Gym Mythology: An Inside Look At Some Common Bodybuilding Myths!

Problems with translation and context have led to a number of myths that pervade society and prevent people from realizing their full potential. Let's explore a few of these myths, in no specific order.
If you have plenty of free time and are extremely bored, try checking out the free translation engine at Alta Vista by using the info below:

Translations typically are done with people extremely familiar with the language, and they do a much better job than the computer because of something known as context. Certain words mean different things within their own context, so when I say, "Shoot!" because I've stubbed my thumb, it means something entirely different than when the captain of a firing squad yells the same word. Computers have an extremely difficult time understanding context, because they must follow a set of rules established by humans. We humans sometimes lose meaning to context as well.


How One Thing Can Translate Into Another...

Coming back to the translation engine, if I said something like, "You should avoid leg extensions with heavy weight because they place extreme stress on the knee joint, but this risk goes away when lighter weights are used for therapeutic and rehabilitation purposes," you would probably understand what I was trying to say. If I take this same phrase to Alta Vista, translate it to Chinese, and then back to English, then this is what comes out of the engine:

    "You should avoid the leg extension and heavyweight because they place the extreme stress in the knee joint, but this kind of risk gets out of the way when the quite light weight is used for the treatment and the reclamation goal."

Not to bad, huh? The computer understood the context well, and retranslated this without distorting too much of the meaning. If we then take this phrase, translate it to Spanish and then back to English, our next generation will read:

    "You must avoid the extension and heavyweight of the leg because they put the extreme tension in the joint of the knee, but this class of risk leaves the way when the absolutely light one is used for the treatment and the goal of the recovery."

Just for kicks, I did the opposite, and translated to Spanish first, then Chinese. This is what I got:

    "You must avoid the leg the extension and heavyweight because they exert the extreme anxiously in this knee joint, but this kind of risk leaves when the quite slight weight is used purports for the treatment and rehabilitates."


What I Am Trying To Get To…

My point here is that we lost something in all of the translations. While my original phrase was "avoid leg extensions with heavy weight" the translation became "avoid leg extensions and heavy weight"... if someone were told this, they'd only be squatting, and they'd only squat with lighter weights. This is not what I intended!

It doesn't take a computerized translation engine to cause these types of problems. Many of the research publications and clinical trials that are quoted by supplement companies or people selling "exercise systems" were originally written in a foreign language and translated to English. This has its own problems, but it gets even worse. Even native English publications are consistently taken out of context.

For example, one study might demonstrate that ducks who are fed whey protein and corn feed gain 15% more muscle mass than ducks that are restricted from eating at all. I could easily take this study and report on my product, "Recent studies prove that our proprietary protein and corn carbohydrate blend produces as much as a 15% gain in muscle mass". Likness, et al. [The effects of whey protein and corn feed supplementation on Eastern African ducks]. You get the point. It sounds good, there is even a nice reference, but what you don't know is that the other ducks were starving!


Myths That Need Translated!

These problems with translation and context have led to a number of myths that pervade society and prevent people from realizing their full potential. Let's explore a few of these myths, in no specific order.

Squats Are Bad For Your Knees

What a blanket statement! "Squats are bad for your knees." I hear so many people tell me, "I have a knee problem so I only do leg extensions, not squats." What?! Are you sure that's what you want to do? Trust me, I know about bad knees. I've completely blown my right ACL (anterior cruciat ligament) and had full reconstructive surgery - they used a piece of my patella tendon as a substitute ligament and attached it to the knee joint with stainless steel bolts. What was the key to my ultimate recovery?

Squats. An improperly executed squat can be horrendous for your knees, but there are various styles of squats that shift tension to different parts of the body. The key to stabilizing the knee joint is to build the muscle that surrounds it, and the squat is one of the best ways to do this.

Satan Invented Smith Machine Squats

I ran foul of this myth myself. ISSA even teaches us that between the leg extensions, free weight squat, leg press, and smith machine squat, the smith machine squat is one of the worst exercises. I personally don't like machines that lock someone into a range of motion that isn't always natural.

