8 Exercise Myths

Myth #1: More Protein Builds More Muscle

To a point, sure. But put down the shake for a sec. Protein promotes the muscle-building process, called protein synthesis, but you don't need exorbitant amounts of it to gain lean mass. If you're working out hard, consuming more than 0.9 to 1.25 grams of protein per pound of body weight is a waste (excess protein breaks down into amino acids and nitrogen, which are either excreted or converted into carbohydrates and stored). Even more important than how much protein you consume is when you consume it. To optimize muscle growth, down a shake containing three parts carbohydrates and one part protein within 15 minutes of working out.

Myth #2: Always Use Free Weights

Sometimes machines can build muscle better—for instance, when you need to isolate specific muscles after an injury, or when you're too inexperienced to perform a free-weight exercise. That said, free-weight exercises do mimic athletic and real-life movements better than machines, and tend to activate more muscle mass. As you become stronger, gradually transition to free weights until they make up the majority of your training program. If you're a seasoned lifter, free weights are your best tools to build strength and burn fat.

Myth #3: Never Exercise a Sore Muscle

Before you skip that workout, determine how sore you really are. If your muscle is sore to the touch or the soreness limits your range of motion, give it another day of rest.

In less severe instances (i.e., if you’re not sore to the touch and have full range of motion), "active rest" involving light aerobic activity and stretching, and even light lifting, can help alleviate soreness by stimulating blood flow (and, thus, the repair process). Start with 10 minutes of light cycling, and then exercise the achy muscle by performing no more than three sets of 10 to 15 repetitions using a weight that's no heavier than 30 percent of your one-rep maximum.

Myth #4: Squats Kill Your Knees

And cotton swabs are dangerous when you push them too far into your ears. It's a matter of knowing what you're doing. All things considered, however, squats are one of the safest leg exercises you can do. In fact, a recent study in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise found that "open-chain" exercises—those in which a single joint is activated, such as the leg extension—are potentially more dangerous than closed-chain moves—those that engage multiple joints, such as the squat and the leg press. To squat safely, hold your back as upright as possible and lower your body until your thighs are parallel to the floor (or at least as far as you can go without discomfort in your knees).

Myth #5: When You Lift Weights, Draw in Your Abs

Trainers often advise their clients suck in their belly as they perform exercises. Their goal is to engage the transverse abdominis, a deep abdominal muscle that’s part of the musculature that maintains spine stability. Here’s the problem with that strategy: Your transverse abdominous doesn’t act by itself to support your spine. For any given exercise, your body automatically activates any number of the handful of muscles that are needed for spine support, so focusing on your transverse abdominis may over-recruit the wrong muscles and under-recruit the right ones. This not only increases your risk of injury, but also reduces the amount of weight you can lift. If you want to give your back a hand, simply "brace" your abs as if you were about to be punched in the gut, but don't draw them in. In so doing, you’ll activate all three layers of the abdominal wall, improving both stability and performance.

Myth #6: Do 3 Sets of Each Exercise

In 1948, a physician named Thomas Delorme reported in the Archives of Physical Medicine that performing three sets of 10 repetitions was as effective at improving leg strength as 10 sets of 10 repetitions. Here’s what we know today: There’s nothing wrong with—or magical about—doing three sets, but the number of sets you perform for each exercise shouldn't be written in stone (or determined by a 50-year-old default recommendation). Indeed, if you’re looking to pack on muscle, you should regularly vary the number of reps and sets that you do, and the amount of weight that you lift. That way, you’ll constantly force your muscles to grow to meet new challenges.

Follow this rule: If you're doing eight or more reps, keep it to three sets or less. If you're pounding out less than three reps, do at least six sets. The Big Book of Exercises has hundreds of other get-fit-quick exercise strategies.

Myth #7: Use Swiss Balls, Not Benches

Don't abandon your trusty bench for exercises like the chest press and shoulder press if your goal is strength and size. Why? You’ll have to reduce the weight to press on a Swiss ball, and that means getting less out of the exercise. Instead, focus your chest and shoulder routines on exercises that are performed on a stable surface. Then use the ball to work your abs.

Myth #8: Slow Lifting Builds Huge Muscles

Lifting super slowly produces super long workouts—and that's it. University of Alabama researchers recently studied two groups of lifters doing a 29-minute workout. One group performed exercises using a five-second up phase and a 10-second down phase, the other group followed a more traditional approach of one second up and one second down. The faster group burned 71 percent more calories and lifted 250 percent more weight than the super slow lifters.