Common Misconceptions About Abs, Cardio and More
Everything works in theory, but some training methods just don’t produce enough benefits to justify the effort. Other training beliefs are just plain wrong. Here are the worst offenders. Sorting them out will give you insight on what to do instead.
Myth 1 – There’s No Need To Train Abs Directly
It’s a popular concept in the strength training field. The argument is that if you’re doing big lifts involving a lot of core strength like a squat, deadlift, the Olympic lifts, push press, etc. then you don’t need to do direct ab work since these exercises are heavily dependent on core strength. Yes, ab strength is key in the big lifts, but this fact can be interpreted two different ways:
- I don’t need to work my abs since they’re heavily involved in big strength lifts.OR
- I need to train my abs hard because they’re heavily involved in the big strength lifts.
See the problem? Most smart lifters do a lot of ab work because they understand how making their abdominal muscles strong can help increase their lifts. Otherwise, why are the athletes competing on these lifts (powerlifters, Olympic lifters) doing lots of ab work in their training? And if most elite powerlifters need to train their abs, what makes you think that yours are so strong that you don’t need to train them directly?
And there’s another issue here. In theory it’s true that the big basics will strengthen the core. But that’s only true if your core is functional, if you can use it properly, and if it’s not a weak link to start with. But if you CAN’T use your abs properly then they won’t receive much stimulation from the big lifts.
But “abs are made in the kitchen” right?
That’s true to an extent. You probably won’t see any visual results from spending 45 minutes a day on abs when you’re at 18% body fat. You can do all the abdominal work in the world, but if you’re carrying too much fat, you won’t see your abs.
Some people are gifted in the sense that if they get lean, they have good abs (visually) without training them directly. But by training your abs hard you’ll make the muscle bellies thicker which will help your abdominals be more defined. Why? Because the tendinous separations marking the “6 pack” do not hypertrophy, or grow very little. So if you increase the thickness of the muscle, the separation between each part of your six-pack will be more pronounced.
Years ago a bodybuilder friend of mine did the National (US) bodybuilding championships. He finished something like third or fourth, with a very solid physique all around, great condition, but pretty much zero abs separation.
He told me he never trained his abs until a few weeks prior to the competition. Well, I told him, it’s too late then. To have good abdominal separation you need to build the muscle. And that’s done during the off-season, not when you’re depleted and trying hard to avoid losing muscle (much less adding some). The next year he took the advice and showed up with a very good midsection.
Regardless of the goal, most people should do some ab work in their training. If you want to get stronger, be a better athlete, or just look better, it should be part of your workouts. However, there are exceptions. Just like some people don’t need to directly train their biceps to make them grow, some people don’t need to train their abs. There are some who have a naturally very rigid midsection and who won’t benefit from ab work. But these are the exception, and your training should not be based on the exceptions.
Myth 2 – Do Fasted Morning Cardio for Fat Loss
People believe that training without eating means less readily available energy to use for fuel, which will lead to the breakdown of energy reserves (fat and glycogen) to power the session. Theoretically this will lead to more fat loss. In fact, some studies have found that you mobilize more stored fat when doing fasted exercise. But that’s not the whole story.
Losing fat is not about what happens during the session, but rather what happens in response to the workout over the course of the day. What happens to your resting energy expenditure for the next 24 hours following your session? What will be the hormonal milieu caused by the session? And what will be its impact on muscle mass?
What happens during the session?
Proponents of fasted training will claim that since adrenalin/noradrenalin increases more during fasted training you’ll have more energy to train. In reality it’s pretty well established that when you’re in a fasted state (especially if that state has been going on for a while) your capacity to do work decreases as well a mental tolerance for physical work. This will result in less effective training sessions.
What happens to your resting energy expenditure?
A study by Paoli et al. (2011) compared doing 36 minutes of cardio at 65% of maximum heart rate in a fasted or non-fasted state. During the session the analysis of the respiratory exchange ratio (RER) found that more fat was used for fuel in the fasted state, BUT the opposite happened after the session. In fact, fat utilization was significantly higher in the non-fasted group for up to 24 hours after!
When fasted, the subjects burned a little bit more fat during the 36 minutes of the workout, but they burned less for the 24 hours after. The end result is that more fat was utilized over a 24 hours period when the cardio session was NOT done fasted. This was confirmed by the fact that oxygen consumption stayed higher over a 24 hour period in the non-fasted group (more oxygen consumption means burning more fat since oxygen fuels the aerobic energy pathway which relies on fat).
Here’s the study’s conclusion: “When moderate endurance activity is done to lose fat, fasting before exercise does not enhance lipid utilization; rather, physical activity after a light meal is advisable.”
Of course, you can continue quoting the many studies showing that fasted cardio uses more fat during the session, because it’s true. But the point is, fasted cardio leads to a lower resting energy expenditure (less calories burned at rest) as well as less total fat utilized over a 24 hour period.
What about the hormonal response?
Lifters know cortisol for its catabolic affect on muscle tissue. We fear it because it can break down muscle so that it can be used for fuel, thus making it harder to build muscle when cortisol is high. But cortisol actually serves a useful function when training: it mobilizes stored energy.
When you train, cortisol is responsible for making energy available. The more you have to rely on stored energy (muscle glycogen or body fat) for fuel, the more cortisol you’ll release. The more cortisol you release, the longer it’ll take for it to return to normal levels after the workout. As long as cortisol is elevated, your body is in a catabolic state. So if you produce too much cortisol during your session – which is likely to happen when you’re doing fasted cardio – your risk of losing muscle mass is much greater and building it will obviously be much harder.
