Oh look, a catchy title!
In recent years I've tried my best to avoid writing anything from the negative perspective. Instead, I've done my best to frame things in a context that feels authentic, optimistic, and funny. It's just too easy to point your finger at something and say "that sucks".
But here we are, aren't we?
Every squirrel eventually finds a nut and here I am writing a list of four fitness tips that I can't stand hearing. Here's the thing though, each of these tips are bad...like running through the halls of Hogwarts yelling Voldemort's name at the time of your lungs or cursing audibly when you nail your knee on a church pew while going to stand up.
You just don't do it.
I had no master plan to write this article either. In fact, I wanted to use some photos that I snagged on my new DSLR camera last Friday night while my business partner and I were doing work for our upcoming I-phone app (such a tease I know). Instead, I stumbled across a silly PopSugar article yesterday in which a trainer was quoted as recommending a pre-workout powder as one of only three supplements they believe in.
Oh, don't get me wrong. I'm a caffeine loving creature. I adore my morning rush and typically use a little pick me up before my own workouts. However, to recommend a typically high dosed powder (with God knows what other chemicals in it) to "every person" is downright stupid on the part of the trainer, and the overall obviousness of the list just proves websites like Pop Sugar are always in dire need of content. I mean seriously, protein, pre-workout, and a multi-vitamin?
That's the standard sales pitch every time you walk into a GNC.
Anyway, the article reminded me of some of the absolutely incorrect, short-sighted, and potentially dangerous health advice that keeps circling it's way around the universe. Thus, compelling me here to this moment where I finally tell you about the four pieces of fitness advice that could ruin your life.
Now, before we dive into the actual tips know this: each are built on a certain amount of scientific truth. Unfortunately, incomplete information and carefully hand-picked data are the foundations of these tips. It's much more polarizing to say "carbohydrates lead to body fat gain" than it is to say "carbohydrates lead to fat gain in sedentary individuals who avoid resistance training and consume primarily processed sugar".
It is these shortened versions though, that cause all the ruckus, and it is time to do my part in laying them to rest.
1. Cardio makes it impossible to build muscle
Oh man, oh man; if I could turn back time. Early in my lifting years I was counseled by some very strong guys, many of which were on less-than-legal anabolic substances, and the bodybuilding magazines that filled the grocery store shelves by my house.
Wanna build muscle? Skip the cardio they'd say. It burns too many calories that could be dedicated to slapping pounds of sexy muscle on your frame. So, that's what I did. For years I'd avoid running unless it was for sports. I'd lift weights, drink protein shakes, and post some level of pseudoscience bullshit on Bodybuilding.com forums. It was great...
Except, as I've gotten older, my body doesn't stay below ten percent body fat with ease like it used to. Moreover, being a personal trainer who has to really push themselves to complete a four mile run is sort of embarrassing. Oh, and any sort of absolute truth in regards to fitness is usually bullshit (hence the need for a list like this).
What is the truth?
Well, cardiovascular exercise does burn calories, including carbohydrates, proteins, and fats, during and after the fact. However, this burn isn't going to be enough to make your hard-earned muscle disappear overnight, unless you are doing this cardiovascular work for hours on end. A two hour run, bike ride, or bout of stair master will in fact impair your ability to build or retain lean muscle mass if you aren't consuming enough food to counter it.
But the standard issue thirty minutes, three days a week?
Nope. Not going to turn you from Captain America to pre-experiment Steve Rogers. Yes you heard that right, smaller guy desperate to build your chest and biceps, a little cardio won't kill you. In fact, some studies have shown that a certain amount of cardiovascular exercise is necessary to optimize muscle growth and fat loss anyway.
Wait, did you just say that cardiovascular exercise could help me build muscle?
Sure, the stimulus of the cardiovascular exercise itself isn't enough to trigger your body to build significant muscle mass, although, plenty of people who cycle frequently have a set of quads that many bodybuilders would kill for. What happens is an increase in capillarization - or the formation of new blood vessels in the body. These smaller blood vessels help provide oxygen and nutrient-rich blood to working muscles at a more efficient pace, which helps during all forms of exercise, including traditional weight lifting.
Another benefit? As your cardiovascular fitness improves your pace of "play" during weight training workouts will too. You'll be less out of breathe after a set or two of chest press, which could lend you to adding more intensity throughout the workout to reach a normalized level of "exhaustion". This added workload? Just the stimulus needed to trigger muscle growth.
