You don’t have to be a pro bodybuilder, nor a rigorous and committed gym-goer to know that fitness myths exist, and people’s belief in them is often surprisingly firm.
While most of these myths are harmless, some of them can actually hinder your progress, and there are a few that might even pose potential health threats if you’re not careful enough.
To help guide you, we’ll take the most popular myths and debunk them.
Most Common Exercise Myths
Without further ado, here’s the crème de la crème:
Targeted Fat Burning
Also called “spot reduction,” the general idea behind this myth is that you can burn fat away from specific areas of your body by strenuously working out the muscles in that particular area. Unfortunately, the fitness industry managed to exploit this myth, creating pricey programs that promise to get rid of chest fat and the dreaded love handles for men, and offer buttock reshaping and tinier waistlines for women.
Unfortunately, spot reduction is a myth, meaning that you don’t have control over how your body distributes fat, nor how and where it starts disposing of the excess weight.
As a matter of fact, this particular gym myth has been debunked several times. In 1971, a study focusing on tennis player arms was published by the University of California. As they put their swinging arms through quite a lot of work, researchers assumed – if spot reduction really existed – there would be noticeable differences between the players’ swinging and non-swinging arms. However, no differences in subcutaneous fat levels have been observed between the two appendages.
Similar studies have been published in 1983 and in 2007 too, with similar results.
Working Out Stunts Child Growth
Another popular workout myth is that kids who start a strength training regimen will have to deal with stunted growth down the road. This is a myth primarily popularized by parents and used to scare their children from joining a gym, or convince them to participate in other, more “mainstream” sports.
As a matter of fact, experts say that the misconception is based on the fact that severe injuries to the growth plates – the parts of children’s bones that are meant to extend and grow – can stunt growth in immature bones.
In the gym, most injuries stem from poor form, using overly heavy weights, and a general lack of supervision. However, the latter is true of all sports, and injuries are not a direct result of correctly performing exercises with weights.
This exercise myth fails to point out that almost any type of recreational activity and sport carries serious injury risks, and around 15% to 30% of all fractures in children involve growth plate injuries, and the majority of those children don’t go to the gym.
Experts agree that, even though damage to the growth plates can carry serious consequences, teenagers shouldn’t be discouraged from lifting weights, especially with correct form.
It’s scientifically proven that supervised and professionally designed resistance training programs have several benefits for children, like:
- Increased strength
- Increased bone strength index (BSI)
- Decreased risk fractures and sports-related injuries
- Increased interest in fitness and improved self-esteem
The More You Sweat, the More Fat You Burn
This is another evergreen hit from the vast library of the most popular fitness misconceptions. While heavy sweating may indicate that you’ve had a rather strenuous workout and that you’ve managed to burn quite a lot of calories, in most cases, sweating just means that your body is trying to cool itself down.
The misconception mostly stems from claims that some activities that make you sweat profusely will burn a massive amount of calories.
For instance, some claim that you can burn close to 1,000 calories during a session of Bikram yoga. Later, a study found that men burned 460 calories on average, while women burned 330 during a 90-minute session.
HIIT Is Better Than Steady-State Cardio
Another one of those widely popular workout myths would be the superiority of high-intensity interval training (HIIT) over endurance training. More precisely, this misconception states that HIIT training can shred off more fat than, let’s say, simple jogging.
Under specific circumstances, HIIT training can improve one’s health better than most steady-state exercise variants. However, in terms of fat loss alone, both exercise methods seem to produce the same, or similar results.
According to a McMaster University study, men achieved the same results with 10.5 hours of steady-state training as those participants who performed 2.5 hours of HIIT (with recovery), both over the course of two weeks.
Other studies found very similar fitness results, regardless of training methods used, thus debunking this exercise myth.
On the other hand, a very real issue with HIIT, often cited by experts, is that high-intensity exercise carries a greater risk of muscle pulls and other sports-related injuries. Finally, they state that the main drivers behind fat loss are dietary choices and caloric restrictions, not exercise alone.
Women Shouldn’t Lift Weights
This has to be one of the biggest fitness myths out there. The higher estrogen levels in women, as opposed to testosterone in men, purportedly make it much more difficult for women to build large amounts of muscle mass.
