Get full access to Outside Learn, our online education hub featuring in-depth fitness and nutrition courses and more than 2,000 instructional videos when you sign up for Outside+.
Every woman who has entered the free-weight pit of a commercial gym has experienced it at some point: Despite your oversized headphones, pinpoint focus and intentional resting bitch face, an overly “helpful” guy will eventually walk up and bro-splain something to you.
Ranging from the inane (no, my uterus will not fall out if I squat) to the slightly more plausible (should I really worry about lactic acid?), these fitness-related myths have been adopted as fact by many of the ignorant gym-ilk, who then take it upon themselves to propagate the foolishness — while also trying to make themselves look smart.
Here are some of the most pervasive bro-science myths that should be banned from the training floor. So the next time someone approaches you with one of these terrible 12, you can woman-splain the truth.
The Grunt Helps
This one may actually be true — beware, Planet Fitness!
Although it hasn’t been established that grunting helps you lift weight, it is a legitimate strengthening strategy for certain sports (i.e., tennis or martial arts) and can enhance lifting in a number of ways: Forced exhalation increases core stiffness, leading to better support from your center, and can psychologically hone your focus to push through a tough game, point or workout.
It’s also been proved to distract opponents and could scare off those lurking gym trolls — which is reason enough to pick up the habit.
The Lactic-Acid Lie
Myth: You must do _____ (cardio, stretching, foam rolling, massage, etc.) to clear the lactic acid from your muscles and prevent soreness tomorrow.
Truth: Lactic acid has nothing to do with soreness and may not even be as closely linked to the “burn” as we once thought. Lactic acid is produced at the end of glycolysis — the metabolism of carbohydrates — when there’s not enough time or oxygen available to break them down further. This creates a more acidic environment, which is often associated with the “burn” of exercise at the end of a heavy set or during a high-intensity sprint. But as soon as you rest or slow down, your body gets to work clearing it out — without any help from foam rolling, massaging or cardio.
Lactic acid is used for energy throughout your aerobic pathways and is often transported to parts of the body that are using more O, like your heart. And if the world does get too acidic for your muscles, you have an innate buffering system that cleverly controls your pH balance by making more CO, which you then exhale. Problem solved.
Myth: In order to grow muscle, you need to do eight to 12 reps using moderate weight for each set.
Truth: Whoever branded this eight-to-12 edict was way off base. Hypertrophy can occur with a variety of different weights and rep ranges, as long as you implement progressive overload — e.g., stressing the muscles beyond what they are used to and adding more weight as you get stronger.
Several recent studies compared the powerlifting style of resistance training (heavy load, low reps, lots of rest between sets) with the traditional bodybuilding-style training (moderate load, moderate reps, less rest between sets) and found that if the total training volume was the same, the muscle gains were also the same.
Even endurance-based training with lighter loads and lots of reps can mean gains, as long as you’re achieving muscle fatigue toward the end of the set. Why? Because the physiological stressors that stimulate muscle growth come from both high tension (heavy weights) and metabolic stress (muscle fatigue).
Post-Exercise Protein Panic
Myth: You have to drink a postworkout protein shake within the 45-minute anabolic window or your muscles will start to eat themselves!
Truth: Amino-acid availability does influence post-exercise protein synthesis, but whether this actually influences long-term muscle growth remains to be seen. A recent review on the popular “anabolic window” theory by exercise nutrition researchers Brad Schoenfeld, Ph.D., CSCS, and Alan Aragon concluded that nutrient timing is more of a broad door than it is a narrow window.
It takes time for food to be digested, absorbed and used, so some of the protein you ate at lunch may still be circulating in your bloodstream at dinnertime. Immediate postworkout feeding is probably important if you did a fasted workout, but if you ate some carbs and protein beforehand or if you train later in the day after having eaten several meals, you’re going to be OK.
Do the Heavy Lifting
Myth: Lifting heavy weights makes me bulky, and lifting light weights makes me long and lean.
Truth: Please, please, please let this one die … OK, one more time for those who have not paid attention before — this time using science as a reasoning tactic: Lifting heavy doesn’t necessarily guarantee muscle growth or bulk, since much of the physiological adaptations that make you stronger occur in your central nervous system rather than in your muscles.
Training with higher rep ranges may improve your endurance and increase your resistance to fatigue, but it won’t make your muscles any longer and they certainly won’t get any leaner; there is still no such thing as localized subcutaneous fat reduction (aka spot reduction). So while it won’t bulk you up to bodybuilder size, lifting heavy increases muscle recruitment, improves bone mass, boosts performance and enhances core stability.
Calorie Cutters Anonymous
Myth: The only way to get ripped is to slash calories to a minimum.
Truth: Reducing your caloric intake to hamster levels can backfire, leading to decreased energy, a slower metabolism and even disordered eating issues. The truth is that women may have to be more patient and expect slower progress than men, particularly when trying to drop body fat. Our hormones and genetic programming tell our bodies to hang on to fat — especially around the hips, thighs and lower abdomen — in order to fuel a potential pregnancy, even during periods of starvation.
