Clearing up a few gym myths

Bryan Welch
Fit and Healthy

As the daylight fades, we inevitably see more and more people returning to the gym. The bikes and wakeboards are stored, replaced by snowboards and skis. High-tech running gear is carefully layered to insulate against the rain and chill from our winters. The seasonal marathons, triathlons, and bike races trickle to a stop, with only the hearty willing to brave the elements and compete in less-than-stellar conditions.

Off-season base training begins in preparation for next spring and a variety of scheduled events. Ski conditioning, strength training and yoga classes rule the roost. Serious athletes will share space with recreational dabblers; smokers trying to kick the habit will walk side-by-side with non-smokers. Republicans will politely share the floor with Democrats, injury rehabilitators will stretch out with safety-first fanatics. It’s one big, beautiful sea of energy and opinions about what’s good for you and what’s not so good for you. With that in mind, it’s time to debunk several commonly heard gym myths, and set you on your way to a winter of fitness success.

Myth No. 1: “I don’t want to get big, I just want to tone.” Frequently offered from the female side of the house, a common misperception is that by lifting light weights for dozens and dozens of repetitions, the muscle will somehow know it’s supposed to be small and defined. By picking up a bigger weight, the muscle will somehow immediately grow like the Incredible Hulk to enormous proportions.

Truth: In order for muscle to actually grow in size, two primary elements must be present: a large dose of testosterone, and ENORMOUS weights. We’re talking about the kind of weights that you might be able to lift four to six times with a full-out, the veins in my head are gonna blow, effort. This is a spotter standing by to make sure the big ol’ weight doesn’t come crashing down on you or someone else type of weight.

In reality, every ounce of muscle fiber on your frame burns calories, enables you to safely and efficiently propel yourself through life, aids in building bone density, and bolsters your immune system. To get toned, you have to lift a weight with real force 10-15 times in order for the muscle to respond. This response can be measured as a combination of strength and endurance, and a long, lean, natural-looking muscle fiber. If you’re utilizing a full range of motion, you’ll begin to see the tone we all want without the huge size increases witnessed in bodybuilders or professional football players. If you spend all your time doing small weights and a hundred reps, your workouts will be time-consuming but not efficient. Until you get to those last few reps to overload the muscle, you’ve pretty much wasted your time.

Myth No. 2: “Machines are safer than free weights.” For many years we have had new members join the gym who want to work out strictly on machines. Perhaps it’s a case of historical comfort. Perhaps it’s just easier to remember what they’re supposed to do next, and sometimes it’s a safety concern as they feel invulnerable ensconced in a machine.

Truth: Most machines are designed for “average” frames, read as 5’8” tall men’s frames here. An improper fit in a machine can actually do great damage to muscles or joints, so seeking help on an initial setup is vital. A great machine should be almost infinitely adjustable, and whether you’re 5-foot-2 or 6-foot-5, the proper fit and feel on a machine should be attained. If something, anything, feels uncomfortable as you move through a full range of motion, adjust the apparatus; don’t just power through it.

It’s a balancing act. Both worlds can offer you great benefit and both carry some risk. On one side of the equation, free weights do an excellent job of allowing you to move through your natural mechanical arc, but do require additional stabilizers to balance and move the resistance. Machines can do an excellent job of isolating the specific, intended muscle group without the additional balance required. Neither one, however, is safe or effective unless you get some help and find the proper fit to utilize the full, natural arc of your limbs.

Myth No. 3: “Gyms are full of dirt and germs.” This one is born from the very nature of the activity, and from the fact that people tend to like working out en masse. Sweating, straining, and breathing heavy to achieve physical fitness is not at first glance a clean process.

Truth: In many ways, gyms are like homes. Some are tidy, some are not. Some emphasize cleaning, some let it slide. Look around. Do you see the staff actively cleaning the machines? Have you ever heard a vacuum running during your workout? Do the countertops and mirrors look and feel clean, does the air carry the smell of cleaning products or bleach or soap? Can you find signs encouraging you to wash your hands, articles posted dealing with hygiene, notices everywhere to remind you to wipe down your machines after each use?

Trust your eyes, ears, and nose as well as your instincts. It is estimated that 99 percent of bacteria can be taken care of simply by washing your hands, or by using a hand sanitizer if a sink is not “handy.” The staff of the business you choose to frequent should be actively, visibly knocking out the remaining 1 percent.

Other things you can do include showering soon after working out, as bacteria can breed in wet, sweaty clothing strapped to your frame while you head off to grab a cup of coffee. If your clothes begin to retain a sour smell even though they’ve been washed, sorry, but it’s time for some new duds. You wouldn’t head off to work in a suit that smelled bad, so approach the gym the same way. Be courteous to your fellow athletes and wipe down your machine after use. Place a towel on the machine before you sit on it, or put one on the floor to catch the sweat while you stand there admiring those magnificent biceps in the mirror.

First and foremost, do the things you can to take care of your own health, and then look around to see if anyone else has your back. If they do, you’ve found the right winter home to work out in.

Bryan Welch is the co-owner of Club Emerald on the Island.

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