However, resistance/strength training has several physical benefits, like increased muscle mass, decreased body fat levels, improved bone density, etc. Lifting weights can also help with mental health and boost self-esteem. Women can reap as many of these benefits as men.
Most gender-related myths about exercising – and strength training in particular – revolve around the premise that women lifting heavy weights will put on too much muscle mass, which could potentially be dangerous. In reality, research has even shown that women can safely perform resistance training even during pregnancy. The real reason for this widespread misconception is that strong women are not thought of as conventionally attractive.
Muscle Toning Is a Thing
This one is a close sibling of spot reduction. “Toning” muscles in this regard means making them harder and firmer.
The truth is that muscles either grow or shrink through exercise, and you can’t make them softer or harder. Your body parts (like arms or buttocks) may appear “softer,” but that’s because there’s simply more fat covering them. Your muscles are only “hard” when you tighten them.
This exercise myth found its way into the fitness industry as a marketing tool mainly targeting women who fear lifting weights because of becoming too muscular. They are encouraged to do “toning” exercises, instead.
In reality, having that “toned” look comes from shedding excess fat by eating right and sticking to a well-rounded training regimen. Lifting weights alone won’t get you “toned,” and neither will any other choice of recreation.
Weights vs. Bodyweight
In the last decade, bodyweight workouts have become increasingly popular, and not for nothing. Making your body the ultimate portable gym has clear advantages. However, some advocates of the training method claim that it’s superior to free-weight training because it prepares the body for everyday movements, making it “functional fitness.”
Experts often point out that sometimes it’s hard to differentiate between fitness myths and facts, mostly because there’s a lot of truth to the main arguments. In the case of these two training methods, professionals like Sandra Hunter, from the Athletic and Human Performance Research Center of Marquette University claim that both these training concepts have their places in a good workout regimen.
Free weights are valuable when isolating specific muscle groups and improving their capacity through a range of motion to add more mass. Functional fitness, on the other hand, sticks to movements that are close to what your central nervous system would expect from you throughout the day.
Crunches Lead to Visible Abs
This is the top contender on any list of gym myths. Supposedly, doing crunches and other ab exercises means you’ll get a visible six-pack no matter what.
However, the abdominals are muscles, just like your glutes, pecs, delts, and so on. By working them out, you will stimulate them to become stronger and grow. However, for your abs to show, exercising is only part of the deal. As the popular saying goes: “Abs are made in the kitchen.” What this means is, no matter how hard you work them out, unless you dial your diet in to get rid of excess stomach fat, chances are, your abs will be strong but still invisible. Common fitness myths like this are a dime a dozen, and often, a more logical approach is all you need to debunk them.
Stretching Before Training Muscles
We all know that stretching has its benefits. However, according to the American College of Sports Medicine, static stretches, like reaching for your toes, most likely won’t improve your performance in the gym.
Instead of static stretching, experts from the institution recommend heart-rate elevating dynamic warm-ups that will help with improving both blood flow and range of motion.
These are light exercises like jumping jacks, jogging, lunges, arm circles, and leg swings, which can help you enhance your overall performance before your workout and reduce the risk of injury.
Nonetheless, this isn’t a full-blown exercise myth, as static stretching has its place in a warm-up regimen. It’s just better-suited for sports that require flexibility. For lifting weights, or sports that require explosive movement, dynamic stretching would be the way to go.
Gaining Weight Means Getting Fat
Stepping on a scale just to see that you’ve managed to put on some weight can be pretty frustrating, especially if your main goal is to lose fat.
When you start to exercise, most likely, your weight will stagnate, and in some cases, even increase. However, in most cases, the weight gain is just temporary and mostly due to water retention.
On the other hand, this gym myth is rather misleading, because you can actually gain muscle tissue during your diet – and therefore gain weight – especially if you’ve just started exercising.
For example, if you lost 5 lbs of fat and gained the same amount of muscle, the scale stays the same. On the other hand, if you’ve managed to put on the same volume of muscle as the volume of fat you’ve gotten rid of, because muscles are denser than fat, you will have actually gained weight.
Because of this, fitness experts recommend tracking your progress using clothes. If they’re becoming baggy, you’re on the right track, even though the scale may say it otherwise. The mirror is your friend too. Lastly, advanced body-composition analysis tools can give you a better picture of body fat and lean muscle tissue percentages than a number on a scale.
