Lifting weights and improving a physique has to be one of the most confusion - riddled pastimes on the planet. I’d like to say that this is in spite of the vast amount of information available to the modern day gym goer, but unfortunately I suspect that it is in fact because of it.
No other hobby/lifestyle (depending on your perspective, I guess) has produced more myths, half-truths and straight up lies than the world of lifting. Magazines, internet guru’s and well meaning ‘big dudes in the gym’ have been steadily concocting, spreading and solidifying misinformed ‘facts’ for years, and we have reached saturation point.
Thankfully, with the birth of the evidence based training movement, a lot of these myths are dying out. It’s been a long time since I heard anyone say that fish thins your skin, that concentration curls build a biceps peak, or that leg extensions ‘make cuts in your legs’ and I don’t think I’ve ever actually heard in real life that you should be doing high reps to tone and heavy reps to bulk.
I’m kind of thankful for this; I have a limited capacity to listen to stupid.
But there are still a few myths which remain in the mind of gym-goers the world over, and it’s time to put these to rest, starting with number 1:
Myth 1: Keep Knees behind your toes when you squat
When squatting, so the tale goes, one should keep one’s knees behind one’s toes to reduce injury risk. Like all good myths this makes sense and it actually has some science behind it – there was a study done (1) which indicated that by reducing squat depth to parallel and therefore preventing knee travel you can effectively educe shear force on the joint. The researchers concluded, therefore, that the deep squat with forward tracking knees increases injury risk. There are 3 problems with this conclusion which must be considered when applying it to everyone with a bar on their back and big wheels on their Christmas list.
Firstly, the researchers showed that shear force is greater in the deep squat but not that it actually became problematic. This is a common mistake in exercise or fitness related research, and brings to mind comparable to the study which was once used to suggest that high protein diets were a bad idea for kidney health (Increased protein intake stresses the kidneys more than a standard diet, but not to an actually harmful capacity). To explain properly I like to use an analogy.
Let’s take a suspension bridge. When cars drive over it, the stress on the suspension structure is SIGNIFICANTLY increased and therefore the chances that the bridge will collapse under the strain is higher. This sounds like an issue, but the structure was designed specifically to hold the strain which is being applied to it and therefore the extra strain is absolutely no problem.
Well, likewise, the knee joint was ‘designed’ (evolved) to be able to squat deeply – at least to parallel – and this may require knee tracking for certain body types by necessity (more on this in a bit).
If you are still concerned that extremely low squatting could be problematic in application, let’s take a look at Olympic weight lifting. Every single time a lifter performs a clean, snatch or front squat accessory movement, the knees are going to travel over the toes – yet these sports have an incredibly low injury rate.
Secondly, Keeping your knees behind your toes can in fact make it impossible for some lifters to ever reach full depth.
If your individual levers aren’t IDEAL for squatting, some forward knee tracking is completely unavoidable. For people who squat quite narrow footed, it’s very difficult to keep knees behind toes, if doable.
For those of you with long femurs, or pretty much anyone over 6 feet tall? No chance. Take a look at Arnold in this picture below - he was a tall guy and therefore his knees track over his toes by necessity.
A tall lifter, or someone who is generally ‘lanky’ is going to squat with a much greater degree of forward lean and a much more exaggerated knee travel in order to reach parallel, this is basic mechanics.
For these lifters, restricting knee tracking will result in a half squat every time, which can carry its own issues.
Finally, reducing knee flexion to minimise forward travel doesn’t actually reduce injury risk anyway
If you are reducing your range of motion and half squatting, two things are going to happen. Firstly, you are going to need to increase your hip angle in order to hit proper depth. Such a dramatic back angle makes it FAR more likely that you are going to enter lumbar spinal flexion (your back is going to round like an irritated house-cat) which, as you would expect, does indeed carry a unique risk of injury.
Secondly, you are going to in fact place MORE pressure on the knee joint.
In order to squat to full depth, you take your knee through its full natural range of motion and the concentric phase of the lift is largely initiated by your glutes. Stopping halfway down requires your quadriceps to flex incredibly hard at the knee joint to prevent the eccentric, and then reverse the motion to start the lift.
