Unapologetically Debunking The Top 7 Exercise Myths

This goes out to the ill-informed. These days it's easy to be misled!

1378131622_2848You can’t expect much more from the training world, when there are so many people involved in it to make a quick dollar. In essence, it takes advantage of the ill-informed client (or potential client) who doesn’t know any better. Using “hot buttons” and catchy phrases and lines are what really popularize the commercial side of this industry. What we see on TV as a result does nothing but facilitate the spreading of myths that actually aren’t scientifically accurate.

Before I started writing this, I was debating between this particular topic and another one called “what to expect when you’re new to exercise”. I chose this one, because I think the second topic can actually fit into it. It’s time to debunk 7 of the most common myths I’ve noticed in the training world, to let those who are less enlightened get on the right track.


Simply put. There’s no such thing. Training the abs or obliques directly won’t make you get leaner abdominals, or decrease your love handles.  Doing hamstring curls won’t cure you of a cellulite attack and a case of cottage cheese thighs.  You can train a specific area as much as you want, but if your intention is for your body to appear leaner in that area, you’re wasting your time.

Try this instead: Your body doesn’t usually “choose” where it’ll drop fat once it’s been triggered to do so. However, it makes sense to use compound movements and train in a multi-joint fashion in order to stimulate the hormone release and caloric burn that can trigger fat loss. When coupling this with a clean diet, you’ll be amazed at your results.


Once again, far from the truth. Unfortunately, due to a blessing and a curse called genetics, we’re stuck with what we’re stuck with in this department. There are no exercises that will add “shape” to the chest, “smooth out” the shoulders and hamstrings, or “tone” the triceps. If this was all true, all pro bodybuilders would essentially look the same, choosing exercises to get the exact “shape” and symmetry that is viewed as perfect.  On TV you hear this all the time, as part of the commercial gimmicks for a new and innovative device or machine that’s on the market, that’s claiming to revolutionize health and fitness forever. Don’t be fooled.

The truth is, our bodies are built a certain way, and the only thing we have to control the way it looks is how large we can make the muscles on our body, and how lean we can make our appearance by removing fat from our body. “Toned”, “lean”, “smooth”, or any other adjective used to soften somoene’s perception of carrying plenty of lean tissue, all sound like they’re associated with having visible muscle mass, with varying levels of fat surrounding them.  To make things simple, I’ll make this statement:

  • It’s relatively safe to conclude that everyone who wants a better looking body would prefer to carry higher amounts of muscle and lower amounts of body fat. To get this to happen, you shouldn’t ever exclude weight training, and definitely shouldn’t exclude heavier lifting in choice movements. Build a foundation, build muscle, and worry about eating the right way to facilitate the fat loss you’re looking for. Voila.


As an extension to my last point, lifting weights (and including heavy weights) should dominate the game when it comes to your quest for a leaner body, OR a larger body. Your metabolic rate will improve at a rate faster than steady state cardio will provide. Second, it’s helpful to think of the overall difficulty level of the exercise. Your body has the capability to adapt to plenty of stimuli, and it does so relatively quickly.


I like to use the example of construction workers. We all know the nature of their day-to-day work would involve operating heavy machinery, lifting things, and using a lot of their physical strength to perform manual labor. Their job is not easy, and takes a lot of energy. Now, if you talk to someone after their first week on the job, they’ll likely say they’re as sore as ever. But after 4 weeks, 6 weeks, 3 months, and so on, a good night’s sleep and they’re ready to get up and do it all over again. On top of this, they haven’t gotten groundbreakingly larger OR leaner as a result of what they’ve been doing on their 9 hour shifts – even though it involves constant physical effort.

The reason why is because their bodies have adapted and the work is no longer challenging for their muscular system, nervous system, or hormones.  Doing 45 minutes of steady state cardio may be a very difficult and taxing feat at the beginning (I know it would be for me!). But if you do 45 minutes of cardio per day, for 3 months – and we’ve all seen these folks at the gym – with the intention of being substantially leaner after that time period, you’re wasting precious time, and probably burning precious muscle in the process.

Again, the key is to get the metabolism to work faster and more efficiently, in and out of rest. Research supports that training out of the steady state zone and towards the anaerobic zone is the best way to do this. Again, lift weights, and don’t shy away from heavy. If you’re gonna run, run fast – really fast, for short distances, and repeat.


When the presence of the BOSU ball came on the scene in the early to mid-2000’s, it probably was a vehicle to reinforce (or maybe introduce) this thinking. For a while, unstable surface training became the hub of many trainers’ workouts. Not only did I see this as a trainer just starting out, but I practiced it too. I loved the thing.

Here’s the rule to apply in this situation. Whenever the topic of strength (not just core strength – ANY strength) comes into the conversation, it’s important to remember that it’s impossible to produce maximal forces against unstable surfaces. The ability to train while producing a maximal force means a chance for strength to be improved upon.  In short, the decision to use an unstable surface while training in the pursuit of strength is futile. It won’t happen. If not, top ranked powerlifters who bench 675 and squat 780 would be doing 60 percent of their squat training on the BOSU to get their numbers up.  As a side note, just imagine a 320lb powerlifter doing his back squats on the BOSU ball. If you’re ever in a bad mood, just think of that – it works for me.

The truth is, training on an unstable surface may provide some conditioning, but it’s primarily good for, well, improving your balance. Your core isn’t the weak link when it comes to not being able to squat or stand on a ball. Your neuromuscular coordination is. In other words, proprioception is really what matters. I could have substituted about 20 more sport specific examples in place of the above to prove my point that the core isn’t the culprit. We can’t expect to be good at a balancing act if we haven’t directly trained our bodies for the purpose of being better balancers. We don’t train balance as trainees because it’s not as important as training for muscular strength.  We walk and live life on solid ground 98.4% of the time. It’s that simple.

