Like a good novel plot, the quest to get fit always starts with a question.
Or a dozen…or three.
You know, quandaries like…
- What type of workouts are best for building muscle? What about losing fat?
- What foods should I eat and what should I avoid?
- Do meal timing and frequency matter?
- How can I avoid getting “bulky”?
- Why the hell is belly fat so hard to lose?
- Should I lift weights or do cardio or both?
The list goes on and on.
And perhaps the most frustrating question of all is why there are so many contradictory answers to all your questions.
Why is there so much dissent on how to get fit? Does building a bit of lousy muscle and burning a bit of loathsome fat have to be so complicated?
Well, breathe a sigh of relief because…
It doesn’t have to be complicated at all.
In fact, the truth about getting into great shape couldn’t be simpler.
You follow a handful of flexible diet and training guidelines…you put in the work every day and stay patient…and you reap the body you’ve sowed. End of story.
My primary goal as an author and educator is to empower people to build the bodies of their dreams with these basic, science-based guidelines.
So to that end I’m going to use this article to eviscerate…er…explain…5 of the worst pieces of fitness advice I’ve ever heard.
I’m also not going to debunk without also providing workable alternatives, either. I hate when experts leave you hanging like that.
Quite a few of these claims…if not all…are going to sound familiar to you. In fact, I’m willing to bet you’d even defend some of them.
Well, don’t worry.
I’m not going to just give you my opinions on what’s right and wrong. I’m going to back up my positions with a plethora of scientific research and anecdotal experience and results. And the best part of fitness advice is you can immediately put it to use and see if it works. Workability is what matters the most in the end.
By the end of this article you’ll know more about building muscle, losing fat, and staying healthy than most people ever will.
So, let’s get started.
- Calories don't count anymore.
- Weightlifting makes women "bulky."
- Carbs make you fat. Or wait, is it fat that makes you fat? It all makes you fat!
- You have to do cardio to lose weight.
- Heavy weightlifting builds strength, not muscle.
- The Bottom Line
- What do you think is the worst fitness advice out there? Have anything else to share? Let me know in the comments below!
Table of Contents
“Calorie counting doesn’t work,” the fat MD with a PhD says in his latest bestselling book.
“It’s a relic of our ignorant dietary past,” the pretty girl who has been skinny her entire life tells Oprah.
“And it’s time we moved on and realized diet is all about food quality, not calories,” the former triathlete turned guru says on his blockbuster blog, as if welding shut the door to further debate with rebar.
It all sounds so sexy. Get the body you’ve always wanted without ever “dieting” again. All you have to do is eat the right foods and “unclog and supercharge” your hormones.
These seductive promises don’t fall on deaf ears. They’re too enticing to be ignored.
They’re also bullshit.
Yes, you can lose fat eating foods you like. And yes, you can even do this without counting calories.
But these things don’t change the fundamental truths about how the human metabolism works.
You see, there’s a reason why every single controlled weight loss study conducted in the last century has concluded that meaningful weight loss requires energy expenditure to exceed intake.
That is, we must eat less energy than we burn to lose weight. And that’s right. I’m talking good ol’ calories in and calories out and the physiological bedrock of energy balance.
This is where all sensible diet advice begins. This is the lynchpin. The non-negotiable.
Get it right and you can avoid countless pitfalls and frustrations. Get it wrong and you’ll flounder no matter what you do.
The truth is calorie counting, when applied intelligently, can change your life.
- It can put you in complete control of the most important aspects of your body: your weight, body composition, and health.
- It can free you from the anxieties and uncertainties of “dieting.” Of having to hope for results and second-guess everything you put in your mouth.
- It can free you from the traps of yo-yo dieting, restrictive dieting, starvation dieting, and just about every other pitfall that gobbles up the hopes of millions of people every year.
If you want to know how calorie counting really works, go here.
Few exercise tips do more harm to women’s physiques than this one. It’s at least half of the recipe for becoming skinny fat.
I do understand why so many women buy into it though.
Guys lift heavy weights because they want to get big and bulky, so why would girls do the same? It also doesn’t help that every gym has at least one girl into heavy weightlifting who looks like she’s made out of Legos.
The reality, however, is it’s very, very hard for women to get “bulky.” It takes years of hard and deliberate effort in the gym and kitchen to look musclebound.
Trust me–it’s hard enough for us guys to do it and we have, on average, 10 to 15 times the testosterone as women.
The average woman’s fear of heavy weightlifting is unfortunate. Ironically, it’s the only type of exercise that can deliver the results she wants: tight muscle definition with curves and cuts in the right places.
Why then, you might be wondering, do so many women get into heavy weightlifting and grow bigger and bigger? Why don’t they get the long, lean muscles they desire?
Because they don’t understand the key to minimizing bulk: staying lean.
You see, the more muscle you add to your frame, the more your body fat percentage is going to affect your look.
If it’s a bit too high, the added muscle is going to make you look fatter. Lose the extra fat, however, and you look completely different.