Ever try to reverse the direction of a heavy revolving door or anything else with momentum in one direction? It’s hard.
Combine this with the fact that your typical ego lifter can half squat a lot more than they can full squat and you have a recipe for massively increased risk of knee explosion (slight exaggeration).
So why is this myth perpetuated?
One reason is that, for a lot of folks, telling them to keep their knees behind their toes (whilst being impossible) improves their squat form by mistake.
A common squatting mistake is to flex too much at the knee which results in a bottom position whereby the bar is over their toes – THIS can in fact increase risk of knee injury. What happens is they start to distribute their weight far more evenly through their entire foot (A cue I like to use is to distribute your weight evenly between your heel, big toe and little toes) and suddenly their bar path is much more straight.
Another common one is for lifters to use too much knee tracking – so much that their heels raise off the floor. This is due to a lack of ankle mobility rather than an inherent issue with their squat form, and it can be helped with improving this along with investing in a solid pair of Olympic shoes.
So this one can be thrown out, but if you find that your bar path is tracking forwards or your heels are raising off the floor, you might want to bring your knee tracking down a notch or two. The main thing to think about, rather than forward distance, is making sure that your knees stay IN LINE with your toes and don’t cave in too much.
Knees caving in over time, can and does hurt your knees, and nobody wants to be restricted to the leg press for the rest of their career!
Myth 2: Abs are made in the kitchen
This myth is can also be packaged as ‘Everyone has a 6 pack; you just need to be lean enough’. Whichever way you spin it, though, it’s just not true.
Whilst it is true that everyone (barring genetic anomalies who probably aren’t reading this blog) does in fact have a sheet of abdominal muscle, this doesn’t mean that you automatically get a 6 pack just by getting leaner. If you try you will often find that your stomach ends up flat, if a little soft, and there is little to no definition there. Certainly no deep abs though because, in the simplest terms, they haven’t build them yet.
The problem is about a little more than just abs, though, so I’ll take this on a little tangent. Nowadays it’s the ‘in’ thing to do a show or diet for a competition – Thibs over at T-Nation wrote a fantastic rant about it here: https://www.t-nation.com/blogs/why-are-you-competing.
But even for those not looking to compete, there seems to be an obsession with being lean at the minute. I’m not talking relatively low bodyfat, that’s healthy and of course I encourage and fully support that, but I’m talking really lean.
Clients will come to me who are in perfect health and with sub 18% bodyfat (for males, sub 25 for females) and they will want to start leaning down, complaining of lower back fat (men) or ‘this bit on my arms’ (females). I have to explain to these clients that they are not in fact over fat, and right now they shouldn’t really be leaning out – they are under muscled.
I would love to be able to say to anyone who has ‘wobbly bits’ that they need only eat fewer calories for a while and train for muscular retention and their dream physique will be revealed, but it’s not the case. Really, most folks should spend 6 months to a year at least of GAINING muscle/weight when they first start. They should max out their newbie gains (when you first start lifting weights you gain strength and size really, REALLY quickly) and pack on 10-20lbs of lean tissue before dieting down later.
Sure this means that they have to put up with not being ‘ripped’ for a while and they won’t see abs any time soon, but the chances are that they wouldn’t see abs if we dieted them down anyway.
I hate to say it, but the majority of people who’ve never really trained in a gym, and who aren’t overweight, are ‘skinny-fat’. This is characterised by thin arms and legs with little definition and a small belly or a bit of lower back fat. This is very easily ‘cured’ and a dramatic transformation is possible in a relatively small amount of time but it needs to be under stood that the ‘cure’ for skinnyfat isn’t losing the fat (skinnyfat – fat = skinny). The cure for it is a small calorie surplus which minimises fat gains (Though not eradicating. If you gain, some fat is going to happen. Nothing can change that) which will result in more muscle mass, ‘tone’ and shape.
In short – if you are unsure of whether you should start your journey by ‘bulking’ or ‘cutting’, you should do neither.
Dieting right out of the gate should be saved for those whose bodyweight is unhealthily high, and it’s only really the underweight guys who get to eat ALL THE FOOD when they start out.
