4 Lies Your Junior High Gym Teacher Told You About Exercise

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January 24, 2019
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Like your mullet, it’s best if you forget this fitness advice ever existed.

Outdated Fitness Advice

Raise your hand if you’d like to return to junior high. Anyone? Bueller?

Then why are you still following the decades-old (and decades-outdated) fitness advice you learned in middle school gym class?

Below, trainers share four pieces of old-school fitness advice that belong in a history textbook, not your workout.

1. “If you do sit-ups, you’ll build a six-pack.”

First things first: You already have a six-pack. It’s just hidden under a layer of belly fat, and sit-ups can’t help with that.

Back in middle school, you probably remember trying to do as many sit-ups as you could in one minute to pass the Presidential Physical Fitness Test. Fortunately, that test was put out of its misery in 2012. “Sit-ups should not even be in your vocabulary,” says Pete McCall, M.S., C.S.C.S., an American Council on Exercise–certified personal trainer and the host of the All About Fitness podcast. “They target only a few muscles and can be incredibly risky to back health, especially as you age.”

The new school: To strengthen your core, McCall recommends the “McGill big 3” exercises, named for spinal researcher Stuart McGill. They include the bird dog, side plank, and curl up. While they won’t target belly fat either—abs are made in the kitchen, not the gym—they will strengthen all of the muscles of your core and keep your spine safe.

#1: Bird dog

Get on all fours. Raise the opposite arm and leg at the same time until they’re in line with your body. Hold that position for 1 to 2 seconds. Reverse and raise the other arm and leg. That’s one rep. Do 10 to 12 reps.

#2: Side plank

Lie on your side with your legs straight and prop your upper body on your forearm. Squeeze your abs and glutes, and raise your hips until your body forms a straight line. Hold for 30 seconds on each side.

#3: Curl up

Lie on your back with one leg straight and the other bent, as shown. Raise your head and shoulders off the floor and hold for 5 to 10 seconds. That’s 1 rep. Do your reps, then switch legs and repeat. Do 4 to 6 reps.

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2. “You’re not flexible unless you can touch your toes.”

Another fun Presidential Physical Fitness Test memory: sitting on the floor, feet straight in front of you, reaching in pain to touch your toes.

“When do you ever do that in real life?” asks McCall. “It’s not a good test for anything.”

Tight hamstring muscles aren’t the only reason you may not be able to touch your toes. More often, it’s related to the alignment of your pelvis, your spinal flexibility, or even your core strength.

The new school: To assess your flexibility, consider how easily or freely you move in real life. Can you do everything you want to? Or do you have trouble performing movements that once felt easy?

If you’re concerned, ask a trainer at your gym about a functional movement screening, McCall advises. Composed of seven exercises, the test is commonly used in fitness and rehab settings to measure and ultimately improve mobility.

3. “Stretching before a workout primes your muscles for exercise.”

More bending and holding! As it turns out, those static stretches that were meant to prime your muscles for softball and soccer can actually reduce muscular strength and stability, according to findings published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research.

That’s because static stretching loosens the muscles, McCall says, and muscle contract more efficiently when they’re not limp noodles.

The new school: “Perform a dynamic warm-up of several different bodyweight movements, such as leg swings and trunk rotations, prior to exercise,” says Brian Zehetner, R.D., C.S.S.D., C.S.C.S., the director of health and fitness at Planet Fitness.

Save your static stretching for after your workout, he adds. Research has found that it can relax your muscles and help them recover faster.

4. “Exercise is punishment. Now drop and give me 20!”

Back in gym class, if you messed up or goofed off, exercise was the punishment. Many people still have this mindset today, McCall says. It’s not a sustainable way to approach an active lifestyle, and it will make you miserable the entire time, he says.

The new school: Find forms of exercise that you actually enjoy and let movement be a way to care for—and reward—your body. Whether it’s Pilates, yoga, dance, indoor cycling, or strength training, there are too many forms of exercise out there to feel stuck to a workout you hate, McCall says.

Keep trying different exercises until you find one (or two or ten) that makes you want to sweat, and exercise will never feel like work again.

Note: Please consult your physician before beginning a physical activity program to make sure it’s safe for you.

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