The 10 Most Controversial Fitness Topics
In this article, I’d like to remove some of the confusion and bring light to these supposed controversies. While there are certainly opportunities for disagreement, both science and decades of anecdotal experience have shown us what really works. Whether you want to build muscle or burn fat – and no matter how high or low your aspirations – your path is pretty clear. The disagreements are in the details, and anyone telling you otherwise is probably trying to sell you something you don’t need. Here’s my take on 9 of the most controversial fitness topics.
1. “X Movement” is Bad for You!
“Squats are bad for your knees.” “Deadlifts are bad for your back.” “The flat barbell bench press is hell on the shoulders, and nobody should ever do it.” Sound familiar? These hyperbolic, sweeping generalizations are nothing new, and they’re often used to justify complicated movements and wacky training programs. Almost every healthy trainee can perform at least some variation on a squat, deadlift and bench press, and those basic movement patterns should be the basis for most training programs.
That being said, people’s varying limb lengths, strengths and weaknesses, and prior injuries will dictate exactly how they should perform each lift. A guy with short legs will squat with more of a downward motion, while a guy with long legs with have to push his hips back further to avoid knee pain, for instance. These biomechanical basics are clear to any good trainer, so don’t buy into the hype that any given movement is going to tear your body apart.
2. Machines vs. Free Weights
Many longtime lifters and obsessive gym rats seem to think free weights are the only thing worth using. At the same time, many novice trainees are terrified of using anything but a machine. Both groups are misguided. Free weights will give you the most bang for your buck, but machines can still be great when you’re fatigued, injured or lacking hand-eye coordination. Plenty of great bodybuilders start their routines with free weights and move to machines as they get tired. Likewise, most beginners can quickly progress to safely performing basic barbell exercises.
3. Using a “Full” Range of Motion
In general, most people should perform most exercises with a full range of motion. This means squatting below parallel, bringing the bar down to the chest in the bench press and ending pull-ups with your chin over the bar. A full ROM ensures maximal muscle recruitment and full development, and it prevents you from using stupidly big weights that you can’t handle with good form.
Still, some people get carried away. There really is no need to go “ass to grass” in the squat, especially when you have long legs. Likewise, you don’t need to stretch your pecs to the max every time you do dips or dumbbell presses. Extreme ranges of motion are not safe on most joints, and they may require you to use so little weight that the exercise is no longer effective. Plus, as plenty of bodybuilders know, even partial reps have their place in an advanced hypertrophy program.
4. Heavy Weight for Low Reps vs. Light Weight for High Reps
Both have their place, but it makes no sense the way these options are debated on bodybuilding forums and among trainers. If you want to build muscle, you have to do progressively more work. This could mean more weight, more reps or more sets, and a combination of the three over time is what produces the best long-term results.
Obviously, heavier, lower rep training is better for strength, as any powerlifter knows. Likewise, bodybuilder’s size advantage shows that higher-rep sets are important for maximizing hypertrophy. What should you do? What every successful lifter has done for the past few decades: both. Skew the ratio towards one or the other depending on your ultimate goals (strength vs. mass).
5. Low Carb Diets for Fat Loss
In the 80s, everyone believed low-fat diets were the only way to lose fat, and plenty of bodybuilders got ripped on high-carb, high-protein plans. Today, reading what many trainers say, you’d think that eating more than 100 grams of carbs per day would put you on the path to obesity.
Both camps are right (or both wrong, depending on how you look at things). The reason carb restriction works for fat loss it the same reason why fat restriction works – it helps you create a calorie deficit. If you eliminate an entire class of foods, then your choices become limited, and you automatically eat less – the actual key to losing weight!
6. Calories in vs. Calories Out
That brings us to our next topic, the whole “calories in, calories out” debate. Does calorie balance really determine weight loss and weight gain? Is it really that simple? In short, yes! There really is no debate about this in the scientific community, and one study after another has proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that you have to eat less than you burn to lose weight. Likewise, you have to eat MORE than you burn to gain muscle.
Now, that’s not a justification to eat a diet full of junk food, like so many “if it fits your macros” followers advocate. Can you lose fat eating nothing but protein powder, Pop Tarts and McDonalds? Sure. But you’re going to be miserable doing it. Even when dieters are given free reign to fit whatever foods they can into their daily macros, they stick mostly to whole, unprocessed foods filled with fiber and micronutrients. These foods keep you feeling full in a calorie deficit, while junk food will leave you starving an hour after you eat.
7. Early Morning Cardio for Fat Loss
There are plenty of advantages to doing slow, steady-state cardio early in the morning on an empty stomach. In fact, it’s the preferred way for bodybuilders to get lean, and they’re better than anyone else at losing fat while retaining muscle. Is walking on a treadmill in the morning going to give you better results than doing it later in the day? Almost certainly not.
Remember, your daily energy deficit is what determines how much fat you will lose – and cardio is just another way to create a bigger deficit. It’ll have essentially the same effect no matter what time of day you do it, and morning is just a convenient time for many people to get it done. Really, though, consistency is key for any body composition change, so that benefit shouldn’t be understated.
8. Do Supplements Work?
I see people asking this exact question all the time, and it still baffles me. That’s kind of like asking, “Does food taste good?” Which supplements are we talking about here? Protein powder “works,” that’s for sure, but it’s just powdered food. Any kind of animal-based protein will help get you big. Creatine works pretty well, too, as do branched chain amino acids.
Just as it’s dumb for beginners to prioritize supplements over diet, it doesn’t make any sense to generalize that none of them work. If your dieting and training and dialed in, and you’re willing to spend your extra money to get maybe a 5-10 percent boost, then have at it. You won’t see dramatic results from any legal supplement, but plenty of them offer small benefits.
9. Building Muscle and Burning Fat at the Same Time
Now, here’s a myth that just won’t die. So many training programs, diets and supplements are purported to build muscle and burn fat, yet the two processes almost never occur in the same timeframe. Building muscle is an anabolic process that requires a surplus of calories, and it is almost always accompanied by at least a little bit of fat gain. On the other hand, fat loss is a catabolic process that requires a caloric deficit, and the best you can hope for during a diet is to retain the muscle you already have.
There’s a reason why every successful bodybuilder – natural and enhanced – goes through gaining and cutting phases. It’s the only strategy that works for significant results in the long term! The problem is, most guys are fatter AND less muscular than they want to be, and they have to put one goal on hold while they work on the other. This requires patience and determination, and those qualities are in sadly short supply. If you really want to achieve a better physique, stop buying into the hype, bite the bullet, and focus on one goal at a time.
10. How to Deal With Haters
People in life are going to try to bring you down. They’re going to be jealous of what you have, or what you’re working toward and are going to try to stop you from reaching your goals. Screw them. You don’t need people like that in your life. Deal with haters by not dealing with them. Cut people out of your life who don’t add value. Surround yourself with people who want to support you, people who want to grow with you.
If you only surround yourself with positivity, negativity won’t be able to become a part of your life. Any time that someone tells you that you can’t do something, or that you’ll never amount to something, use that! Use it as fuel, use it as motivation. No hater will be able to do anything to you when you shove their success in their face.