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Fitness Myths

Fitness myths, lets face it, they are incredibly common. In recent times, as the fitness industry grows larger, more people are becoming trainers and it's increasingly easy to become one. As a result what tends to happen is increased commercialisation and a sense of "guruship" by many trainers with a so-called revolutionary new training concept. In addition to trainers becoming so-called gurus the general public is beginning to quote certain "facts" of fitness, sports performance and nutrition and will not accept the contrary to their accepted point of view.

Fitness myths, Fitness myths, Fitness myths, Fitness myths, Fitness myths.
There are certain things that stem from bro-science, popular magazines and all manner of outdated fitness and nutrition information. These pieces of information are accepted without question and become so ingrained that it becomes nearly impossible to challenge.
Here we will look at a few common fitness myths and nutritional fables that tend to be accepted as hard, solid, irrefutable fact that in reality are either entirely incorrect or misinterpreted.
Fitness Myths # 1 - You MUST eat frequently to stimulate the metabolic rate, prevent muscle loss and prevent yourself from entering "starvation/famine mode".
This one is a doozy. There has been a massive misunderstanding based on some early research in the 1980s and even earlier that looked at the starvation response. The starvation response basically means that if a person goes a certain length of time without eating or without sufficient caloric intake they will enter into this famine mode that causes the metabolism to slow down and stimulates the storage of body fat. This is actually entirely true, but not in the way that people think. It is believed commonly that the famine response will kick in after a few short hours without food or one day of under-eating. This is incorrect. The famine response is a protective mechanism from ancient times when food was scarce. It does indeed slow the metabolism and tells the body to store more calories as fat. However what people grossly misunderstood was the timeframe. For the famine response to make a notable difference on metabolic rate a person needs to be deprived of all calories completely for a period of 60 hours or more. That means 60 whole hours without consuming any food at all. The famine response also occurs after extended periods of under-eating, not just complete starvation. This takes an even longer period to make any sort of notable impact on the basal metabolic rate, often taking weeks or months, depending on the level of chronic caloric restriction.
Taking a look at the muscle loss issue, it is true that insufficient calories will lead to a loss of muscle mass over the long and short term. However this should not be thought of in terms of hours. For muscle loss to occur at any notable level a person needs to be calorically deprived for an extended period of time, most often 20 hours or more. If sufficient daily calories are consumed no longer than 18 hours apart in every 24 hour period muscle loss will not occur. Muscle loss and gain is determined more by overall caloric intake over a 24 hour period than by what or how much is consumed at each individual meal throughout the day.
In summary of this fitness myth the six meals a day rule no longer applies. In fact, let me introduce you to intermittent fasting, if you have not heard of this already. Intermittent fasting involves fasting throughout a 24 hour period for a predetermined period of time, commonly 14, 16, 18 or 20 hours. This leaves an eating window of 10, 8, 6 or 4 hours in every 24 hours. Provided sufficient daily calories are maintained intermittent fasting could actually invoke the opposite changes to the negative ones feared by advocates of regular feeding. Many studies have shown that fasting while maintaining sufficient daily calories results in an increase in insulin sensitivity, an increase in the hormone IGF1 and human growth hormone, both of which will promote increases in muscle mass.
Fitness Myths # 2 - Train high reps for "toning" and muscle definition and low reps for increases in muscle size/to get "bulky".
This one is a tough one to convince people out of. Quite often I see people in the gym wanting ambiguous things such as toning and definition without gaining too much muscle bulk. They train with a programme involving a moderate weight for reps of anywhere from 12 up to 25 reps. The belief here is that these high reps will lead to this magical muscle tone without adding unwanted bulk. On the flipside of this we see people that actually want to gain as muscle mass as possible. The overriding goal is mass gain and nothing else. So these guys are seen doing super heavy weights for 4-6 reps per set. The idea is that the heavy training will produce a greater stimulus for growth than training higher reps.
Here's the issue, muscular hypertrophy is a product of intensity and time under tension, or in other words volume. Doing a maximum deadlift for 1-2 reps will not stimulate the body to produce more muscle mass. What it does do is increase muscle tone and strength, without a major hypertrophy result. Hypertrophy favours higher reps that stimulate a post-exercise break-down or trauma of the muscle cells that were trained. The repair process of this breakdown results in increased muscle mass.
To summarise, low reps at a super heavy weight will stimulate strength gains, which contributes largely to muscle tone. This will occur with a very minimal increase in muscle mass. High reps at a moderate weight that causes significant localised muscle fatigue and the associated micro-trauma will result in the increase of muscle mass.