So, know this:
A healthy schedule of cardiovascular exercise during your training week (3 sessions of roughly thirty minutes) can be enough to actually improve your muscle building attempts. If you are still worried that you might lose muscle mass, then simply add the calories you burn back into your diet after your training session (split between protein and carbohydrates). So, a 400 calorie burn would require an additional 200 calories of protein and carbohydrates of food post-workout.
Besides, do you really want to be the muscular guy who can't run a few miles without looking red in the face and close to death? I know I've come to hate this feeling and have happily embraced a bit more cardiovascular exercise in my life.
2. Only men should lift heavy weights
First, sexism is stupid and needs to be punched in the face. Men and women can both do whatever the heck they want, so long as it is legal and doesn't hurt anyone, and that needs to be perfectly OK.
Sure, there are things that women can do better, or more efficiently, than men just as there as certain tasks that men are more adept to doing. For those needing context: women are typically more flexible naturally than male counterparts while men typically have higher vertical jumps.
But, lifting weights?
Not one of em.
This myth has mostly been killed off by an amazing chorus of strong women standing up to the traditional fitness advice that is dispensed in magazines and media. Still though, all it takes is an interview with a celebrities trainer to spark the fire again. And as soon as that fire starts, us strength coaches need to run into the blaze in full-bullshit gear and a hose full of facts hoping to salvage as much of the industry as we can.
The facts behind this phenomenon are simple:
The load that someone lifts does not inherently translate into bigger, bulkier muscle. It is not exposure itself that causes hypertrophy, but rather intentional, and repetitive, exposure.
So ladies, if you lift heavy once or twice a week and you aren't going home smashing a burrito, mashed potatoes, and a bucket of Muscle Milk - the female form isn't going to suddenly disappear. Hell, even if you do smash an entire Golden Coral buffet you'll probably just end up accentuating your natural shape.
But waking up and suddenly saying "yeah brother" into the mirror as you trim your mustache and flex your biceps vein?
Nope, not gonna happen.
See, the female body has less testosterone than that of their male counterparts, which does wonders for limiting muscle growth, translating to this fact:
You won't accidentally get bulky just because you've began training heavy a few times a week.
With this said, if you do lift heavy and you do start to build muscle...own it. Be proud of the strong physique that you present to the world. If a male ever says something to you just walk up to whatever they are doing and show them that you can do it better and not need to make a scene. If that doesn't work, then point their tiny calves and laugh.
The takeaway though? Everyone can and should lift heavier weights (heavy being a variable that is unique to each of us). Don't miss the benefits; such as stronger bones, a more healthy metabolism, better posture, improved strength and athleticism, and the improved shape of your body, just because of some silly myth that keeps persisting.
3. Carbohydrates make you fat, you should go Keto
If a single macro nutrient contributed completely to the obesity epidemic, the rapid increase in mortality risks, and the explosion of waistlines around the world - that shit would be banned faster than you could say Russian investigation.
Sorry, I live in D.C., I couldn't avoid the obvious political pun.
In all seriousness though, blaming one's physical disposition on the consumption of a single, and crucial macro nutrient, is silly at best and dangerous at worst. We only have three nutrients to choose from after all, and so cutting one out completely is bound to wreck your body. Eating fats and proteins exclusively can lead to a whole host of problems raging from mental fog and sleep issues to heart palpitations and the good old Keto flu.
For those unsure, Keto is short for Ketosis, which is the condition your body finds itself in when deprived of carbohydrates for an extended period of time, thus causing it to break down fats and proteins into ketones to be used as an energy source.
In short spurts, ketosis can be a useful way of dropping some stubborn body fat. It could also be used as a way of experimenting with specific carbohydrate types to see if there is a sensitivity (gluten being the most notable).
But it isn't a cure all and it certainly isn't sustainable.
Here is the truth. Are you ready?
Carbohydrates aren't the problem. The type of carbohydrates that you are eating are the problem. No really, let's take a quiz:
Which of the following are carbohydrates:
A. Potato Chips
F. All of the above
You would be correct if you said (F) because all of the above are in fact carbohydrates. Yes, broccoli, spinach, and bananas are carbohydrates too...just like pasta and potato chips. The difference is in what these carbohydrates are made up of, what they do in the body, and if they provide anything beyond calories.