The smith machine can certainly be used safely, however. If you do not know how to properly align yourself within the machine or use it as a "crutch" to allow you to push heavier weight than you are accustomed to, it can certainly wreak havoc. Knowing how to use the machine, however, can make an effective tool to use when your routine needs some variety and you want a change of pace.

Leg Extensions Are Bad For Your Knees

This follows the same vein as the previous myths. Leg extensions with extremely heavy weights place a lot of stress on your knee joint. Is this bad for your knee? I don't know; I haven't seen your knee. Some people with strong joints may be able to support the heavy load and will strengthen their joint and muscles. Some people have no place doing this, and are making their own death wish. It really depends on the individual.

During my recovery from surgery, I certainly didn't wake up from surgery and begin squatting 300 pounds. I had to move through therapy, and initially, that therapy was performing leg extensions with lighter weights. This did not destroy my knee joint; it rehabilitated it! Every exercise has its place and time depending on the individual who is going to perform the movement.

You Must Always Avoid A Rounded Back When Exercising

Ugh! This is the bane of modern exercise programs. Most trainers would rather have their teeth pulled without anesthesia than be caught recommending an exercise that (gasp!) involves rounding of the lower back. In actuality, the back should remain flat for most exercises. I teach a concave back method, or slight lordosis, because most people round excessively. Once someone has abdominal control and well-developed spinal erectae (the muscles that protect the spine) then there is no reason not to use a flat back - not rounded, not concave.

Furthermore, how do we strengthen the back? By allowing it to round or come close to rounding under controlled conditions. Hyperextensions and good mornings won't be as effective at strengthening the back muscles unless they are allowed to become involved. Again, a rounded back in certain situations spells trouble, and instead of understanding context, this has become a myth that the back should never become rounded!

Never Perform Stiff-legged Dead-lifts With A Rounded Back

I'm assuming that this myth came from the previous example. I know so many people who would faint if they caught me teaching someone to do a full range stiff-legged dead-lift with a rounded back at the end. In reality, it has its place. Is a bench press a chest exercise? Not really - it's an upper body exercise, and many muscles (such as the triceps) work with the chest to complete the lift. A stiff-legged dead-lift with a concave back is great to isolate the hamstrings, but what if you want to strengthen the lower back muscles and hip flexors at the same time?

By allowing a full range of motion, and allowing the back to round at the bottom, you gain the benefit of a compound movement that strengthens the lower back at the same time as the hamstrings and hip flexors. More bang for the buck, if you ask me! So if I'm trying to isolate hamstrings, I'll stop before the back loses its state of lordosis, but there is certainly a place for the full range during a phase of someone's program!

Explosive Movements Are Bad For Your Joints

Our knee joints are pounded when we run. When we play basketball, our joints take one for the cause. Even catching a ball will place explosive force on your elbow and shoulder joints. What about when we fall? The truth is, explosive movements happen in real life, and your joints must be prepared. What better way to prepare a joint for an explosive movement than to explode? Plyometrics are a type of exercise that involves explosive movements, and are great for strengthening joints.

If you are involved in a sport like baseball, basketball, or tennis, then wouldn't you rather condition the joint through a controlled explosive movement, rather than wait for the random circumstance in a game and become injured as the result? Excessive explosive movements are bad, but controlled movements combined with proper control drills and stretching can actually strengthen the joints and prevent injury.

Weightlifting Decreases Flexibility & Makes You "Muscle Bound"

This one just won't go away. I hate to pull a Hollywood card on this one, but has anyone seen Van Damme do a split? I don't see his hamstrings getting in the way. The truth is that gaining muscle without stretching will make you muscle bound. Anyone who incorporates appropriate stretching will successfully lengthen the muscle through the joint and allow their flexibility to increase with their muscle mass.


6-Time Mr. Olympia Ronnie Coleman At The 2003 Mr. Olympia.

In fact, in my opinion, flexibility is essential for gaining optimal muscle mass - without stretching, muscle can become fascia-bound. Without stretching, ligaments and tendons cannot grow to adapt to the size of the muscle, and the result will be issues with your joints. Ronnie Coleman, at 287 pounds, was able to perform almost a full split during the 2003 Olympia. Stretch, grow, and you will be fine - take it all in context!