This is because fat is stored inside and on top of muscle. Add ten pounds of fat to the hottest legs and butt a woman could ever ask for and you wouldn’t look twice let alone squeal in jealousy.
You can see this clearly in experienced female weightlifters. When they’re bulking and gaining fat they look, well, “bulky.” Once they strip the fat, though, they look like paragons of feminine fitness: tight upper body, sleek legs, and a perky butt.
The bottom line is the lean, toned, athletic look most women want requires a fair amount of muscle and a body fat percentage between 15 and 20%.
Heavy weightlifting is the key to adding the muscle and proper dieting is the key to shedding the fat.
(If you’re looking for a sensible, science-based weightlifting program for women, check out my Thinner Leaner Stronger program.)
People like simple explanations and love conspiracies. These two human quirks explain the popularity of most mainstream diet trends.
The formula for a fad diet is simple:
1. It’s not your fault you’re fat and unhealthy.
Assholes keep saying it’s because you eat too much junk and food in general and move too little but they’re wrong. You’re not lazy and undisciplined. You’re a victim of bad science and food.
2. New research shows what to blame.
And we’ve strung it up like a pinata for you to bludgeon into ribbons. Strike it down with all your hatred and your journey to the dark…er, light…side will be complete.
3. Avoid it at all costs and you’ll live happily ever after.
Celibacy is the only way to escape the bogeyman’s wrath. Abstain and take charge of your destiny.
This is how marketers sold people low-fat dieting a decade ago and how they sell low-carb dieting today. And rest assured hucksters will be using it a decade from now to sell something new.
If you want to break free of the brainwashing, you need to realize this:
No individual food can make you fat. Only overeating can.
The truth is any diet that completely restricts a food or food type is likely bullshit.
You can eat a balanced diet that includes everything you enjoy, including your favorite carbs and indulgences, and have a muscular, lean, and healthy body.
Remember that your body isn’t what you eat–your body is what it does with what you eat. And it’s incredibly good at adapting to a wide variety of diets.
Restrictive diets also rob us of the joys of eating, which are, and have always been, a rich source of pleasure and reward. Ancient peoples believed foods like chocolate, potato, and corn were gifts from the gods and I think they were onto something.
Dietary ascetics want you to believe that eating for fulfillment and eating for health are incompatible. They want to force on you an unnatural disdain for the mealtime experience. Satisfaction is a distraction, they say. Food is fuel.
This ideology isn’t just silly and unnecessary–it’s unsustainable and psychologically unhealthy.
Fitness should be an uplifting lifestyle, not an ordeal. If you can’t see yourself following your current dietary regimen a few years from now, that’s a problem.
It’s only a matter of time until you abandon it, and then what?
If you want to see where this rabbit hole goes and learn more about “flexible dieting,” check out this article of mine.
If you feel you’re not quite weak or skinny fat enough, you should do more cardio.
That is…you should do exactly what millions of people addicted to burning calories do every day: pedal, jog, row, and swim their physiques…and often health…away.
If that sounds blasphemous to you, I understand. But hear me out.
People everywhere believe that getting and staying lean requires the regular sacrifice of thousands of heartbeats and gallons of sweat. It’s simply not true.
So long as you know what you’re doing with your diet, you can lose fat and stay lean without doing any cardio whatsoever. And you can get really lean, you can do it with no more than a couple hours of cardio per week.
Skeptical? Well, here’s a recent shot of me at about 7% body fat:
I got and stayed here for several months doing no more than 3 to 4 25-minute high-intensity interval cardio sessions per week, plus 4 to 5 60-minute weightlifting sessions.
You see, the problem with abusing cardio to try to get lean is threefold:
1. It’s too easy to eat back the calories you burn.
You have to work your ass off on the treadmill to burn a few hundred calories but you can eat it all back–and more–with a handful of nuts or small bar of chocolate.
Increasing energy expenditure through exercise helps you lose fat, of course, but you must also know how to properly regulate food intake or it’s all for naught.
This is particularly insidious. Most people unable to lose weight suspect they may be overeating but rarely suspect their bodies are burning less and less energy during exercise.
This is one of the reasons why research shows that an exercise routine of just cardio delivers pretty poor fat loss results. And even worse, many people following such a routine wind up fatter than before they started exercising.
3. Cardio burns fat but it burns muscle too.
We say we want to lose “weight” but what we really want to lose is fat and preserve muscle.
This is extremely important because if we lose too much muscle while losing fat, we wind up with the dreaded “skinny fat” look.
Research shows that aerobic training alone isn’t enough to preserve muscle while restricting calories.
How do you preserve muscle, you wonder? Simple: add resistance training to the mix. This will not only help you lose fat faster but will ensure you maintain, or even add to, your total lean mass.
If you want to preserve maximal muscle while losing fat, you want to do more resistance training than cardio and as little cardio as you can.
It’s that simple.
