Five Fitness Myths That Won’t Die

Sep 13, 2018

As a wellness coach, I get asked a lot of questions about exercise, nutrition, and health. It comes with the territory of my job, and for the most part, I enjoy helping people sort through the noise so they can get reliable information. What I love a little less is how often I get asked about fitness myths that I thought had been put to rest long ago.

Not that I should be surprised. The fitness and wellness sphere is full of pseudoscience, half truths, and outright lies. It can be challenging for the average person to know what to believe, especially when magazines and marketers continue to spread misinformation.

Not today, though. Today I’m bringing down the hammer of truth so you never get duped by these five common fitness myths again.

Syrio and Arya "Not Today" meme from Game Of Thrones / fitness myths

“What do we say to fitness myths?” “Not today.”

Fitness Myth #1: Spot Reducing Fat Is a Thing

All across America there is a phenomenon where well-meaning people do ab exercises and buy infomercial ab products, yet remain befuddled as to why they still don’t have a six-pack. That’s because there is a persistent myth out there that doing exercises for a certain area of your body will cause fat loss in that area (also known as spot reducing). Using that logic, crunches should create trim six-packs, side crunches should shrink our hips, and tricep extensions should create taut skin on the back sides of our arms.

Unfortunately, that’s not how our bodies work (though you’d never know that based on fitness advertisements). I feel like Regina George would get me on this one, so say it with me now: Stop trying to make spot reducing happen. It’s not going to happen.

While I don’t coach weight loss or fat loss, I still think it’s important for me to remind people that targeted fat loss isn’t possible. If your body were to lose fat, it would be from wherever your individual body felt like losing fat from. So one person might lose fat from their breasts and arms before ever losing any fat from their hips or belly. Another person might lose fat from their calves and face.

Regina George from Mean Girls wearing a santa hat with a screen cap that says "Strop trying to make fetch happen"

Fetch and spot reducing have about the same staying power.

Exercises that target different areas of your body can build lean muscle mass in those areas (and increasing our lean muscle mass has wide-ranging benefits), but muscle building and fat loss do not necessarily go hand in hand. That’s because muscle tissue and fat tissue are two different kinds of tissue in our bodiesyou can’t turn fat into muscle or vice versa.

The cultural narrative that our bodies are like sculptures that can be chiseled however we like is false (see Myth #2 and Myth #5). The more we work on accepting our bodies as is instead of trying to change them, the more content we will become with these bodies that are our lifelong homes, regardless of if, where, and when we lose any body fat.

Fitness Myth #2: You Can Have “Long and Lean” Muscles if You Do the Right Exercises

With more and more women starting to strength train and do weight-bearing activities, I was really hoping that the fitness myth of long and lean muscles would be sent out to sea, never to be heard from again. Sadly, that hasn’t happened yet. Instead, this myth is a persistent narwhal, trying to stab us in the face with its false promises everywhere we turn.

The #1 thing fitness magazines and certain fitness classes (such as barre and pilates) tend to promise women is “long and lean” muscles. There are still trainers out there telling women to only lift light weights so they don’t get too big and can instead get “toned.” The problem? The ability to make our muscles long and lean doesn’t exist.

Biologically speaking, we can’t increase the length of our muscles. Our muscle length has been determined for each of us by our genetics, and it can’t be altered. “Well what about flexibility?” you might say. It’s actually a common misconception that improving our flexibility lengthens our muscles. Gaining more flexibility increases our tolerance for stretching without making any permanent changes to the muscles themselves.

We also can’t encourage our muscles to only grow “leanly” (though fun fact, all of our muscles are technically lean because muscle is a lean tissue). Our muscles are going to grow however they grow based on our unique bodies. That means if you weren’t born with a “dancer’s body” (a stupid concept since any body can be a dancer’s body), no amount of pliés or yoga classes is going to give you that classic ballerina shape.

A femme-presenting person in a thin body with long blonde hair stretching one leg behind her in a half split on a barre

“You too can look like me if you stay away from those pesky barbells!”

The long and lean muscle angle is a marketing technique designed to draw a line in the sand between exercises that supposedly will make you look “toned” and “feminine” and other exercises out there (like weightlifting) that supposedly will make you look “bulky” and “manly.” Whether or not lifting heavy weights will make women bulky has already been covered in detail in other publications, so I won’t go down that rabbit hole right now.

But know this: marketing around long and lean muscles exists to keep women afraid of being in their power and taking up space. It exists to make you fear strength and the independence that comes with it in hopes that you will continue to pursue thinness, no matter the cost, no matter how futile. My personal recommendation is that you choose the kind of exercise you do based on how it makes you feel, not based on how it actually (or supposedly) will make you look.

Fitness Myth #3: Squats Are Bad for Your Knees and Deadlifts Are Bad for Your Back

Besides concerns about turning into a Bulkasaurus Rex by lifting heavy weights, another fitness myth I commonly hear is that some of the big lifts will inevitably cause injury. Specifically, that squats will hurt your knees and deadlifts will hurt your back.

Here’s the thingboth deadlifts and squats could lead to pain/injury if you: (1) have an existing injury, or (2) perform them improperly. If you already deal with knee and/or back pain and you find that squats and deadlifts exacerbate your pain, then you should consult with a trusted doctor, physical therapist, or coach. They can help you determine whether you should be working on those exercises at all right now and which variations make the most sense for you if you’re going to do them.

