Nothin' but the Truth!
During your time in the gym, you've probably noticed that the same training questions are discussed amongst athletes and fitness buffs day in and day out. You know the questions I'm talking about: "What exercises will shape and tone my muscles because I don't want to get too bulky?" And let's not forget this classic: "How do I get a better peak on my biceps?"
The list goes on and on. Unfortunately, these questions are usually answered by one of the gym's under-certified personal trainers, or worse yet, the local gym legend. The gym legend is the guy whose arms are twice the size of his thighs, he's been on the same routine for the past ten years, and his physique hasn't changed since the first day he lifted a weight. Oh yeah, he still lives at home with his mommy. (Hopefully, you sense my sarcasm.)
The popular answers given to these questions by the self-proclaimed experts have created gym myths that are older than your grandmother's wedding dress. These myths have been around for so long they've actually been accepted as truth. Below I've exposed ten of the most popular training myths and I've revealed the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth!
After reading my list, do yourself and your gym a favor: print out a copy of this article and discreetly leave it lying around your gym. Maybe, just maybe, one of the members or trainers will pick it up, read it and learn something. Hopefully, it'll help them to open up their minds and they'll finally learn the truth. This will make your gym a much happier (and more productive) place to train.
Let's get to it!
The Top Ten Training Myths
10 – Preacher curls work the lower biceps.
First of all, there's no such thing as a "lower" biceps. It's impossible to contract the lower portion of your biceps without recruiting any other portions.
Still not convinced? Well, you might be thinking that whenever you complete a tough set of preacher curls, you get a pump in your biceps just above the bend in your elbow. After all, it's your "lower" biceps which creates your biceps "peak," isn't it?
Okay, here's the deal. The prime movers in the preacher curl are your biceps brachii and the brachialis. The biceps brachii consists of a long and short head and it crosses over two joints (your shoulder and elbow). On the other hand, the brachialis only crosses over one joint (the elbow) and it lies underneath the biceps brachii. It originates on the middle of your humerus and inserts on the radius.
When performing a preacher curl, your upper arms are placed in front of your upper body (shoulder flexion). For a muscle to be fully activated, it must be stretched at both ends. Since the biceps brachii attaches to the shoulder, it can't be fully activated because the angle of the preacher bench places the shoulders in flexion. This places a large portion of the load on the short head of the biceps brachii and the brachialis.
Remember that the brachialis lies underneath the biceps brachii and it originates lower on the upper arm. When the brachialis gets "pumped," it pushes the bottom of the biceps brachii forward, creating what appears to be a "lower biceps."
9 – Basketball and baseball players shouldn't lift weights because it'll make them tight. This will ruin a basketball player's ability to shoot and a baseball player's ability to hit and throw.
It amazes me that this myth is still around. After all, check out the success of Michael Jordan, Shaquille O'Neil, Barry Bonds and Mark McGwire, just to name a few. Did the added muscle on their frames ruin their careers? I don't think so!
First of all, we must not forget that research has shown that full range resistance training is still one of the best ways to develop functional flexibility. A properly designed strength training program, in conjunction with playing your sport, is the best way to make your strength and flexibility gains "sport-specific."
In other words, one of the reasons that Mr. Olympia, Ronnie Coleman, can't shoot a basketball like an NBA star is because he doesn't play basketball as much as they do! It's that simple.
Let's also not forget about injury prevention. Basketball is a much more physical game than it used to be. And although baseball isn't considered a "physical" sport, it's one of the most stressful sports on your shoulders and lumbar spine. Strength training is imperative to staying healthy and overcoming the muscular imbalances created by playing these sports.
Finally, hitting a baseball, stealing second base and jumping up for a rebound are some of the most explosive activities in all of sports. Without a strong and powerful lower body, you'll never reach your full potential in these activities.
In short, baseball and basketball players can and should lift weights!
8 – Activating the transverse abdominis (pulling the stomach inward) is the key to stabilizing your spine when squatting.
This is one of the most hotly debated topics among strength coaches and physical therapists. Personally, I feel that "pulling in your belly" is potentially dangerous when squatting.
When you pull your belly inward, it tends to flex the spine, a.k.a. round your back. This is the last thing you want to happen when you have a heavy weight on your back! After all, unsupported spinal flexion under a compressive load is one of the most common causes of disk herniation. Unless you want to herniate a disk while doing a nosedive onto the floor, I'd advise against pulling in your stomach while squatting.
The correct technique would be to contract your erector spinae (arch your back) and fill your stomach with air by taking a huge breath. Then, hold your breath while forcefully pushing your belly out during the most strenuous phase of the lift (Valsalva maneuver). This technique will not only stabilize your spine by increasing the intra-abdominal pressure, it'll enable you to squat more weight!
