The Biggest Lie in Fitness

And the Truth About Building Muscle and Losing Fat

The Question

What's the biggest lie in fitness?

"Add 15 pounds of muscle in 6 weeks!"

You can't build appreciable amounts of muscle in weeks. This kind of promise is inaccurate, and quite frankly, aggravating. Why? Because that's not how human physiology works.

Any time you hear something like this, realize that increased body fat and water retention will be part of the equation. Granted, a lifter may not look fatter by social standards during this period because the distribution of the added fat won't all go to the same place. But it definitely won't all be muscle.

All things equal, a natural increase in muscle takes much, much longer. If you did everything right – trained with progressive overload, ate healthy protein-rich meals, stayed uninjured and recovered – it would likely take at least a year to achieve a 15 pound LEAN gain.

Coaches shouldn't make these unrealistic claims. It's kind of like a bald person making a goal of growing his hair down to his back in the next month. Though getting it there might be possible, the time estimate for it is severely inaccurate.

With the exception of complete beginners and dudes on gear, there are no shortcuts to building muscle. It may be time to readjust your goals. Being more concerned about the long haul will work well for your mind and your gains. – Lee Boyce

"It's going to be easy."

This lie is mainly told by people trying to sell you something. But whether it's fat loss, muscle and strength gain, or even mobility, none of it comes easy. All of it is harder than most people think. And they need to know it.

Why is this such an egregious lie? Because when people believe the lie and then struggle, they often quit. When the fat doesn't melt off "overnight" or the "fun and easy" workouts don't work, they may come to the conclusion that diet and training doesn't work, or they figure they must have bad genetics.

There are a lot psychological studies that have come to the same conclusion: It's better to know in advance that a task is going to be difficult. That way you expect it to be tough and you push through. Your mind is prepared.

Compare that to being told that something is easy. You try it and you can't do it, or progress is super slow... but it's supposed to be fast and effortless. That must mean you suck at life, so why try? That's some crappy, self-defeating, loser-ass thinking.

Although it may not sell as many diet books and workout gadgets for four easy payments of 19.95, this is the truth: It's going to be hard.

Building a noticeable amount of muscle is tough. Losing fat and keeping it off is very tough. It involves a lot more than just making it to the gym. There's diet to consider. And recovery. And sleep. The workout might just be the only fun part. The rest of the day is tougher. Not eating something you really want to eat is hard. Waking up an hour early to hit the gym or prep meals is hard. Kicking bad habits feels like getting punched in the gut.

That shouldn't be daunting. That should instead ignite a little fire in your belly and sharpen your focus. Can you do it? Hell yeah you can. And doing something hard makes doing the next challenging task, well, more doable. It snowballs.

And yeah, doing hard things over and over again makes the next challenge easier. So in a way, having a healthy, nice-looking body is easy because you've already smashed all those difficult obstacles and now it's just habit and lifestyle. But getting there? It's brutal... and rewarding. Be ready. – Chris Shugart

"You need a lot of protein to grow."

It's a common belief that you need to overload on protein to build a lot of muscle. For many years I believed it too. Heck, I consumed as much as 400 grams a day because I knew several bodybuilders who were doing that.

But if you're a natural lifter your body has a limited capacity to use protein to build muscle. Consuming more than your body can use will not lead to faster gains. In fact, it might slow them down!

Some amino acids absolutely have pharmacological properties. On top of being the building blocks for muscle (and repairing other structures and fabricating hormones) they can also trigger several processes in the body, including triggering protein synthesis – muscle growth.

But to have a pharmacological effect, the body must sense a sudden and drastic increase in the important amino acid. That can't be done if you over-consume protein. If your blood amino acid level is constantly high then you simply can't spike it. Any additional increase of amino acid intake will get lost in a sea of blood amino acid. To get the most out of amino acids/protein you need contrasts between low blood amino acid levels and high blood amino acid levels.

I looked my best this year while consuming a fraction of the protein I once consumed. My "complete protein intake" was around 140-150 grams but I spiked it at key times with a rapidly absorbed protein product – Surge® Workout Fuel pre-workout, Mag-10® upon waking, 60 minutes post-workout, and before bed. I not only didn't lose muscle, I got leaner and felt better.

Christian Thibaudeau

Don't get me wrong, protein is important for muscle growth and body composition. But overconsuming it won't work unless you're on drugs that increase your body's capacity to use protein to build muscle. Timing is a lot more important than quantity. – Christian Thibaudeau

"Those with well-built bodies must be knowledgeable about fitness and physique development."

You see it all the time. The trainers with the best bodies get the most clients in the gym. Likewise, the articles written by the buffest guys often get the most attention.

It's logical to assume that those who have the qualities you admire are the best teachers, but only if you're a third-grader. Want to build big calves? Sure, find the guy with the biggest honkin' calves and learn his techniques. Never mind that his parents were thick-legged trolls that lived under a bridge and he was born with calves so big that bullies used to try and knock him over with bowling balls.