Pasta and chips? Not so much beyond some fiber and calories.
Broccoli, bananas, spinach, and all other fruits and vegetables? There are vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients present in all of them that keep the body's processes running optimally. Oh, and they are exceptionally low calorie, which allows you to eat a lot of them without fear of over consumption.
I mean seriously, has anyone ever blamed broccoli for their weight issues?
Proteins repair tissues and drive processes in the body. Fats are all-purpose with functions ranging from digestion to cellular repair after workouts. These calories can be used for energy production, and often are, but they aren't best. That's carbohydrates job. Easily digestible (they begin breaking down in your mouth due to the enzyme amalase), easily converted into glucose and glycogen, and easily replenished by food and drink - they are perfect for performance.
So, you don't need to skip out on all carbohydrates. You just need to eat more of the right ones. Aim for seven to ten servings of vegetables every day while targeting two to three servings of fruit. What is a serving you ask? Laymen's servings say "half a palm" for all things not made of leaves (spinach, kale, etc.). Obviously if you have small hands...
Have a friend measure.
4. Keeping your heart rate in a certain zone is the only way to burn fat.
On top of being a personal trainer, master instructor, fitness writer, and budding sex symbol I also teach group fitness classes. These aren't just semi-private sessions either. Rather, they are thirty plus folks getting down to Bieber and EDM tracks while I throw down cues, jokes, and the word "go" in the same breathe.
It's fun. I'm an ENFJ. It works.
My point though, is that I like to make people work at a high heart rate, but I also slow them down and have them do dedicated strength work, or core activation, or mobility, or anything that isn't frenzied. Still though, I'll always see that one person touching their neck and looking at their Fitbit as though they are in the fitness version of Speed.
Seriously, it's like Keanu Reeves is definitely trying to keep their heart rate up or we all die.
They'll begrudgingly do what I've prescribed or just break out in some jumping jacks while everyone else is doing staggered stance Romanian deadlifts with a two-two tempo. Or, we'll do some core work on the floor and they are running in place.
They have to keep their heart rate in the optimal fat burning zone, AKA somewhere between 60 and 80% of your maximum heart rate. Which by the way could be an incredibly large range for someone who is young...but that is besides the point.
The point is that this zone is predominantly bullshit and doesn't actually govern whether or not your body is actively burning fats during your workout. In fact, the more your heart is beating and the more energy you are expending - the more likely you are to use carbohydrates as an energy source since 4 calories per gram is much easier to breakdown than 9.
I mean we burn (and this is a studied number here) .42 calories per pound of weight we have while we sleep. So, if a 150 pound person sleeps an entire 8 hours - that's 504 calories right there. And since your heart rate is exceptionally low, and no processes are demanding immediate energy resupply - you are burning FAT.
And the crowd goes wild...
And still, people will skip the slow methodical weight training that can sculpt their body, overlook the value of sleep in their recovery process, and instead focus on keeping their heart rate in a magic zone that is supposed to make all their problems go away.
The truth on this one?
Is that your exercise life should include two to three dedicated strength workouts per week in which the pace is slower and the emphasis is load and form. One or two workouts in which you are pushing your conditioning threshold (AKA get out of breathe and sweaty). At least one long sustained cardio session (45 to 60 minutes) and a day of yoga or mobility work.
It is the variability that breeds success my friends. There isn't one magical pill that fixes everything. If there was my job wouldn't exist and billions couldn't be made selling people pills, powders, and programs. Seriously, think about it...
There isn't a "other wheel" industry because the wheels we have work perfect the way they are. If there was a single solution to all of your fat-burning questions....we wouldn't need to have articles like this.
There are so many myths and falsehoods that get propagated by people everyday that it is almost impossible to keep up. I've heard that deadlifts are bad for your back, squatting is bad for your knees, protein can be eaten in absurd amounts with no side effects, that snack foods are fine so long as you "fit your macros", that there are no risks to fasted cardio, and that the Easter Bunny doesn't lift.
All are mostly bullshit, although all still hold that nugget of truth that caused them to come into existence anyway.
So in closing I say this -
Vet your sources. Don't let someone just "tell" you something and leave it at that. Google, believe it or not, can dispose of bullshit quite well if you take the time to read a variety of literature on a given topic. Hell, don't even just trust me - fact check me - and prove to yourself that the information you receive is worth your time.
Let's not mess up a good thing, shall we?