole host of things (even weight loss) – it’s just not an efficient way to decrease body fat. Cardio makes you hungry by directly affecting hunger hormones (grhelin and insulin) and if you do enough it will decrease your muscle-building testosterone. Furthermore, many people feel it is a license to eat more. In the hierarchy of fat loss cardio ranks at the bottom:
- Good genetics
- Clean eating
- Lots of non-exercise movement
- Weight training
8. The upper and lower abdominals (rectus abdominous) are independent – The 6 pack muscle is called the rectus abdominous and is one muscle that extends from the ribs to the pelvis. When one area of this muscle is contracted the whole unit contracts. This is confirmed in countless labs. It is called the ‘all or none principal’. Muscles do not contract partially. Getting 6-pack abs is 90% about reaching low body fat levels and 10% about having muscular abs.
- You may feel the lower abdominals more when you do a reverse crunch but that is simply because it is moving through a greater distance and the underlying/secondary muscles in the area are contracting more.
9. Training to muscle failure rarely happens (nor should it) – Exercise failure occurs when you cannot complete a movement due to total neuromuscular and psychological fatigue. Picture yourself petering out on a set of push-ups and barely moving to complete the last rep. If offered a large financial incentive or threatened you with great physical harm, could you do 1 more rep? How about 2 more if I had a gun to your head? The mind controls the body. If the carrot or the stick is big enough you’d be surprised what you could do (not fly like Superman, but maybe lift a car off a child).
- Your body has redundant systems that offer protective inhibitions which serve to prevent injury. These systems may be overridden in scenarios of extreme duress – however, you will likely be injured or be in lots of pain afterward.
10. You can be fit and fat: Body fat has nothing to do with fitness (unless your fatness gets in your way during your task- think legs rubbing together while sprinting). You can be fit and fat and even healthy. Peculiarly, being slightly overweight correlates to better survivability, especially in regards to serious illness. Extra body fat seems to provide a caloric buffer that improves the odds of living with long term illness.
- Fitness defined: “The ability to execute a given task effectively and safely…the specific ability to use work capacity to execute a given task under particular conditions….” Focus on fitness, not fatness. Working out and participating in sports does not require one to be slim. In fact, many top athletes are overweight (including most heavyweight power lifters and half the NFL linemen).
There are many open-ended questions involving the human body and physical fitness. Science has provided some answers but many are still unknown. Always ask why, search for answers, look for the right questions to ask and look at both sides of the argument.
Want more? Here is an abbreviated list from the highly recommended book “Facts and Fallacies Of Fitness” by Dr. Mel Siff:
* People who exercise regularly live longer and more healthily than average
* Isometric exercise is generally a waste of time and tends to slow you down
* Slow movements tend to selectively recruit the slow twitch muscle fibres
* All ballistic movements are potentially harmful
* Never lock the knees completely during any standing exercise
* Avoid all back exercises if your back is sore or injured
* A major cause of heart disease is lack of aerobic exercise
* Aerobic exercise is the most effective form of cardiovascular training
* The knees should never project ahead of the toes during any exercises
* It is harmful to lock the knees completely during squatting or aerobics
* Strength training does not play any meaningful role in improving endurance
* Heavy weight training reduces flexibility and speed
* Heavy resistance training increases your blood pressure
* Light weight training is always safer than heavy weight training
* The weight remains the same in all free weights exercises
* Strict exercises work you more effectively than cheated exercises
* Muscle hypertrophy cannot be produced by few repetitions with heavy weights
* Increasing strength will increase power and speed
* The stomach should be pulled in during situps
* It is important to ‘keep the back straight’ during all exercise
* Stretching and flexibility exercises are the same
* Stretching always reduces the risk of injury
* Ballistic stretches should never be done
* Good mornings are always dangerous for the back
* Seated resistance exercises are safer than their standing equivalents
* Any form of ballistic bench pressing is dangerous
* Bicep curls generally isolate and develop the arm biceps
* Lat pulldowns behind the neck are always dangerous
* Very slow resistance training is always safer and more productive
* Aerobic shoes reduce the risk of injury to the body
* Seated leg extension exercises are safer for the knees than squats
* Leg press and hack squat machines place less stress on the back than squats
* Machine training is inherently safer than free weight training
* Physio or Swiss Ball training is the best way of improving balance