Sorry, dude. Looks impressive, but won't serve a purpose beside getting good at BOSU overhead squats. 
Sorry, dude. Looks impressive, but won’t serve a purpose beside getting good at BOSU overhead squats.

Think about other things as indicators of core strength levels. If you’re having issues maintaining your posture while doing any variation of squatting, deadlifting and overhead pressing, chances are the forces aren’t being transferred through the core as efficiently as they could be, to aid the lifts. Holding a plank for 45 seconds with good technique shouldn’t be a hassle, so give that a try too. If you notice areas that need improvement based on tests like these, it would be a great idea to make proper core training your focus.


Programs like German Volume Training, German Body Comp, and 8×8 workouts work so well because of the fact that adding size is really a product of simply exhausting muscle fibers to completion, and then making sure your nutrition facilitates an adequate recovery. What these programs share in common is the fact that heavy weights are not a factor for any of them. In GVT, for example, the load being lifted is typically around 65-70% of one’s max effort. That’s atypical of a classic size program, where weights of around 80% are generally used, often for sets of 8 to 12 reps.  When we wrap our mind around the “fully exhaust the muscle in question” concept, however, it becomes clear that the main variable we need to manipulate is the rest interval. Our muscles will remain fatigued if we simply don’t give them enough time to rest during a size workout. You can do a dumbbell shoulder press for 4 sets of 10 reps with your 10 rep max, using 3 minute breaks in between, and will have performed 40 reps in around 15 minutes.  Or you can perform 10 sets of 10 reps with 70% of your 10 rep max with only 1 minute rest between sets. In 20 minutes, you’ve just done 2.5 times the work, and completed 100 reps.  In terms of cumulative weight lifted, let’s say your 10 rep max is 50 pounds, for the sake of argument. In the first example, you’d have lifted a total of 2000lbs (50lbsx10repsx4sets). In the second example, with the lighter load (which would be 35lbs, using 70% of the original weight) you’d have lifted 3500lbs – AND rested less while in the process of doing so. What do you think you’d be more fatigued from?

Long story short – Volume, intensity, and rest interval are what characterize a size program that can facilitate growth. If you’re looking to get big, make sure you’ve got your foundation of strength and technique, and then apply this idea to your split routines.


And doing upright rows are bad for your shoulders, and doing pulldowns are bad for your rotator cuff, and doing pressdowns are bad for your elbows.

My take on this is that the body is made to move in many ways. What we choose to add load to matters. But what matters more are the people who are doing the movements. Certain movements can be more contraindicated if we have a case with the people who have chosen them. This is where a discerning eye can help, and why good personal trainers still have jobs. The full range squat is a primal movement that everyone should (ideally) become competent at doing. If you have a pre-existing condition however, like a ligament or meniscus damage, it may not be the best idea until your issues have been solved, so your mobility can be restored. The same goes for a deadlift. Bending over to pick something up off the floor – heavy or light – is not a “health risk” for the lower back, unless we make it one by our lifestyle and how we take care of ourselves in the long run. The red lights and alarms sound because the implement changes from a toddler or box of books, to a loaded barbell or pair of dumbbells, as though that should change something (though the consistency of load distribution in the dumbbells and barbell should actually deem it safer in this light).  Because of this, many healthy and natural movements are placed in a warning zone as potentially injurious.

You mean it's safe AND it helps you ladies to look like her? Talk about 2 birds!
You mean it’s safe AND it helps you ladies to look like her? Talk about 2 birds!

As far as picking stuff up goes, we were made to do this. The stronger we get, the more weight we’ll be capable of lifting. The better our technique in doing so becomes, the more weight we’ll be able to lift still. I believe in training everyone to achieve full range of motion and maximum strength in the primal movement patterns, of which the squat and the deadlift movement patterns are included. If there’s something that prevents the lifter from achieving this, a look at his body and technique are needed to create or recreate a proper foundation to allow this to happen. Remember, exercises aren’t contraindicated. The people who do them are.



I saved this one for last, because it’s one of the most common myths I’ve heard, and also quite funny. You don’t know how many people came to me while I was doing work as a consultant for a box gym to get assistance with a program design, making sure to mention that they don’t need to train legs, because they “walk to work”.

Truth be told, walking and running definitely do involve the muscles of the leg, but it won’t make them stronger. Worse yet, the impact that is placed on the hip and knee joints from the foot strike will do the body more cumulative damage than good. Add in pre-existing muscular imbalances and you’re not in a good place. Your body needs to be trained evenly and running or walking just won’t do the job. Think about it: You’re only moving in one direction when you run – forward – with the occasional turn. That means you’re repeatedly placing the workload on select muscles, which attach to joints. Imagine having one set of muscles that are much stronger and tighter than its opposing group. Not a good look, and not good for health, either.  The proof comes from the countless cases of IT band syndrome, PFS, Tendinitis, and immobility issues in runners I’ve seen in just 7 and a half years of work. Resistance training and doing specific lower body work is the only way to counter this from turning into an issue that can sideline your enjoyment. If you’re going to run, make sure to keep your health in first check.

Myth 8: You Need to Follow the Masses!

If you’re reading this, you’re likely someone who’s showing interest in training above and beyond your typical Joe. I encourage you to continue doing so from good sources, as you’ll notice many stark contrasts to what’s popularized in the fitness industry. As you learn more, you’ll realize that there are many topics that are either avoided altogether, or adjusted to tickle the ears of the common folk.  However, I digress. Follow the direction above, steer clear of these myths and you’ll be on the right track towards a better looking (and healthier!) body.

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