In the Information Age, it’s easy to get hit over the head with a deluge of propaganda about anything and everything. Comment boards, social media and more all provide a microphone for anyone with an opinion, right or wrong. Who’s doing the fact-checking? Who’s got the best interests of the reader in mind?
This overload of information transcends topics, and is constantly re-shaping and re-defining total genres — and that includes fitness. This can be very useful; we LOVE it when trustworthy sources come up with new facts and findings to help us achieve our healthiest bodies possible. But there is also a downside: the presentation of skewed or flawed info that, over time, gain traction and eventually start becoming believed as facts.
These are fitness myths. And this week, we’re debunking them, two at a time.
- TURN FAT INTO MUSCLE. No. Even a rudimentary understanding of how the body works should have gotten this one tossed out a long time ago, but you still hear people all the time asking how they can “turn fat into muscle.” You can’t, anymore than you can turn bone into muscle or straw into gold (though it would be nice). A fat cell is a fat cell is a fat cell, and once it’s created, it never goes away — it just grows, or shrinks, much in the way a water balloon would, depending on what you eat. It’s important to remember this, too: Your body, for all its efficiency, has a thing against muscle. It costs a ton of energy, relatively speaking, to maintain it, so when it gets a chance, it certainly won’t go out of its way to change fat (one of its most easily stored tissues) to muscle.
But the relationship between the two tissue types DOES exist, and, no surprise here, it’s an inverse relationship. Losing fat doesn’t necessarily mean adding muscle, but adding muscle almost always will help those fat cells shrink. A faster metabolism that gets a steady supply of muscle-building nutrients while limiting the amount of ready-made energy (in most cases, carbs) will accomplish this. It will make more muscle and deplete fat storage. But it will never transform one into the other.
- “TONING.” Somewhere along the line, it became obvious that working out and dieting properly were keys to a stronger, more muscular physique (go figure). So we have this means to an end, except that we hear one caveat ALL THE TIME: “I don’t want to get big, I just want to do some toning.”
The translation: “I don’t want to build more muscle, I just want certain parts of my body to be stronger and skinner.”
It doesn’t work that way. For one, you cannot spot-burn fat (this is why crunches have very little to do with whether or not you have a gut). Secondly, and more importantly, you cannot “tone” muscle that isn’t there. Many misinformed clients have the assumption that light weights that cause little-to-no strain, coupled with a high range of reps, will help them tone. Yes, it’s better than nothing, that’s true. But the fact remains that you must grow muscle and lose fat to change the “tone” of your body, whether it’s your stomach or your arms. Build the muscle, and while you’re losing fat with a healthy diet and increased physical activity, the increase in shapeliness that so many like to call “toning” will take care of itself.
- “PROLONGED CARDIO IS THE BEST WAY TO BURN FAT.” To an extent, aerobic exercise — running, elliptical or stair-climbing machines, swimming, etc. — will burn body fat. But there’s a reason many people fail at weight loss when they start with distance cardio from the very beginning: The results do not reflect the time and effort. Should it be easy? No. But compared to the other three methods of losing fat (sound diet, resistance training and HIIT), there’s no question that the strategy of cardiovascular exercise for extended periods of time is a poor one (again, by comparatively speaking. If you like to run, by all means, run).
Increasingly, studies are showing that prolonged cardio is great for the heart and lungs and builds stamina — and it’s also a pretty good way to eat up much-needed muscle tissue, which, as we discussed before, is crucial for your overall metabolism and fat-burning capability. This is all to say nothing of the “after-burn effect,” which essentially provides nothing in the way of metabolism boost once you’re done running; compare that to weight training, which can keep your fat-burning engine humming along up to eight hours after you’re done. If you are doing proper weight training or high-intensity cardio, like short-distance sprints, and maintaining a disciplined diet, there is truthfully no reason you need to spend huge chunks of time running if fat loss is your goal.
- “I’M NOT A POWERLIFTER, SO I DON’T NEED TO SQUAT OR DEADLIFT.” There’s a reason your average person doesn’t like to do them: They’re hard. And they’re hard because they work huge amounts of muscles, including the biggest groups in the body. The benefits of compound lifts (exercises that affect multiple muscle groups) are numerous, regardless of what your goals are. If you’ve thrown down money for a gym membership, that means you have some shred of desire to get in shape, and no matter if you’re trying to lose a gut or build a six-pack, it starts in the squat rack. By not doing squats or deadlifts, you miss out on an opportunity to get huge results in a short amount of time — there is not a single more time-effective lift than these two. The squat and deadlift build big muscle and burn fat at the same time, while shaping and strengthening the lower body and core. Let us know when your seated leg extensions do that for you.
- WOMEN GETTING “BULKY.” Arguably more important to muscle building than protein or carbs, or bench press or squats (though those are all important), is one thing we just about all have in common: testosterone. Here’s what we don’t have in common: how much of it we produce. While females certainly can build muscle rapidly using the aforementioned training and a high-protein diet, their muscles will ultimately look vastly different than a man taking the same steps. The reason: Men produce, on average, about 10 times more of this natural anabolic hormone than do women. The result, on a physicality scale, is that yes, women will get stronger, and their muscles will firm up the body. But adding bulk? Not so much. The first thing likely to happen to a weight-lifting woman will be strength gain, followed by fat loss (remember, muscle helps burn fat). Will significant muscle mass occur? Eventually, with high-calorie eating and intensive training, sure, it absolutely could. But hormonally speaking, it will take 10 times the amount of time and effort it would take a man — and ask one of them if he could ever gain bulk fast enough.
