There are plenty of reasons to work out. Maybe you want to reduce the risk of heart disease, run a faster 10K or have more energy to keep up with your kids.
Whatever your "why" is, there are just as many ways to reach your fitness goals. While it's awesome that you have so many options, it can also be confusing to know whose advice to follow. There's a lot of outdated, misguided or simply wrong information out there about the best ways to work out and improve your fitness.
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To help you stay on the path to success and be the healthiest you can be, we tapped several personal trainers to identify which fitness rules are best to break and what to do instead. Here are some common fitness tips to ignore.
1. Don't Let Your Knees Go Past Your Toes When Doing Squats
Many trainers still use this outdated cue, thinking that it will keep your knees safe, but it's totally OK if you notice your knees going over your toes.
"This allows you to maintain proper balance and the mechanical advantage of an upright squatting posture," explains Tory Hale, senior director of fitness at Gold's Gym. In fact, forcing yourself to keep your knees back can restrict mobility and keep you from gaining optimal strength, says certified personal trainer Chris Cucchiara.
The more important things to focus on when doing a squat is keeping your spine as straight as possible, your chest lifted and your feet firmly on the ground as you get low. "Allowing yourself to break your toe line with your knee will allow you to go deeper into the squat, which is actually good for knee health and mobility," Cucchiara says.
2. More Is Better
If four days of exercise will help you lose weight, then five days will help you slim down faster, right? Not so fast. No matter what your goals are, overtraining or working out for too long can backfire and set you up for injury.
"Working out is also a form of stress to the body, so if we train too much, too often, with too little fuel, our bodies will usually tell us in one way or another that we've gone too far," says Jay Arzadon, head coach and founder of Arzadon Fitness personal training. If you hit a plateau, rather than amping things up, he recommends considering pulling back the throttle and allowing your body to rest.
Also remember to monitor your stress, prioritize sleep and watch your nutrition (and alcohol) intake, he says. Tracking this can help ensure optimal recovery from workouts.
3. It's Only a Good Workout if You Sweat Buckets
You need to perspire in order to regulate your body temperature. But we all sweat different amounts and for different reasons. And there's no correlation between your sweat and how effective a workout was.
"Sweating has nothing to do with how many calories you are burning," says health and fitness expert Jillian Michaels, creator of the Jillian Michaels Fitness App. "Sweating is simply your body's way of cooling down."
Although you may sweat more in a hot, humid environment than in a cool, dry one, your workout may actually be less effective. "The heat compromises your intensity, and intensity is what actually impacts the efficacy of your workout," Michaels explains. Also, be sure to drink plenty of water anytime you sweat profusely.
4. Women Should Lift Light Weights to Avoid 'Bulking Up'
Yes, some female professional athletes and fitness personas are quite muscular. But keep in mind that it's their job to train, says certified personal trainer Christie Carlson. "Many of them spend several hours a day in the gym or on the field training, and they eat a very specific diet to keep them as lean or muscular as their sport requires."
While some women are more genetically predisposed to be more muscular, most are not and will not "bulk up" like men. Why? Genetics. Men have more testosterone, which promotes muscle growth, while women have less testosterone. So women can — and should — lift as heavy as they like.
"Lifting heavier can build a healthy amount of muscle — think 'toned' rather than 'bulky' — improve core strength and help you get more out of your workout," Carlson explains. Pumping more iron also means greater calorie burn because muscles are metabolically active, meaning they burn calories at rest.
5. Work Out on an Empty Stomach to Burn Fat
According to an August 2019 study published in The Journal of Nutrition, skipping breakfast before exercise can result in a greater calorie burn than eating a meal before a workout. This suggests that doing fasted cardio can help you burn more calories.
However, "if you work out on an empty stomach with no blood sugar, you are likely not getting your best workout in and intensity can be compromised," Michaels says. Not only could you bonk during a sweat session, but you also risk being ravenous post-workout and chowing down on more calories than you burned.
6. Stretch Before a Workout
While many people think stretching before exercise is a good thing, it depends on what type of stretching you do. Static stretching — the type where you hold a stretch for 20 to 30 seconds — can impede your workouts, Hale says.
But the type of pre-workout stretching that helps is a dynamic warm-up because it gets your joints and muscles moving, and gives you the opportunity to address muscle tightness and improve range of motion.
Combine a dynamic warm-up with light movement, such as 5 to 10 minutes of brisk walking, jumping jacks or any other activity that increases your heart rate, recommends Kevin Piccirillo, Crunch Fitness manager at 19th Street in New York City.
"Save your static stretching for after exercising, as studies indicate this causes an increase of blood flow to the muscles, which aids in recovery," he says.
7. You Must Follow the Plan Exactly
Having a fitness plan makes it much more likely that you will reach your goals and can help make physical activity a habit. However, that plan is not set in concrete. It's more important to listen to your body each day than it is to check off a specific activity.
Consider if you slept poorly or you had a super stressful day. Chances are your body won't be game for an intense HIIT workout. "If your body just isn't feeling the workout you have planned — even if you took a rest day the day before — that's OK," says physical therapist and trainer Nicole Lombardo.
But this isn't an excuse to sit on the couch watching Netflix. "Find something active that you might enjoy more at that moment," Lombardo says. Maybe it's going for a walk, shooting hoops or doing a stretching and mobility routine. "Just get moving in a way that you will enjoy and won't over-tire you. Stress and fatigue will lose your progress more than skipping your next workout," Lombardo says.