Do crunches help you get flat abs? What’s the best way to burn body fat? Does Pilates really create long, lean muscles? Much of the fitness advice you’ve learned over the years is misleading or simply not true. Read on to find out why – and learn what it really takes to lose fat and get the well-toned physique you’ve always wanted…
If you’ve ever tried to get in shape, you’ve probably received lots of advice on how to do it – from friends, fellow gymgoers, even books and magazines.
But is it all true?
Where fitness is concerned, there are just as many misconceptions and outdated facts out there as genuinely helpful recommendations.
“We’re a society that’s always looking for ‘the secret’ to fitness results,” says Neal I. Pire, C.S.C.S., F.A.C.S.M., and president of Inspire Training Systems, a fitness gym in New Jersey.
“For example, women watch models with perfectly flat abs doing crunches while hanging upside down in inversion boots,” Pire says. “Then they assume this ‘signature exercise’ is the way to get flat abs, without considering issues such as genetics or diet. The rumor gets out and a fitness myth is born.”
But now it’s time to set the record straight. Separating fact from fiction can make all the difference in whether you achieve your fitness and weight-loss goals or just end up spinning your wheels.
Here's what top experts have to say about the 8 most misleading fitness beliefs:
Fitness Advice Myth #1: Daily crunches give you a flat stomach.
The fitness facts: Doing hundreds of crunches, or any other ab exercise, won’t flatten your stomach if you eat too many calories.
“If you have fat covering your abdominal muscles, you’ll never see muscle tone,” Pire says.
And there’s no such thing as “spot reducing,” or losing fat from a single body part. You’ll need to reduce overall body fat.
Try this instead: Embrace a healthy, lower-calorie diet and regular exercise program to lose excess fat, including around your midsection.
At the same time, work on moves like planks and side planks, which strengthen all the core muscles, says Pete McCall, C.S.C.S., an exercise physiologist with the American Council on Exercise (ACE).
To do a plank: Lie on your stomach with arms bent so you’re supporting your weight on your chest and forearms. Put hands in loose fists, straighten legs and put toes on the floor. Keep abdominals contracted as you push up your upper body until your elbows are at right angles, eyes straight ahead. Hold for 20 seconds. Gradually work your way up to 60 seconds.
“Core muscles act like a corset,” McCall says. “And planks are one of the best ways to strengthen them.”
Since they use endurance-based muscle fibers, you can perform planks every day, McCall adds.
Fitness Advice Myth #2: Stretching before exercise prevents injury.
The fitness facts: Studies have shown that stretching before a workout doesn’t reduce your risk of getting hurt – and may actually increase it.
Runners who regularly stretched their legs before workouts didn't have fewer injuries than those who didn’t, according to a February 2011 study at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. Those who didn’t normally stretch but started during the study had significantly more injuries than before.
“Stretching before a workout decreases the stretched muscles’ endurance and power, and may make you feel as if you’re working harder,” Pire says.
Try this instead: Instead of stretching, try a “progressive warm-up,” Pire suggests. Use the same muscles you’ll stress in your workout, but start slow and then add weight or speed.
For example, if you’re preparing to run, begin with walking and gradually increase your pace before bursting into full speed.
Then do some slow stretching after the workout, when your muscles are warm, Pire says.
Stretch all major muscle groups, especially those you focused on during your workout. Hold each stretch for 20-30 seconds, gradually increasing the range of motion according to your abilities.
Fitness Advice Myth #3: Step machines make your butt big.
The fitness facts: Some women worry about building up their gluteus on the Stairmaster – but the real culprit behind a ballooning booty is eating too much, says Tom Holland, C.S.C.S., a Connecticut-based running coach and author of Beat the Gym: Personal Trainer Secrets Without the Personal Trainer Price Tag (William Morrow, 2011).
The machine actually helps shrink your behind by toning muscles and burning calories. But if you’re not using proper form, you’re missing out on the benefits, Holland says.
“Many people hold on to the side rails and support their body weight,” he says. “That just turns the Stairmaster into a triceps exercise.”
