There are “fitness tips” so wrong that they can make a trainer cringe, so we decided to find out which are the worst offenders. Maurice D. Williams, a NASM and NSCA certified trainer and owner of Move Well Fitness, calls this cringe-worthy advice “gym science,” or un-true information that tends to float around in gym conversations. “Typically speaking, they either have been proven wrong or are not proven at all,” he said. We asked a few trainers to share the worst advice they’ve ever heard. Straight from the gym floor, here’s what they reported.
Sarah Bright, a group fitness instructor at Midtown Athletic Club Chicago and co-owner of Bright Fitness, says that while there is some scientific research that shows how certain types of workouts may be more effective at a specific time of day, for most people, the best time to work out is the time that works best. In other words, pick a time that’s most convenient for you. “If you're not a morning person, insisting on a 6 a.m. run is just setting yourself up for failure,” she said. “Alternatively, if you like to go to bed at nine, getting your blood pumping at eight might make it hard to sleep.”
Unfortunately this is still a misconception that’s sometimes communicated to women who fear building “too much” muscle as a result of training with heavy weights. “Women aren’t built the same way that men are,” says Minna Herskowitz, a NFPT certified personal trainer and owner of Sandbox Fitness. “Our bodies are different—we don’t have as much testosterone as men.” She explained that unless you use supplements and significantly increase your caloric intake, lifting weights won’t cause you to gain excessive muscle mass. In fact, all women should consider adding some form of resistance training to their overall exercise routine, as it provides several important health benefits.
Whenever it comes to calories, don’t let anyone tell you how many you’ll burn doing a certain activity or that a certain exercise burns more than another. Calorie burn is extremely individualized based on a number of different factors, meaning everyone burns calories at a different rate. Adria Ali, a NASM certified personal trainer and creator of Fit Tip Daily says whether this advice is true or not, the problem is that it’s dangerous. “A new gym-goer or someone just getting back in shape is bound to hurt themselves lifting too heavy right off the bat,” she said. Instead of worrying about how many calories you’ll burn, focus on exercising safely by starting out at an appropriate level and working your way up to more challenging exercises and weights as you progress.
“Cardio is an important factor in weight loss,” says Ali. “However, lifting weights allows the body to burn more calories at rest and it has a longer after-burn affect.” A truly effective weight loss plan will include both cardio and resistance training. Resistance training will help to increase your lean muscle mass. This can enhance weight loss efforts because muscle is “metabolically active” tissue, which in order to be maintained demands energy (read: calories) from your body over a longer period of time.
"This one always make me cringe,” says Saul Juan Antonio Cuautle, a certified personal trainer and the CEO and Founder of MOS Training Systems. “First of all, there is no such thing as ‘toning.’ When people say the word ‘tone,’ what they mean is, ‘I don’t want big, bulky muscles. I want high levels of muscle definition.’” He explained that this advice is wrong because working with light weights that allow you to easily complete more than about 12 reps won’t elicit enough “muscle activation.” “People need to get comfortable selecting heavier weights,” Cuautle added, suggesting that you choose weights that, with a slight challenge, allow the completion of about 6 to 12 reps.
Within fitness circles and gym culture, the “no pain, no gain” idea has become somewhat of a widely accepted motivational tool. But as Williams points out, it’s actually just bad advice. “While exercising may result in temporary discomfort or a very uncomfortable feeling, it should not leave you with pain,” he said. “Pain is a warning sign from your body that there is something wrong.”
Williams says that staying within the “fat-burning zone” that’s often marked on cardio equipment is not required for weight loss. As Jason Karp, PhD, a nationally recognized running and fitness coach and creator of Run-Fit so eloquently explains it, “you don’t need to use fat to lose fat.” Instead, Williams suggests training at a higher intensity for a shorter period of time, which will burn more calories overall.
“If you change too many exercises too often it’s difficult to actually get better and adapt to any of them,” says Rick Richey, a NASM certified trainer and Master Instructor and owner of Independent Training Spot. “If you want to get stronger, more muscular legs, doing hundreds of different leg exercises will not do you as much good as a well-designed, rehearsed, and repeated routine—they are called workout routines for a reason.” He recommends making sure that you’re not trying so hard to not be in a rut that you end up forgoing a smart path of progression. “Keep a routine consistent so as not to leave it before the results are recognized,” Richey added. “Switch it up by using a well establish system of periodization.”
Richey says this was a “rule” he learned when first learning how to work out with his friends. “Sometimes I look back at the gym dogma that I grew up with and try to understand the rationale,” he said. “Many folks have an excessive forward lean while squatting and the forward lean can cause the backside to lift before the torso starts to lift, which can place the back in a vulnerable position. The cue to look at a spot on the ceiling was a way to help certain individuals keep their chest up if the forward lean was present.” He says this isn’t a smart technique to follow because it takes the spine out of a neutral position. “A neutral spine is indicated when squatting, including the cervical spine regardless of a forward lean or not,” Richey said. “A neutral spine provides strength to our movements, but it also keeps us in better alignment.”
Bright shared a funny story about a client who had been convinced not to drink water while working out because she thought it would extinguish the “fire” that starts in your belly while exercising. “A woman I trained believed this to be a literal fire that water would quench, and she was certain that the fire was what ‘stoked the metabolism.’ I think it's pretty obvious why this is terrible advice, but for the record, fires do not begin in the stomach. Go ahead and hydrate during exercise.”