You don’t have to go far to find conflicting advice about what to do in the gym. Some people will tell you not to do certain exercises at all; others will debate minutiae like how straight your elbows should be at the top of a press. Encountering diametrically opposing viewpoints can be frustrating when you’re just looking for expert guidance, but there’s often a reason behind such wild differences in opinion — provided you look deep enough.
Before we get into reasons these differences exist, it’s worth noting there are a number of things that are true across the fitness world. You can rely on these, and when you get confused, come back to them:
- Strength training is important, and it has to be relatively heavy to count.
- Cardio is important too, and we should all get 150+ minutes of it each week.
- Eating enough protein will help with any body composition goal (gaining muscle, losing fat, staying fitter at the same weight).
- No reasonable exercise is an injury waiting to happen.
- Consistency beats perfection every time.
Now, for some of the reasons things often get confusing…
There are different fitness cultures with different ways of doing things
Are you a bodybuilder? A powerlifter? A weightlifter? A Crossfitter? A runner? A cyclist? A kettlebell enthusiast? If you don’t have a clear answer to this question, you’re in prime territory for being confused.
That’s because these groups all do things a bit differently, due both to their differing goals and their differing history. For example, weightlifters often go as low in a squat as is comfortable because they’ll be pushed into that position during the competition lifts; powerlifters typically squat until their thighs are just barely parallel to the ground because that’s how they’re judged in competition, and they want to use their energy as efficiently as possible.
There’s a similar disconnect almost everywhere you see conflicting advice, or whenever devotees of one training style look down on those of another. Military fitness tests require strict pullups; Crossfit competitions incentivise fast pullups, for which kipping or butterfly movements make the most sense. Each group is doing what works best for them.
So if you just want to do “a pullup” or “a squat,” no wonder you’re getting confused about the right way to do it. There are many right answers! One way to cope is to pick a discipline to be your tiebreaker. If you think you might want to compete in powerlifting someday — or even if you just think powerlifters are cooler (you’re wrong, but this is a hypothetical) — then whenever you get confused, ask a powerlifter for advice, or research what a well-respected powerlifting coach thinks.
Another strategy is to simply take a zen-like approach and acknowledge that every answer is an answer, and none need be the answer.
Some things are technically true, but not useful
We’ve already established that the basics of fitness are simple. But people still like to talk about fitness, and they need something to say besides “consistency is good” and “hey kids, let’s all lift heavy.”
So there’s a lot of attention paid to the smallest minutiae. A few studies found slightly lower strength gains in people who did more cardio, so some lifters refuse to do any cardio. (That’s not an appropriate response to that information, by the way; the “cardio kills your gains” effect is more myth than fact.)
This is the same attitude that leads people to obsess over which supplements are best without first getting an extremely basic handle on their nutrition, or to ask whether this or that curl variation is more effective instead of going into the gym and actually doing some curls.
The bottom line is, you can and will encounter endless arguments over whether something is true or not true, or whether X is better than Y, where the reality is that it doesn’t really matter. When in doubt, refer back to the basics above.
People will spread whatever message they want to believe
Some of the confusion is the result of outright misinformation, like these old chestnuts we found repeated on TikTok. You can’t spot-reduce fat (for example, reducing belly fat by doing ab exercises) and you never could, but an alarming number of people are happy to say or imply that you can because it’s the kind of thing their audience likes to hear. That, and sometimes they want to believe it themselves.
Here at Lifehacker, we try to bust these myths whenever we can. But when you’re on your own, you’d do best to stick to the basics. If somebody is seeming to offer a shortcut that makes the basics obsolete, it’s a guarantee that whatever they’re saying is to be too good to be true.