Having worked in a gym for the bulk of my professional life, I’ve picked up on a lot of so-called workout advice by merely strolling around the gym and eavesdropping. I’ve heard a lot of stuff, some of them useful and some less so. For instance, I once heard a bodybuilder claim he’s in a bulking phase to explain the spare tire around his waistline. “It will turn into muscle,” he said to his training buddy.
But is that really true? There are six workout myths I have kept coming across. Time to debunk them; the truth will set you free to aim for long-term fitness rather than looking for a quick fix.
Myth #1: Fat turns into muscle, and vice-versa.
Fact #1: Just as bone cannot turn into skin, fat cannot turn into muscle.
Muscle and fat are two different tissues in the body, with different compositions and functions. Muscle is made of fibers which contract for movement. Fat is made of cells that cushion internal organs and provide insulation and energy storage.
So what actually happens when you work out? You begin to deplete fat stores as you tap into them for energy; at the same time you challenge your muscles and stimulate their growth. Increasing muscle mass, which uses energy even at rest, will help you raise your basal metabolic rate and help fend off fat gain.
When you stop working out for an extended period of time, your muscles atrophy and shrink, but do not turn into fat. Rather, fat gain occurs when you continue to take in more energy than you expend.
Myth #2: Just dieting can keep the weight off.
Fact #2: Long-term weight control is best achieved through a lifestyle adjustment incorporating both diet and exercise.
While diets have been known to help people shed pounds quickly, research shows that once they go back to their old eating habits, these people just as quickly regain the weight. A sustained diet-only weight loss program will also force the body to adapt and require less calories to operate, meaning the efficacy of this diet will diminish over time.
However, simply relying on exercise without a corresponding commitment to healthy and sensible eating won’t help you control your weight as well. If you take exercising as an excuse to binge, you won’t get very far toward your weight loss goal.
The National Weight Control Registry, which conducts surveys on those who have managed to lose and keep off a significant amount of weight, reports that a consistent habit of exercising is contributory to their successful weight control.
Myth #3: Sweating is proportional to how hard you’re working out.
Fact #3: The intensity of your workout can be more accurately determined by your heart rate when doing cardio, and by the amount of weight you’re moving when doing strength training.
Sweating is the body’s way of cooling itself; water from our blood absorbs heat from within, is excreted through the skin through sweat glands, and then evaporates. How much you sweat is determined by your internal temperature, the temperature and humidity of your environment, and even genetics – some people are born with more sweat glands than others. While working out raises the body’s internal temperature, how much sweat you see dripping off you is not a good indicator of how hard you’re working out – if that were the case, you’d be burning calories simply sitting inside a hot and humid room.
Myth #4: Doing crunches and ab workouts will give you a six-pack.
Truth #4: Yes, you will develop the muscles for a six-pack, but unless you lose the belly fat covering them, you won’t be able to put them on display.
The human body isn’t designed to lose fat just in one spot. While there are areas which are more predisposed to fat storage (the belly being one of them), in order to whittle away the fat in one part, it takes a whole-body effort. Use a mix of cardio and resistance training to help your body shed belly fat.
Myth #5: Stretching before exercise reduces muscle soreness and risk of injury.
Truth #5: You’re better off warming up before exercise and reserving the long stretches for after exercise to help you cool down, or separately as part of a flexibility training program.
When we say “long stretches” we mean static, passive stretches where the muscle is held in an extended position. A study published in New Scientist by army physiotherapist Rod Pope showed that there was no difference in occurrence of injury between those who stretched and those who did not before exercising. A University of Nevada study also shows that static stretching temporarily decreases muscle strength and force. Additionally, stretching in this way causes muscles to cool down rathe than retain their warmth.
Dynamic stretches, which are exercises using sports-specific movements to prepare the muscles, gently and actively helping them reach their full range of motion, are beneficial within the warm-up period. A study published in Strength and Conditioning Journal shows dynamic stretching increases core temperature, muscle temperature, elongates the muscles, stimulates the nervous system, and helps decrease the chance of injury.
There is also little evidence of pre-workout stretching reducing delayed onset of muscle soreness (DOMS). The soreness is caused by microscopic tears and swelling in muscles used during exercise. An analysis of past studies on stretching and soreness concluded that stretching reduced muscle pain negligibly, by 0.5 points on a 100-point scale. Soreness can better be prevented by warming up, concludes a University of Sydney study.
Myth #6: No pain, no gain.
Truth #6: If it hurts when you do it, don’t do it.
While mild soreness like that experienced in DOMS may indicate the muscles had a good workout previously, starting to experience pain during an exercise is different. It is an indicator that you are either performing the exercise incorrectly and are putting yourself at risk for injury, or you have already been injured. Working through an injury will set you back in achieving your fitness goals, as you might make the injury worse. Stop the exercise, rest, and then try again. If the pain recurs or persists, consult with a health professional.
A version of this post appeared in Total Fitness Magazine November 2009. –>