- “HEALTH STORE” FOODS/DRINKS. Modestly, we’ll put the ratio of importance for diet-to-exercise at about 70-30 percent — it may be even more. Simply put, you are what you eat. The food industry knows this, believe it or not, better than you do. And so it acts on consumer knowledge: It slaps labels and tags everywhere to try to target the health-conscious. “Gluten-free,” “fat-free,” “14 essential vitamins and minerals,” and so on. Want to know what those terms could easily apply to? An entire bag of pure cane sugar is gluten-free (and fat free), and 14 essential vitamins and minerals are found in just about every breakfast cereal, including sugar-loaded ones like Cocoa Pebbles. Would you call these “health foods?”
The problem is, it’s not the obvious ones that catch people who are trying to be diet-smart. Sports drinks and fruit/vegetable juice blends, promoted as healthy beverage alternatives, are often worse than if you’d eat a Snickers bar because of their exorbitant sugar content. Check out the Nutrition Facts on a Naked juice or an Odwalla the next time you’re at the grocery store, or compare the sugar content between fat-free dressings and their full-fat alternatives (especially when the fat is from healthy olive oil, that’s particularly good for you). You’ll see through the food industry’s B.S. before too long.
- ABS = CRUNCHES. Simply put, you’ll get abs when you get your diet right. Too many people think they can skip the hard stuff and get that amazing six-pack by just hammering out a few sets of crunches every day. Remember: You CAN’T spot-burn fat. In fact, it’s not an uncommon sight for people who work their abdominals a lot to have a bloated-looking belly — the “boiler” look — because they haven’t lost enough body fat to keep their guts from bulging out. Knowing fat loss is 70 percent of the equation helps. When you drastically cut down your carbs and sugar intake, and up your protein consumption along with a good workout plan, the abs will come. You can help pronounce them, but crunches aren’t the only (or even best) way to go. Hanging leg raises, planks, twists, etc., are all better, more function-based ways to target your core.
- EATING FAT MAKES YOU FAT. Blame the ’80s for this (among other things — looking at you, leg-warmers). Once upon a time, we were all told about the food pyramid, and how the very bottom of it, the BIGGEST PART, should be comprised of breads, cereals, grains and pasta. Oops. We laugh at that now, because we know better. So why aren’t we giving the same treatment to the “oils” part of that same pyramid? Remember, it’s that little one at the top, grouped in heinously with sweets.
Olive oil (as well as other mono- and polyunsaturated fats found in nuts, seeds, legumes, etc.) is directly related to things like lower blood pressure, lower cholesterol and lower body fat. The omega 3-rich meat of fish has long been known to increase people’s health when eaten regularly. EFAs (essential fatty acids) have to come from your diet, and yet people still are making fats out to be an enemy. Dietary fat DOES NOT equal body fat! When your diet has enough healthy fats in it, the body becomes much more effective at burning off the unhealthy ones. Put this myth to rest already.
- WORKOUTS MUST BE LONG TO BE EFFECTIVE. Show me someone who boasts about a two-hour workout and I’ll show you someone who either 1) has a lot of time on his hands or 2) is a competitive bodybuilder. If you don’t fit either category and you’re still taking beyond an hour to get your exercise in, your workouts are too long and you’re probably wasting your time. The amount of work you can get in in just 40 minutes, if you’re watching your rest periods, is amazing. Consider the math:
Let’s say you want a really intense, multi-muscle-group workout — we’ll go with every bro’s favorite, chest and back, for simplicity’s sake. Consider a 3×10 scheme for this day (certainly this will be altered from workout to workout, but let’s keep these numbers round). Even if you did eight total exercises, for a total of 24 sets, you’d be looking at about 35-38 minutes, assuming 1-minute rest periods and some time for loading and re-racking your weights.
Bring a stopwatch. Be mindful of your time. Don’t be a gym flirt. And, Fabio — stop looking in the mirror while you rest.
- “I’VE WORKED HARD. I DESERVE A CHEAT WEEK.” To stay sane and keep your metabolism working hard, you need a cheat meal every now and then. If you’ve put together six straight days of purposeful, healthful eating, by all means enjoy a slice of pizza or two on the seventh day. Your body will be so unused to it you likely will benefit from a metabolic spike just to process it (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson has actually gone on record about choosing to eat a whole cheese pizza weekly as his cheat!).
But be honest with yourself — keep a dietary journal, if you have to. Track your workouts. Track your meals. When all you have to do to ruin your well-laid plans is talk yourself into it, that’s when you must be at your most accountable. When it doubt, assume you don’t deserve it quite yet. Ask yourself if you’re eating because you’re hungry, or because you’re bored.
This also applies to your training. If you’ve ever fallen sick in the midst of a workout program, you know just how fast your body can completely reset its strength and muscle-building levels (and how fast fat can return, too). Because, inevitably, you WILL catch whatever cold is going around at some point and you WILL be involuntarily forced out of the gym, limit the days that you voluntarily keep yourself out. If you can work out that day, do it. Try not to ever have three straight days off (unless you’re on an intense four-on, three-off split, of course).
And if, after 4-6 months of solid, consistent workouts and dieting, you finally decide a vacation is in order, enjoy it. Only then will you have earned it, and you’ll thank yourself for sticking to it — an earned day off feels a lot better than one you wish you hadn’t taken.