Most of us never think for a moment that many of the attributes we admire might be innate; that they might have been bestowed upon these blessed individuals by the genetic gods and they could have shucked corn and drank Orangina for 8 hours a day and still built something close to those bodies.

Granted, in the vast majority of cases, the coveted physiques had to be nurtured, cultivated, and built in the gym or elsewhere, but many of these guys are so genetically inclined to put on muscle that they were able to maximize their genetic potential in spite of what they knew, or thought they knew, about lifting.

Most really buff people probably have no idea how they got there. It was probably just another example of what's called the "logical fallacy." In other words, since event Y followed event X, event Y must have been caused by event X. But that hardly ever proves true.

Just because something happens after something else happens, it doesn't mean there's a direct causal relationship between the two. In the case of gifted lifters, just because they developed huge quads by doing 100 sets of squats per workout and eating kangaroo meat (and posted an article about it) doesn't mean you will, too.

With a few notable exceptions, many of whom write for T Nation, elite bodybuilders or physique monsters are the last people in the world genetically average people should ask for advice. They're more likely to get useful information from someone who's walked a mile in their shoes; a person who's personally experienced and often overcome many of the disadvantages of being genetically average when it comes to lifting and fitness.

In other words, someone who looks fit and muscular by normal standards, but maybe isn't uncommonly big, ripped, or strong. Case in point, some of T Nation's writers actually get criticized for not being big enough or ripped enough. It's happy horseshit.

All a good coach or trainer needs is to know things about fitness that you don't; stuff that was learned in class, through books, through personal experience, or by innovative genius. That person also needs to be passionate about teaching weight training or fitness. – TC Luoma

"Stretching prevents injury."

Can you touch your toes? If you can, congratulations! If you can't, who cares? The reality is, you only need so much flexibility to be healthy and to perform well.

What about preventing injury? According to 30 years of meta-research, static stretching might give you one percent better injury prevention. Dynamic stretching isn't much better. Most now agree that coaches and trainers may want to avoid using stretching as a means of injury risk prevention immediately prior to athletic activities.

The truth is, you're already as flexible as you need to be. Under anesthesia, an 80 year-old sedentary man is able to do the splits. So what is flexibility, really? It's a neuromuscular state that helps limit your movement to prevent injury.

You're actually not making a muscle longer when you stretch. Instead, your nervous system interprets the stretch as potential injury and shuts the muscle down. In turn, this causes instability of the joints attached to the muscle thus making you more susceptible to injury before the activity even starts.

Best advice: save stretching for after exercise, to relax the nervous system, and learn to move better to prevent injury. – Grove Higgins, DC

"You must have variety."

Some say that you won't make progress if you do the same workout twice in a row, or keep the same exercise in your program for more than a few weeks. But it's those who don't stick to any one program for more than a few weeks that never seem to make any significant progress.

They're the ones quoting old-school Dave Tate articles, yet don't even look like they could squat their bodyweight. The worst culprits are those who like to toss in exercises for the novelty alone. Look Ma, BOSU ball squats while juggling oranges! You know, to keep the body guessing!

Look, I'm not bashing exercise variety. Variety has a time and place. However, the greatest gap in most people's training isn't lack of novelty, but rather lack of mastery. Most people never experience their "true" fitness or strength because they never allow themselves enough time to get comfortable with a particular lift or movement. Who wants to perform plain ol' vanilla deadlifts when you can add chains or perform them in a mine field?

Besides, to add variety you don't need to be excessive. Just changing your grip, foot stance, bar height, or adding pauses can be enough of a change to make the deadlift more effective (given a specific technique flaw or weakness). So rather than adding exercises haphazardly for the sake of "doing something cool and different," use less variety and learn to get really good at doing the simple stuff well. – Tony Gentilcore

"There's a secret to achieving a world class physique."

Most believe it's a drug-related secret. They think that if they just possessed the right combination of drugs or some secret muscle-inducing concoction they would realize their IFBB Pro dreams. I'm not saying drugs don't play a role in professional bodybuilding, but by-in-large success boils down to individual genetic make-up and the willingness to work hard. Very hard.

Discipline in the kitchen and the gym over the long haul plays a huge role. Most guys hit a sticking point early on and resort to drugs to break through the plateau and shortchange themselves. They miss the opportunity to learn how to elevate the hypertrophy ceiling they bumped into.

As time goes by, their drug solution runs its course and they're back to thinking if they just had the right combination of pharmaceuticals or "secret" formula they would realize their full potential. Wrong. Hard work applied intelligently is the only secret. – Mark Dugdale

Belly Fat

"The more vegetables you eat, the better."

Tell this to a goody two-shoes when she's 20 and she'll end up with a decade of digestive distress. I learned a hard lesson about fiber, one that my doctor didn't even know at the time.

In my early twenties I was a big veggie eater. I ate more than most people to get full and stay lean. Then at some point I decided to replace starchy carbs with more vegetables. Chopped broccoli, fresh celery, sliced bell peppers – I kept them in Ziploc baggies and snacked on them between meals, which were usually giant salads. I developed an affinity for the crunch and taste. So it wasn't like I was force-feeding myself, I really freaking loved vegetables.

