Think you'll get a six-pack with crunches? You might want to check out these fitness misconceptions before hitting the gym.
Whether it’s coming from the media, athletes, celebrities, or friends, there are countless exercise myths that are widely accepted as fact. Here are 10 commonly held exercise misconceptions, as well as the real truths to improving your health and performance.
1. Static stretching decreases risk of injury
If people warm-up at all, they usually static stretch. Static stretching immediately before exercise can cause performance decrements; it can also increase your risk of injury. Stretching can also cause a short-term decrease in musculotendinous stiffness. If joints are relying on this stiffness for force production or stability, this decrease can lead to undesired joint movements and eventually cause injury. This is especially true in runners who do the standard calves and hamstrings stretches outside, and go immediately into their run.
There is research demonstrating that runners who static stretch immediately before they run actually suffer more injuries than those who don’t. Dynamic warm-ups with joint mobility and muscle activation exercises will improve your range of motion while promoting muscular control. This gives you the best chance to move efficiently and avoid injury.
2. Getting in shape is good for fat loss
Most people equate losing weight with getting in shape. By definition, getting in shape means that any given workload (for example, a three-mile run at 7 mph) will be easier to perform and less costly in terms of energy. Using jogging as an example, this means you’ll need to run longer or harder to get the same metabolic disturbance (what causes weight/fat loss). This can lead to excessively long training sessions that take a significant toll on your body. One way to minimize this adaptation is to alter your methods of conditioning, like with biking, running, slide-boarding (if possible), and resistance training circuits. This prevents your body from becoming too efficient at any one modality and therefore increases the metabolic disturbance from each.
3. Long-distance cardio is good for fat loss
Just about every piece of cardio equipment currently manufactured comes with a nice display of target heart rate zones for “fat burning.” The idea behind these zones is that working at the specified target heart rates will allow you to burn the largest proportion of your energy from fat. Sounds tempting. What few people realize is that you actually burn the highest proportion of fat while at rest (around 70 percent of your energy comes from fat).
There is a growing body of research now supporting the use of high-intensity interval training for fat loss. This form of “cardio” takes well less than half the time (typically 12 to 20 minutes) of traditional long distance cardio and leads to better results. The only people that should ever do long-distance cardio are endurance athletes, people who have a complete disregard for the value of their time and people who aren’t in good enough health to pursue high-intensity intervals (in which case, lower-intensity intervals would still be better).
4. Pasta is the ultimate pre-workout meal
For endurance athletes, there may be some benefit to the idea of carb loading. With that recognition, carb loading has been misinterpreted as requiring the need for large amounts of carbohyrates in the meal eaten before exercise. Pasta is the most frequent culprit. Most men have fully depleted their body's carbohydrate stores through the foods they eat throughout the rest of the day. Overeating pasta does little in the way of providing energy and likely leads to fat storage. Carbohydrates can also cause people to feel tired. A better meal option would be a balance of lean protein (like turkey, ham, fish, chicken, and lean beef), whole-grain products (such as quinoa) and vegetables. This provides a wider range of nutrients and gives your body the fuel it needs to perform optimally.
5. A quick jog and a few stretches is a sufficient warm-up
Not overlooking the fact that many people don’t warm up at all, the quick jog to “break a sweat” and a few stretches is the default warm-up of those that do. There are a few benefits of this type of warm-up. By going for a quick jog, you’ll increase your circulatory rate and your body temperature, which can help improve the elasticity of your muscles. But this type of warm-up does little to stimulate the nervous system (or increase the excitability of the working muscles) and doesn’t take the working joints through a full range of motion.
Static stretching immediately before exercise has been shown to decrease performance measures like power, speed, and balance. While the deleterious effects of static stretching are datable and frequently misinterpreted, this type of warm-up can still be improved upon. A dynamic warm-up consisting of joint mobility and muscle-activation exercises will take your joints through a full range of motion, increase the neural drive to the working muscles, increase the extensibility of commonly locked-up muscles, increase your circulatory rate, and increase your internal body temperature. This type of warm-up is ideal both in terms of performance and injury prevention.
