Exercise physiology is a complicated subject, partly because it is a relatively new one (compared to chemistry, physics, etc.), and partly because everyone feels that they instinctively know what works best for their body. Because of these two points, it is very easy for misinformation to slowly become accepted as fact [a.k.a., #alternativefacts 🙂 ]. Also, because exercise physiology is in its infancy, a lot of the information we believed to be true a few years ago has already been disproven.

In this article, we are going to dispel four fitness rumors that are commonly believed by most gym goers but have been scientifically proven to be false. The purpose is not to ridicule the believer but to hopefully help people avoid making common mistakes.

Fitness Myth #1. Fasted Cardio Improves Fat Loss – This myth is believed by almost everyone, from the professional bodybuilder to the girl in your office who is looking to lose weight for her holiday. The idea is that when you wake up you go straight to the gym and jump on a cardio machine. Because you have no food in your stomach to use for energy, that energy is derived from your fat stores.

The problem is that going straight to the gym without anything to fuel your workout is going to lead to a bad workout. Where will your intensity come from? In a 2011 article, Brad Schoenfeld found that not only was fasting before a workout no better for fat burning than training after a meal, but it was actually less effective as the participants’ energy was much lower [1]. So if you are training in the morning then at the very least consider a protein shake or some BCAAs.

Fitness Myth #2. Foam Rollers Improve Your Gym Performance – Let’s be clear, foam rollers definitely have their uses and I actually suggest to people to use them pre-warm up or sometimes in between training sessions. The purpose of this article is not to put you off using them rather it’s to make sure you don’t think they can miraculously improve your flexibility and eliminate DOMS. An 8-week study by Miller & Rockey (2006) failed to find any significant difference in hamstring flexibility between the users and non-users [2].

Foam rollers have also been shown to have no real effect on performance [3], though they may help reduce the feelings of fatigue [4] which may be attributed to a neurophysiological response. Nothing will ever properly remove the effects of Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS) yet people continually claim that a foam roller can do this. It can’t, but as we mentioned before, it can help with fatigued muscles. So, by all means, use the foam roller, just don’t assume it will magically improve your session – and certainly don’t spend 30 minutes on it!

Fitness Myth #3. Resistance Machines Are Useless – A while back “functional fitness” became very popular, particularly with personal trainers. The idea was to mimic real-life movements and to train movement patterns. This is absolutely fine, but one downside was that the movement demonized resistance machines. In other words Lat pulldowns, chest presses, shoulder presses, leg presses, leg extensions, leg curls etc. … were all completely without merit.

The argument was that the machines were not functional, in real life we never use a leg extension movement, nor do we sit upright and push weights away from ourselves. The answer to these claims is obviously “So what?” why does a movement have to be functional to be effective? What if our goal is not to avoid injury (which is pretty much impossible by the way) but to make our muscles stronger and bigger?

Recently functional fitness has lost some of its popularity, now the big fitness movement is strength and conditioning. Concentrating on free weight exercises, and compound lifts. Guess what exercises are now being vilified? Yep! Resistance machines. This is based on two things, firstly a study by Shaner et al that found that free weight exercises not only produced a greater hormonal response (testosterone and growth hormone) than resistance machines but also stimulated more muscle fibers [5].

The second reason is just plain fitness snobbery, resistance machines are seen to be the rookie’s or the bro’s choice of exercise, while free weights are for the real fitness experts. The thing is that free weight exercises are more effective, and you should absolutely prioritize them over resistance machines.

BUT that doesn’t mean that resistance machines are completely without merit. They are perfect for increasing strength, isolating muscles, and are really good for people who are a bit short on coordination and balance (particularly new lifters).If you are in the gym on a Monday and there is a queue of 8 guys waiting for the squat rack, then maybe give the leg press a go. You might be surprised at how effective it is, and any exercise is preferable to no exercise, right?

Fitness Myth #4. You Don’t Need To Train Abs For A Six Pack – Another casualty of the functional movement and strength and conditioning groups are the abdominal exercise. First they were described as dangerous (would love to see which causes more injuries an Olympic lift or an ab crunch), then they weren’t “functional” (even though you need strong abs to get out of bed each morning), and finally, they were surplus to requirements.

“Don’t you know that deadlifts work the abs more than any ab exercise?” says the strength and conditioning coach (with the huge belly and the chalk-stained shorts). Is that actually true though? Bret Contreras (the glute guy) has studied the ab wheel rollout and declared it to be the best ab exercise. Deadlifts ARE good for ab strength, but not hypertrophy. You need to be training your abs directly if you want a six-pack.

Also, enough of this “abs are made in the kitchen” rubbish. We’ve talked about this before, diet is very important for showing your abs off, but it certainly won’t increase your abs muscle’s size or strength. Abs are made through ab exercises, and compound lifts which involve abdominal bracing.

Final Thoughts

As you can see there are a lot of commonly quoted pieces of fitness advice that are completely false, or at least slightly exaggerated, or missing the point. You can still burn fat from fasted cardio (but the results will not be as good), you can still benefit from foam rollers, you can create a perfect training program without resistance machines, and you can get a strong abdominal section without ab exercises.

That’s what is so frustrating, the people who have got results from being wrong will never be able to accept that their method was inefficient. On the other hand, it is nice to know that even if you are completely wrong, hard work and dedication can still yield excellent results. So the conclusion? Work hard, turn up regularly, and let us fitness nerds argue about what works and what doesn’t!

Want to know more about my coaching methods and stay up to date on workout tips and advice? Follow me on Facebook @joedowdellfitness, Instagram @joedowdellnyc or on Twitter @joedowdellnyc


[1] Schoenfeld, B. (2011) Does Cardio After an Overnight Fast Maximise Fat Loss? Strength & Conditioning Journal. 33 (1): 23-25

(link) https://www.nsca.com/uploadedFiles/NSCA/Resources/PDF/Education/Articles/NSCA_Classics_PDFs/does_cardio_after_an_overnight_fast_maximize_fat_loss.pdf

[2] Miller, J., Rockey, A. 2006. Foam Rollers Show No Increase in the Flexibility of the Hamstring Muscle Group. UW-L Journal of Undergraduate Research IX

(link) http://www.uwlax.edu/URC/JUR-online/PDF/2006/miller.rockey.pdf

[3] Healey, K., Hatfield, D., Blanpied, P., Dorfman, L., Riebe, D. 2014. The effects of myofascial release with foam rolling on performance. Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research. 28 (1): 61-8

(link) http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23588488

[4] Healey, K., Dorfman, L., Riebe, D., Blanpied, P., Hatfield, D. 2011. The Effects of Foam Rolling on Myofascial Release and Performance. Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research. 25: S1-S122, S1-95


[5] Shaner, A., Vingren, J., Hatfield, D., Budnar, R., Duplanty, A., Hill, D. 2014. The Acute Hormonal response to free weight and machine weight resistance exercise. Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research. 28 (4): 1032-40

(link) http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24276305