Nutrition and Fitness Myths – Debunked
Now that we’ve covered the gym, let’s look at the most popular misconceptions from the kitchen.
You Must Eat Protein After Every Workout
Without a doubt, protein intake and building muscle mass are closely related. Still, studies show that protein shakes aren’t more effective in recovering and rebuilding muscle tissue than sugary drinks.
This myth and its reach are tied closely to supplement marketing – in 2018 alone, the US protein supplement industry was worth $4.24 billion.
Further debunking this nutrition/workout myth is a 2017 study, which found that eating protein pre- and post-workout had no profound muscle-building results on the body compared to not eating protein in the given time frame at all.
Another study from the same year concluded that drinking a high-protein post-workout drink had no muscle-building effects compared to those subjects who drank nothing following their training.
The Anabolic Window
The anabolic window is a short period (30 minutes) after exercise where the muscles are recovering and repairing themselves and are hungry. Due to this, they will make better use of the nutrients you feed them.
Like some more convincing fitness myths, this also holds some merit. According to the results of a 2018 study, muscle protein breakdown increases during your workout, and so does muscle protein synthesis. The balance between the two determines muscle growth.
Your post-workout nutrition can play a role in these processes, as protein intake will support muscle protein synthesis and inhibit their breakdown. As such, it would seem logical to grab your favorite protein drink and add some carbs to the mix to achieve the best results. However, this is where the anabolic window theory becomes an actual exercise myth.
First, myofibrillar proteins play a central role when it comes to change in muscle size. To add mass, suppressing muscle protein breakdown would strategically need to target these protein types. The problem is that muscle protein breakdown affects most protein types, including those damaged during the workout. Trying to limit muscle protein breakdown, in this sense, may even hinder your progress and recovery as these proteins may be essential to remodeling the muscle.
Fitness myths (but not facts) often fail to address other important factors like nutrition, hormonal levels, training routine, age, and myriad other factors affecting recovery and growth.
Lastly, no evidence supports the very specific 30-minute time frame.
Exercise Is More Important than Diet
While exercise is crucial for muscular development, improved endurance, and cardiovascular health (exercising regularly also lowers your chances of premature death by 30%), the sad truth is that you won’t be seeing any drastic results unless you fine-tune your diet.
Whether you want to add muscle or shed excess fat, your nutrition plan must support your goals.
Exercise myths could say whatever they want, but roughly 70%-80% of weight loss will result from your diet, and the remaining 20%-30% will be due to exercising.
Carbs Are Always Bad
When it comes to dissecting popular nutrition and fitness facts and myths, carbs often get a bad rep.
However, complex carbohydrates aren’t necessarily “fattening foods.” While it’s true that carbohydrates raise blood glucose levels and prompt the body to release insulin, experts agree that weight gain is primarily down to the type and the amount of carbs you eat. Carbs with added sugar and excess calories are often made from refined grain, which is stripped of its shell – the main source of protein and fiber. These foods will spike glucose levels faster, while fiber-rich carb sources like brown rice and whole grains will raise blood glucose at a slower pace, while also promoting gut health.
Muscles Absorb only 30 Grams of Protein per Meal
Another one of those gym myths is the one that says that you can only absorb 30 grams of protein from each meal. The myth states that muscle protein synthesis simply stops once you’ve reached the 30-gram benchmark. Of course, as it turns out, things aren’t that simple.
In fact, the amount of protein that can be absorbed into the blood flow from the gut is more or less limitless. On the other hand, how much of the protein you absorb will actually build muscle is a different question altogether. As mentioned before, the amount of muscle mass you gain depends on the balance between muscle protein breakdown and synthesis.
Even though this is one of the biggest fitness myths regarding nutrition, and most exercise gurus will say that you shouldn’t go below the 30-gram benchmark, some experts even dare to say that eating less than 30 grams may even potentially help you add more muscle, as reducing your protein intake may reduce the extent of protein breakdown.
Also, while more research is needed, some studies suggest that muscle gain isn’t compromised during intermittent fasting when dieters eat a single large meal, with protein content way over the 30-gram limit.
