Unconventional Fitness Truths

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More is Always Better

There is a tendency in the exercise world to say that more time spent at the gym is better. More cardio will burn more calories, more weight will build bigger and stronger muscles, more stretching will end back and joint pain. Generally, this is not true. Just enough of the right things will have a much better effect than too much of the wrong thing. It's better to do short, intense sprints that are over in 4 minutes than it is to while away on the treadmill for half an hour (yes, I did just tell you that you'll burn more fat in four minutes than in 30).

That said, too much of the right things is still bad. Exercise produces results because it creates stress, which your body responds to and adapts to. Too much stress will overwhelm the body's ability to deal with it, leading to a protective response known as getting sick.

I recently read an angry rant that it is unfair for women to compare themselves to the unrealistic images of female bodies on TV because normal women don't have 5 hours to workout every day. I'd argue that you can get a model-quality body on 30 minutes a day. I know because I've done it, but only after I started doing the right things and stopped wasting hours on the wrong things.

The Way to Get Strong is to Lift Heavy Weights

This is true to an extent, but not as much as most college frat boys would like to believe. The common belief is that muscle tissue responds to load; the more weight they are asked to move, the bigger and stronger they will get. In truth, muscles respond to tension. This makes sense to me because muscles themselves function by generating tension, not by exerting pushing force. This may seem trivial, but it has some interesting implications.

Such as the fact that you can get ridiculously strong without a single weight. If you can find a way to demand tension out of your muscles, you can make them stronger. Isometrics (using one muscle against another), calisthenics (bodyweight strength training based on putting the body in positions of disadvantaged leverage), and even contract-release stretching (a form of stretching in which muscles are tensed while under stretch) all require muscle tension. Weightlifting does too, but there are reasons I prefer other methods for building muscle (which I'll go into in another article).

Athletes Can Eat Anything, Because They'll Just Burn it Off

While it is true that athletic individuals will weather the ravages of poor nutrition better than others, this argument is just stupid. It is like saying that you can put crappy fuel into a high performance car because the engine is so powerful. After dragging its performance down, you'll destroy the engine. Similarly, someone who exercises intensely will be able to deal with poor nutrition for a while, but the increased demands they are placing on their body require effective and efficient repairs, which only work if they are eating right.

Whereas a couch potato and an athlete both will have lowered metabolic efficiency and impaired immune response, the first will never know. The athletic person will find he recovers more slowly, and performs much worse. In addition, he will be more likely to injure himself.

Stretching Does Not Prevent Injury

This is a tricky one. It has become fashionable to consider stretching a useless exercise at best, and a potentially injurious one at worst. It is true that static stretching temporarily weakens muscles, reducing performance. Runner's World recently ran an article that referred to a study demonstrating no decrease in the rate of injuries for runners who stretched versus those who did not. Problems I saw: the study only looked at runners, who have minimal flexibility requirements in their sport; the study did not measure performance, only rate of injury; the study only looked at overuse injuries, which wouldn't be affected by flexibility in most cases.

Here is what I've learned about stretching. Gymnasts, dancers, martial artists, Olympic weightlifters, wrestlers, and track athletes all stretch. These sports require a great deal of flexibility and it is just silly to suggest that an inflexible gymnast would not be at greater risk of injury. Since becoming flexible necessitates some form of stretching, these sports, many of them very, very old, have developed tried and true methods of increasing flexibility. Their preferred method is static stretching, the very kind associated with no results and weakened muscles.

So here's the catch. Warm-ups do not need to include stretching, simply the movements to come performed at low intensity and full range of motion. Do static stretching after the workout, when your muscles are warm. Think of it as long-term injury prevention.

If I Lift Heavy Weight, I'll Bulk Up

This is one I hear from women a lot. They see pictures of bodybuilders with gigantic arms and freakish legs and think that if they even touch a barbell, this will happen to them. If you choose to lift weights for strength training (see above), don't waste your time with light weights. You will not bulk up if you lift heavy. In fact, you will probably get leaner and develop a nice, svelte tone.

Here are the details. Guys looking to bulk up do moderate weight with a ton of reps. I mean like 15-20 or more reps in each set. The idea is to completely waste the muscles. They respond by storing more glycogen and sarcoplasm (which is mostly water, by the way, and has little effect on strength, but which allows for longer output). If you want to get strong, lift weight near your maximum, but only 3-5 times (or less if you are going for a max). Do that 2-3 times in your workout and be done. Muscles respond by getting denser (leading to a 'toned' look). They become more visible, but generally not a great deal bigger.

Yes, you may gain weight. If you're overweight now, you'll probably lose some, then gain it back as your muscle gets denser. Your pants size will probably decrease (cases in which it goes up include being a stick-thin dude like me who didn't even have a butt until he started doing squats, at which point he developed some rock solid sexy buns). Muscle tissue is more metabolically active as well, meaning you burn more calories and keep your fat weight in check.

If you don't believe me, check out gymnasts, and non-heavyweight Olympic lifters. Both are ridiculously strong, and tend to be of moderate weight and size. They get that way by lifting heavy weights (or in the gymnasts case doing high-tension bodyweight moves, which is the same thing as far as non-Olympians are concerned).

Anything you adamently disagree with? Any additions? Please share in the comments.