Fitness training has been around since 2,000 B.C., so it’s no wonder that there are so many fitness myths floating around.
This has only escalated with the rise of social media, where so-called ‘fitness experts’ gatekeep certain truths from their followers to appear more knowledgeable in their field.
We spoke to qualified Personal Trainer and Pilates instructor Stephanie Morgan Todd to debunk the most common fitness myths, so you can get the facts straight and focus on what matters in your training.
1. The more pain, the better the workout
This is one of the most common fitness myths, as the media has encouraged gymgoers to push themselves to their limits for decades.
Films use this for dramatic effect, and the fitness industry has been known to spread this belief so that people will blame themselves for lacking consistency and buy into new fads and trends. Todd says:
“Pain or delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) after exercise happens for two reasons:
- you haven’t exercised in a while, or you’ve exercised in a new way
- you’ve completed an exercise where the eccentric movement was prolonged or emphasised—for example, a Romanian deadlift (you take more time on the way down)
Does it mean your workout wasn’t good if you don’t feel pain afterwards? Not at all. Firstly, every workout is good. Secondly, it depends on your goals.
If you’re working out for strength or muscle building, ensure your sessions are progressive and intense, and you can’t go wrong. Remember that being in pain is a good sign you’re not recovered—it’s here that we risk injuries and mental fatigue.
Always listen to your body. The bottom line is that NOT being in pain after workouts is a good thing, and pain has no effect on muscle growth.”
2. Muscle growth can only be achieved with heavy weights
If this is true, why do so many dancers, runners, and yogis have lean physiques?
That’s the quickest way to debunk this fitness myth, but Todd gives us a more technical explanation:
“Muscle growth will happen when you train progressively and with intensity. Progression is triggered by many factors, such as using a full range of movement, perfecting form, decreasing rest time, and increasing volume, reps, and sets. Increasing weight is just one of them.
Muscle magic will happen if you progress each body part week-on-week (don’t forget your de-load), eat in a surplus, and push yourself with your big compound lifts.
If your version of pushing yourself is 25 reps of a bodyweight squat rather than one rep of a 100kg weighted squat, you can still build muscle.”
3. Your muscle will turn to fat if you stop exercising
We’ve all heard this fitness myth, but here’s Todd’s advice to those wondering if it’s true:
“Absolutely not. Fat is stored by your body when you eat surplus calories and shrinks when you create a deficit to target those stores. The same happens with muscle.
Muscle degeneration increases as we age, so it’s important to exercise and eat enough protein to retain your muscle mass.
I recommend strength training for any age, especially the older generation and those experiencing menopause. But I can assure you that any muscle you are lucky enough to build will not turn into fat. It will only decrease if you stop exercising for an extended period.
If you eat in a surplus and don’t lift weights, you’re likely to build fat.”
4. Ab workouts lead to a flat stomach
It would be great if this common fitness myth were true, but you can’t target individual areas of your body. Compound exercises and a balanced diet are the most effective for improving overall body composition.
“How often have you seen a fitness model or influencer say, want a toned tummy or flat abs? Do this core exercise!
What I would take away from this advice is that they’re providing nothing more than a new core exercise to try alongside a well-rounded exercise programme. Flat stomachs only occur when you become lean through good nutrition.
Does it help to perform core exercises? I’d never say no to doing more exercise, and by all means, focus on building strength in your core, as the stronger it is, the better.
But even if you did a thousand crunches a day, you’d still need to diet gradually within a healthy calorie deficit for your abs to show.
Don’t get sucked into misleading ab workout videos—instead, get yourself a strong core through doing compound exercises and gradually improving your nutrition.”
5. You can target individual areas of the body for fat loss or ‘tone’
As we said above, targeting one area of your body in isolation for fat loss is impossible. This is due to several factors, according to Todd:
“Fat is distributed where your body desires. It’s down to your genetic blueprint, and you cannot lose fat on only your stomach, thighs, or any other targeted area.
You can build or lose muscle in specific areas, of course, but you cannot “sculpt” muscle.
For example, if you did bicep curls on one arm and not the other for an extended period, you would likely see a slight difference in size, but you cannot change the shape of your muscles.
Lifting weights will help you achieve a leaner physique and add more definition to your body if executed correctly. Muscles grow alongside a high protein intake and progressive overload, so incorporate this into your training if you’d like to hit these goals alongside fat loss.”
6. Longer and more frequent workouts are the most effective
As far as common fitness myths go, this one is among the most widely believed.
The NHS weekly exercise guidelines state that 75 minutes of vigorous exercise per week is as effective as 150 minutes of moderate exercise, however, which is a strong argument for why it isn’t true. Todd backs this view:
“I never exercise for more than 45 minutes unless I’m really taking time between sets and heavy lifting.
Sometimes, I think we are a little obsessed with thinking we’ve not done enough and that this mentality holds us back from keeping consistent and reaching our goals.
If you have a day when you’re motivated to spend over an hour in the gym, that’s great. But what happens when you’re feeling unmotivated, mentally fatigued and dreading being in the gym for an hour?
You can avoid this by keeping your workouts short and intense. Some intensity and a good structure are more than enough and often much more sustainable over time.
Exhausting yourself will eventually catch up with you and your nervous system. Remember—we exercise for good health, not to punish ourselves.”
7. Cutting out all junk food is the only way to lose weight
Our final fitness myth is the one we’re the most relieved to see on this list. Todd says:
“Do you know how many times I’ve heard this?
If you’re all or nothing, chances are you’re familiar with yo-yo dieting. But it doesn’t have to be that way—learning and changing your approach is all it takes to break the cycle.
I believe calorie counting is the single best education in food and diet. I cannot tell you how many people have told me, “I don’t eat a lot”, before realising just how easy it is to overeat after a few weeks of tracking their calories.
There is no need to never eat a couple of biscuits, just as there is no need to eat an entire packet.
If you cut out “junk” or treats altogether, you simply admit that you’re willing to put your weight back on.
Once you understand calories, you are educated for life. Who wouldn’t rather that than a fad diet that destroys your relationship with food?”
So, there we have it. The most common fitness myths debunked by a true fitness expert, so you have a strong starting point if you’ve been feeling lost on your fitness journey.
Thanks to Stephanie for her insights!
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