A spring purge of 10 exercise myths

Devon McGregor, National Post · Apr. 1, 2009 | Last Updated: Mar. 31, 2009 7:02 PM ET

Spring is finally here and many of us will use this as an opportunity ship out the old and begin anew. Before you embark on a spring training routine, however, there are are several myths you will want to clean out first. Herewith, 10 common fitness myths:

1. Lifting lighter weights will make your muscles more defined and toned.

Wrong: Muscles respond to overload. When we perform resistance training with sufficient intensity, we create small tears or fissures in muscle tissue. When the muscle recuperates, it will become tighter (more dense) and stronger.

It is important, however, that your nutritional program support your workouts. Reduced body fat is what creates the “lean and tight” look, not a high number (15+) of reps. Higher reps increase muscular endurance. There are three factors that influence body fat levels: Efficient, effective resistance training, proper cardiovascular exercise (including duration, intensity and frequency) and a nutrition pattern that allows you to effectively burn up excess fuel, while providing the correct nutrients to rebuild muscles and other cells.

2. You can successfully lose (and keep off) body fat by only doing cardio.

Nope. Muscles are like horsepower in a car. The more horsepower you have, the faster you burn fuel. The same goes for your body: The more muscles you have, the faster it burns fat, which is one of the body’s fuel sources. If your reason for doing cardio is to lose weight, you will. Be aware, however, that you may also lose as much muscle as fat. The problem becomes that you are lowering your own ability to burn fat.

One pound of muscle is equal to 35-50 additional calories burned per day. If you strip muscle tissue, all you accomplish is sabotaging your efforts to efficiently reduce body fat. If you want to lose weight, focus on burning and not only reducing calories. Calories not burned translates into calories stored, primarily as fat. Lowering your weight by reducing muscle mass only obstructs your own ability to burn calories. And it’s a vicious cycle.

3. Cutting calories is enough to lose body weight.

I once heard a doctor say, “I won’t be so arrogant as to think I know how the body does what it does.” I was amazed by the statement, especially coming from a doctor. But, I also think that what she said is quite profound. Everyone is unique, with their own dietary needs and restrictions.

But there are a few simple rules that, if we understand and master them, will keep us from getting frustrated, trying desperately to catch up, running from one diet fad to another fitness trend. Treat building a dietary plan the same as creating a wardrobe. First, select some essentials. A closet full of jeans and T-shirts probably won’t get you a corporate job. Likewise, a diet that is limited to just reducing calories isn’t equipped with the essentials — carbohydrates, proteins and fats — to create a healthy body. Like your closet, your diet must have a well-rounded assortment of items that allow you to meet the demands of varying conditions.

4. Muscle mass weighs more than fat.

It’s an age-old question, which weighs more: A pound of gold or a pound of feathers? They both weigh the same. Total volume and area covered are where the differences are. Muscle is more dense than fat, but fat covers more area — up to three times more.

5. Just follow the perfect workout routine, and you’ll be fine.

There is probably no question that I answer more often than “what is the best exercise for …?” There is no program I can create for you that would work exactly the same for someone else. There is no best cardio machine, abdominal exercise, routine for the butt or even philosophy. I tell people that all of it works … depending, of course, on frequency, intensity, duration or the type of activity.

Personally, I dislike the idea of routinized exercise. Performing the same routine each time you train will quickly cease to have any great benefit, a phenomenon we refer to as plateau. The body will adapt to any exercise routine in four to six weeks, and the mind will experience boredom if you stay with the same routine for too long.

When beginning a fitness program, focus on first learning the fundamentals. This will allow you to create a foundation, building on what your body has learned. As you progress, accomplishments will be real, and much more sustainable. As with any foundation, one built poorly will eventually bring all your efforts down.

6. Ladies who lift weights will create bulky muscles.

This one always makes me smile. Firstly, I understand: You want to be lean, muscular — but not too muscular — with a six-pack and a tight butt. I get it! But not so fast.

There is one reason why it is not so easy for women to bulk up: Testosterone. Women’s testosterone levels are much lower than men’s. The hormone affects muscle size and strength, the size of the heart, the amount of oxygen-carrying blood cells in the body, and our percentage of body fat. Men’s skeletal muscles, which do work during exercise, are bigger — factors which gives men a performance edge, making us stronger and faster.

It is more likely that women will tone up and get leaner from strength training rather than bulk up. Resistance training can add up to 30% lean muscle, creating a thinner, stronger and firmer body.

It is a terrible myth that associates weight training with oversized muscles. It is challenging for both men, and especially women, to actually increase muscle mass. In fact, women who choose not to weight train are at a disadvantage when it comes to their health. The problem most women run into isn’t building too much muscle, but not building enough. Low muscle mass places women at an increased risk of osteoporosis, as well as a reduction in muscle mass of about 2% to 5% per year, which has an adverse affect on metabolism (and can result in weight gain). In essence, the very thing that women are trying to avoid is accelerated by choosing not to introduce resistance training. Instead, think of it as a trade off — fat for muscles.

7. The best way to lose fat is to eat fewer calories.

The human body, even as a fetus, craves nutrients. Nothing matters to it more than staying alive. It has no higher purpose, and will shut down anything that tries to supersede that, even if it means making you sick in the process.

There is a phenomenon commonly referred to as “starvation mode,” a process where the body becomes hyper-efficient at converting all consumed calories into other, more sustainable forms of fuel. To accomplish this, our body will lower its metabolic rate, leading to a loss of muscle so that the body requires fewer calories to subsist, causing weight loss to slow down. It explains why some of your friends, though otherwise thin, have a protruding stomach. Their bodies believe that they are in a famine situation. That makes it difficult to lose those unwanted pounds.

An ongoing calorie reduced diet (less than 1,200 calories for most people), causes the body to perceive an emergency. It doesn’t understand your reasons for starving it, only that it needs to save every calorie, and will accommodate you by holding on to stored body fat. 

8. You can target weight loss to one part of the body.

The bad news: Typically, the first place you tend to gain is the last place you will lose. It is physiologically impossible to spot reduce. The best thing you can do for a stubborn area is to be patient. Again, the best route to success for those stubborn hips is resistance exercise, cardio and a balanced, nutrient-rich diet.

9. Sweating is indicates a good hard workout.

Sweating is one of several ways our body cools itself down. Internal body and ambient temperature, the clothes we are wearing and genetics are only some of the factors that determine how much you sweat. Hard work is not one of them.

10. Yoga will make you long and lean.

This is a tricky one for me, as my gym, Balance Fitness, offers several varieties of weekly yoga classes. Let me carefully say, I am not aware of a better training method than yoga for increasing flexibility. I also believe that yoga is an outstanding choice if you wish to improve your balance, static strength and breathing. However, my opinion is that the length of a muscle cannot change anymore than the skeletal structure it’s attached to. I can understand that the increased flexibility from practising yoga causes people to feel “longer” and taller. But don’t mistake the feeling of length for the actual fact.

As I have discussed above, creating lean muscles is a fine balance of nutrition, resistance and cardiovascular training. Yoga will contribute no more to being “lean” than any other activity using equivalent caloric expenditure. However, if doing yoga causes you to feel longer and leaner, but weight training doesn’t, then you should do yoga.

-Devon McGregor, BFA, BSc, human kinetics, is a fitness expert with more than 18 years experience and co-founder of Balance (balancefit.com), a Toronto fitness centre. 


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