Out of all the debates that go down in gym locker rooms, few are as heated as the battle over the “best” rep ranges.
Is high-rep, low-weight training the secret to gains? Low-rep, high-weight? A combination of both? Something else altogether?
These questions warrant extensive articles of their own (which I will write), but I’m going to cut to the chase here:
If you want to work your ass off with grueling workouts only to make mediocre gains and hit an unbreakable plateau, then you want to emphasize higher rep ranges in your weightlifting.
And the “higher” rep ranges I’m referring to are the purported “hypertrophy” ranges of 8 to 10 and 10 to 12 reps per set.
I used to train exclusively in these rep ranges so I’m speaking from personal experience. I’ve also worked with thousands of people of all ages and circumstances and found this to be true with them too.
One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned that has enabled me to dramatically (and naturally) transform my physique is how vital heavy weightlifting is.
In my first 7 to 8 years of training I did just about every form of high-rep, high-volume workout you can imagine, including all kinds of splits and frequencies.
Here’s what it got me:
Not very impressive for 7ish years of regular training, 4 to 6 days per week, doing workouts that averaged 1.5 to 2 hours each.
I figured I just didn’t have the genetics to look really good or get really strong. I was wrong.
Once I started focusing on heavier weights–doing the majority of my training with 80 to 85% of my 1RM–I started making progress by leaps and bounds.
Here’s a shot of me a couple years later:
Sure, I also learned how to diet along the way, but the numbers don’t lie.
In the 2.5 years between those pictures, I gained close to 15 pounds of muscle and greatly improved my proportions.
Another huge benefit of training with heavier weights is my workouts are far more enjoyable now. Because let’s face it: high-rep training is a huge pain in the ass. Every workout is a painful, draining, and sometimes even nauseating ordeal.
Even if you have better-than-average dedication and discipline, this type of training wears on your enthusiasm. And that leads to skipped and less-than-100% workouts, which further stalls progress.
Heavy weightlifting is a completely different experience. It’s tough but your muscles aren’t ablaze, your heart isn’t rattling your rib cage, and your pre-workout meal isn’t gurgling in your throat.
I can honestly say I look forward to and enjoy my workouts now. And yes, even legs day. I train hard and leave the gym feeling more energized than when I arrived.
As you can imagine, this works wonders for maximizing each workout and for long-term compliance, which are huge factors in the bigger picture.
The bottom line is emphasizing the 4 to 6 or 5 to 7 rep ranges in your training is a remarkably effective way to build muscle and strength (and the two are inextricably linked).
A simple way to test this approach is to ensure that you do at least three heavy sets of bench and military pressing, squatting, and deadlifting every 5 to 7 days.
And once you reach the top of your heavy rep range–6 or 7 reps–add weight to the bar. This simple method of progression ensures you get stronger over time, which is your primary goal as a natural weightlifter.
You should do more than just three sets in your workouts, of course, but you have to get in your heavy lifting before you move on to other higher-rep work.
I could go on for another 20,000 words and barely scratch the surface of all the bad advice out there. (And that’s why I write books.)
I chose these five points for this article because they are the biggest breakthroughs in my quest to get fit.
If you too learn how to manage calorie and macronutrient intake, free yourself from restrictive dietary dogmas, and shift your focus toward heavy weightlifting and away from excessive cardio, I guarantee you’ll make more progress than you ever thought possible.
What do you think is the worst fitness advice out there? Have anything else to share? Let me know in the comments below!
+ Scientific References
- Willis, L. H., Slentz, C. A., Bateman, L. A., Shields, A. T., Piner, L. W., Bales, C. W., Houmard, J. A., & Kraus, W. E. (2012). Effects of aerobic and/or resistance training on body mass and fat mass in overweight or obese adults. Journal of Applied Physiology, 113(12), 1831–1837. https://doi.org/10.1152/japplphysiol.01370.2011
- Melanson, E. L., Keadle, S. K., Donnelly, J. E., Braun, B., & King, N. A. (2013). Resistance to exercise-induced weight loss: Compensatory behavioral adaptations. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 45(8), 1600–1609. https://doi.org/10.1249/MSS.0b013e31828ba942
- Sawyer, B. J., Bhammar, D. M., Angadi, S. S., Ryan, D. M., Ryder, J. R., Sussman, E. J., Bertmann, F. M. W., & Gaesser, G. A. (2015). Predictors of fat mass changes in response to aerobic exercise training in women. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 29(2), 297–304. https://doi.org/10.1519/JSC.0000000000000726
- Thomas, D. M., Bouchard, C., Church, T., Slentz, C., Kraus, W. E., Redman, L. M., Martin, C. K., Silva, A. M., Vossen, M., Westerterp, K., & Heymsfield, S. B. (2012). Why do individuals not lose more weight from an exercise intervention at a defined dose? an energy balance analysis. Obesity Reviews, 13(10), 835–847. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-789X.2012.01012.x