Today, I thought I’d share some of the foulest fitness fiddle-faddle that just won’t go away no matter how hard scientists, experts, and educators try to eradicate it with data, logic, and rhetoric.
What’s more, these myths and mistakes are why so many people struggle to lose fat, gain muscle, and get strong, and why they remain fat, feeble, and frustrated instead.
And as you’ll see, we’ve all fallen for at least a couple of these optical illusions in our journeys. Who knows—maybe you’re still harboring some of these delusions?
Let’s find out . . .
“Calories In Versus Calories Out Is Bad Science”
“Calorie counting doesn’t work,” the overweight MD says in his latest bestselling book.
“It’s a relic of our ignorant dietary past,” the pretty woman who has been skinny her entire life tells Oprah.
“It’s time we moved on and realized dieting is all about food quality, not calories,” the former triathlete turned guru says on his blockbuster blog.
The sales pitch sounds sexy. Eat the right foods and you can “unclog and supercharge” your hormones and metabolism, and your body will take care of the rest. This is music to many people’s ears who want to believe they can get lean and fit without ever having to restrict or even pay attention to how much they eat, only what.
This is malarkey. In fact, it’s worse than that. It’s a blatant lie because, as far as your body weight is concerned, how much you eat is far more important than what you eat.
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“You Can ‘Tone,’ ‘Shape,’ and ‘Sculpt’ Your Muscles”
Tone those arms!
Shape that butt!
Sculpt those abs!
It sounds so nice and feminine. Nothing like the brutish gym talk about “gaining size” or “adding mass.”
Phrases like these make for snazzy marketing, but they’re often used to sell nonsense.
You can’t “lengthen” and “tighten” your muscles, fundamentally change how they’re shaped, or selectively strip fat away so they look more defined.
You can, however, add muscle to your frame and remove body fat. Nothing more or less. If you do that right, you get the right amount of muscle definition, curves, and lines in all the right places.
The exercise advice generally given for “toning,” “sculpting,” and “shaping” is also hogwash.
The key, so many women are told, is a lot of high-repetition, low-weight resistance training. This is about as wrong as can be because you should do the exact opposite if you want a toned, defined body as quickly as possible—a lot of lower-repetition, higher-weight resistance training.
“But wait,” you might be thinking, “won’t that make me ‘bulky’?”
Yeah, about that . . .
“Heavy Weightlifting Makes Women ‘Bulky’”
If there’s one mainstream misconception that causes more harm to women’s physiques than any other, it’s this one.
At first glance, it sounds plausible. Heavy weights are for the boys who want bulging biceps, right? Why would women, who want sexy, defined, feminine muscles, train in the same way?
Apparent proof of this myth can be found at any local CrossFit gym, where you’ll see at least a few women with figures that would make an NFL linebacker jealous.
Here’s what you don’t see, however: it’s very hard for women to build a big, bulky body. It doesn’t happen by accident or overnight. It takes elite muscle-building genetics and years of concerted effort in the gym and kitchen. Anabolic steroids are often involved as well, and especially in the case of professional athletes.
That said, there are still enough women in gyms everywhere who hit the weights regularly and look “bulky” enough to give you pause. And that’s why you need to know what really gives women that look: too much body fat.
Thus, a rule of thumb for women who want to be lean, toned, and defined: the more muscle you have, the less body fat you must have to avoid looking bulky.
For example, a woman with little muscle might feel scrawny at 18 percent body fat—the percentage of body weight that is fat—and comfortable at 25 percent, whereas a woman with a significant amount of muscle will probably love how she looks at 18 percent but feel a bit roly-poly at 25 percent.
“Carbs and Sugars Make You Fat”
People love simple explanations and compelling conspiracies, and these two quirks explain the popularity of most mainstream diet trends.
These emotion-based tactics are how marketers sold us on low-fat dieting a decade ago and how they sell us on low-carb and low-sugar dieting today. Cut the heinous carbohydrate and sugar molecules out of your life, they say, and the pounds will just melt away.
It all sounds so neat and tidy until someone like me comes along and points out the glitches in the matrix, like the professor and science teacher I introduced you to earlier in this chapter, or the well-designed and well-executed studies that have found no difference in weight loss whatsoever between low- and high-carb and low- and high-sugar diets.
- Scientists at Arizona State University found no difference in weight or fat loss between people consuming 5 and 40 percent of their calories from carbohydrate for 10 weeks.
- Scientists at the Medical College of Wisconsin found no difference in weight or fat loss between people consuming 4 and 30 percent of their calories from carbohydrate for six weeks.
- Scientists at the Harvard School of Public Health found no difference in weight loss between people consuming 65, 45, and 35 percent of their calories from carbohydrate for two years.
- Scientists at Stanford School of Medicine found no difference in weight or fat loss between people who consumed 50 and 25 percent of their calories from carbohydrate for one year.
- Scientists at Duke University found no difference in weight or fat loss between people consuming 4 and 43 percent of their calories from sugar for six weeks.
- Scientists at Queen Margaret University College found no difference in weight loss between people consuming 5 and 10 percent of their calories from sugar for eight weeks.
If you consistently consume fewer calories than you burn, you’ll lose weight, regardless of how much carbohydrate or sugar you eat.
There’s a corollary here, too:
No individual food can make you fatter. Only overeating can.
“Some Guys Just Don’t Have the Genetics to Get Big and Strong”
For many, “genetics” is an unpalatable word.
It’s often associated with things you want to change but can’t, and I’m not going to blow smoke—muscle building is one of those things. We all do have hard limits as to how much muscle we can gain.
There are many physiological variables in play here, but you can get a fairly accurate estimate of your muscle-building potential by analyzing your bone structure.
Research shows that people with larger bones tend to be more muscular than people with smaller frames. Bigger-boned people also tend to have higher testosterone levels and gain muscle faster when they start lifting weights.
What this means, then, is “big-boned” people have more genetic potential for strength and size than smaller folk. What qualifies as “big boned,” though, and how do you measure up?
Two of the best indicators of your overall bone structure are the circumferences of your wrists and ankles. Height being equal, people who have wider wrists and ankles tend to be naturally more muscular and have a higher potential for muscle growth than those with narrower ones.
If you’re like me and you don’t even need to measure anything to know you have slender bones, don’t worry. Again, unless you want to be a top-tier bodybuilder or fitness competitor, you have nothing to worry about. You can gain more than enough muscle to look fantastic.
Realize that most guys only need to gain about 20 to 25 pounds of muscle to have an impressive physique, and literally anybody can do that, no matter how skinny and weak they are when they touch a barbell for the first time.
“Cardio Is Better for Fat Loss Than Weightlifting”
When most people start exercising to lose weight, they choose some form of cardio, like jogging, swimming, or biking.
This is all well and good, but unfortunately, simply doing cardio guarantees little in the way of weight loss. In fact, studies show many people wind up even heavier than when they began their cardiovascular exercise routines.
Hence the crowds of overweight people addicted to burning calories instead of getting fit.
And what about weightlifting?
Well, research clearly shows that it’s an effective way to lose fat, so why is it generally associated with “bulking up” and not “slimming down”?
The answer is simple.
Weightlifting isn’t a popular way to lose weight because it’s a bad way to lose weight, but it is a fantastic way to speed up fat loss and preserve muscle.
Okay here’s one more. And it’s a big one . . .
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