Nutrition and exercise myths aside, in practice, maximizing protein synthesis looks like the best bet, which means eating at least around a gram of protein per pound of your body weight daily. Aiming for around a bit over two grams per pound should maximize muscle-building potential.
Diets Should Be Hard
Most people think of dieting as short-term suffering for long-term results. While it’s true that some fitness and bodybuilding diets can be grueling, it should be more about making wiser nutritional and lifestyle choices we can stick to.
Even though common fitness myths often state that a fat-loss program should be rigorous and restricting, a good diet means creating healthy eating habits you can maintain indefinitely. For the most part, limiting your calories or replacing an unhealthy snack with fruit can be a great way to lose a pound or two.
Also, in a good diet, there are no forbidden fruits. Moderation and balance are utterly necessary. Eating a donut for breakfast won’t make you fat instantly, especially if you make healthy food choices for the rest of the day. Cravings are normal and sometimes, you should give into them. So long as you don’t go overboard, you’ll be fine – and that goes for healthy food, too.
Forget Alcohol If You Want to Build Muscle
This exercise myth isn’t really a myth. The negative effects of alcohol on the human body have been well-documented, and the evidence does show that drinking and working out don’t mix well for several reasons.
As such, we can’t say that the core premise is unfounded. Drinking on a daily basis will affect protein synthesis and hormone levels, providing less than an optimal setting for building muscle. It will also make you an alcoholic, which is much more worrying than not hitting your gym goals.
However, occasionally enjoying a few drinks won’t make you lose all your gains, nor impair your muscle-building progress.
All Fats are Bad
Fats often take center stage when it comes to health and fitness misconceptions, sometimes due to improper media coverage and sensationalism. In reality, not all fats are created equal, and knowing the difference between “good” and “bad” fats can help you a great deal.
Fats are essential for your body’s health, and eating “good” or monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats is important. These will help you increase good cholesterol levels while lowering bad levels, reduce the risk of heart disease, lower blood pressure, help fight inflammation, and bring myriad other benefits. Cholesterol’s especially important, since over 50% of the adult population in high-income countries is affected by high cholesterol.
Not to mention, knowing the difference between fat-related fitness myths and facts will let you create a more enjoyable diet program that’s easier to stick to.
Look for “good” fat sources, like sesame oil, avocados, olives, canola, peanuts, nuts in general, flaxseed, soymilk, fatty fish, tofu, and so on.
On the other hand, try to limit trans fat intake, especially eating too much artificial trans fats, as they can lower good cholesterol levels and raise the bad ones. They can also lead to inflammation which can contribute to heart disease, risk of stroke, and type two diabetes.
Primary sources of these fats include commercially baked pastries, fried foods, hydrogenated foods, packaged snacks, and so on.
What are some examples of health and fitness misconceptions and quackery?
Spot reduction and stunted growth due to weight training definitely deserve top spots, along with the necessity of using supplements for gaining muscle and burning fat.
Since we’re at muscle building, the bulk/cut myth of training with lighter weights and performing more reps to lose weight is also a myth that can easily land among the top five.
We could go on for days and still not reach the bottom of the fitness myth barrel.
What are some muscle fitness myths?
One of our all-time favorites should be the “muscle turns to fat and fat into muscle” when you stop training or start for the first time. Then, there’s the already mentioned above, the myth of light, high-rep work for fat loss.
On the other hand, obligatory BCAA supplementation is also something that most people will not benefit from. It’s not a fully-fledged myth, but you get the idea.
Lifting weights making women bulky is another excellent example of muscle-building myths that make no sense.
Are crunches cardio?
Generally speaking, the topic of doing crunches has inspired several fitness myths that basically all point to the same result: If you want abs, you’ve got to do crunches.
Another one is that crunches are cardio. Cardio mostly refers to cardiovascular exercises, activities that help improve your endurance. However, crunches help you build muscle but don’t burn copious amounts of calories (a hallmark of cardio). They might be an integral part of a well-balanced fitness program, but they won’t help you reach your dream body alone. For that, you need more exercise and sometimes even drastic diet changes.
As you can see, fitness misconceptions are a dime a dozen. Some of them are actually based on distant truths and evidence, but at the end of the day, most of them are more bro-science than anything else.
Reading up on the newest trends and science-backed findings is a must to help you reach and attain your fitness goals with ease.