Common Gym Misconceptions - Part 1

Mainstream gyms house some of the worst fitness tendencies in the world. Ill-informed exercise trends arise through ignorant observation and permeate through today’s industry like wild fire. From exercise misapplication to misused terminology, we have all witnessed a common gym “don’t” at some point. It is time to clear the air. This week’s blog aims to dispel common gym misconceptions.

“Cardio”- Close your eyes and visualize yourself doing “cardio” at the gym. What do you see? Do you picture yourself amidst a long and leisurely stroll on an elliptical machine? Or perhaps crushing a high intensity interval training (HIIT) workout on a bike or a treadmill? These activities, when performed over an extended time period, are what we have come to falsely term “cardio”. The word “cardio” refers to the cardiorespiratory system and its direct involvement in exercise. The cardiorespiratory system is a combination of the cardiovascular system and the respiratory system, and includes the heart, lungs, blood vessels, blood, various breathing related throat structures, etc. Needless to say, we have come to link a select few pieces of exercise equipment, such as treadmills, bikes, elliptical machines, and rowers, to positive adaptations within the cardiorespiratory system. Truth is, the cardiorespiratory system does not magically turn off during other exercise forms. Studies show, for example, that weight training can create “cardio”-like cardiorespiratory system adaptations when done a certain way. That is, you can strengthen your heart and your muscles at the same time while lifting weights. Essentially, the cardiorespiratory system benefits from all exercise forms and not just those associated with long duration based activities like running, swimming, and rowing. Conditioning is a more appropriate term for these activities. Conditioning aims to train the body’s energy systems. Since the goal of these activities are not linked to cardiorespiratory system adaptations alone, a different name is used. Next time you find yourself sprinting at a park or mobbing on an elliptical machine, refer to the activity as conditioning and not “cardio”, because all physical activity is “cardio”.

“Exercise misapplication”- Picture yourself in the weight room at the gym. You are in a squat rack and notice a guy rounding his back while deadlifting next to you. What are your first thoughts? 99.9% of people in this predicament automatically assume wrongful exercise technique. That, however, may not be the case. Perhaps he is rounding his back to rehabilitate a previously torn erector spinae muscle. Point being, there is no such thing as a bad exercise, just improper exercise application*. As long as an exercise technique serves its goal and is done safely, then it is justifiable. Contrarily, if the guy next to you is deadlifting heavy for multiple repetitions, with increasingly poor form each repetition, then chances are he is doing it wrong! In this case, injury is eminent- the lifter is simply compensating and transferring excessive force onto key structural “weak points”. Deadlifting aside, the confusion between improper technique and exercise misapplication runs rampant throughout mainstream gyms. For example: Certified personal trainer Bear Leelifs sees division one wrestling champion Aaron Morwates performing a lat pulldown behind his neck. Bear was taught to never pull behind the neck as it places excessive strain on the anterior portion of the shoulder joint capsule. Bear approaches Aaron and informs him of the dangers of his chosen exercise. Aaron ignores the advice and continues on with his workout. Who is right? Aaron for performing the movement or Bear for advising Aaron. Aaron is right, of course. As a wrestler, Aaron is forced into compromised positions. Aaron’s upper arms are pulled back behind his neck on a regular basis and, as a result, he must be strong in that position. By pulling behind his neck, Aaron is ultimately strengthening his muscles in that position and decreasing his likelihood of injury during practice and in competition. Regardless of what you hear floating around the gym, there is no such thing as a bad exercise, just exercise misapplication.

 * I do not advocate rounded back deadlifts nor do I recommend them for the general population. They serve a very specific and limited function in strength and conditioning facilities and rehabilitation clinics.

 “Exercises do not determine adaptations”- An adaptation to exercise is related to its effect on the body over time. For example, strength training results in strength acquisition while hypertrophy training results in muscular growth. It is important to note that individual exercises do not determine training adaptations. Rather, training parameters (sets, repetitions, rest, tempo, intensity, and frequency) dictate adaptations. Take an arm curl for example. Without a doubt, we know that arm curls target the bicep muscle. Many, however, assume that arm curls are a hypertrophy based movement. That is, many link arm curls to bicep growth and development. This assumption is false. Ultimately, the training variables listed above will control the biceps response to the curl. Essentially, one can build muscle, increase endurance, proliferate strength, or augment power throughout the bicep as a response to performing an arm curl.The act of doing the curl itself did not elicit the effect, the guiding modifiable variables did. The same concept applies to nearly all exercises, arm curl or not. Do not associate certain movements with specific adaptations, as all exercises are capable of altering their respective muscle groups through any adaptation, whether it be muscular endurance, growth, strength, or power. Next time you find yourself browsing the weight room floor for a suitable exercise for your program, note that exercise selection falls secondary to training parameters for adaptation. Choose any exercise with your goal in mind and train accordingly. Basic training parameters and subsequent adaptations are detailed below.