For every new exercise trend that’s raved about, there are countless others waiting to pop up, all of them contradicting each other and confusing those of us trying to stay healthy. The human body is one of the most complex entities around, and no two bodies work exactly alike, which is why we have to sift through a lot of fitness lies to find out what really works.
Many people operate under misconceptions about how our bodies respond to exercise, particularly when it comes to muscle building. These muscle myths in particular frequently circulate through gym locker rooms, but they couldn’t be further from the truth—in fact, believing them might actually counteract our efforts.
1. To gain muscle, lift as heavy as possible.
It’s true that muscle building requires using heavier weights than what our muscles are used to—in order to make them grow, we have to challenge them. But that doesn’t mean starting with a bodybuilder’s routine. In the beginning, it’s best to focus on technique and form. Once that’s been established, gradually increase weight and continue doing so to keep exercise sessions varied. Once our bodies get used to the same routine, they don’t have to try as hard and the workout isn’t as effective.
The opinion on this varies, but it’s generally accepted that combining heavy weights with a smaller number of repetitions is the best way to increase muscle mass, but if the form’s off because you’re lifting too much too quickly, it won’t do much for muscle. Even starting with weight-bearing exercises like pushups and pullups is better than pushing yourself too hard.
2. Muscle can turn to fat.
This is one of the most commonly believed myths and it isn’t even physiologically possible! It’s true that an unexercised muscle will change shape; if they’re not utilized on a regular basis, they can lose their tone and make the person look flabby. But a flabby muscle isn’t a fatty one, namely because muscle and fat are comprised of two different kinds of tissue that are affected by different things—activity-fueled stress versus calories.
If the muscles aren’t worked out enough, the fibers might shrink in size and leave room for fat, but it won’t turn into it. Also, since our metabolisms burn foods more efficiently the more muscle mass we have, a reduced amount will slow down the process, potentially leading to weight gain if diet doesn’t compensate for the change.
3. Lift every day to maintain muscle strength.
When muscles are put under more stress than usual, the tissue breaks down and muscle fibers rebuild themselves and get thicker. However, this process doesn’t happen immediately. Rebuilding—also called recovery—starts about two to four hours after working out and can take anywhere from a day to three to finish.
That’s why our muscles need at least a day’s rest after a hard, strenuous work out. If they’re put under extreme stress before they’ve had a chance to rebuild, it hinders the muscle building process and defeats the purpose of weight training.
4. Eat nothing but protein—and lots of it.
Forsaking other food groups to focus on one is generally a terrible idea. Some people looking to bulk up think that they have to consume a cow’s worth of steak at every meal to do so, but protein’s only part of the equation. According to Dr. Melinda Jampolis, CNN.com’s diet and fitness expert, for every kilogram someone weighs, he or she needs .8 grams of protein on average—that is, without factoring in exercise. For someone looking to develop muscles, she suggests increasing the amount to 1.2 grams. Also, opt for lean proteins like turkey, cottage cheese, and beans.
While we need extra protein to fuel our muscles, balance is key—we still need healthy carbs and fats in our diets, too. In fact, the best post-workout meal to consume is a glass of chocolate milk because its ratio of carbs, fat, and protein makes our muscles happy. And keep in mind that what the body doesn’t use for energy—even in protein form—is stored for future use (read: extra jiggle around the middle).
5. Women will get bulky if they weight train.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard fellow females express hesitance about strength training because they don’t want big muscles. Somehow, they’ve been convinced dumbbells are synonymous with huge, steroid-created biceps. It’s true that one woman could grow bigger muscles than another doing the same workout routine. It has to do with the body’s supply of testosterone, which varies. Since men naturally have higher levels in their systems than women, they put on muscle more easily and quickly.
Women have testosterone, too, so possibly those who have more than average are more prone to bigger muscles. However, without the help of steroids, most women won’t achieve bodies like male bodybuilders.
When it comes to muscle there are a few factors that determine how muscular we are or can be. It’s not just how many hours we log in the gym, but also our diets and genes. Just as some women build bigger muscles than others, people in general have varying degrees of potential muscularity. All the squats and bench presses in the world can’t completely overcome the body type you were blessed with. So don’t get dismayed and give up when a Schwarzenegger-type body (in his Terminator days, anyway) isn’t mirrored back to you right away. Just forget the myths, work with what your mama gave you, pump what your body can handle, and don’t forget the most important part—the chocolate milk at the end! (Well, I guess proper form’s pretty important, too. But it’s not as tasty.)