You Must Avoid Fat As Much As Possible

Sure, if you want to get sick, crave chocolate, and lose muscle. The past few decades have been characterized by an all-out war on fat that is extremely unwarranted. It's not fat that is bad, it's the quality of fat. The big white streak of gristle that divides your steak in half isn't the best food for your body, but unsaturated fats like olive oil and flaxseed oil can improve your health. Recent studies show anti-carcinogenic effects, fat-burning effects, and muscle building effects of healthy fats. Men need fat to produce testosterone - when the fat content of their diet drops significantly below 20%, their testosterone levels drop as well.

Women also use fats for hormone production - when many of my female clients supplement with healthy fats, they report a reduction of PMS symptoms, a more regular cycle, softer skin, and the fact that their cravings go away. I don't purport to be a miracle healer, but I do suggest you try incorporating healthy fats into your diet to understand the benefits for yourself. In the context of the average American diet, fat is a killer - but in the context of a health, natural diet, unsaturated fats are your friends!

Lower Your Carbohydrates To Burn Fat

Lowering your carbohydrates may help you burn fat... because you are lowering your calories! Carbohydrate is not the enemy. If you think carbohydrate is the enemy, consider a typical day's menu for some of nutritionist Keith Klein's clients:

  • 6oz meat, 1 cup oatmeal
  • 6oz meat, 1 cup brown rice, 1 cup veggies
  • 10 egg whites, 8oz sweet potato, and 1 cup veggies
  • 6oz meat, 1 cup oatmeal
  • 6oz meat, 1 cup black beans, 1 cup veggies
  • 6oz meat, 1 cup kidney beans

You get the point. There are plenty of carbohydrates in these menus - and what happens? Every person I know who hired Keith has lost buckets of fat and gained considerable muscle (Keith Klein was Lee Labrada's nutritionist). The morale? In the context of donuts and pastries and processed breads, carbohydrate can be your number one enemy, but in the context of a healthy nutrition plan, they are your friends.

Low-carbohydrate Diets Are Unhealthy

On the flipside, many people try to claim that low-carbohydrate diets are unhealthy. I disagree completely. A low-carbohydrate diet that involves unhealthy foods - i.e. all the lard-cheese-restaurant burgers you can eat, well, who knows? I don't deal with that kind of nonsense. A reasonable low carbohydrate diet with quality proteins, healthy fats, and tons of low calorie vegetables to provide ample vitamins and minerals... there is nothing in literature or experience to indicate that this is unhealthy at all.

Many top class bodybuilders consume low carbohydrate diets, and certain medical conditions are cured using low carbohydrate diets. Again, it is an example of the extreme - taking it out of context. If you can tolerate carbohydrates, why not have them? In the context of a generic, eat-all-the-lard-you-want no-carbohydrate diet, this type of nutrition can be unhealthy, but in the context of a healthy, balanced low-carbohydrate nutrition program, if you are sensitive to carbohydrates, have a medical condition that requires their elimination, or feel healthier on a low-carbohydrate diet, go for it!

High Protein Diets Are Unhealthy

If this were true, all bodybuilders and power-lifters, most of Canada's hockey teams (who have been influenced by strength coach Charles Poliquin, a huge advocate of high protein nutrition), and many fitness enthusiasts would all be keeling over. The fact is that the USRDA for protein must have been based on a 40-pound child who sleeps all day. Protein is fuel, and protein is muscle. Protein is good! In the context of a person with kidney problems, high protein can be dangerous, but in the context of a healthy adult male, protein is fine.

Excessive Protein Places A Strain On Your Kidneys

Did I mention context? If someone has an existing kidney problem, excessive protein can aggravate the problem. The reason is that the kidney filters toxins from the body. When protein is consumed, some of the protein is used for energy. Stripping a nitrogen atom from the protein molecule and then converting the remaining skeleton to glucose achieves this.

