Photo by nzphotonz/iStock / Getty Images
by Boko Suzuki
Maybe you believe in the Loch Ness Monster. Or Sasquatch. Or the Tooth Fairy. I’m not going to tell you that you’re wrong. But I will tell you that you’re absolutely wrong about the following fitness myths that somehow refuse to go away:
1. Sweating is good for you because it eliminates toxins.
I’m always amazed by the number of people who sit fully clothed in a sauna expecting to lose weight or somehow cleanse their body of toxins. Sweat is 99% water combined with a small amount of salt, proteins, carbohydrates and urea, says University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences family medicine physician Dr. Charles Smith.
Therefore, sweat is not made up of toxins from your body, and the belief that sweat can cleanse the body is a myth. “You cannot sweat toxins out of the body,” Dr. Smith says. “Toxins such as mercury, alcohol and most drugs are eliminated by your liver, intestines or kidneys.” The amount of sweat you produce is also a crappy measure of the effectiveness of your workout. Some people simply sweat more than others.
2. Squats (or lunges or deadlifts) are not for everyone because they hurt your knees or back.
I once trained a veteran who lost both legs above the knees in Afghanistan. He can’t squat because he has no knees, but if you have knees, even replacement ones or achy, arthritic ones, you can and should squat. In fact, you already are squatting every time you sit on a chair or a toilet. The question is not whether or not you should squat but rather, how are you squatting?
My friend and brilliant trainer Maksim likes to say, “Squatting doesn’t hurt you; how YOU squat hurts you.” Squatting (every time you sit), lunging (every time you step over an obstacle), and deadlifting (every time you pick up something from the floor) are fundamental, everyday movements. If any of these movements are triggering pain, you need to address HOW you are performing the movement. Get a qualified fitness professional to teach you the appropriate way to do these movements for your fitness level and both your workouts and the quality of your everyday life will improve.
3. For women and people who don’t want to bulk up but simply get toned, the best way to work out is with light weights and high reps.
There are several myths in this statement. The first is that women who lift weights will suddenly and accidentally become HUGE, muscle-bound specimens. Women have much less testosterone than men, so they are hardwired to have smaller muscles. We’ve all seen pictures of competitive female bodybuilders with big, impressive muscles, but these women train extremely hard, eat a very specialized diet, and often (but not always) take supplements to raise their testosterone. Worrying about lifting weights accidentally making you look like a bodybuilder is like my worrying that playing basketball will accidentally make me start dunking like LeBron. Yes, I have had female clients complain that they’ve gotten bigger since starting to work out but if they’re honest with themselves, that’s a result of the food they’re ingesting, not the workouts they’re doing (i.e., they’re gaining fat because they burn 300 calories at the gym and then go home and consume 1000).
The second myth is maybe the one I hear the most: “I just want to get toned but I don’t want to put on muscle.” The “toned” look that everyone wants (see Michael Phelps or Alex Morgan) is a high ratio of lean muscle to body fat. Period. There is no “tone” tissue. There is no such thing as turning fat into muscle or vice versa. If you gain lean muscle and lose body fat, you will start to see more definition; i.e., you will start to look “toned.”
This leads me to the third myth: light weights and high reps are the way to get toned. Now the amount of weight you use is relative to your fitness level and should probably be determined by a fitness professional but when I see a healthy woman doing endless repetitions with 2.5 lb. dumbbells, I see an exercise program that’s probably going to end in frustration. If something doesn’t challenge you, it’s not going to change you. In order for you to grow lean muscle, your body needs to have the stimulus to do so; in other words, the weight shouldn’t be so heavy that you risk injury but it needs to be heavy enough for your muscles to be forced to work hard. The same goes for burning fat: light walking on a treadmill may have some heart benefits but it’s not going to force your body to shed fat. Challenging cardio (see my “5 Common Fitness Mistakes” for more on effective cardio) will make your body give up body fat.
4. If I work out hard at the gym, I can eat whatever I want.
Strictly speaking, this statement is true because we live in the United States of America and no one can stop you from scarfing down as many Blooming Onions as the Constitution gives you the right to. HOWEVER, if your goal is to get lean and fit (like 99.9% of the people I consult with) it behooves you to remember the principle of calories in and calories out. If you consume more calories than you expend, your body will store the excess as fat. You may have heard about Michael Phelps consuming 12,000 calories a day, but unless you’re doing serious weight training in addition to swimming 50 miles a week at world-class speeds, I suggest you consume less.