Remember that both techniques of stabilizing your spine have their place in training. For example, I feel that learning how to activate your transverse abdominis is a valid and valuable technique during the lifting of lighter loads. It's also very important for lower-back rehabilitation.
On the other hand, if you're participating in heavy strength training, I'd highly recommend performing the technique I described above. Remember, attempting a max squat is a lot different than teaching an abdominal crunch to someone who just had back surgery.
Note: Even after this article gets printed, I'm sure this myth won't go away. I just have one request to all of the physical therapists and rehab specialists who'll choose to debate me regarding this topic. I don't care how many books you've read or how many college degrees you have, if you've never had a heavy weight on your back, you're not qualified to argue this topic!
I've always found it funny that all of the people who preach pulling in your belly during heavy lifting can't even squat off the toilet with a newspaper. Practice before you preach!
7 – It's important to build an aerobic base of conditioning before getting into more intense anaerobic work.
There's no physiological basis for this statement. Having an aerobic base doesn't help you perform or recover from anaerobic work. Think about this, do you think a marathon runner would be able to withstand the demands of an intense football game? On the other hand, do you think that one of the NFL's superstars would be able to complete a marathon?
Of course not! This is because the physiological demands of both sports have about as much in common as Howard Stern and Kathie Lee Gifford. Yet athletes who participate in anaerobic sports still tend to associate getting in shape with long, slow, distance training. Nothing can be further from the truth.
A more productive alternative to jogging or cycling a couple of miles would be to perform multiple anaerobic activities with short rest intervals over a prolonged period of time. For example, performing a GPP (general physical preparedness) workout that consists of bodyweight calisthenics (jumping jacks, bodyweight squats, squat thrusts, etc.), movement skills (power skipping, side shuffling, backpedaling, etc.) and mobility drills, is far superior to linear, slow, long-distance running.
By performing exercises that challenge an athlete's relative strength, balance and coordination in a continuous fashion, we're able to improve their endurance without the loss in muscle mass, strength and speed that's associated with the slow distance method.
6 – Athletes shouldn't bench press because it's not "sport specific."
I always find it funny that the bench press is singled out as the one exercise that isn't sport specific. I have a secret for you: No exercise is sport specific! Playing your sport makes the strength that you gain in the weightroom sport specific!
Don't get me wrong, certain exercises are more productive than others. But, remember that it's impossible to duplicate the speed, intensity and technique of the athletic field in the weightroom. Therefore, no exercise you perform in the weightroom can be classified as a sport specific exercise.
The bottom line is that the bench press is a great, multi-joint, free-weight exercise for developing strength in the chest, triceps and shoulders. What's wrong with that? I'm not saying that the bench press is the most important exercise in the world, but it can be effectively incorporated into the training routine of most athletes.
5 – Women should focus on performing aerobic activities because weight training will give them a "manly" appearance.
This myth just won't go away, mainly because of bodybuilding magazines. People associate females who strength-train with the female bodybuilders pictured in bodybuilding magazines. Professional female bodybuilders usually resemble men because of the massive amount of anabolic, androgenic drugs they consume.
However, these "females" shouldn't be confused with drug-free women who incorporate resistance training into their fitness programs. The next time that this topic comes up, remember the following facts:
1) Much of the difference in muscle mass between males and females is attributed to hormones, specifically, Testosterone. On average, men produce ten times more Testosterone than females. Unless you're a female who's taking anabolic steroids or other male hormones, lifting weights will not make you look like a man! It's actually harder for most females to build muscle compared to their male counterparts.
2) There's also a difference in muscle mass distribution between men and women, especially in the upper body. If you do build a significant amount of muscle, you still won't look masculine.
So, it's important to remember that male hormones and muscle mass distribution are the two main reasons that men usually carry more muscle than woman. Ladies, get in the weightroom!
4 – Olympic lifts are the only way to get explosive.
Most people say they perform the Olympic lifts because they're "explosive." The truth of the matter is that any lift can be explosive! By incorporating the dynamic-effort method with sub-maximal weights into your program, you can turn any lift into an "explosive" lift.
For example, if a man who can box squat 500 pounds were to train with 275 and focus on accelerating the weight, the box squat would then become an "explosive" lift. This example can hold true for many other exercises as well. By training with weights that represent 50-60% of your 1RM in a given lift, science has proven that the weight is heavy enough to produce adequate force, yet light enough to produce adequate speed. And we should all know that speed times strength = power.