There’s also the fact that fasted cardio will increase AMPK more than non-fasted cardio. When AMPK is high, it has a negative impact on protein synthesis. So by doing fasted cardio you make it harder to build muscle.
Then why do competitive bodybuilders do it?
I hate to play the chemical comparison game because it doesn’t explain everything, but in this case it does. Nowadays pretty much every competitive bodybuilder worth his salt is using chemical assistance. Heck, even amateur bikini competitors are using stuff.
Using assistance basically helps people bypass the problems caused by fasted cardio. Who cares about elevated cortisol when you’re injecting or swallowing anabolic steroids that amp up anabolism at all hours of the day and reduce the effects of cortisol? So what if you’re raising AMPK if you’re in a constant state of anabolism? And so what if your metabolic rate decreases over a 24 hour period when you’re using stimulants like clenbuterol or thyroid drugs?
I’m not saying that drug-using bodybuilders have it easy and don’t work hard. I’m saying that in some cases, like this one, the limitations that apply to the natural trainee might not apply to them.
Myth 3 – Get Stronger by Lifting on Unstable Surfaces
What we’re talking about here is putting your body weight on an unstable foundation when doing a lifting exercise: squatting on a BOSU ball, lunges on an inflatable disk, bench press on a Swiss ball, etc. These exercises have very little value. And it’s been proven that force production is lower when doing a strength movement on an unstable surface.
Here are the facts:
- A lot of trainers rely on seemingly fancy unstable exercises because they’re simply not good at making someone stronger or more muscular. They have to find a way to make themselves look competent.
- When doing an exercise to build strength and size, lifting on an unstable surface is a dumb idea. Not only does it reduce force production, it costs more nervous energy.
- Doing an unstable exercise specifically to work on a posture, stability, or motor recruitment issues can be effective. But don’t mix and match. Either focus on correcting these issues or on building strength and size, not both at the same time with the same movement.
- Unstable exercises can be used as a warm-up to prepare for the main lift of the day.
- Adding a small instability to the bar (hanging kettlebells, adding bands, or chains) can be very effective to improve joint stabilization and unlike lifting on an unstable surface, it won’t decrease force production capacity.
To clarify, unstable exercises when used to improve stability are fine. There are also unstable resistance exercises in which the source of resistance is unstable, not the foundation you’re standing on. These have value.
The current trend in powerlifting performance is on maximizing the solidity of your foundation – jacking up the upper back and tensing the abs to be good at the bench press, and rooting your feet into the floor and creating as much tension in your torso and lats when squatting and deadlifting. The more solid your foundation is, the stronger you can be. So why do people still use strength exercises on a unstable surfaces, robbing them of that much needed stability?
Myth 4 – Train Infrequently to Build More Muscle
The logic behind infrequent training (three or fewer sessions per week) is that muscle grows while you’re resting. Proponents of infrequent training claim that only drug users can train often and recover. They say a natural lifter needs a lot of rest days to grow from his efforts.
Here’s Why That’s Wrong
First, physical activity and more training can actually speed up the recovery process by releasing cytokines. Training more frequently, as long as intensity and volume are properly adjusted ,will likely make it easier to recover from training.
Second, the more frequently you ask your body to perform and recover from physical work, the better it becomes at recovering from such sessions. The body is built for adaptation, which means that the more often you perform a certain type of effort the easier it’ll be for your body to handle it. So by training infrequently you’re actually preventing your body from being able to recover efficiently to training.
Frequency of training means how many times you’re training a week. So by infrequent, I don’t mean training each muscle infrequently (once a week). You could train every day and hit each muscle group only once per week. This would be a high frequency of training.
Training has a systemic effect on the nervous, hormonal, and immune system. Not to mention that there’s some overlap when training. For example, the lats are supporting muscles involved in the bench press, deadlift, and squat. Even when you’re not training back they might still be involved. So it’s important to sort this out.
But what if It DOES lead to better recovery?
Let’s pretend that including a lot of rest days in your week actually did help you recover. The benefit of infrequent training would be to allow you to perform more physical work on the days you train. For that reason, infrequent but high volume training might actually work quite well for some people. Trash yourself every workout, but give yourself ample recovery time.
A low volume of work performed infrequently won’t challenge your body’s recovery capacities, so positive adaptations (muscle growth, strength gains) will be low or nonexistent. It also wouldn’t require 4-5 recovery days per week. Even the bottom of the genetic food chain can recover quite fast from a low volume of work.
If you’re someone who doesn’t tolerate volume well, yes, use a lower daily training volume. But the overall training frequency per week will need to be higher for maximum results, and so that your body becomes better at recovering from physical stimulation.
Infrequent and low-volume training would only be the best solution for those who are working a physical job. The demand of their job makes it so that they won’t have as much energy to spend on training. But also the physical aspect of their work will initiate the cytokine response that helps with muscle recovery, and since they’re working physically every day, they’ll get the benefits of frequent training on the capacity to recover from physical work.
Ironically enough, the population that would get good gains from low frequency/low volume training are those genetically gifted to build muscle, because they don’t need much stimulation to grow.
Related: Fasted Cardio Eats Muscle
Related: Staggered Ab Training
- Paoli A, Marcolin G, Zonin F, Neri M, Sivieri A, Pacelli QF. Exercising fasting or fed to enhance fat loss? Influence of food intake on respiratory ratio and excess postexercise oxygen consumption after a bout of endurance training. Int J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab. 2011 Feb;21(1):48-54.