With so many people offering advice on weight loss, it can be hard to separate fact from fiction. All too often I’ve overheard a hardworking gym-goer sharing a well-meaning but ill-informed tip with another exerciser. And I’m not the only one who’s heard fitness folklore being swapped on the training room floor. I spoke to top experts in the field to find out the common fitness myths they hear from clients. From the pseudo miracles of the “fat-burning” zone to the misguided magic of working out on an empty stomach, here are the fitness falsehoods you should never follow.
Myth #1: The best way to lose weight is to drastically cut calories
“Our bodies are smarter than we think,” said Jari Love, star of the Get Extremely Ripped: 1000 Hardcore DVD. “When we eat too little, our body believes that it’s starving so our metabolism slows down and holds onto fat as a potential energy source.” A much better approach: Eat more often, but eat less food at one time—and focus on these 7 Foods Not to Ditch When You Diet. For the fastest weight loss, break up your total daily calorie allotment—don’t eat fewer than 1,200 calories if you’re a woman or fewer than 1,800 calories if you’re a man—into five to six small meals to keep your metabolism humming.
Myth #2: Heavy weights will bulk you up
“This just isn’t possible for most women,” said personal trainer and Prevention contributing editor Chris Freytag. “Ladies have too much estrogen in their hormone makeup. Yes, heavier weights build muscle and strength, but most of us women aren’t lifting anything so heavy that we are at risk for building man muscles.” Plus, muscle is the secret to a revved up metabolism, as it burns more calories than more fat, even when you’re sitting on the couch or at your desk.
Myth #3: Keep your heart rate in the fat-burning zone
If you’ve been exercising at 60 to 70 percent of your maximum heart rate in order to shed flab faster, you could be slowing your slimdown. “The fat-burning zone is a complete myth,” said Wayne Westcott, Prevention advisory board member and fitness research director at Quincy College. “While it’s true that you burn a higher percentage of fat calories when exercising at a moderate pace, you burn fewer calories overall.” For instance, if you get on a treadmill and walk at a 3.5 MPH pace for 30 minutes, you might burn 250 calories. If you raise the speed to 7 miles per hour, you’d burn 500. Bottom line? “It’s much better to go at the faster speed.”
Myth #4: Boosting cardio is the best way to bypass a plateau
“The most effective way to lose weight is to include both cardio and weights in your routine,” said Love. “One study found that when individuals cycled for 30 minutes a day, they lost three pounds of fat and gained a half pound of muscle in eight weeks. But individuals who cycled for 15 minutes and weight trained for 15 minutes a day lost 10 pounds of fat and gained two pounds of calorie-burning muscle.”
Myth #5: Ab exercises are the fastest way to a flat belly
“Doing abdominal exercises can strengthen the different ab muscles, but it won't burn body fat and reveal the ‘6-pack look,’” said Aaron Swan, Private Trainer at the Sports Club/LA-Boston. “Abs are made in the kitchen—not from doing crunches.” A proper diet low in refined carbohydrates and full of lean proteins, healthy fats, and lots of low-glycemic fruits and vegetables will bring you closer to the flat belly you’re after. Still, you should work your tummy! Here are 6 Surprising Moves for Flatter Abs.
Myth #6: Doing squats will make your butt big
“This one cracks me up,” said Freytag. “We all know what makes your butt big and it isn’t squats. All of us who sit in front of a computer, at desk, or in a car seat all day are at risk for developing weak glutes unless we actively do something about it.” One of the best fixes: Squats! “Science shows that this move will help to lift, firm, and strengthen your buns,” said Freytag. “Just be sure to focus on good form. Keep your knees above your shoe laces and sit back into an imaginary chair; squeeze through your glutes as you return to standing.”
For more great exercise ideas, check out the Free Feel-Your-Best Fitness Newsletter from Prevention.
Myth #7: It can take only a few weeks to reach a weight loss plateau
“Recently, a woman told me she had been training for one month and the scale had already stopped moving,” said Love. “She insisted she had been sticking to her diet and that she was in a plateau, but that likely wasn’t the case.” Why not? A study in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association found that it takes 6 months for an individual to reach a weight loss plateau. “If you are only a couple weeks into your program and weight loss has halted, you probably need to watch your diet,” says Love.
Myth #8: I can slim down by switching to diet soda
There may be zero calories, but chugging those cans of chemicals could be plumping your paunch. “A study at Purdue University found that rats given artificial sweeteners ate more calories and gained more weight than rats given sugar,” said Love. “A better option is to drink water that is naturally flavored with lemon or cucumber slices to keep calories low and hydration high.”
Myth #9: An empty stomach means more fat burn
You’ve probably heard that working out sans food forces your body to tap into fat reserves to work, but this is far from true, according to Freytag. “Science has shown you need to have some glucose in your system in order to ignite your fat-burning furnaces. If you run out of stored glucose, your flame goes out and you start burning up muscle.” Having a little pre-workout snack 30 to 60 minutes before your workout gives you the energy to go longer and harder, which boosts your burn.
Myth #10: You can target trouble spots
It would be nice to be able to choose where our bodies store fat (bigger cup size and thinner thigh, please!) but that just isn’t possible. “The scientific truth is that your body decides where to burn fat based on genetics, regardless of the body part you are exercising,” said Samantha Clayton, personal trainer and co-star of YouTube’s Be Fit In 90. Instead of focusing on one area, spend your time doing full-body workouts that blast calories, like running or body-weight circuits, for all-over slimming.