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6. More is better
In an effort to get stronger, faster or to improve athleticism, most people default to adding more volume. This is often at the expense (or neglect) of added recovery. In order for your body to adapt, it needs sufficient recovery time. While brief planned periods of volume increases can be beneficial in increasing your capacity, continually adding volume will eventually have deleterious effects on your performance. Many men have heard that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to master a skill. This may be true in some cases, but it’s important to remember that quality practice leads to quality muscle memory and that fatigue masks fitness. In other words, you need to give yourself time to recover from skill-based practices, or you’ll be teaching your body to remember garbage movement strategies. Stress is necessary to stimulate improvement; recovery is necessary to realize adaptation.
7. Strength isn’t important for distance running
It’s true that every distance runner doesn’t need to be and, well, shouldn’t be built like a powerlifter. With that said, every distance runner should be doing some form of resistance training. This doesn’t mean the low-weight, high-rep crap that seems to frequent endurance training; this means strength training designed to actually get you strong (like sets of 6-8 reps). Distance running events are about covering a set distance as fast as possible, meaning speed is the key. Speed is improved by putting more force into the ground in each stride. More force means more strength.
Think of it this way: If you need to put an average of five units of force into the ground each stride to attain your time goals, and you’re maximal capacity is 10 units of force, you’re working at 50 percent of your maximum capacity. If you improve your capacity through quality strength training to 15 units of force, then running at five units per stride is only 33% of your capacity. More likely, you’d increase your speed to maintain your given work intensity (in this case 50%). Strength is far from the only component of being a successful distance runner, but it’s one of the most overlooked.
8. Basketball shoes protect against injury
High-top basketball shoes were invented in an attempt to minimize the risk of rolling an ankle as a result of landing on someone’s foot. These shoes, which increasingly have ankle support that mirrors ski boots, effectively limit side-to-side ankle motion. This will minimize the risk of ankle sprains but causes excessive range of motion at the knee. The knee has some rotational ability, primarily flexes and extends. Unfortunately, basketball shoes also limit the ankle's range of motion in dorsiflexion (shin coming toward toes) and rotation. When these ankle movements are restricted, compensatory motion occurs at the knee. Over time, this leads to a number of knee problems. Couple this with the fact that restricted ankle motion causes a decrease in sensory and reflexive ability of lower-leg musculature and consequent impairment of balance, and basketball shoes can be viewed as both injury inflicting and performance inhibiting.
9. Squatting is bad for your knees
The idea that squatting is bad for your knees has a few sources. Data on patellofemoral contact (kneecap against the joint) forces during these movements can show forces in excess of nine times an individual's body weight as the knee flexes through 90 degrees. This is coupled with doctors concluding that squatting is bad from your knees after seeing men come to them in pain from squatting. From the doctor’s viewpoint, this is a logical conclusion. If you hear people say they hurt their knees from squatting again and again, squatting must be bad for your knees.
The gap in this logic is that most people without a history of knee pain squat without ever experiencing it. Regarding the patellofemoral contact force data, a number that seems strikingly high doesn’t necessarily imply that the body is not built to sustain these forces. Most men that have squatting-related knee pain have poor technique. In an attempt to keep their torso vertical, they drive their knees excessively forward. In a good squat, the angle of the shin matches the angle of the torso. This ensures loading of the posterior hip musculature (glutes and hamstrings) and minimizes the anterior shearing forces across your knee. In people with a history of knee pain, it’s best to try to maintain a vertical shin angle throughout the motion.
10. Crunches are the best way to get a six-pack
Everyone, from the average civilian to elite level athletes, has been fooled by the same misconception. Doing crunches and sit-ups are not the best way to get a six-pack. Having a visible six-pack is almost entirely a function of body fat and minimally a function of abdominal development. We all know the rail-thin guys that have a shredded midsection. Contrast the overwhelming majority of powerlifters who have insanely strong core muscles but don’t sport a six-pack. Intuitively, we all know this, but when we start to feel saggy in the midsection, we go straight for the ab exercises. Contrary to popular belief, training a muscle group will not burn fat locally. This means that doing ab exercises won’t burn fat from your midsection. Save yourself the wasted time and probable back pain -- the best way to get a six-pack involves making better dietary choices and doing high-intensity interval training.