Get a moderate surplus and build a base of strength and muscle, THEN diet down. Only when abs have been built in the gym, are they revealed in the kitchen.
"Knowledge is power; in this instance the power to make more progress".
Myth 3: You should base your exercise selection on EPOC
EPOC stands for Excess Post-exercise Oxygen Consumption, meaning the phenomenon whereby your body consumes more oxygen in order to bring your physiological variables to resting levels.
In basic terms, it’s the ‘after-burn’ effect from training which causes a greater caloric expenditure post exercise.
This phenomenon is used to justify the claim that one should perform High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) as opposed to low intensity steady state (LISS) cardio in order to lose fat. It’s also used as a marketing ploy by a few studio class based training systems which make the claim that you will be burning more calories for 24 hours after the class ends. But is it true?
Well, first of all, as I’ve written about a million times, the thing that REALLY matters for losing fat is a calorie deficit. Of course increasing protein intake and maintaining muscle via resistance training is important and eating a balanced whole-food diet is important for health, but the calories in/out equation is unescapable.
If you aren’t in a deficit, you don’t lose fat.
Therefore, NO exercise specifically burns fat no matter what you do. Sure, increasing activity is a good idea for those with desk based jobs who could use the extra activity to increase their daily calorie burn and therefore either speed up fat loss by increasing their deficit or allow them to stay sane by being able to eat more food, but the fact remains.
But back to my point.
The EPOC from a HIIT session is much higher than from a LISS session, in fact it’s around double. That sounds impressive until you look at the actual numbers and see that we are talking 7% and 14% (2) of calories burned during the session which isn’t that great of an amount. But still, 14% of a large number can be pretty good, but herein lies the problem.
For a HIIT session to ‘work’ you have to go 100% on your intervals, no slacking. In my experience most folks just do interval training rather than HIIT because HIIT is REALLY hard, but we will assume for the sake of this article that a sprint means a sprint.
Most folks can do up to around 5-10 sprints before they are completely wiped and their performance dips too much to be considered LISS anymore. This session might burn maybe 250 calories or so which is pretty damn good for 20 minutes of work. Factor in the 14% EPOC and suddenly we have burned 285 calories, awesome!
For an equivalent LISS session you may burn 200 calories and including EPOC only raises this to 214 calories, so HIIT obviously wins out, right?
Well maybe not.
20 minutes of LISS cardio is, well, pretty damn easy. You could easily bump that up to a solid hour without impacting your recovery or causing your heart to feel like it was going to explode. Now our LISS session has burned 642 calories and we finish it feeling pretty good.
The HIIT session will be really taxing. As I’ve explained before, a HIIT session, when properly performed, is just as - if not MORE taxing than a heavy resistance based workout. Doing that on top of your typical routine is going to leave you feeling like crap very quickly and can lead to overreaching, ESPECIALLY when you’re already dieting in order to lose fat which will impair your recovery capacity anyway.
Of course, if you only have 20 minutes to do your cardio and can factor it in to your regular training (I recommend you place it on the same day as lower body sessions. Far better to have two days which really suck than 4 days which are hard and only leaving 3 days for recovery) then HIIT could be a better option, but if you have the time you would be far better looking at the bigger picture when determining your chosen cardio method instead of the relatively small amount of EPOC it can cause.
There are many more myths out there which are propagated by those who, in my opinion, genuinely want to help. Ultimately you cannot judge someone negatively for trying to spread what they know in a helpful way, all you can do is bulletproof yourself and make sure YOU have the critical thinking skills to be able to spot when someone isn’t really as informed as they may appear.
Education is the answer here. And whether you get yours from the BTN Academy which is starting soon, or elsewhere, just remember – Knowledge is power; in this instance the power to make more progress, in less time, with less wasted energy.
And that’s all most of us really want, isn’t it?
- Escamilla, R.F (1978). ‘’ Knee biomechanics of the dynamic squat exercise’’. Michael W. Krzyzewski Human Performance Laboratory, Division of Orthopaedic Surgery, Duke University Medical Center, Durham, NC 27710
- LaForgia J et. al. (2006) ‘’Effects of exercise intensity and duration on the excess post-exercise oxygen consumption.’’ J Sports Sci.:1247-64