What about those who don’t have preexisting knee or back pain? The key to pain-free lifting is to use good form when squatting and deadlifting and to be aware of your limitations. Full-body exercises like squats and deadlifts do require heightened bodily awareness, especially if using a barbell. But these lifts have so many benefits that they are worth taking the time to learn to do well.

Squats and deadlifts activate many muscles at once so you get a ton of bang for your buck when you perform them. Both squats and deadlifts are also functional exercises that make movement in your daily life easier. Plus, both exercises increase core strength, improve biomechanics, provide as much of a mental challenge as a physical challenge, and make you feel like a total badass.

So don’t count deadlifts and squats out of your programming just yet, and get help if you need it to do these moves safely.

Fitness Myth #4: Pinterest Is a Reliable Source of Fitness Information

I just opened my Pinterest account, went to the search bar, and typed in “fitness.” Here are some of the pin titles that popped up:

  • 7 Moves For Getting The Best Ass Ever
  • 5 Moves to Lose Lower Belly Bulge
  • 5 Amazing Workouts That Sculpt The Inner Thighs
  • 12 Amazing Weight Loss Ab Workouts
  • 8 Exercises That Will Burn Inner Thigh Fat
  • 14 Flat Belly Fat Burning Workouts
  • 5 Exercises To Get Toned And Firm Breasts

First, most of these pin titles fall prey to Myth #1 about targeted fat loss. Second, almost all of these pins had accompanying “before and after” photos (most are stolen from other places on the internet and have nothing to do with the workouts posted) or images of very lean women with a singular, largely unattainable body type.

Screen grabs from Pinterest / fitness myths

Pinterest: Your home for recipes, DIY crafts, and shame.

Where are all the pins about how to heal diastasis recti after pregnancy or explaining the correct way to perform a barbell bench press? Where are the pins talking about fueling your workouts in a way that isn’t fearmongering and the pins that showcase all the amazing non-aesthetic benefits of exercise? If you know how to search for them, they are out there, but the average person doesn’t.

Many people think that Pinterest is a good source of fitness information and ideas, but most of what you can find on there is total trash. While this number has no basis in actual statistics, my guess is that 90% of the fitness pins on Pinterest contain woefully inaccurate or misleading information (don’t worry, my pins are in the 10%). What the fitness section of Pinterest does have is a whole lot of spam, copious amounts of diet culture, and totally questionable exercise prescriptions that go against sound programming techniques.

The internet is vast, and there are far better resources than Pinterest for fitness help. But if you’re going to search on Pinterest, please be extra discerning about what you believe and/or choose to execute. Take all claims about outcomes with a huge grain of salt, and really assess your own ability level before trying a workout you found there.

Fitness Myth #5: Inside Every Larger Person Is a Smaller Person Waiting to Be Unleashed if They Just Work Hard Enough

In a fatphobic culture obsessed with underdog stories, the bootstraps fantasy, and side-by-side transformation photos, the myth that each of us has a skinny person inside of us lives on. Of all the fitness myths I’ve talked about in this post, this one causes the most harm by far.

Here’s something not enough people understand: even if we all ate the same, exercised the same, got enough sleep, and had our stress levels under control, our bodies would still look wildly different from one another. We are not all meant to be size twos, and for many people, trying to pursue a size two when their body prefers to be a size eight or sixteen or twenty two is detrimental to their health and wellbeing.

A plus-size, femme-presenting person sits on an exercise mat looking annoyed with a dumbbell resting under their chin

“Am I the only one completely over society’s bullshit?”

We want to believe that if we just exercise enough, eat perfectly enough, and feel motivated enough, we can look the way movies, magazines, and social media tell us we are supposed to look. But the reality is that only a tiny percentage of women have the dominant body type that is portrayed in American media.

We don’t run around trying to alter our height or shoe size, yet society has wrongly led us to believe that we can and should alter our body size. Body dissatisfaction and eating disorders are on the rise as a result. Children are dieting at younger and younger ages. Something is seriously wrong here.

We need to change the cultural narrative that has declared for far too long that thinner is better/healthier/happier (news flash: it’s not!). We humans come in all different shapes and sizes, and our fear of fat hurts everyone, but most especially fat folx. We have to do better to push back against the systemic discrimination towards fat bodies and learn to see all bodies as worthy of respect and care.

In a Fitness-Obsessed Culture, We Will Probably Always Have Fitness Myths

I’ve covered the myths I see with the most frequency, but there are many more than I can count still floating around out in the world. The best advice I can give for telling fact from fiction in the fitness world is to do your own research. Don’t automatically believe something just because your favorite fitness influencer said it on Instagram or you read it in a magazine or headline. Google is your friend. If an article claims something that seems too good to be true, follow the research.

In reality, there is no one right way to exercise, no exact amount that everyone should be doing, and you’re not going to drop dead out of the blue simply because you didn’t hit your 10,000 steps today. Fitness doesn’t have to be nearly as complicated as the world likes to make it.

Find ways of moving your body that feel good. Try to include some weight-bearing activities for purposes of longevity. Ask yourself each day how you’d like to move that day. And mostly forget the rest. 

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