Muscle Confusion Myth Busting
The term “muscle confusion” was coined to market a popular workout program. But the term makes people think they need to trick their bodies into fitness, which is not the case.
The muscle confusion theory is based off the idea that constantly changing your workouts means your body will constantly change, too.
This is an interesting theory, but in practice, your muscles do not get confused.
Muscles cannot think for themselves. They move when they receive a signal from your central nervous system about when to contract and relax. To achieve “muscle confusion” and avoid plateaus, you would want to stimulate your nervous system in new ways.
There’s a problem with stimulating your central nervous system (CNS), however. Your nervous system is always firing, whether in reaction to a workout, or to stress at your job, or to a changing traffic light. In other words, your nervous system receives constant stressful inputs and signals your body how to react.
Your workouts add to the stress placed on your nervous system. Adding “CNS confusion” to the mix would further zap those resources. And it takes your nervous system a long time to recover from stress.
So far this all seems like bad news. You can’t confuse your muscles because they don’t think. You shouldn’t confuse your nervous system because it’s already stressed enough from daily life.
What should you do to improve your workouts instead?
Do the opposite of confusing your muscles or nervous system.
You see, “muscle confusion” is a term coined by marketers to sell more workout videos. The program is actually based on the scientific principle of progressive overload. By progressively increasing the demand your workouts place on your body, you ensure that your muscles adapt to each workout by getting stronger.
You want adaptation to occur – it’s not something to fear.
Adaptations include muscle growth, fat loss, increased strength, increased endurance, and greater work capacity. Whatever your training goal, you want these things to happen. That means your training is working and you’re becoming more fit.
There is a kernel of truth to the concept of muscle confusion, however: the more efficient your body becomes at a certain exercise, the less calories you burn performing that exercise. All this means is that you need to progressively overload your body to keep the routine inefficient enough to burn calories and shed body fat.
You don’t need to confuse, trick, or otherwise fool your body into changing.
The only training variable that matters is progressive overload.
You should add more volume (sets x reps, heavier weight) each workout to ensure progressive overload. If you do four sets of ten goblet squats with a 26# kettle bell, next time you do that workout, either do more than forty reps or use a heavier bell.
A good training program doesn’t only progress volume. A good program will also change things up after several weeks. This is referred to as a training “block.” The amount of time each block lasts should vary depending on how well you adapt to the workouts.
When should you mix things up to avoid boredom and plateaus in your progress?
Beginners adapt fairly well to your routine without changing exercises all the time. Plus, it’s easier to learn and master a few exercises than dozens of new ones at once.
Keep it simple. Focus on a few key exercises. Include basic movement patterns like squats, lunges, hip hinging, pushes, pulls, and core. Add volume each week by doing more sets, more reps, or lifting more weight. Longer training blocks (6-8 weeks) are best so you master each exercise before attempting more difficult variations.
Intermediate lifters who have hit plateaus in the past may need to change things up more often to continually adapt. Shorter training blocks may be more appropriate (4-6 weeks). Select major movements (squat, lunge, hinge, push, pull) and use different variations in every block.
A basic progression at the intermediate level is to change how you load an exercise. For example, progress from a kettle bell goblet squat to a barbell front squat to a back squat in each block. You’re still training the squat movement, but you’re using a different variation to challenge your body.
Similarly, you can change the equipment you use for an exercise (dumbbell chest press versus barbell bench). Or, keep the same exercise, but change the grip you use (wide versus narrow pull downs). These changes target the same muscles from different angles, forcing your body to express strength in multiple planes of motion.
Advanced lifters often have to stick with training blocks for far longer to produce adaptations. Their muscles need prolonged exposure to the same movements to produce adaptation. Training blocks can last twelve or even sixteen weeks. You fall into this category if you’ve been training consistently for two or more years.
A good way to change your routine at this stage is to use different body part splits. Instead of chest and back together on the same day, try working chest and shoulders one day, then back and biceps the next, for instance. You’ll also need to increase the amount of exercises per muscle group that you use. Where a beginner can get away with one type of movement to train legs, an advanced lifter will need to squat, lunge, leg press, and add isolation exercises all in the same workout to overload their muscles and stimulate progress.
Wherever you fall on the spectrum of lifting experience, you should always keep two things in mind before changing your routine:
- First, give a program long enough to start “working” before you change your routine. Hopping from one training plan to the next is a sure-fire way to get nowhere, fast. Stay with a plan for six to eight weeks before mixing it up.
- Second, test yourself at the beginning and end of your program. Can you do more work (sets, reps) or lift more weight than when you started? Great, the program worked! If not, why? Answering that question will highlight what worked, what did not, and how to better organize your training going forward.
The biggest mistake people make when starting their training journey is buying into marketing myths and getting overwhelmed by fitness fads.
Don’t let “muscle confusion” trick you into thinking you need to change your routine. Keep it simple. Stick with the basic movements, and progressively overload your body from week to week. You will adapt by becoming stronger, leaner, and fitter.
Consistency, not confusion, is key.
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