If you’ve been working toward your health and fitness goals for a while but feel like you haven’t made any progress, or you are just getting started on your fitness journey, this article is for you. With an abundance of information at our fingertips, there is a ton of misinformation out there about what you “should” be doing to lose fat or gain muscle. You can read articles telling you one thing and hear your friend telling you something else, you may even have talked to a professional who told you something completely different.
I have been in that position, and I know how frustrating it can be to sort through the noise and hone in on what you actually should and should not be doing to get the results you want. That’s why I am putting together this science-backed review of the biggest fitness myths that we have all heard at one point or another that are undoubtably interfering with your progress.
Some of these may come as a surprise, others’ may not. But without any further ado, let’s chat about the biggest fitness myths that you need to unlearn.
It’s Not About Calories Quantity, It’s About Calorie Quality
This is one of the most popular fitness myths that I consistently hear over and over again. Many of my clients when they first are getting started will say “I’m eating the right amount but it’s not healthy food, which is the problem.”
To this I must politely object. A physique transformation ultimately boils down to good ‘ole energy balance: calories in – calories out. If you consistently eat more than you burn, you will gain weight, just as if you consistently burn more than you eat, you will lose weight. Mic drop, plain and simple, that’s it. Even if those calories are the healthiest in the world, you will not lose fat if you are eating more calories than you burn.
Now this is not to say that eating a healthier diet won’t help with your fitness goals—in fact, many times, when people focus on eating better-quality foods they will tend to consume less calories. Because after all, 6 oz of chicken and vegetables have much fewer calories than 6 oz of pizza. However, choosing better quality foods and eating the same number of calories, will unfortunately, have a negligible impact on your fitness goals.
I also want to disclaim that healthier foods tend to be absorbed differently by the body. For instance, high-fiber and high-protein foods take more energy to digest—meaning you may burn slightly more calories by opting for these foods than unhealthy alternatives. But the implications of these choices are not going to have a distinguishable impact on your physique.
Of course, I am not encouraging you to eat an unhealthy diet just because you technically can. Your body still requires essential vitamins, minerals and nutrients that are unfortunately, lacking in most western diets.
If you want to lose fat, you must eat less calories than you burn and if you want to gain mass, you must eat more calories than you burn. That’s it.
You Can Lose Fat in Targeted Areas
This myth has been circulating since the dawn of exercise equipment. Its popularly believed that you can “spot reduce” certain areas. For instance, “lose belly fat”, “lose back fat,” “lose armpit fat”….yep, these are all false promises that are perpetuated by the media.
While building muscle in certain areas can slightly influence the rate of lipolysis (fat burning) in said area, the results you will see from this, are again, negligible. As much as we all wish that you could, you simply can’t choose where you want to lose fat. Your body decides this for you.
And usually, the first place you gain fat is the last place you will lose it. For most people this is the belly/abdomen area, which ironically, is the area that people want to slim down the most.
But the sad fact of the matter is, no amount of ab exercises are going to help you reduce fat only in that area. As we learned in the above section, you simply must put yourself in a calorie deficit for a consistent period of time and your body will slowly chip away at the fat stores. Usually, your body will start with visceral/internal fat and make its way outward. This means the soft fat or beer belly is usually among the last to go.
You Can “Tone” Your Muscles
Another popular myth made famous by marketers—we (especially women) are told that we can “tone” our muscles to get the lean, athletic body we desire.
Women tend to have a lingering fear that resistance training will make them bulky or masculine looking (more on this later.) And “toning” is a fictional strategy created to make women believe they are getting the physique they want—not the huge arms and wide stature. And so it was created as way to sell resistance training to women
Again, I hate to be the bearer of bad news but muscle “toning” simply does not exist, in a biological sense. You can either grow your muscles or shrink them, that’s it.
The “toned” look that women often desire is a result of fat loss and muscle growth.
Cardio is the Most Effective Way to Lose Weight
Ahh…another one that too often comes up among my clients. “Shouldn’t I be doing more cardio?” I am often asked. And this is a myth I have fallen victim to myself. When I was modeling and fanatically striving to be thin, I would run anywhere from 5 to 8 miles a day, and be puzzled when my body was looking seemingly worse than it did before.
Now, I don’t want to completely discount cardio as an effective weight loss tool. As we discussed before, cardio can certainly help increase the “calories out” side of the energy balance equation. And cardio is also a great way to boost heart health and improve other biomarkers. However, if your goal is to lose fat, it is not the most effective way to do so.
Now, for the “why” behind this statement. When we look at our total caloric expenditure in a day (“calories out”), unless you are an extremely active person, your BMR (energy your body expends at rest) comprises most of your energy expenditure for the day. When we look at how many calories you burn during a typical 30-minute cardio session, most people will burn between 200 and 300 calories, depending on what the activity is. If your total daily energy expenditure for the day is 2000 calories, that’s less than 10%.
What’s my point with this? My point is that the calories burned during cardio are simply not substantial enough (unless performed for long, high-intensity bouts consistently) to considerably move the needle with your weight loss goals. On top of that, as you perform cardio more frequently and your body adapts to this type of activity, you start to burn even less calories doing the same thing. And what I have found is that most people will do the cardio and use the extra calories as a credit toward their daily calorie bank (many fitness tools like MyFitnessPal will do this for you automatically in its default mode.)
So as people continue to pound the pavement or chug away on the elliptical day-after-day they assume they are burning the same amount of calories but in reality, it’s less than they may realize and they end up overeating as a result.
Of course, this is not the case with everyone, but we have all seen the people doing cardio at the gym every day to only return with the same body month after month after month.
The fact of the matter is that it’s too easy to replenish calories burned during cardio and the actual amount of calories burned during regular cardio sessions are simply not going to get you your dream body alone.
