In a recent blog article I covered some of the secret truths about diet and nutrition, things that you don’t often hear about from an industry that mostly wants to sell you quick fixes and supplements. Following on from that I want to turn your attention to misconceptions around exercise. Do you need to exercise every day? Can you tone your muscles? How hard to do you actually need to exercise to get results? Is cardio the best way to lose weight? Let’s dive in….
You can lose weight without doing exercise
If pure weight loss is your goal, your diet is a much more important factor than exercise. Reducing your calories and eating mostly nutrient dense foods will be enough for many people to make the number on the scales fall. About 80% of weight loss comes down to consistency with your diet over a long enough timeframe. However, if your goal is specifically fat loss rather than general weight loss then you want to hold on to the muscle you have (or build more) while losing weight, and this is when exercise becomes important. The reverse of this is that you can exercise every day and still not lose any weight if your diet isn’t under control, for best results do both.
You don’t need gyms or fancy equipment to get fit (up to a point)
Depending on your starting point, something as simple as going for a walk every day or taking the stairs instead of the lift might be exactly what you need to kickstart your fitness journey. I’ve had one client who lost over 5kg just by making some tweaks to his diet and increasing his step count – it can be that simple. If toning up or looking better naked is your goal, you can build muscle and lose fat effectively with hard enough bodyweight exercises. However, there is a principle called progressive overload which means that as you get stronger you need to make the workouts harder, and that is much easier to do if you have equipment. This is where dumbbells, barbells, resistance bands, cables and machines make your job much easier
Off the shelf workout plans aren’t going to give you optimal results
All those YouTube workouts and generic exercise plans you find online won’t give you as good results as you could get. Following someone else’s plan is better than doing nothing, but everyone has different needs. We are all unique in how much time we have to train, our experience, our training age, our body mechanics and any exercise plan should reflect that. Just because Arnold spent 2 hours per day in the gym or your favourite social media fitness guru does daily interval training sessions doesn’t mean it will work for you, in fact it probably won’t. Many of the well known social media fitness experts are blessed with good genes, and would be in great shape regardless of what kind of workouts they do, but they’re in the minority. For best results get a plan that’s tailored to you.
Cardio isn't the best way to lose fat
Sorry cardio bunnies but resistance training, especially weight training is much more effective in the long run than endless hours spent on the treadmill. While intense cardio usually burns more calories during your workout, weight training boosts your metabolism and continues to burn calories after you have finished your workout. Weight training also increases your chances of holding on to existing muscle and helps you grow new muscle, which is what gives you the toned look when your body fat drops. A nice balance is to aim for 1 cardio session to every 3 or 4 weight training sessions. An important point is that you need to be lifting heavy enough to challenge your muscles. If you are doing 2 minutes of squat jumps it’s more like cardio than resistance training, you’ll burn calories but nothing will grow. If you can do more than 30 reps, or have to stop because you’re tired rather than because you’ve reached muscle failure, then it’s not heavy enough and you need to increase the weight. The sweet spot is exercising with a weight or resistance that allows you to do between 5 and 20 reps before you physically can't do any more.
Booty bands won’t grow your bum
If your workout consists of crab walks and body weight squats with a band wrapped around your hips then you’re mostly wasting your time. Bands are great to help activate your glutes before a training session but that should take no more than 5 minutes, then for best results you need heavy weights and exercises that directly target the glutes – think glute kickbacks, glute raises, hip bridges and romanian deadlifts in the 5-20 rep range.
Bro splits don’t work for the majority of the population
If your workout routine consists of chest day, back day, quad day, glute day etc. then you aren’t going to get the most out of your training. This type of workout split can work for the bros who have been lifting weights for years, take a lot of performance enhancing drugs, and can train multiple times per day but that’s probably not you and it won’t give you the volume or frequency you need to change your body. A good approach is to train each muscle group or body part 2-3 times per week, with around 10 sets per body part per week. If that sounds complicated, a foolproof approach for beginners is starting with 3 x full body workouts per week or 4 workouts per week alternating between upper body and lower body days. If you’re doing about 10 sets for any given body part and feel fresh at the end of the week then add a few more sets and re-assess.
You can’t tone your muscles
When many people talk about having more toned muscles what they are usually thinking of is having a firm body with muscular definition and shape. In this context, muscle tone refers to having a sufficient amount of muscle, plus a low enough body fat percentage for that muscle to be visible. The less fat you have covering your muscles, the more “toned” and “defined” and “sculpted” you will look. The more fat you have covering your muscles (or if there’s not enough muscle present to begin with), the less visible your muscles will be and the less toned you will look. Muscles don't get harder or more firm, they just shrink or grow in size in proportion to the stress applied to them. The secret to looking more toned is the right combination of weight training and eating less calories than you burn. A related misconception many people have is that doing higher repetitions with lighter weights are better for muscle toning, while heavy weights will make them bulky. There is no truth to this, and actually doing too many reps means you won't provide enough stimulus to the muscles and as a result they won't grow.
You don’t need to do a completely different workout every day, or even every week
In fact this can actually slow down your progress. Every time you change an exercise, your body needs time to get used to the new movement patterns before it can handle a decent resistance and start to get stronger. It’s much better to have a couple of workouts that you rotate between and stick at them for 4-6 weeks before making any changes. Even then it doesn’t need to be massive changes, it could be going from a flat bench press to an incline bench press, or changing your grip slightly on a pull up.
You don’t have to smash yourself on every workout
No pain no gain right? Not exactly, while you do need to train hard, you shouldn’t overdo it. To achieve any sort of result it is necessary to put in effort. To increase fitness, strength, power or fat loss you have to stress the body into adaptation but it doesn’t need to be punishing and you don’t need to be a sweaty mess at the end. While there may be some sessions where you decide to really push yourself to your limit, it shouldn’t be the norm. One overly hard workout could have a negative effect on your next couple of sessions, lots of overly hard workouts will build up fatigue so much that all your workouts suffer. If you’re training with weights or bands, you want to push close to the point where you physically can’t move the weight any more but not quite – you should have about 2-4 reps left “in the tank” when you finish. Then you rest and repeat. If your workouts leave you puking in the bin at the end of every session, it’s time to rethink your approach. However that's not a free pass to take it easy, if you're not challenging yourself you won't see any changes either, there is a sweet spot in the middle.
Getting results takes time, especially if you want to gain muscle
Losing weight is not a fast process, it takes consistency with both exercise and diet over a long enough time period. If you are heavier than you want to be, chances are it happened gradually over months and years so you can’t expect to lose it all again in a few weeks. A healthy and sustainable rate of weight loss is somewhere between 0.5% to 1% of your bodyweight per week – If you start at 60kg that’s between 0.3kg to 0.6kg of weight lost per week, and no faster. If your goal is to gain muscle that is slower still and unless you are a complete beginner you should expect some fat to come along with the muscle. A realistic rate of weight gain is 0.25% to 0.4% of bodyweight per week for beginners and even less if you’re more advanced. As an example, if you start at 60kg that’s somewhere between 0.15kg and 0.25kg per week or between 0.6kg and 1kg per month. It’s not fast but it can’t be rushed, so you need to think of progress in months or even years rather than weeks.