A man’s role in the propagation of the species requires much less effort and is less important (despite what he says), so they lack this energy-conservation programming and have an easier time shedding fat. That being said, overcoming your genetic hard-wiring is no easy task, so take your time, be patient, do things right and you’ll be rewarded for your efforts with a six-pack.
Myth: The only reason to do cardio is to burn more calories/lose weight.
Truth: There are way more reasons to do cardio than just dumping a few calories. The short list of benefits include improving heart and metabolic health, boosting endurance, lifting mood and of course burning calories, but cardio also increases blood flow to the brain, helping you focus, and impact cardio like running and jumping improves bone density.
Doing cardio at varying intensities provides different benefits, but like anything, it can be overdone and is one of the most common ways enthusiastic exercisers overtrain — most of all when it’s done just to burn off a burger.
The Many-Meals Mantra
Myth: Eating smaller meals more frequently boosts metabolism and burns more calories than eating three squares and is the best way to lose fat and build muscle.
Truth: It depends. Both fat loss and muscle growth depend on a variety of factors, not the least of which is nutrition. The question becomes even more complicated when comparing different types of people with various goals.
Paying attention to your daily intake of macronutrients and micronutrients is the real key to success, no matter who you are, and as long as you have a calorie deficit over the course of the day (and are not going hog-wild on cheat days), it really doesn’t matter how many meals you consume.
If you get hungry every three hours, then eat, but that doesn’t mean that your metabolism is “faster” than your friend who can hold out until dinner. Find what works best for you — mentally and physically — and go with that.
HIIT Me, Baby, All the Time
Myth: High-intensity interval training is the best kind of cardio, so why do anything else?
Truth: Variety in training is important, and that includes low- and moderate-intensity work as well as HIIT training. They all improve endurance and performance, and even very low intensity activity like being active at work (standing, walking around, etc.) benefits overall health and adds to your daily energy expenditure.
High-intensity interval training and sprint interval training do indeed improve aerobic and anaerobic capacity and are the most time-efficient ways to burn calories, but they are also higher stress and higher risk.
So go ahead and do your hill repeats, oodles of burpees and dozens of box jumps, but make sure you take time off between these high-stress workouts to prevent overtraining.
Myth: Using high reps and low rest makes power moves hellacious.
Truth: There are different kinds of power — strength-speed, max-power, speed-strength and speed-endurance — and the physiological adaptations are unique to the type of training you’re doing and the goals you have. For example, if you’re training to maximize vertical jump, sprinting speed (speed-strength) or even a max clean-and-jerk (strength-speed), you would not want to perform your power moves using high reps and little rest, as in a metcon session.
The goal of those workouts is to train neuromuscular recruitment and contraction speed, not endurance. And since fatigue changes form for the worse, you’re at a higher risk for injury and can ingrain faulty movement patterns into your exercises.
For these workouts, fewer reps and longer rest periods allow muscle ATP to replenish and the central nervous system to recoup so your next attempt can be as close to 100 percent as possible.
On the other hand, if you’re training for speed-endurance, you’ll want to simulate a highly fatiguing situation by increasing the reps and reducing the rest; this is where a metcon comes in handy. Other benefits include an efficient use of time, a high caloric expenditure, training to maintain power while in a deficit or testing the limits of your fitness performance.
If You’re Not Sore, It Didn’t Count
Myth: Soreness is a direct indication of how well your workout went — and how much muscle you’re growing.
Truth: Soreness can be the result of doing a new exercise, using a new protocol like negatives or implementing progressive overload. But if you’re not sore, it doesn’t mean you didn’t stress your muscles enough, and the extent of your angst doesn’t represent the gains you’re making.
Soreness is actually your own personal perception of pain, and what makes one person sore may feel like nothing to another. Either way, schedule plenty of off days into your schedule to help your body recover and repair, which will assist in the soreness abatement.
Must. Train Bodyparts. Separately.
Myth: Each day has its muscle and each muscle has its day — Monday is chest, Tuesday is quads, Wednesday is arms, and so on.
Truth: So many guys (and some physique-focused women) who exclusively do bodypart training are only interested in looking good and are not interested in functionality or performance. Isolation and single-joint exercises don’t maximize functional strength and may not even be the best strategy for building muscle in the long run.
Even if your goal is hypertrophy alone, training muscle groups two to three times per week could be more beneficial than one exhaustive day per bodypart. If you want muscle that looks great and works for you, include multi-joint, compound moves like squats, deadlifts, lunges, pull-ups, presses and carries in your routine.
Moves like a Turkish get-up or a clean-and-jerk are also great full-body moves with a high metabolic cost that would be excluded were you to train exclusively single bodyparts.
If It Ain’t Broke, Don’t Fix It.
Myth: If you’re still seeing gains, there’s no reason to change your routine.
Truth: Even if you are following the principle of progressive overload by systematically increasing your weights, you may be losing out by doing the same exercises, sets and reps that you’ve been doing for the last year (or more!).
Your body is efficient and is always looking for ways to conserve energy. It will adapt to the stresses placed on it in short shrift and suddenly your gains have come to a halt. Systematically change your routine by switching up the sets, reps, resistance, intensity, frequency, time under tension, rest between sets and even types of exercises to keep your body guessing and progressing.