There are some articles out there saying that working out is ineffective for weight loss. This is nonsense; what these articles are based on are studies showing that many people who start working out gain weight because they overestimate the calories they burn at the gym and underestimate the calories they consume. This is an education issue, not a workout issue.
Here are some examples: for a 160-pound person, according to mayoclinic.org, an hour of hatha yoga burns 183 calories and an hour of walking burns 204 calories. Now compare that to a grande nonfat caramel macchiato at Starbucks, which has 200 calories, and you can see how easily we can cancel out the calories burned in our workout. In order to lose a pound of fat, you need to create a deficit of 3,500 calories, or 500 calories a day to lose a pound a week. If that same 160-pound person were to increase the intensity of their workout by taking taekwondo, they would burn 752 calories an hour. Combined with healthier eating (a simple way to cut hundreds of calories is to simply eliminate refined sugars), you can start to create that calorie deficit.
5. Crunches will carve your abs.
There is no scientific evidence that crunches are the most effective way to get six pack abs but there is a LOT of money to be made by convincing you that they are. Use my new Crunch-o-matic, which performs 100 crunches per minute while you relax and eat bacon! If you believe that, try this: Next time you’re at the gym, look at the abs of people lying down doing endless crunches and then compare them to the abs of people doing total body exercises like sprint intervals or Olympic lifts to see which works better.
Crunches are a pretty effective exercise for ONE muscle (the rectus abdominis). I know I’m not going to be able to stop you from doing them, so let me at least help you improve how you do them. The crunch movement puts your spine into what we call spinal flexion, or rounding; the opposite motion is spinal extension, or arching. The problem is that most of us already have rounded spines from sitting at a desk all day as well as a stiff neck from craning our head forward to look at a computer monitor. Crunches done on the floor tend to exacerbate both of these issues.
Try sitting on a Swiss ball or Physioball (the big inflatable one; a 55cm ball is right for the average person) with your fingertips lightly touching your ears (NOT interlaced behind your head). With your tailbone barely touching the ball, carefully lie back until you feel a gentle arch in your back and then contract your abdominals until your face moves up toward the ceiling, keeping the width of an apple between your chin and chest. Now you have a much better crunch!
However, if the goal is to get six pack abs, I recommend three things: 1) total body strength training – think multi joint movements like squats, deadlifts and pullups, 2) high intensity interval training – see my “5 common fitness mistakes” article for a description of the Gibala protocol for interval training, and 3) a balanced and clean diet with as little sugar, simple carbs, and processed foods as possible. A fitness professional with a solid background in nutrition can help you immensely with all three. Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to get back to my Crunch-o-matic.
6. No pain, no gain.
According to nursingtimes.net, “Acute pain is a physiological response that warns us of danger.” Nociception, or the pain response, is a normal function that keeps us from exposing our bodies to damage. Think of it as a warning light on the dashboard of your car. The brilliant C.H.E.K. practitioner, nutritionist and Olympic weightlifting coach Robert Yang, likens ignoring pain or masking it with pain pills to seeing the low oil light come on, pulling over, and clipping the wire to the low oil light, and then resuming your driving. A pretty dumb way to maintain your car, right? But that’s exactly how many of us train ourselves.
“Push through the pain!” “Pain is weakness leaving the body!” This is how we injure ourselves. Most of the chronic injuries I see are self-induced. I’ve consulted with many extreme athletes who pride themselves on their high pain tolerance but these people tend to have a laundry list of chronic injuries.
Here’s the problem with high pain tolerance: Your body’s natural response to pain and injury is to create inflammation in the area to start healing it. The pain is there to force you to take it easy while your body is healing. When we ignore that, our body produces more pain and inflammation, often resulting in things like bone spurs. A biomechanically sound movement pattern is characterized by a lack of pain. If an exercise hurts, you’re probably doing it wrong. If you continue to perform that movement through pain, your body will naturally start to create compensations to avoid the pain. The now-compromised movement pattern triggers another chain of injury and pain and now you’ve put yourself into a pain cycle. Learn to move correctly and pain free and you will set yourself up for a lifetime of working out and active living.
As always, check this website for more articles and advice. E-mail me with your questions and feedback and I’ll do my best to help you on your fitness journey!