5 Fitness Myths You Need to Stop Believing Right Now — And What to Do Instead

published Mar 26, 2021
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Thanks to at-home workouts, digital options aplenty, and companies like Peloton that prioritize community celebration with their in-app features, a lifestyle that includes moving your body in whatever way that feels good to you is now more of the norm instead of the exception.

However, there’s a dark side. With so much fitness information around us, it can be hard to distinguish between fact and fiction — which can lead to injury, poor mental health, and anything but wellness.

“The power and influence of social media in the last three to five years, and exponentially in the last year of the pandemic, has given a platform and a place for people to disguise their opinion and preference as fact and gospel,” Angela Leigh, the head of content and talent at TRX Training, tells Apartment Therapy. “The saturation levels are beyond what we’ve ever experienced, and not having strong enough sources out there to help us understand the origin of what’s fact versus fiction when it comes to what’s tried and true — and proven to be science-backed, results-focused fitness.”

While your favorite fitfluencer might seem relatable, that doesn’t mean they’re reliable. It’s important to know what’s fact and what’s fiction before you lace up your sneakers… otherwise you could be doing more harm than good. Here are some of the most commonly believed fitness myths — and what you should believe instead:

Credit: Joe Lingeman

The Myth: No pain, no gain.

The Reality: If you feel pain, stop!

Soreness is a pretty natural response to a hard workout and usually isn’t something you need to worry about too much. Pain, on the other hand, is a sign to stop what you’re doing — immediately, and Helen Phelan, the founder of body-neutral digital pilates platform Helen Phelan Studio, warns that there is a difference between discomfort and outright pain.

“Your body sends signals telling you when it’s time to take a break or rest, and those signals are sometimes confusing when you’ve been in the habit of ignoring and pushing through pain,” says Phelan.

She suggests learning the difference between discomfort and pain in order to keep yourself injury-free: Discomfort is when “muscles are tender to the touch, there is a gradual build-up of fatigue, and usually can be eased by gentle movement or rest.” Pain, however, “is sharp, sudden, and felt in the muscles or joints while moving or at rest. It lingers for more than two to three days and worsens with more movement.” And it’s important to never, ever push through pain.

If you feel pain, be sure to talk to your doctor as soon as possible in order to prevent potentially serious, long-lasting injury. (Still not sure it’s pain or discomfort? Talk to your doctor anyway — better safe than sorry.)

The Myth: Lifting makes you “bulky.”

The Reality: Many factors determine your physique, and the term “bulky” deserves a second look.

This fitness myth brings into question the troubling idea of certain body types being “good” or “bad,” as the phrase “lifting will make you bulky” is usually preached by people who look down on a visibly muscular physique.

“‘Bulky’ is relative, and it’s no one’s place to push a particular body type on anyone else,” Molly Galbraith, co-founder of Girls Gone Strong, shares on the organization’s site. Everyone responds differently to their own individualized training program, notes Galbraith, and any trainer that suggests that one body shape or size is better than another is questionable.

Leigh agrees emphatically when it comes to any sort of promise for what many people consider to be the inverse of “bulk,” otherwise known as “toned” muscles or a “lean” physique. These buzzwords are often meant to prey on people’s body image insecurities. “I believe if there’s any business out there offering an ultimatum about any sort of movement or physique, that says a lot about their character and their lack of inclusivity when it comes to fitness being a very vulnerable and transformative space,” she says. “There is no time or space or respect in a fitness ultimatum. It’s just gross.”

Besides that, it’s also just not very likely that the average exerciser’s daily routine of lifting heavy weights will, all on its own, determine the way their body looks. For most everyday people looking to stay healthy and feel good, the best exercise routine is the one they will stick with, not the one that makes promises based on (problematic) normative standards of beauty.

Credit: Joe Lingeman/Apartment Therapy

The Myth: More Sweat = A Better Workout

The Reality: How much you sweat has very little to do with the quality of your workout.

Sweating is a bodily function that helps regulate your body temperature, and can be changed by everything from your emotional state to the weather outside. “Sweat is all about temperature control for the body, so it’s really a factor of heat more than anything,” board-certified Dermatologist Hal M. Weitzbuch, M.D., M.S., F.A.A.D., tells Apartment Therapy. While most cardiovascular and aerobic exercise heats up the body (and therefore can lead to sweating), Dr. Weitzbuch, stresses that sweat is not the primary factor to determine if a workout was successful or not. 

“Many great workouts can leave you with no sweat, while some less than ideal workouts can leave you drenched,” he says. “For example, strength training might not increase the heart rate dramatically or cause an increase in core temperature — thus not producing sweat — but can have dramatic benefits for fitness.”While sweating (or not) isn’t indicative of fitness level or workout intensity, sweating too much or too little (called hyperhidrosis and hypohidrosis, respectively) can indicate a medical problem — so if you’re concerned about your levels of sweat, be sure to speak with your doctor. And no matter what’s causing you to sweat, Dr. Weitzbuch reminds you to hydrate and drink plenty of water and electrolytes.

The Myth: Stretch before you work out.

The Reality: Perform dynamic warm-ups that mimic the workout you’re about to do.

Most people are taught in elementary school gym class that if you don’t stretch before you work out, you’ll hurt yourself. In fact, the opposite is true: Doing static, stationary stretches before a workout can decrease your performance and even lead to injury.

“There is data to support static (non-moving) stretching is not the most ideal pre-workout warmup,” says Nicole Sciacca, a yoga teacher, FRC mobility specialist, and trainer. Instead of stereotypical “stretches” like side-bends or toe-touches, Sciacca suggests a more dynamic warm-up made up of mindful movements.

“Involve controlled articulations of the joints needed for the exercise at hand,” she says. In other words, you want to involve motions in your pre-workout routine that prepare you for the movement ahead. For example, if you’re going on a run, Sciacca suggests doing controlled rotations of the hip, knee, ankle, and toes as a way to bring blood into your joints, quite literally “warming up” the body parts you’re about to use.

Credit: Joe Lingeman

The Myth: There is a quick fix to how you want to look and feel.

The Reality: Real change takes time.

The only “quick” ways to change your body are with crash diets, which, famously, are not only dangerous but mostly fail (in that they lead to the weight being regained and the person on the diet feeling pretty discouraged). What’s more is that science has shown time and again that exercise, while great for our health and longevity, likely doesn’t do much for our weight loss efforts. And yet there’s no shortage of fitness products and workouts out there that promise to change our bodies in days or weeks.

Leigh encourages people to examine their goals themselves. “Fitness goals are temporary, right? Because what happens when you reach your fitness goal? Maybe you’re wearing a different pair of jeans than you were wearing six weeks ago, but you’re still yourself,” she says. “If you’re looking for long-term health gains, there is no shortcut for that.”

Before you sign up for any workout program — especially if it promises you specific physique-related results like “10-Day Abs” — identify how you want to feel in the long run. Then ask yourself: if I knew this program wouldn’t get me that feeling, would I still do it? If the answer is yes, by all means, go for it. If the answer is no, start to look for more lasting ways you can create that feeling in your life.