Want to know the best thing you can do right now to improve your physique, strength, and health? Stop sweating the small stuff. If you’re eating healthy and working out—imperfect as your approach may be—you’re already well on your way to a better body. That’s because most of the fitness rules you supposedly have to follow to see results are bunk. The following are some classic fitness falsehoods, many of which you’ve likely fallen for in the past. It’s time to set the record straight.
Fitness Myth No. 1
“YOU HAVE TO DO HIIT TO BURN FAT.”
High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) is among the biggest trends in fitness now, and a popular form of cardiovascular training. Intense intervals— alternating bouts of all-out activity with periods of rest or light activity, usually wrapping up in about 20 minutes—have been hyped as a way to burn maximum calories in a short period of time. The claim is mainly based on the idea of excess post-exercise oxygen consumption (EPOC), which refers to the body processing more oxygen in the days after an intense workout to encourage recovery (which in turn leads to a heightened metabolic rate). Therefore, while HIIT workouts are short, EPOC allows them to cause a fat-burning effect that lasts many times longer.
While EPOC is a real phenomenon, its impact on your body fat is disappointingly small. A 2006 report in the Journal of Sports Science found that “the earlier research optimism regarding an important role for the EPOC in weight loss is generally unfounded.” Additionally, “the exercise stimuli required to promote prolonged EPOC are unlikely to be tolerated by non-athletic individuals.” So, if you’re fairly new to training, you’ve got a long way to go before HIIT will be of any help.
John Alvino, a trainer and nutrition coach in Morristown, NJ, recommends a much simpler cardio regimen—five to 10 minutes of jumping rope at the end of a training session, which is plenty to condition the heart for the demands of your weight training and a generally active lifestyle. And if your goal is weight loss, simply cut calories. “Train with weights, walk more, and be active,” says Alvino— you don’t need HIIT to change your body.
Fitness Myth No. 2
“YOU HAVE TO LIFT HEAVY TO BUILD MUSCLE.”
Lifting more weight recruits more muscle fibers and results in growth, but it’s not the only means you can use to stimulate muscle gains. “Muscle can be built in a wide variety of rep ranges,” says John Meadows, C.S.C.S., a competitive bodybuilder and physique coach (mountaindogdiet .com). “The scientific research has demonstrated that overall volume of weight is what builds muscle over time, not just how heavy the weight is.”
Lighter training allows you greater volume (sets and reps) in a given workout without taxing your joints and connective tissues. It can also allow you to establish a better “mind-muscle connection,” whereby you get a better contraction in your muscles by thinking about them working while you lift. “And for muscle groups that act on smaller joints, such as arms, shoulders, and calves,” says Meadows, “lighter weights can be more effective than heavier ones, as these areas can become thrashed with heavy loading.” Think about how much you can curl—it hasn’t increased over the years like your bench press, but if you’ve been consistent, your arms are bigger. Isolation exercises work best with lighter loads.
Fitness Myth No. 3
“THE POST-WORKOUT WINDOW IS CRUCIAL FOR BUILDING MUSCLE.”
Over the past decade, the notion of nutrient timing has gained steam. The idea, despite conflicting research, is that consuming protein right after a weight workout (up to an hour, usually) will maximize the muscle-building effect of the session. While many experts believe there’s value to this “post-workout window” theory, most still acknowledge that the overall amount of food you eat has the greatest effect. As long as you hit the number of calories you need daily, along with the right combo of macronutrients, you’ll grow.
A meta-analysis of 23 studies published by the International Society of Sports Nutrition in 2013 found that research does not support the claim that protein consumption within one hour after training—or one hour before—is significantly beneficial for increasing strength or muscle mass. Furthermore, the researchers observed that cases where protein taken around workout time did yield a positive effect were due to an overall increase in protein intake—not the timing of it.
Fitness Myth No. 4
“MACHINES SUCK FOR BUILDING MUSCLE.”
Just as lifting lighter weights can help you avoid injury, machines are a wise option when you’re injured. By forcing you to move the weight along a preset path of motion, machines stabilize the load for you, which can make training easier on your joints. This isn’t ideal for a beginner, who needs to activate his stabilizers to build strength, but intermediate lifters or those who need substitutions for certain exercises shouldn’t write off machines.
Meadows points out that machines allow you to use techniques that take your muscles to failure, such as dropsets (where you perform a set, reduce the load quickly, and continue pumping out reps), with little risk of getting hurt.
Furthermore, “machines can be more effective than free weights, depending on your body type,” says Meadows. If you’re tall, squatting may not build your legs as well as leg presses.
Fitness Myth No. 5
“BREAKFAST IS THE MOST IMPORTANT MEAL OF THE DAY.”
“It’s a common argument that eating breakfast stabilizes your blood sugar for the rest of the day,” says Alvino. “But the reality is that when you get up in the morning, your blood sugar is already stable from the fast you had overnight. That’s why if you’re getting blood work done, [your doctor asks] you to come in fasted, first thing in the morning. Ingesting food will only raise blood sugar.”
But doesn’t breakfast help us lose weight? Well, a 2011 study in the journal Obesity indicates dinner might be more beneficial. Subjects who ate most of their carbs at dinner for six months lost more weight, abdominal circumference, and body fat than a control group following a more conventional diet. The big-dinner eaters also controlled hunger better throughout the day.
However, if you enjoy breakfast, or feel starved in the morning, Alvino says you can feel free to keep eating it—again, it’s the number of calories you consume over time that determines weight loss or gain, not the exact timing of them. “Another reason people eat breakfast is their mom told them it’s the most important meal of the day,” says Alvino. “But when I look around, most mothers I see are obese. So if you want to get lean, why would you take advice from someone like that?”
Food for thought.