The nitrogen atom forms a compound similar to ammonia that is filtered by the kidney. If the filter on your vacuum cleaner is broken, you'll kick up dust - does that mean everyone shouldn't vacuum? There is no study that has demonstrated that a high protein diet has any adverse effects on an adult with normal, healthy kidney function.

Sugar Is Bad (Avoid Fruit!)

This myth will be explored more in the next section. Sugar itself is not bad; it is excessive sugar and the wrong kind of sugar. All carbohydrate turns to sugar in your body, so it is the rate at which it converts to sugar and the effect it has on insulin that is critical to whether or not it may cause problems.

Many people sacrifice fruit due to a fear of the sugar content, when in fact fruit contains thousands of healthy, natural chemicals that have been shown to reduce the risk of illness, disease, cancer, heart attack, and stroke! In the context of highly refined table sugar, sugar is bad! In the context of healthy, natural sugars, a little fruit and honey is perfectly fine!

Eat Complex Carbohydrates Instead Of Simple Carbohydrates

Furthering the "sugar is bad" myth, decades ago we were taught that simple carbohydrates are good and complex carbohydrates are bad. This myth is simply not true, yet even registered dieticians still preach this to this day. The theory is that complex carbohydrates are "broken down more slowly" so they provide more steady fuel over time, while simple sugars are "absorbed quickly". In reality, it is not as simple as this (pardon the pun). For example, fruit contains a simple sugar, fructose, yet fructose is very slowly absorbed and has a minimal impact on insulin.

A baked potato, on the other hand, is a complex carbohydrate that is converted to glucose (a sugar that the body uses) faster than table sugar! Even complex grains become as rapidly ingested as sugars when they are highly refined and processed into foods such as bagels and muffins. The key, then, is not to worry so much about complex versus simple carbohydrates, but to focus instead on natural, unprocessed carbohydrate over refined, processed carbohydrate. In the context of the 70's, we only understood carbohydrates to be "simple" and "complex", but today we know otherwise.

The Glycemic Index Indicates How Food Affects Insulin

The glycemic index is based on measurements taken after a subject consumes a certain amount of carbohydrate. Blood sugar is measured at various intervals. Either sugar or white bread is considered a "baseline" and then points are scored based on the relative rate of elevation. For example, most fruit has a glycemic index below 50, meaning that blood sugar rises only half as much (i.e. more slowly) than bread (or sugar, depending on the index used). On the other hand, the "complex carbohydrate" added to most meal replacement shakes - maltodextrin - scores higher than table sugar - it causes blood sugar to rise rapidly, implying an even faster "crash" that would result in loss of energy. This index does not measure insulin.

It was originally thought the rise in blood sugar could be a good predictor of the effects on insulin, but a more recent study that examined insulin directly shows otherwise. While many foods are similar on the glycemic and insulin indexes, some foods couldn't be farther apart. Proteins, for example, have a negligible score on the glycemic index but can cause a significant increase in insulin. Again, the index is a tool that might help understand food choices, but getting back to the basics and simply selecting what nature provides is the best way to choose overall.

Performing A Military Press To The Back Of The Neck Is Bad & Can Only Cause Injury

This is similar to the "squat/knee" and "rounded back" myths. A military press does put more strain on the rotator cuff or shoulder. How can you make the rotator cuff stronger? By controlling the strain you place on it, and overloading the tension, so that it compensates by becoming more stable and strong! If you have existing shoulder problems such as an injury or simply a weak rotator cuff, then this exercise is definitely not the best selection.

One common modification is to simply stop when the upper arms are parallel to minimize the stress placed on the rotator cuff. For a perfectly healthy adult with normal shoulder function, however, this may be a great mass builder that can actually help to prevent injury to the rotator cuff!

You Shouldn't Work A Muscle If It Is Already Big Enough

The fact is that our genetic potential limits the amount of muscle we can build. Muscle gains have been studied extensively, and 95% of gains happen in the first 5 years of training and then rapidly diminish after that. The average adult loses muscle mass each year as they age, so you must continue to train intensely just to maintain that muscle mass! If you do not work the muscle, you not only stand to lose mass, but strength as well. If you lose strength around an important joint (for example, if you stop training leg muscles that surround the knee joint) you stand to lose stability in that joint and increase risk of injury.