Another reason I feel the Olympic lifts are overrated is that they take a long time to teach and most athletes are horrible at them. After all, Olympic lifting is a sport in and of itself! Olympic weightlifters spend their entire lives practicing these lifts and some of these athletes still never perfect them!
The reason that most non-Olympic weightlifters aren't great at the Olympic lifts is usually because they aren't strong enough in the right places. After assessing an athlete's power clean or power snatch form, I usually conclude that their technique flaws are due to a lack of hamstring, glute and low back strength. This assessment usually means that I end up prescribing more deadlift variations, reverse hyperextensions, glute-ham raises, pull-throughs, etc.
This is called the training economy. Getting stronger in the deadlift, reverse hyperextension and glute-ham raise will improve your power clean, but it doesn't work the other way around. Basically, I choose the exercises that give my athletes the best "bang for their buck." Another benefit of my "economical" exercises is that they're much less stressful on the wrists, elbows and shoulders compared to the Olympic lifts.
3 – The best indicators of a good workout are how tired you are after the workout and how sore you are the next day.
This is a myth my most dedicated athletes still have a tough time dismissing. Most hard-working individuals equate a good workout with being exhausted and sore. I can't tell you how many times I've had athletes say, "You didn't even make me puke" after a workout. My response is usually, "I didn't make you puke because I didn't want to make you puke. Making you puke would be easy. Getting you stronger, faster and more flexible actually takes some work."
Puking is one of the most catabolic things you can do to your body. If your goals are increased muscular strength and/or muscular hypertrophy, you should do everything possible not to puke during your training!
Fatigue is another popular indicator people use to rate the productivity of their workouts. Remember that the goal of your training session should dictate how you feel after your workout. For example, if you're going to perform a plyometric workout with the goal of improving your vertical jump, you shouldn't be exhausted after the workout.
Actually, a properly designed plyometric workout should stimulate your neuromuscular system and you should feel better than when you started the workout. On the other hand, it's good to be exhausted after a tough practice that was designed to get you in "game shape" for your given sport.
Finally, I've never read any research that links post-exercise soreness to strength gains, hypertrophy gains or improved athletic performance. Who the hell wants to be sore anyway? Think of DOMS (Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness) as an unfortunate side effect of training, not a goal of training.
Remember that it's easy for a coach to make an athlete tired, but it takes a true professional to get an athlete stronger, faster, more flexible and better conditioned.
2 – Strength training will stunt the growth of children.
It still amazes me that parents won't hesitate to get their young children (6-7 years old) involved in sports such as football, gymnastics, basketball and soccer, yet they feel that participating in a strength-training program is damaging to their children's bone health and will stunt their growth. Nothing can be further from the truth.
The fact of the matter is that running, jumping and tackling can create loading on a child's body which is up to ten times greater than most strength training exercises. In other words, the physical demands on a child's body are far greater on the athletic field compared to the weightroom. Parents who don't let their children participate in resistance training are actually increasing their children's risk for injury on the athletic field.
There have even been position stands by such organizations as the American Orthopedic Society for Sports Medicine and the American Academy of Pediatrics suggesting that children can benefit from participation in a properly designed and supervised resistance training program. Position stands recommend that prepubescent children shouldn't lift maximal weights; they should lift weights that can be lifted for at least six repetitions with proper form.
Strength training in this manner can be the most potent exercise stimulus for bone growth and development. In fact, research has shown that young weightlifters have greater bone densities than individuals who don't lift. Thus, the positive benefits of resistance training for bone health, injury prevention and improved athletic performance are far greater than the risks.
1 – Lifting light weights for high reps will "shape and tone" your muscles.
This is the grand daddy of all training myths! Somehow the aerobics, yoga and Pilate's community have convinced us that when we perform bodyweight exercises or light resistance training for high reps, our muscles magically take on a beautiful shape without growing or bulging. On the other hand, if you challenge yourself with moderately heavy weights, your body will take on a bulky, unflattering appearance. If you believe this, you probably still believe in the Tooth Fairy and Santa Claus!
Here are the facts. The main difference between a "lean and toned" physique and a "bulky" physique is the amount of body fat that surrounds your muscles! Basically, the "lean and toned" look that most people desire is a result of having muscle that isn't hidden under layers of fat. And let's not forget that the best way to build muscle is through strength training.
Generally speaking, this means challenging yourself with moderately heavy weights in the 6 to 15 rep range. It doesn't mean using an insignificant resistance for a countless number of reps. This will do little to change your appearance. Remember, it's the muscle on your frame which gives you your shape. Muscle also increases your metabolism which helps your body burn extra calories throughout the day.
There's simply no need for these myths to be perpetuated in today's information age. Do your part and help T-Nation get rid of them!