When it comes to our workouts, nutrition or even our general health, everyone - from our fellow fitness-enthusiasts, to friends and family - invariably has some sort of advice to share! Very often, though, a lot of these are anecdotal experiences (it’s sometimes even mere hearsay that’s been passed on), which may not necessarily apply to everyone.
From all the information coming our way, identifying what’s valid to us, as individuals, can be a bit hard; but there are simple ways to stay on top of this and do our best to make informed choices. Looking at legitimate sources and cross-checking the tips that come our way are basic but helpful examples.
To get you started, we are busting some of the most popular workout myths with the help of some evidence-based facts:
Myth 1: “Crunches are the key to flat abs”
Crunches definitely tone a small portion of our abs - however, they aren’t the best way to a defined and flat midsection.
According to a study, abdominal muscles are activated to a higher degree when we do exercises that work out our shoulder and glutes simultaneously. For example, a plank with hand reach activates our abs by 20% more than a crunch does .
These are called “compound exercises” - where we focus on multiple parts of the body, rather than just one. These create a well-distributed strain on (and therefore help us work on) several muscles simultaneously, which ends up improving our endurance, and also reducing the chance of injury [2, 3].
To sum it up: Planks and bridges are more effective at working out our abs, compared to crunches!
That being said, because fat cells are distributed throughout the body, spot training is highly unlikely to work in isolation. It's quite simple - if we want to lose fat from one part of our body, we need to first lose our overall body fat . Strength training and high-intensity interval training workouts, with a well planned diet, can be much more beneficial in helping us achieve our fat-loss goals [5, 6, 7].
Myth 2: “The more you sweat, the more fat you burn”
Sweat is how our body cools our skin and regulates our internal body temperature. We are more likely to sweat while running under the sun in the afternoon than in the evening – but that doesn’t necessarily mean that we torch any more calories in the afternoon! In fact, we also burn calories while doing activities that don't require much, if any, sweating, such as swimming, lifting light weights, and walking .
Sweating does not burn calories on its own. However, sweating enough causes us to lose water weight and electrolytes . When we rehydrate by drinking water or eating, that weight is immediately regained.
To sum it up: Sweating doesn’t necessarily mean that we are burning body fat.
Myth 3: “You shouldn’t eat carbs before a workout”
‘Intense’ exercise can be thought of as exercise that goes past the capacity of our heart and lungs to supply oxygen to the muscles. With oxygen in short supply, the body can use only glucose as fuel .
At the start of an intense exercise session, we get our energy from a form of glucose (called glycogen) that’s stored in the muscles we’re using. Once this runs out, our body uses the glucose that’s in the blood. At this point, if our blood glucose is low, then weakness, hunger, and dizziness follow .
Moreover, it’s also counterproductive to our workouts: if a person does not consume carbohydrates to replenish their muscles’ glycogen stores, (for example, as a result of any dietary restriction or prolonged exercise), the body’s proteins are broken down to produce glucose, which can reduce muscle mass [14, 15].
In case you’re wondering if you can simply replace the pre-workout carbs with protein, instead - that doesn’t work either. Proteins are fundamentally used by our body to maintain and repair body tissues. Which means that their primary function is not to power muscles, but to build them. This is the reason we are recommended to take protein shakes after our workouts; they predominantly aid muscle recovery.
To sum it up: Carbohydrates help maximise our muscles’ glycogen stores for high-intensity exercise and should ideally be consumed (in moderation) before workouts.
Additional tip: if you’re likely to be doing low-intensity exercise over a long period of time, fats can be excellent for fuelling your workout !
This brings us to the next myth we are busting:
Myth 3 (version 2): “Doing cardio on an empty stomach boosts fat loss”
It is believed that when we perform cardiovascular exercises without eating a pre-workout meal, our body uses our fat stores (in the absence of carbohydrates) to fuel the cardio session, which helps accelerate fat loss.
However, research suggests that fasting before we exercise does not make any difference to the results. A study observing two sample groups (one that fasted before exercise while the other didn’t) found that there weren’t any significant differences between the weight-loss results of both the groups .
This essentially suggests that our body composition isn’t significantly affected by whether we perform exercise on an empty stomach or not. However, there are chances of losing muscle mass (explained in the previous section) in the absence of accessible glucose and/or calories to fuel a high-intensity or prolonged cardio session.
To sum it up: Fasting doesn’t affect the results of cardiovascular exercise significantly, especially in terms of body composition.
Myth 4: “Heavy weights and/or protein shakes will make you bulk up”
Even if we’re lifting heavy weights, it is highly unlikely that we’ll become as muscular as a bodybuilder!
Let’s talk about the weights first:
The amount of muscle mass one can gain is limited by the size of our frame and the amount of muscle mass we already have. It takes a lot more than three to four workouts a week, along with even a very stringent diet plan, to get anywhere close to building that much muscle mass (to be considered as bulked up).
This is especially true for women, since they typically have less muscle tissue than men and produce lower levels of the hormone ‘testosterone’, which enhances muscle growth .
In fact, weight and strength training will help us burn more calories (compared to cardiovascular exercise), especially in the long run. This is because our muscles are very active, and burn more calories than our fat tissue does - so the more lean muscle tissue we have (and build), the more calories we burn .