Fitness Myths # 3 - Burning fat requires extended cardio training and is based on calories burned.

In other words, it is believed that in order to burn fat the heart rate has to be significantly elevated for a certain length of time. In the 70s up to the late 90s it was believed that continuous aerobic exercise was the best prescription for fat loss. In modern times, from late 90s onwards people became a little more savvy and started following various fitness trends that were supposedly revolutionary. During this time one thing that made an appearance was high intensity interval training. Both continuous cardio and high intensity interval training has been promoted as the best exercise for fat burning. The theme here is significantly increased heart rate, leading to the assumption that this will burn the most calories.

This assumption is correct in terms of calories. Also, any training that taxes the cardiovascular system to a high degree will result in a fat loss response, provided nutritional intake is balanced to support a deficit. In other words yes it does work. However the myth here is that cardio is the exclusive domain when it comes to fat loss. For one, losing body fat is more than simply calories burned. The reason being that exercise is generally short, ranging from 10 minute to an hour or even more. Even at the higher end of this the extra calories burned during an exercise session are fairly limited. This makes the calorie burning model a little depressing. However there is another, more sustainable and workable fat loss model.

Fat loss is best attained through a combined effort of several training modalities and, most importantly, carefully planned nutritional intake. Indeed cardio models are efficient forms of training that go towards the fat loss target, however the idea is not increased caloric expenditure. Fat loss is a complex process that involves the brain and the endocrine system. There are certain parts of the brain that regulate everything such as appetite, body temperature and body composition, namely the hypothalamus. In addition to this neurological action there is also a whole lot of hormonal magic going on. The most efficient fat burning exercise is the exercise that has a large impact on the regulation of hormones.

Training is only a small part of the fat loss equation, the rest lies in nutrition. Both things must be aligned for effective fat loss to occur. The simple, yet inaccurate understanding that fat loss is about calories in and calories out is a disappointing one when you look at the figures. It simply does not add up.

As mentioned, it is hormones that make the biggest difference on the process of fat burning. Certain combinations of training and eating will effect hormones in different ways. Extended cardio bouts such as running for 90 minutes or more will indeed burn a lot of calories, however the ongoing response is a release of the stress hormone cortisol and results in fat storage and muscle loss.

Fat loss can indeed be achieved through the right nutrition plan combined with cardio training, whether that is continuous cardio or high intensity interval training. However this is not the only way, and people need to get out of the mindset that they can only burn fat if they are breathing hard and their heart rate is massively increased.

The following is just one other way that results in effective fat loss while maintaining, and even gaining, a respectable level of muscle mass…

- Train in a fasted state, meaning no food for at least five hours before the workout. This works well for those that practice intermittent fasting.

- Consume a high protein diet that is abundant in quality fats. This, combined with the training will stimulate an increase in useful and essential hormones such as human growth hormone and testosterone.

- Do a sprint session or two per week. The act of sprinting stimulates human growth hormone and lights up the central nervous system, which takes a lot of energy to recover from. Sprints at maximum pace anywhere from 50m to 200m are best.

- Get strong and gain some muscle mass. Muscle mass is highly metabolically active, meaning that simply maintaining muscle mass results in a higher basal metabolic rate. In addition to this muscle mass combined with fat loss will change the shape of your body faster than just fat loss alone.

Fitness myths

Fitness Myths # 4 - More is better.

