One of the most hotly debated topics I get asked about all the time is muscle confusion.
“Is it real?”
“Do you really need to ‘confuse’ your muscles?”
“I don’t want to stop making progress, shouldn’t I changes things up?”
These are all valid questions that I’m going to answer as we get into the truth about muscle confusion.
You’ll learn why muscle confusion may be holding you back from making better progress in the gym and what you should be doing instead.
What Exactly Is Muscle Confusion?
To put it simply, muscle confusion is the theory that you must constantly vary your workouts to “confuse” your muscles in order to prevent stagnation with your progress.
The term became very popular with the at-home workout program P90X. Here’s a quote from their website:
“Here’s the true secret of how P90X works: Muscle Confusion. P90X uses targeted training phases so your body keeps adapting and growing. You’ll never “plateau”—which means your body will never get used to the routines, making improvements slow down or even stop.”
While this statement isn’t totally wrong, it is a bit misleading.
In the sense it’s used, muscle confusion is nothing more than a slick marketing ploy to encourage people to buy the P90X system.
This doesn’t mean you can’t get results using it, it just means you could be leaving some results on the table by using it.
Ever Seen a Confused Muscle?
I’ve never seen a confused muscle, but things can change I suppose.
That would be pretty hilarious though to look down at your muscles and see a confused little face staring back at you.
It makes sense that anyone who works out doesn’t want their progress to stall.
Your muscles either respond to resistance or they don’t. There is no confusion on behalf of your muscle brethren.
When people talk about muscle confusion preventing plateaus, they’re really referring to applying a new stimulus to continue growth.
It definitely makes sense to vary your workouts, but the frequency with which you do so is the important part.
Instead of venturing into the gym and flying by the seat of your pants, you should have a strategy or a plan laid out. All of my online coaching clients train for 3-4 weeks before I change up their programs.
Here’s Laura, an online coaching client of mine. She compete’s in powerlifting, is a Harvard journalist, and an awesome client and friend.
She’s really embraced the system that I use and enjoys having goals to work towards.
She notices better progress when following a periodized plan rather than just randomly working out. The crazy thing is, she weighs more in the picture on the right.
Pro’s and Con’s
Many people are drawn to the idea of muscle confusion simply because they don’t want to get bored with their workouts.
To prevent boredom, they do something completely different every time they step foot in the gym.
While this may keep things “fresh” and “fun”, it also prevents you from making actual, meaningful progress.
Which means you’re neither losing much fat or gaining much muscle.
In order to lose fat or build muscle, as many people working out strive to do, your body needs to be forced to change. If it’s not forced to change, then it won’t.
The way we can accomplish this is through resistance training. Because your muscles can’t really get confused, you’re only left with a few options.
Your muscles can either grow, stay the same or atrophy. Assuming you’re exercising, we can narrow this down to growing or staying the same.
Many people fear their bodies adapting to a given workout when in actuality this is exactly what we want to happen.
By allowing our bodies to adapt to the stimulus provided, we can then change something up to create another stimulus. For example, if you do back squats as your main exercise on a leg day then you’d do them again the next time you train legs.
If you do 200 lbs for 3 sets of 10 reps and you want to make progress over time, then you’d simply do a bit more the following leg workout.
Rather than changing the exercise completely, just add volume so that you create enough of a stimulus which will force your body to grow.
This concept is also known as progressive overload.
Doing more work over time is what you actually need to make progress.
Add more weight.
Add more sets.
Add more reps.
Add more for 3-4 weeks in general and then reduce the amount of volume you’re doing so that your body can recover. Then, if you’d like you can change up your current exercise selection the following month.
But simply doing something different every time you go to the gym is neither productive nor smart if making progress is something that you care about.
What You Should Actually Do
If looking better, getting stronger, or improving your quality of life are important to you, then it’s important to do the right things in the gym.
It’s easy to get trapped by the gimmicky gadgets laying around, but they won’t help you improve.
Squatting on a bosu ball just isn’t going to do a whole lot for your body composition or your strength. It will however make you better at squatting on a bosu ball if that’s something you’re into.
To make changes, you’ve got to create a disruption in your body’s homeostasis. If you want more muscle, you’ll need to lift increasingly heavier weights in the 60-75% range for about 6-12 reps.
If you want less fat, you’ll do the same as you would for building muscle, but you’ll be in a caloric deficit where you’re decreasing calories over the period of your diet.
There are tons of great programs out there, so make sure you choose one that fits your goals.
Randomness can sometimes be fun and exciting, but when it comes to getting the body you want, it’s not the best way.
Proper structuring of your training can and should prevent that “plateau” effect you’re looking to avoid.
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