Now coming to protein shakes:
Protein is the most important component of muscle growth, but it is far from the only one. First and foremost, our workouts must be specifically designed to work on each muscle in a way that allows for muscle growth, by straining them and creating microscopic damage. Then, our diet must be excessively calorie-dense to support the intense physical activity required to repair the muscle damage and build stronger muscles. Hormonal levels, as mentioned above, particularly testosterone, also play an important role [20, 21, 22].
The point being - protein powder alone will not transform us into a muscular, hulk-like bodybuilder (which is a hard thing to achieve!).
Here’s why protein is important though: in order to rebuild and grow, our muscles need amino acids from the proteins in our diet. When the body doesn’t receive enough protein from the diet, it uses whatever little it gets towards building proteins towards functions that are essential for survival (like our heart and other critical organs). So when we aren’t getting enough protein while working out, our muscles will heal, but won’t grow (and, consequently, won’t help burn those extra calories).
Someone with a sedentary lifestyle would need about 0.8 grams of protein for every kg of their body weight, for normal body function. Those who exercise, however, would need around 1-1.6 grams of protein per kg of their body weight, depending on the intensity of the workout .
Protein shakes can be a useful supplement for a wide range of people, particularly athletes, older adults, vegetarians, and vegans, who may not get enough protein in their diet to meet their exercise requirements or daily nutrition needs. They are definitely a quick and easy source of protein.
Having said that, everyone doesn’t need them, especially people who eat a diet high in meat, fish, dairy and eggs, and do not engage in strenuous weight training.
To sum it up: Lifting weights and consuming protein shakes would need to be accompanied with a highly targeted and intense training strategy, and a stringent diet, to actually bulk up; otherwise, they are just important factors in supporting our workouts and maintaining and optimising our general health.
Myth 5: “Stretching helps your body recover faster from soreness”
After an intense workout, our muscles feel sore for 1-2 days because of the way our muscles get energy and build, neither of which has anything to do with stretching .
Our body is designed, in a very systematic fashion, to allow muscle growth while also protecting us from damage caused by intense exercise. Post-exercise muscle soreness (the pain and stiffness) is caused by the microscopic damage to muscle fibres that happens during the workout. This damage causes swelling and inflammation in the muscle fibres, as well as the release of substances that sensitise the nerves within the muscle, resulting in pain when the muscle contracts or stretches .
It’s something in this process, or all of it, that makes us sore; stretching wouldn’t be able to do anything to make the pain less or the recovery faster.
Having said that, limbering up post exercise does help. Here’s how :
– When muscles contract during exercise, their ‘tightness’ increases, limiting their range of motion. Stretching increases the flexibility of our muscles by elongating the muscle fibres and tendons.
– Stretching stabilises our joints by making our muscles flexible, which is especially beneficial for those with orthopaedic conditions or injury.
To sum it up: Stretching after exercise does not reduce muscle soreness, however, it does help increase muscle flexibility .
Myth 6: “You need to workout every day (to get results)”
Exercise can produce great energy bursts, but if your workouts are making you drag through your day, then you’re probably overdoing it .
Rest is important for our fitness, because that’s when our body heals and builds new muscle. An intensive exercise routine without rest days is even associated with some risks; for example, in women, it can disrupt the menstrual cycle and lead to hormone-related bone problems [29, 30].
In general, it’s recommended to perform intense strength-training exercises at least twice a week, along with 75-150 minutes of intense cardio (in a week), for a healthy heart. Other than that, we should engage in everyday physical activities of moderate intensity for 30 minutes (like brisk walking, gardening, housework, etc.) . These not only keep us physically healthy, but are also associated with improved mood and relieving anxiety .
Having said that, these are general guidelines that don’t necessarily apply to all of us, so it’s important to see how our body reacts to exercise, and adjust the intensity and workout time gradually. It may also help to discuss the regimen with a fitness expert as well.
To sum it up: Your exercise routine and intensity is defined by your health goals and requirements.
Myth 7: “I work out so I can eat whatever I want”
This is true to a certain extent, because we burn calories by working out. However, the calories burned during exercise are usually insignificant; they can easily be negated at the next meal. It’s the muscle we build, and the consequential increase in our metabolic rate over time, that burns more calories.
Caloric excess (when we consume more calories than we burn) can cause weight gain even when we work out. What we eat and how much we eat is likely to affect our metabolic rate as well, which, in turn, affects how quickly or slowly we use calories . For example, a protein-rich diet will increase our body’s metabolic rate.
Also, balanced nutrition is not something that we get by working out, so eating right remains essential.
To sum it up: Eating right is the way to go, whether you workout or not.
We hope this helped you understand that we shouldn’t necessarily believe everything we hear at the gym or read through a random source. It is always a good idea to find a set of sources you can rely on and those that are backed by evidence - that’s where we come in. :)
If you have any questions about your fitness routine or if you want to verify whether something you’ve heard is true, drop them in the comments section below. We would love to help you with it!
Until then, purge these common mistakes from your routine to get leaner, stronger, and fitter.