Choosing the right fitness routine and the best exercises can be as challenging as reading the fine print in a gym membership contract because some people cannot tell if aclaim they had heard or read is a myth or a hard fact. With a dose of evidence-based science, most of these myths and facts can be debunked or supported.
1. Situps and triceps extensions trim the fat.
Although doing these exercises can make the muscles stronger, they won’t help shed a pound of fat on the body very much. “Spot reduction is the most well-known myth in fitness. Ironically, you see people in every gym across the world trying to ‘spot reduce,’ ” wrote exercise physiologist Anoop Balachandran, M.Sc. He also wrote that regardless of how many reps is performed, spot-reduction, which is the concept of melting body fat from one specific area of the body, won’t work — period. Since the calorie-burning process happens throughout the body, a better way to burn more fat is to obtain a more balanced diet and perform a variety of cardiovascular and strength exercises.
2. Stretching will decrease muscle soreness.
Current research does not support stretching as a way to alleviate muscle soreness. Canadian physiotherapist and professional breakdancer Tony Ingram stated that stretching feels good because of the stretch tolerance, which is the nervous system’s way of decreasing the pain threshold or the muscle’s resistance to stretching. “It does the latter by temporarily altering the receptors in your muscles, tendons, and ligaments that usually react to stretching by making your muscles tighten up. There are a lot of possible mechanisms, and we don’t quite understand it all yet.”
Sometimes stretching may actually increase muscle soreness and pain. When a muscle is stretched, the nervous system dictates how far it is allowed to stretch before the brain perceives the stretch to be too much. One of the nervous system’s job is to protect the body from injury, according to Todd Hargrove, who is a licensed massage therapist in Seattle, Washington. The pain and stiffness that most people feel in sore muscles are “essentially protective mechanisms to discourage you from lengthening it outside the perceived range of safety.”
3. Stretching will improve your sports performance.
Most coaches and fitness trainers often recommend that their athletes and clients to stretch before they train, but this suggestion may stem from dogma rather than a fact. A review of 23 researches on stretching that was published in Clinical Journal of Sports Medicine suggested that there is no evidence that stretching will improve athletic performance. In fact, stretching is more likely to impede performance. A recent Scandinavian meta-analysis of 104 studies showed that static stretching, which is holding a muscle length for at least 30 seconds, can decrease strength and power output by 5 percent and 2 percent, respectively, for up to an hour. Not a good return of investment for the energy and time spent on stretching.
Ingram recommends that people should perform dynamic warm-ups to prepare their body and mind. These exercises should be specific to the activity. “If you sprint, then warm up with a slow jog. If you dance, then do your dance movements slowly. Start with something easy, and work your way up to more intense movements. Make sure you go through the full range of motion of these movements.”
4. Deep squatting is bad for your knees.
Deep squatting — especially with weights on your shoulders — is sometimes frowned upon in the sports and fitness communities. However, a study that was published in the October 2013 issue of Sports Medicine showed no evidence that deep squats can damage knees or any other joints. Those who oppose the deep squat do not factor in the body’s ability to adapt, the wrapping effect, and the soft tissue contact between the back of thigh and calf that may support the knees, according to the study. With proper coaching and practice, almost anyone can deep squat — with or without weights.
5. Low-intensity cardio will burn more fat.
Although low-intensity cardio have a higher fat-burning percentage, it is the total number of calories that matter, according to IDEA Fitness Association. High-caloric expenditure occurs mostly during high-intensity cardio, such as long-distance running and short- or mid-distance sprinting. However, high-intensity exercise is difficult to sustain, especially for newbies or those who are exercising after a hiatus. In this case, start with lower intensity aerobics before revving up to higher intensity.
6. Upper abs and lower abs can be trained separately.
The terms usually refer to the rectus abdominis muscle — the “six-pack.” Because all muscles are innervated by the same set of nerves that controls movement and muscle contraction, the upper abs and lower abs cannot be trained independently, according to exercise physiologist Len Kravitz, Ph.D., of the University of New Mexico.
7. Poor posture causes pain.
Having a good posture can make you look more attractive than a hunched posture when you walk into a house party, but current research shows that there is very little correlation between posture and pain. A 2011 Danish study published in Journal of Pain shows that sometimes pain is the cause of poor posture — not a one-way street as most people think. In the study, researchers induce muscle pain in subjects, which impairs their ability to maintain good posture during “quiet standing and unexpected perturbations.” The change of normal posture may be a way to avoid pain.