Try this instead: Lower the speed to the point where you can do the exercise without support from your arms.
“It’s not how fast you go that counts but the quality of the movement,” Holland says.
Then pump your arms in a natural motion for maximum results, he says. (Or else switch to a cardio machine on which you’re not as tempted to cheat.)
Fitness Advice Myth #4: Exercise in the “fat-burning zone” to burn the most calories.
The fitness facts: This myth results from studies showing that lower-intensity workouts may burn body fat more effectively. But that’s fuzzy math, says Holland.
“Yes, you burn a greater percentage of fat at lower intensities,” he says. “But at higher workloads, you burn body fat and more calories.”
For example, a 150-pound woman walking at a brisk pace (around 4 mph) burns 291 calories an hour, while a woman walking at 3 mph burns only 236 calories per hour, according to the American College of Sports Medicine.
Because the first woman is using up more total calories, it makes up for the slightly increased percentage of fat calories the second woman may be burning.
Try this instead: Burn body fat and calories with a combination of low- and high-intensity exercise – a technique known as interval training.
This “helps increase the calorie burn while helping avoid fatigue,” Pire says.
One way to get started: Alternate two minutes of walking with 30 seconds of running; gradually increase running intervals and decrease rest intervals.
Fitness Advice Myth #5: Focus on cardio to lose excess weight.
The fitness facts: Losing weight requires creating a caloric deficit. That means the calories you burn must be greater than those you take in.
“While cardio burns calories, it’s not the most efficient way,” Pire says.
Try this instead: Hard-resistance training – such as weightlifting – burns more calories in the shortest period of time, Pire says.
“In fact, studies show that such an intense workout not only burns more during the workout but afterward as well – up to 16 hours later.”
Practice relatively brief, intensive weightlifting sessions – with very little rest in between exercisse – to help burn more calories all day long.
Fitness Advice Myth #6: Weight training gives women big muscles.
The fitness facts: Big muscles come from testosterone and heavy weights, neither of which is an issue for women, says McCall.
“Women don’t produce enough testosterone to create muscles like a man,” he points out.
In fact, weightlifting reduces sarcopenia – muscle loss that occurs as a result of aging – which means it helps women stay younger-looking over time, says Peggy Buchanan, fitness director at the Vista de Monte “active” retirement community in Southern California and a spokeswoman for the IDEA Health & Fitness Association. It also helps keep your metabolism stoked, so you’re less likely to gain weight as you age.
Plus, it helps keep aging bones strong, Buchanan says.
Try this instead: Use enough weight (or a resistance band) to perform 8-12 reps of each movement, says McCall. When you can do 12, move on to a slightly heavier weight or stronger band. That sets the stage for increased strength and improved muscle tone.
Fitness Advice Myth #7: Take a hot bath to heal strained muscles.
The fitness facts: A muscle strain typically involves inflammation or swelling, which can be made worse by adding heat, says Pire. Heat may also increase the healing time of an acute – or sudden – injury.
Cold, on the other hand, acts as a counter-irritant.
Try this instead: When an injury first occurs, use cold. “Think R.I.C.E.,” says Pire. That stands for rest, ice, compression (with an elastic bandage – not too tight or left on for more than four hours at a time) and elevation of the body part.
Then, once inflammation goes away and you’re on the mend – about 48-72 hours after the injury – heat can speed healing.
Heat can also be soothing if you’re just sore from your workout but don’t have an injury.
“A hot bath makes you feel better by increasing blood flow and relaxing your muscles,” Pire says.
Fitness Advice Myth #8: Pilates and yoga will make you “long and lean.”
The fitness facts: “Your muscle shape is dictated primarily by your genes,” Pire says.
The actual length of your skeletal muscle can’t be altered. So copying your favorite celebrity’s Pilates routine won’t change short muscles to long, lean ones, no matter how devoted you are.
What you can do is improve your flexibility and posture, which could make your body appear longer.
Try this instead: Practice Pilates and yoga for their real benefits – flexibility and core strength – and not with the goal of altering your shape.
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