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Myths of Exercise Prescriptions

Jamie Hale reviews four of the training myths circulating in the fitness world.

This article is based on material presented by the late Dr Mel Siff who always challenged the status quo and many complacent folks, the "no pain-no gain" school of thinkers, were often outraged, even hostile to his ideas. The problem with Dr Siff was that he was generally right, which made him all the more infuriating. In the world of fitness, we are constantly reminded of rules, theories, guidelines, and exercises prescriptions. The problem is we have begun to take these rules as law. In science, the law refers to a fact, something proven beyond a shadow of a doubt. A scientific law cannot be broken. The majority of rules we are exposed to in the fitness world are violated daily. Most of these rules are excessive simplifications that have no sound evidence to support them.

Myth Number One

Maximum Heart Rate and Cardiovascular Fitness

The following are standard and generally accepted formulas:

  • Maximum heart rate= 220-age
  • Training heart rate= 60-80% of max heart rate

According to these formulas, every one of the same age has the same maximum heart rate. That is like saying everyone is the same height and weighs the same. The traditional maximum heart rate formula is of little value for fitness professionals. It is only a guideline, a general starting off point (something to write on cardio exercise equipment). It does make fitness professionals sound extremely intelligent, however. Peter Janssen proposes a more reliable formula for determining maximum heart rate in his book Lactate Threshold Training. The method described for determining maximum heart rate (HRmax), Janssen (2001)[1], is conducted as follows:

  • The athlete starts with a warm-up, a period of light running or riding to raise the body temperature
  • Next, the athlete performs an intensive ride or run of 4 to 5 minutes
  • In the last 20-30 seconds an all-out sprint is performed
  • HRmax now can be read with an HR monitor
  • The pulse is taken 10-20 seconds after the movement is terminated
  • HRmax will be based on several readings taken over a few weeks
  • The highest value attained is the real Hrmax

The training heart rate of 60-80% that is often prescribed is nothing more than a generalized theory. Advanced athletes usually require higher levels of intensity to provide adequate training to the cardiovascular system, while novice trainees may require significantly lower intensity levels.

Motorcycle racing drivers have been shown to reach 110% of their maximum heart rate for significant periods during their race. Their heart rates are beyond 90% of the maximum heart rate for hours. How can you have 110% of the maximum heart rate? Because their current maximum heart rate is incorrect. 100% of anything means you have reached full capacity. Think about this statement for a while. When you take a test with 20 questions, and you answered all of them correctly, you scored 100%. You reached your maximum scoring range. The same holds tor heart rate. If you go beyond the supposed 100%, this implies that the maximum heart rate prescribed was false.)

Summing this up: While standard formulas proposed above were meant to provide trainers and athletes with practical safety guidelines, they have created enormous confusion as well. Individuals vary tremendously about the intensity levels required to tax the cardiovascular system.

Myth Number Two

"Massive muscles are stronger than smaller muscles"

The Truth: Massive muscles are not necessarily stronger than smaller muscles. In general, Olympic weightlifters and power-lifters are much stronger than massive bodybuilders.

It is essential to distinguish between two types of hypertrophy: sarcoplasmic hypertrophy and sarcomere hypertrophy.

Sarcoplasmic hypertrophy refers to the enlargement of non-contractile elements of muscle common among bodybuilders. Sarcomere hypertrophy refers to the enlargement of the contractile actin-myosin structures common among weightlifters. The force produced by a muscle depends on the number and pattern of nerve impulses exciting the muscle. It is also largely dependent on intramuscular coordination (the ability to utilize multiple muscles in a synergist fashion to carry out a movement).

Myth Number Three

"Heavyweight training reduces flexibility and speed"

You have probably heard that weight training reduces flexibility and speed numerous times. This is a ridiculous statement. The top sprinters, Olympic weightlifters, and countless other successful athletes train against heavy resistance. After all, a monumental element of speed production is fast-twitch fibre recruitment, which is significantly enhanced with proper weight training.

Siff (2000)[2] has shown that full-range resistance training is the best way of developing functional flexibility. Olympic weightlifters have been shown to equal or outperform top sprinters in sprints of up to 30 meters. They have also been shown to be second only to gymnasts in overall flexibility.

Myth Number Four

"Heavyweight training makes you bulky"

You have probably often heard people say: "I do not want to train with heavy weights because I might get too big".

Bodybuilders wish to get massively muscular were this simple. Training with very heavyweights in the 1-5 rep range has been shown to contribute little to muscular hypertrophy. Training with sub-maximal loads has been proven to be more effective for gaining muscle mass.

Massive hypertrophy is a result of great genetics, an appropriate training regimen, a surplus of calories and often supplementation with illegal drugs. Big muscles don't just happen. Jamie Hale

Article Reference

This article first appeared in:

  • HALE, J. (2004) Myths of Exercise Prescriptions. Brian Mackenzie's Successful Coaching, (ISSN 1745-7513/ 11 / April), p. 3


  1. JANSSEN, P. (2001) Lactate Threshold Training. Human Kinetics.
  2. SIFF, M. (2000) Facts and Fallacies of Fitness.

Page Reference

If you quote information from this page in your work, then the reference for this page is:

  • HALE, J. (2004) Myths of Exercise Prescriptions [WWW] Available from: [Accessed

About the Author

Jamie Hale is a Sports Conditioning Coach in the USA, a member of the World Martial Arts Hall of Fame and contributor to numerous exercise and sports journals.