And then my digestion gradually slowed to a stop. This was back when I ran a lot. The digestive issues would cause excruciating spasms when I'd be out on the road several miles from home. The running would make me want to "go", so I'd find some bushes and, with tears in my eyes, use all my might to make something happen. (Yes, runners are often public poopers out of necessity.) But what little came out felt like shards of glass. Sorry, this is as graphic as it gets.

So I went to a doctor. After explaining the symptoms, she strongly recommended I eat vegetables. I told her what my diet consisted of. Then she recommended I drink more water. I was already downing about a gallon and a half a day.

It felt like a hopeless situation. The gastroenterologist (digestive specialist) wasn't too helpful either. Back then, "eat more fiber and drink more water" was about the extent of advice doctors knew to give.

But luckily, after more than 10 years of trial and error... and more error... and falling for it when fitness pros would say shit like, "eat ten cups a day of green vegetables!", I discovered that it's possible to NOT do that and still be lean. It was a lesson that also set me free from chronic bloating, pain, and constipation.

And the most unexpected thing happened when I went on a low-fiber diet: my waistline shrank because I stopped carrying around a salad-bar in my gut. And, paradoxically, less fiber made me a champ at pooping!

What happened to me isn't all that unique. I used to receive emails from women who'd share their experiences with bloating and constipation as a result of their "healthy" diets. My mom was even told by a doctor to ramp up her already high-fiber diet and ended up intensifying a bad digestive condition. Incidents like this also taught me that sometimes doctors get it wrong. Advanced degrees don't turn people into all-knowing gods.

So whenever I hear fitness pros give the same advice about pounding the fiber, I always hope to God that there's not someone out there taking it to heart and going overboard with it. Yeah, the average person could use more veggies, but for those of us who eat pretty dang healthy, more isn't better. – Dani Shugart

"Everyone can achieve their goals with enough time and effort."

Having worked with the creme de la creme of male and female athletes and physique competitors, I can tell you that many of my everyday Joes and Janes worked just as hard, trained similarly, and sacrificed just as much. The difference is genetics, and the research is heavily in support of this – so much so that scientists have coined the term "non-responders" to exercise interventions.

There are people who seemingly can't improve their aerobic capacity, people who seemingly can't gain muscle (but this appears to be muscle-specific), and people who seemingly can't gain strength. On the other hand, there are outliers who hit the genetic lottery; they respond extraordinarily well (often three times greater than the norm) to training stimuli.

These freaks of nature tend to be the most respected and revered in strength & conditioning and bodybuilding. But unless you've got a similar genetic disposition, you can emulate their every move and not get anywhere near the same results. In fact, their program may be far from optimal for you.

My advice is to learn the science and gain insight through trial and error so that you can write your own program rather than copying the routine of your fitness idol. While you may never build calves the size of cannonballs or squat triple bodyweight, there are muscles you can build substantially and exercises you can excel at. Focus on those rather than dwelling on your shortcoming. – Bret Contreras

"Lifters shouldn't run."

The biggest lie in fitness is that running will ruin a muscular physique. Proponents of this foolishness point to elite level marathon runners from Kenya or Ethiopia who carry 130 pounds of skinny on their 5'10" frames. "See? That's what happens when you run," they say.

The reality is that running should be included in almost everyone's training. Even if your primary goals are size and strength, it's hard to argue that running is pretty functional. The fight or flight mechanism actually needs both options available – I want to be able to run when I really need to.

In exercise physiology, regular lifting with a side order of running is an example of concurrent training (combining two or more entirely different types of training together). Significant research has been done on the potential interference effect of concurrent training.

Wilson, Marin et al, found that running causes absolutely no negative effects on upper body strength, power, or hypertrophy, though it has the possibility of down-shifting progress for the lower body a bit. Murach and Marin's meta-analysis of the literature found that as long as the strength training and running sessions are separated by 6-24 hours, the interference effect is minimal.

For sure, the majority of your running should be in the form of sprints and intervals, but there's really no concern about training with your sweetheart for a spring 5K or 10K race, or going trail running with the dog if it's something you enjoy. You'll reap the cardiovascular benefits and burn fat along the way.

As a lifter, the primary stimulus your body is adapting to is your lifting. Save the running for an off-day from lifting or at least split them up into morning and evening sessions. Throwing in a day or two of running every week will just make you a more well-rounded athlete without stealing from your hard-earned gains. – Dean Graddon

  1. Murach, K.A. & Bagley, J.R. Skeletal Muscle Hypertrophy with Concurrent Exercise Training: Contrary evidence for an interference effect. Journal of Sorts Medicine (2016) 46: 1029.
  2. Wilson, J.M, Marin P.J et al. Concurrent Training: A Meta-Analysis examining interference of aerobic and resistance exercises. Journal of Strength and Conditioning. (2012) 26: 2293-2307, 2012.