Everyone loves to give advice on losing weight. Your cousin’s husband’s co-worker’s sister is allegedly a real expert on the topic, because she was studying to be a personal trainer for a semester. But the reality is that much of the information we get—whether from friends, family, the media, and sometimes even trainers at the gym—is actually erroneous. Here’s a look at some misguided myths you might want to rethink.
Myth #1: Skinny People Are Fit
Some skinny people are fit, and some fit people are skinny. True or false, are all skinny people fit? If you answered true, you weren’t paying very close attention in logic class.
The distinction to recognize is actually between “skinny” and “lean”. Being skinny is often just as much a function of bone structure and the distribution of subcutaneous versus visceral fat as it is about actually having low levels of total body fat. This leads to the phenomenon of “skinny fat”, where people might look thin, particularly with clothes on, but this is due to low overall lean body mass (bones, muscle, etc.), not low fat.
With visceral fat (fat that surrounds your internal organs, as opposed to subcutaneous fat that you can easily see) increasingly being implicated in obesity-related diseases, it is important to recognize the difference between superficial and true fitness.
Myth #2: Crunches Melt Your Belly Fat
If you’ve been doing rep after rep of sit-ups, crunches, planks, leg raises, and Russian twists to try and burn off stubborn belly fat, I’ve got some bad news for you. Spot reduction is a myth.
While it might make intuitive sense that using a muscle group would burn the fat around it, it’s really not such a 1-to-1 process after all. You see, your muscles already have energy stored in them in the form of glycogen. As you use up the glycogen in your muscles, your liver will mobilize its own glycogen stores to increase circulating glucose to replenish the stores in your muscles. Only once that glycogen is used up (or heading in that direction), does your body start to burn fat, and it does so pretty much uniformly across your body.
The reason is that fat is an energy storage compound. It stores a lot of energy in a (relatively) compact manner. So if you think of it like a checking and a savings account, you pull from checking if you’re going for a night out, and later you might move some money over from savings. But you don’t just go digging into your savings directly. Same idea with fat.
If you really want abs, the best place to start is by cleaning up your diet.
Myth #3: Lifting Weights Makes You Bulky
This is a common fear, particularly for women. People see bodybuilders and worry that touching a dumbbell will instantly transform them into hulking creatures with popping veins and giant muscles. If it were that easy, the entire sport supplement industry would probably go bankrupt.
Muscle gain is actually a rather slow process, and for experienced lifters (aka the bulky ones), gaining a handful of pounds of muscle in a year is great work. For women, it’s even harder to get big, because they lack the testosterone that aids in muscle growth and development.
Instead of being afraid of the weights, attack them. No matter your goals, lift heavy and stay anywhere in the 5-10 rep range. If you can’t do 5/set, lower the weight. If you can do more than 10 on your last set, increase it. High reps for “toning” is useless. Being toned is all about shedding excess fat and having sufficient muscle underneath it.
Myth #4: When You Work Out, You Turn Fat Into Muscle
Contrary to what every sketchy ad banner would have you believe, there isn’t “one sneaky trick” to turn fat into muscle. The reason is blatantly obvious: fat and muscle are completely different things, and alchemy doesn’t actually exist.
Another one of those myths that we only wish were true, the reality is that burning fat and gaining muscle are two entirely different processes. Fat burning has to do with expending energy, and needing to utilize your body’s stored fat to replace it. While it’s true that working out and building muscle burn energy, not all workouts are created equal.
As an example, take a look at a marathon runner vs. a sprinter. Both are very lean, but the long distance runner has very small muscles while the sprinter has relatively large ones. That’s a function of their respective workout routines and the demands of their sports, not on fat burning.
Myth #5: Eating Low-Fat Food Helps You Lose Fat
Losing fat is about burning more calories than you eat, while also keeping your muscles well-fed and active so as to not lose lean body mass (LBM). While some low-fat foods are in fact lower in calories, many often substitute the fat with sugars and other carbohydrates, giving the final product a very comparable calorie count per serving.
This fitness myth comes from the misconception that the fat on your body comes directly from the fat you eat. Fat is actually a way to store energy (measured in calories) in an efficient manner. Fat holds more energy per gram (9 kcals/g vs. 4 kcals/g for carbohydrates and protein), which allows you to build energy stores while gaining (relatively) less weight. If fat didn’t exist and the same energy was stored as carbs, an average male with 20% body fat would weigh 25% more than before. Yikes!
Lastly, cutting fat out of your diet can actually harm your health. Many vitamins, such as A, E, D, and K, are fat-soluble, which means that they need fat in order to be properly absorbed and stored. If you restrict your fat intake too much, you’re compromising your bodies ability to absorb these vital nutrients, and you may become vitamin deficient. As always, moderation is key, and cutting out an entire macronutrient is a bad idea.
Myth #6: Sweating More = Burning More
Just like fat doesn’t turn into muscle, fat doesn’t turn into sweat, either. And while many activities that help you burn fat (like running, biking, swimming, lifting, rowing, or any other physical activity you can think of) will also likely work up a sweat, it’s not necessarily a direct correlation.
The reason is simple, sweat is your body’s reaction to heat, not fat loss.
Think about a hot day—you’d probably sweat more on a run, but that doesn’t mean you’re burning more calories. You might even weigh a little less when you step on the scale after your summer workout, but the reason for that is the water you lost, not fat.
Working out in extreme heat can even be dangerous, putting you at risk of dehydration and heat stroke, so it’s always important to make sure you’re getting the water and electrolytes you need before, during, and after your workout. It doesn’t have to be Gatorade (which has 14g of sugar in each serving); some water and a nutritious snack is just as good.
Myth #7: No Pain, No Gain
While soreness after a workout is a common phenomenon, it actually isn’t a reliable indicator of whether you’re making progress. Soreness comes from inflammation after working out and a buildup of lactic acid (the reason for the “burn” you feel when running). The real measure of progress isn’t the way you feel the next day, it’s the results you see and personal records you set over time.
But while soreness is normal and nothing to be concerned about, joint pain or severe muscle pain (which can come after extended cardio sessions or heavy lifting) is a potential concern. Bad technique can especially wear your joints in ways they aren’t designed to be used, and instead of improving your fitness, you could be setting yourself up for more problems down the line. If you’re feeling pain, lets your body rest and recover (incorporating rest days into your workout plan is critical), and work with a trainer or other experienced professional if you’re concerned about your form. Correcting those issues now will save you a lot of trouble later on.