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Health & Exercise Forum

Dispelling Common Exercise Myths

May 25, 2011

Dr. Mackarey's Health & Exercise ForumGuest Contributor: Kevin McLauglin, SPT

Almost six months ago, many of us made New Year’s resolutions to get in shape and hit the gym regularly. Although we all had the best intentions from the start, as time goes by we are discouraged by our lack of immediate results, and we begin to waiver in our resolutions. If you still haven’t achieved your “beach body,” you may understand this phenomenon. The reality is that this loss of motivation often stems from the fact that people exercise inefficiently when they follow many of the common “exercise myths.” This article, written by Temple University doctor of physical therapy student Kevin McLauglin, will attempt to dispel some common exercise misconceptions and help you meet your goals.

Myth: Always Stretch Before Exercise

One of the most common exercise misconceptions is that you should always stretch before exercise. Previously, stretching was thought to help prevent injury and loosen up muscles before vigorous activity. But, recent studies have shown this to be false. Stretching has been shown to have no effect on injury rates and may actually decrease the quality of performance immediately following stretching. Meaning, if you were to stretch right before a race, you may actually run slower than you would have without stretching. The best way to prepare for exercise is with a short dynamic warm-up such as a light jog or five minutes on the bike. You should still incorporate stretching into exercise, as flexibility is an important component of fitness, but it is best when done after exercise.

Myth: Low Reps and Heavy Weights Creates Bulk

One misconception that has become incredibly widespread among gym-goers is that low repetitions paired with heavy weight equal gains in muscle size and high repetitions with less heavy weights equal increased muscle definition. This is only half true. Muscle growth, or hypertrophy, is a complex process. The basic idea is that when muscle fibers are stressed adequately, they will respond with an increase in size in order to accommodate the increased load. This is referred to as the “overload principle.” The best way to accomplish this is by lifting relatively heavy weights for a low number of repetitions (4-6) in a short period of time (short burst strength). Conversely, higher repetitions (12-15) will lead to increased muscle endurance. This will increase an individual’s ability to repeat movements over time. However, these higher sets of repetitions may have little effect on muscle size. The misconception lies in the belief that one form of exercise is superior to the other to increase muscle definition, or “tone.” Muscle definition is best achieved through the management of body composition. By adjusting your diet and exercise intensity, you can change the ratio of muscle to fat in your body. People with lower body fat percentages demonstrate more clearly defined muscles. Therefore, moderate weight with a moderate number of repetitions (8-12) will lead to a combination of strength and endurance, and is generally referred to as functional strength.

Myth: Three-Week Peak

Another strength training misconception has to do with the two- or three-week plateau. Many beginners experience significant strength gains in their first two to three weeks of training and then level out, or plateau, in the following weeks. This can be very discouraging to a new exerciser. A little known fact to most gym patrons is that early strength gains have to do mainly with improvements in nerve function rather than increases in muscle strength. Simply put, someone just beginning to strength train is learning to use these muscles more effectively in their first few weeks and, as a result, will experience rapid strength gains early on. These strength gains have little to do with actual muscle strength and are more indicative of improved coordination during the strengthening exercise. The subsequent plateau should not discourage the beginner, as this is a normal occurrence. Actual muscular strength gains should be expected 6-8 weeks after beginning training. Creating variety in your program can help you avoid peak performance: this idea is the hallmark of popular programs like the P90X workout.

Myth: No Pain No Gain

The last exercise misconception has to do with the intensity and duration at which people feel they must exercise. Too often, we see exercise displayed in the media as a long and grueling process. This is not necessary for the majority of people just looking to get, or stay, in shape. The current guidelines for physical activity listed by the Center for Disease Control for adults 18-64 is 2 hours and 30 minutes of moderate activity (i.e. brisk walking) per week. This is a manageable goal for those looking to incorporate exercise into their lives simply to be healthy. For those looking to lose weight or gain muscle mass, slightly more intensive routines may need to be established.

The best way to begin exercising regularly is to set obtainable goals. You should begin with an overall goal such as running a 5k within 6 months, and then set incremental goals along the way, such as running 1 mile without stopping within 2 months, and running 2 miles within 4 months. Based upon the goals you have set, you can make an exercise schedule. This schedule should be realistic and specific.

Regular exercise can be incredibly rewarding. For this reason, exercising is one of the most popular resolutions every year. By setting goals and a manageable schedule, you can ensure that you are among the few who keep their exercise resolutions.

Guest Contributor: Kevin McLaughlin SPT, Temple University, (Doctor of Physical Therapy 2011), submitted this column as the 2011 runner-up of the Dr. Paul Mackarey Health Care Journalism Award in Physical Therapy.

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This article is not intended as a substitute for medical treatment. If you have questions related to your medical condition, please contact your family physician. For further inquires related to this topic email:

Paul J. Mackarey PT, DHSc, OCS is a Doctor in Health Sciences specializing in orthopaedic and sports physical therapy. Dr. Mackarey is in private practice and is an affiliated faculty member at the University of  Scranton, PT Dept.