What is the most effective way to lose weight, you may now be asking? Diet.
Although, of course, if you are looking to enhance your efforts, maintain muscle mass and get a more athletic looking physique, you most certainly should include resistance training in your regiment. And from here, cardio can serve as a nice complement to your other efforts, but prioritize a diet that puts you in a deficit and strength training first.
If you want to hear more this topic, check out my cardio versus strength training article.
Carbs are Making You Fat
Now admittedly, I have to show restraint not to roll my eyes at any of the claims listed in this article. But this one almost makes me angry. Thanks to the mainstream diets such as Adkins and more recently, the keto diet, we have all been brainwashed into thinking that carbs are the enemy. So most people starting on a weight loss or fitness journey are quick to toss all of the bagels, bread and pasta in the house.
To set the record straight: no macronutrient makes you fat. Carbs don’t make you fat, fat doesn’t make you fat, and protein doesn’t make you fat. Too many calories make you fat.
So if you think that embarking on a weight loss journey means that you have to say goodbye to sandwiches, pasta, and even dessert, let me reassure you: it doesn’t. In fact, clinical research has demonstrated that low carb diets do not have any advantages over low fat diets for weight loss when done in a systematic fashion. (1, 2) When you look at top-performing natural bodybuilders (who by definition must have only essential body fat), their diets are high in….surprise…carbohydrates! If carbs were making us fat, these folks probably wouldn’t be eating them in such copious quantities.
Not only will carbs not make you fat but they can actually enhance the progress you see in the gym and improve your overall health (there’s a reason why the most scientifically-supported diets, are high in carbs.) I do want to be clear that when I am talking about beneficial carbs I am talking about whole carbs (fruits, veggies, legumes, whole grains) not white bread and sugar. Refined carbs carry little nutritional value and are best to be supplemented for whole grain varieties with little to no processing. But still, eating refined carbs will not make you fat—only eating. too much of them will.
Now, as to why whole carbs should be plentiful in your diet. Healthy sources of carbs contain fiber which we all should eat ore of. Fiber requires more energy (calories) from your body to digest, it slow digestion which can increase satiety and reduce glycemic loads, and can promote and support gut health. Additionally, whole plant foods such as fruits and veggies also come densely packed with other vitamins and nutrients that your body needs to thrive.
Carbs are promote muscle protein synthesis and can help you get more out of your workouts and improve your recovery time.
And while no single macronutrient can make you fat, when it comes to macros’ role in diet—carbs and protein are the most conducive to weight loss. Not only do they contain less calories per volume than fat (4 calories per gram), but they are also require the most energy for the body to digest and are very chemically different than body fat. This means that your body has to go through extensive processes to convert protein or carbohydrates into body fat.
Your body needs carbs, your brain needs carbs and depriving yourself of them for the sake of trying to drop a few pounds is silly.
You Need to Consistently Change Your Workouts to Keep Your “Body Guessing”
Another wive’s tale among gym-goers is that you have to continuously change your workouts in order to get results. If you keep repeating the same exercises, your body will adapt and your progress will halt. Again, I am sorry to say, this is simply not true.
In order to see results in the gym, you need to progressively overload your muscles. This means that you need to continue to increase the amount of work they have to do in order to grow them. Usually, this is done by increasing the weight on the same exercises.
So if your goal is hypertrophy (muscle growth) I will tell you to do 8-10 reps of an exercise. If you can do more than 10 reps, you need to increase the weight. This is how your muscles grow.
If you are constantly changing your workouts, it becomes difficult to measure progress and ensure that you are indeed, progressively overloading. In fact, I have seen plenty of people achieve their fitness goals by doing the exact same 6 workouts a week for months.
Now, this isn’t to say you can’t do other workouts. In fact, it’s difficult to work all of the muscles you want to in a standard 4-5 exercise workout so you probably do want to include a couple different variations of your push/pull/leg days in your split but keep a consistent rotation of some key exercises so you can make and measure progress.
Lifting Heavy Makes You Bulky
This seems to be the biggest concern that women often voice before starting a resistance training program and is often the reason they have stuck to the treadmill for the duration of their prior gym excursions.
It is a common misconception that lifting weights will cause women to develop large, bulky muscles like men. However, this is simply, not the case. That’s not to say it can’t be done—we’ve all seen the woman in the weight section that intimidates the men around her…but this does not just happen by lifting heavy weights.
In reality, strength training with heavy weight can be very beneficial for women and help you achieve your ideal body. Many women who lift weights actually develop a leaner, more toned physique, rather than becoming bulky.
The degree to which lifting weights will increase muscle size and depends on a variety of factors, including genetics, diet, and training intensity. However, women typically have lower levels of testosterone than men, which limits the amount of muscle they can build.
It is also important to note that developing a bulky appearance requires a significant amount of time and effort—often years and years of a vigorous training regimen, a strict diet, and often the use of performance-enhancing drugs. Therefore, most women who engage in weightlifting as part of their fitness routine are unlikely to become bulky.
Ab Workouts Will Give You a Six Pack
I have talked about this myth before. However, because it’s so widely believed, it’s worth mentioning it again. Ab workouts alone do not give you a six pack.
Ab workouts can help to strengthen and tone the muscles in your abdominal region, but whether or not you will see a six-pack depends on a few different factors.
First, it is important to understand that having visible abs is largely a function of low body fat. Even if your abs are well-developed, they will not be visible if they are covered by a layer of fat. Therefore, in order to see a six-pack, you need to have a low enough body fat percentage that your abdominal muscles are visible.
Second, genetics play a role in how visible your abs are. Some people naturally have a more defined abdominal region, while others may need to work harder to achieve the same level of definition.