As a fitness instructor, I encounter a lot of questions from people this time of year about how to shape up quickly and safely. I figured I’d debunk a few of the fitness myths I encounter most frequently so people can make some informed decisions about their game plans for the new year.
1. Doing crunches will give you a flat stomach
Repeat after me: “Spot treatment is for laundry.” Period. If you have a lot of fat on your thighs, doing squats won’t make them look like David Beckham’s. You have to burn the outer layer of fat off to reveal any sort of muscle tone at all. The most efficient way to do this is by various exercises for caloric burn. The calories you burn will translate to the fat you had disappearing slowly, revealing the gorgeous gams you always knew you had, which squats alone could never give you. In fact, doing squats or crunches alone can make your fat look more prominent, since you’ll be building the muscle up underneath the fat and pushing it out further. However, there is a reason this myth persists: building the muscles in your own problem area will make the muscles themselves more well-defined. This muscle build will raise your base metabolism and burn calories more efficiently than if you just do cardio alone. Add some cardio (to burn massive numbers of calories–and kill off that pesky outer layer of fat) and you’ll really see the results you were looking for quickly.
2. Always stretch before you exercise
Never let anyone tell you stretching isn’t important. I know there are studies out there saying that even stretching after exercise won’t guard you against injury and isn’t integral to working out. Whenever I read these studies, the image of body builders on Muscle Beach always leaps to mind: all those huge guys consistently stymied by the act of reaching below their knees. Maybe they’re not technically injured, but who wants to live only in a standing position? Obviously, keeping your muscles pliable, while building their strength, is important. That said, trying to do this before you warm up those muscles is at best ineffective and at worst injurious. Stretching cold muscles can cause them to snap back in reaction, thereby making you stiffer. Stretching them too far when cold could actually tear them. Instead, warm up, do your exercises, then stretch afterwards. Hold each stretch for about 30 seconds right at the point where it feels intense but not uncomfortable, and I promise you’ll never need help putting on your shoes in the morning.
3. Work every muscle every day to see results quickly
I see people making this mistake every day. They come in on Monday and do some bicep curls and lunges, come back Tuesday and do the same, and so on and so on. They go to a Pilates class on Monday, then do crunches Tuesday. They take a full-body weight class on Monday, then come back and work on weight machines Tuesday. Granted, they’re burning calories, and they’re getting into the gym daily, which is great. However, your muscles need rest if they are to get stronger, and they need at least a day. If you don’t give your muscles a 24-48 hours to recover, you’ll not only not see results as quickly as you were hoping, you’ll never see them. For best (and quickest) results, you should either do a daily dose of cardio and weights, focusing on different muscle groups on alternate days; or you should alternate a big day of weights with a big day of cardio.
4. If you’re sweating a lot, you’re working harder
The amount you sweat has virtually nothing to do with how hard you’re working. The average person’s reaction to heat and stress varies according to their own bodies, as well as their own fitness level. Just because you feel like you lost 10 pounds of water in an hour doesn’t necessarily mean you burned any more calories than the person who still hasn’t broken a sweat. The real way to tell if you’re working efficiently is by your heart rate. A heart rate monitor might be the best single purchase you can make in your quest for fitness in 2007. Which leads us to number 5:
5. You should work as hard as you possibly can to burn the most calories
This one is so counter-intuitive, a lot of trainers and fitness instructors still make this mistake. The truth is, if you’re working your absolute hardest, you’re actually not burning any fat at all. If you want the physical reason, I can tell you that, after your heart rate goes up above about 95% of its maximum rate, you start burning sugars (like the bagel you had for breakfast) for the quick energy you need for the sprint your body perceives to be ahead. If you just want some quick and dirty ways to tell if you’re burning fat, though, without a kinesiology/physiology degree in the process, here are a few quick tests. First of all, make sure you’re breathing; once your body goes anaerobic (i.e. working without any oxygen input), you go straight to burning sugar instead of fat. Secondly, you should make sure that, while you’re working out, you could always say your name if asked, but couldn’t necessarily rattle off your grocery list for the week. For the most accurate check, you should check your gym for a 10-second pulse rate chart (they’re usually in the aerobic room, or close to the cardio machines). Check your pulse rate while you’re still moving for 10 seconds, then find your target range on the chart. You should be between the two numbers by your age. If you are lower, work harder. But, if you’re higher, take an active rest break. Start walking and taking deep breaths. If you’re way over your maximum heart rate number and are starting to feel faint, take a divided inhale break: inhale deeply through your nose, but only to about half of your lung capacity; hold it for a few seconds; inhale the rest of the way; hold it for a few seconds; then exhale through your mouth very slowly for about 10 seconds. That simple exercise will drop your heart rate immediately into a safe range, at which point you should continue to breathe deeply and actively rest until you feel recovered enough to continue. But do continue, safely, and enjoy!