This is not so much a myth as it is a mistaken belief. Many people intellectually know better than to overtrain, but their gut instinct tells them that doing more will produce a better result. This extends from muscle gain, fat loss and strength to speed, power and sports performance. If a 30 minute strength training session three times per week will induce muscle growth then doing five times this amount must produce five times the result, right? Wrong.

It has been covered previously when we spoke about the minimal effective dose. This dose applies to every form of fitness training, whether training for general fitness, body composition or elite level sports performance. In order to produce a given result you need to teach the body what you want it to be able to do. To get stronger you need to progressively lift heavier weights, to get faster you need to continually push your limits of speed, to gain muscle mass you need to stimulate the muscles to the point where a small amount of breakdown and trauma is experienced so that the muscle fights back by increasing in size etc. There is no need to shoot the rabbit twice. A kill shot is a kill shot and more kill shots are not going to make the rabbit any more dead than it was after the first kill shot. Once the body has been told to develop something and has received sufficient stimulus there is no need to go beyond that. There is a point at which more training will simply equal more time, not greater results. Further along than that there is a level of training that will begin to have an adverse effect on the desired objective.

As William of Occam said “it is vain to do with more what can be done with less”.

Fitness Myths # 5 - Fat will make you fat.

I have worked with literally hundreds of clients over the years. One common belief that I come across is a fear of fat. Most people believe that eating fat will make you gain fat. I can’t blame them, it makes logical sense that the consumption of fat will lead to storage of fat on the body. In addition to that there have been low fat diets and low fat foods making an appearance for the past 50 years or more. Even the standardised food pyramid states that fats should be limited or even eliminated from the diet. After all, fat contributes to heart disease and adds calories to your diet. In place of fats people have sought flavour and fulfilment in the heavily carbohydrate dominated foods, especially those containing high levels of sugar. So we have gone from a society of excessive fat eaters to a society of excessive sugar addicts.

Allow me to clarify the truth about this common nutritional myth. Fat does indeed add calories to your diet. In fact, fat yields 27kj per gram, which makes it more calorically dense than carbohydrates, protein and even alcohol. However we know that not all calories were created equal. Fat results in a relatively small effect on insulin levels, meaning that blood sugar is steadied when fat is consumed in conjunction with a lower level of carbohydrate, which further results in a decrease in food cravings. So fats are a different kind of calorie, provided they are consumed intelligently.

Fat is an essential nutrient, with each type of fat contributing a different benefit. Most of the body’s hormones, particularly steroid/sex hormones, are constructed using fat as their base. In fact, testosterone requires cholesterol as one of it primary raw materials. Without it you can’t build this most necessary and valuable hormone.

Fat consumption should be dominated by predominantly omerga-3 fats, followed by omega-6 and omega-9 and finally saturated fat and cholesterol. Get an abundance of good fats from avocado, olive oil, nuts and fish. Secondary to these fats, but still equally important are foods such as chicken, red meat, whole eggs and dairy.

Please keep in mind that although fat is essential and helps regulate blood sugar, it is still advised that fat consumption is still monitored. The main thing to monitor is the balance of good fats and bad fats. This relates to the omega-3 and omega-6 ratio. Fat should make up about 30% of your overall diet in terms of calories.


There are literally hundreds, or even thousands, of fitness myths circulating among the exercising public. This is jut a small snippet of what I hear on a daily basis. It is your responsibility to question things. Don’t just accept something as truth just because others do. Do your research, answer your own questions and structure your training and nutrition to best suit the task at hand.

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Chris Lyons is an experienced strength and conditioning coach, having trained athletes of all ages and levels since 2002. Chris specialises in coaching athletes for speed and power specific to fast-moving sports such as rugby league, rugby union, soccer, Aussie rules football etc. Since 2002 Chris has conducted close to 15,000 hours of training and coaching directly with athletes and members of the general population. From this experience comes Sprint Ninja, based on tried and tested training methods combined with up to date research. Chris continues to challenge himself not only as a coach, but also as an athlete, competing in sprinting events, strongman and Olympic-style weightlifting.

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