Cardio Is The Best Way To Burn Fat

Cardio uses fat as the primary source of fuel during the activity. The problem is that this doesn't really mean much. You've heard of working out "in the zone" where you burn most of your calories from fat. The zone is light - once you start working out intensely, you move out of the "fat burning zone." Here's the catch - you are always burning fat, just at different rates. In the zone, you might burn 300 calories at a rate of 70% - meaning 70% of those calories come from fat. With intense cardio, you might burn 600 calories during the same time frame, but only 40% from fat.

Guess what? Just because the zone is 70% and the high intensity is 40%, you still burned more calories from fat by working out intensely (240 calories versus 210) and in the 24 hours after exercise, you will continue to burn more calories after an intense session. Weight training not only burns more calories per hour than cardio, it also raises your metabolism more, and also stimulates the growth of muscle mass which burns many times more calories than fat even at rest.

Studies prove that a balance of resistance training and cardiovascular exercise is the most effective way to lose fat and keep it off. In the context of watching someone during training, cardio may burn more fat, but in the context of an entire 12-week program that is balanced between cardio and resistance training with healthy nutrition, it is all of these factors that contribute to maximal fat loss, not just the cardio!

Cut Carbohydrate At Night To Lose More Fat

When you cut carbohydrate, you cut calories. Sure, you might lose more fat... but who's to say if you cut protein instead of fat, you wouldn't get the same result? Cutting carbohydrate at night isn't necessarily the key - it depends on your training and other factors. You can eat carbohydrate right up until sleep, in fact, some people sleep better when they have a carbohydrate before bed because it stimulates serotonin production that is connected to deep sleep. The fact is, if your portions are too big; make small changes throughout the day instead of one drastic change before bed. If you train at night, carbohydrate may be even more important to fuel the activity and replenish glycogen stores subsequent to lifting.

Don't Eat Right Before Bed Because You Don't Burn Energy At Night

Continuing the last myth, you do burn energy at night. This is still around, and people still preach this. "Hey, I cut out my heavy meals at night, because that's what was keeping me overweight." It's the extra calories, not the fact that they were eaten at night! You burn more calories during 8 hours of sleep than in 3 hours of sitting at your desk, so why do you eat carbohydrate during the day (when you're sitting at your desk) but not at night (when your body is struggling to recover, to rebuild muscle tissue, and burn fat?).

Carbohydrate before bed can help build muscle mass and burn fat, despite the popular myth to the contrary. Just keep in mind that these should be whole, natural, unprocessed carbohydrate that will provide steady fuel throughout the night, rather than a "spike" of blood sugar all at once.

More Is Better

More is not always better. John Berardi stated at a recent seminar that we are all sedentary. We might think we're active, but compared to our ancestors, even elite athletes are sedentary. We simply superimpose a dose of activity over our inactive lifestyle. He further mentions that there is a dose/response relationship, so that more doses do provide a better response, if recovery is taken into consideration.

The average person has a family, job, and other stresses that impose recovery demands, so trying to train like an athlete with hot tubs, deep tissue massages, and other therapeutic modalities at their disposal is asking for injury, not progress. Learn to balance your training with your lifestyle, and understand that sometimes less is better if you require more recovery! Again, it is a context issue... in the context of an elite athlete who has access to steroids and advanced recovery methods, a 3-hour training session is fine. That same training session does something completely different to the average Joe.

As you can see, context is important because when we take things out of context, we lose the original meaning. The health and fitness industry has its own share of myths propagated from these "out of context" translations. Sometimes it is a simple mistake, and other times it is a purposeful distortion of the truth perpetrated in order to sell a product or server. The next time you hear someone shout from the tower of Babel, tell him or her to come down to your level and explain what he or she is talking about. Knowing the original message will help you build your peak physique by avoiding the dead-ends and pitfalls others might throw your way.

Be sure to also check out:
Ten Fat Mistakes!