This doesn’t mean you can slouch on your couch. “Good posture is still good for you,” Ingram added. “If you recently strained your lower back, bending over will probably hurt. By all means, straighten up and avoid aggravating the injury. But this doesn’t mean poor posture is the reason or cause of your pain.”
Exercise myths may mislead most fitness enthusiasts, but if people arm themselves with these five hard facts, they can make better choices when choosing the appropriate exercise and technique to match their goals.
1. Doing shorter workouts throughout the day burn more calories than a single, hour-long session.
Long training sessions at the gym may not be necessary to burn a ton of calories. Short bouts of high-intensity exercise, such as jumping rope and sprinting, throughout the day for as little as five minutes per session, can help keep the metabolism high. A study conducted among college athletes at the University of Lethbridge in Alberta, Canada showed that two-minute bouts of sprinting can burn as many calories as 30 minutes of continuous cardio.
However, exercise physiologist William Sukala, Ph.D., warned that short duration, high-intensity workouts may not be for everyone. “The thing is that this study looks like it recruited young university students who could clearly handle short duration high-intensity exercise. What about 55-year-old, fat, out of shape executives who are only able to do low- to moderate-intensity activity? Should we tell them they’re wasting their time? I think a prudent message is that the sciences are always changing and evolving, and there are a number of ways to use exercise for fat loss. High-intensity and short duration may be appropriate for some but for others, slow and steady is safer.”
2. The bench press does not always improve strength in chest and arm muscles in pushups.
Weightlifters who can bench 300 pounds may not always automatically perform well in pushups. The same can be about any exercise. This is based on the SAID principle — specific adaptation to imposed demands — which means that the body will specifically adapt to whatever it is trained to do. “Just because you can squat a ton of weight doesn’t mean you can jump high, kick hard, or run fast,” Ingram stated. To improve any skill or performance, people should train in a position that mimics the specific skill. For example, runners should train from a standing position while wrestlers should train in various ground and kneeling positions.
3. Barefoot or shoes: It doesn’t matter much.
Whether runners choose to wear shoes or not when they run, it doesn’t really matter. Dr. Thomas Michaud, D.C., who practices in the Boston area, said that the type of footwear and the way people should run depend on how their body has adapted to the running technique and their history of injuries. “Because midfoot strike patterns significantly reduce stress on the knee, they should be considered for all runners suffering with recurrent knee pain. This is especially true for faster runners with wide forefeet and flexible Achilles tendons.” However, runners with a history of plantar fascial or Achilles tendon injuries should almost always make first contact on the ground with the outside of their feet. Therefore, heel-strike running is appropriate for some runners.
4. You’re still torching fat after a heavy workout.
Good news: You don’t need to spend more than an hour at the gym or boot camp to torch fat, thanks to your body’s afterburn effect called “excess post-exercise oxygen consumption,” or EPOC. The condition is similar to driving from Los Angeles to San Diego non-stop, and the car’s engine will stay hot for a few hours after it is turned off. EPOC represents the amount of oxygen the body uses after exercise in order to return to its resting state. During EPOC, the body continues to metabolize fat and carbohydrates for energy in order to reduce body temperature, balance blood pH and hormone levels, and heal tissue damage. EPOC can last between 15 minutes to 48 hours, according to Kravitz.
5. You can still get strong abs without doing situps.
There are more than a few ways to get your abs stronger without relying on situps and other typical ab exercises. Research has shown that various movement patterns, such as throwing a medicine ball, swinging a kettlebell, and lifting weights overhead can engage your abs without the crunch. In one Norwegian study in 2011, scientists Alte Saeterbakken and Marius Fimland found that there is a higher core muscle activation when subjects perform a shoulder press with one dumbbell instead of two dumbbells. Subjects also had higher muscle activation when they’re lifting in a standing position instead of a seated position. Based on the SAID principle, athletes and gym-goers should perform exercises that match their goals and mimic their skill to strengthen their core and performance.
Fitness and exercise myths should not be considered as hard facts. Although differentiating the two can be challenging for some people — including fitness professionals — sticking with current evidence-based science and critical thinking can minimize the confusion between fact and fiction.
By Nick Ng
Interview With Dr. William Sukala, Ph.D.