muscle confusion mythIs it true?

I mean, you’ve heard it. Right?

You need to change your workouts to keep your body guessing, otherwise it will adapt to what you’re doing and you won’t ‘shock’ your muscles into growing.

It’s a concept called muscle confusion and thanks to workouts like Crossfit, P90X, T25, and insanity, I’ve been getting a ton of questions about whether it exists or if it’s just another useless myth.

Muscle Confusion – Is It Real?

When you search for information regarding the muscle confusion principle and whether it’s a fact or a myth, most ‘experts’ will tell you that there’s absolutely no truth to it and that anyone who thinks it’s a fact is dumber than a bag of rocks.

They claim that the best results come from using progressive overload and sticking to a strict routine. And don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot of truth to that.

I firmly believe that progressive overload is the most important muscle building concept out there.

That being said, for a workout routine to be most effective there still needs to be a certain degree of “muscle confusion.”

But what exactly is muscle confusion?

The biggest problem in the argument for or against muscle confusion lies in the fact that the term itself is rather vague, leaving it open to misinterpretation.

Most people have the idea that muscle confusion is complete and total randomness. That you basically go to the gym without a clue what you’re going to do, then you just wing it.

In my opinion, the large majority of articles written about muscle confusion are completely narrow-minded and fail to address certain necessary sides of the spectrum. This leads to a major problem because when understood correctly, muscle confusion can actually be an extremely helpful training tool.

Muscle Confusion: Wait, It Works?

Don’t get me wrong, the traditional idea of muscle confusion is, in fact, completely useless and it will likely put you on the road to nowhere fast. But when you are open to looking at it from a slightly different angle, you will realize that muscle confusion is an extremely important foundational principle in all effective workout routines.

Think about it like this: let’s say your workout routine consists of only barbell movements. Barbell bench press, squats, deadlifts, overhead press, curls for the girls, tris for the guys—you know, all the good stuff.

Let’s also assume that you keep these same exercises forever, without changing the rep ranges or set schemes. The only thing you do is add more weight to the bar when you become strong enough ie. progressive overload.

Would you agree that this would be less effective than if you followed a well-structured program including these same compound barbell movements but you changed the rep ranges and set schemes and you also varied your training with dumbbells, cables, and bodyweight exercises?

I sure hope so! Anyone who knows anything about building muscle and getting stronger will tell you that changing certain program variables every so many weeks will improve your results.

Actually, this concept is called periodization and there have been numerous studies published in major scientific journals that prove this style of training to be more effective than non periodized programs.

Hmm… Maybe this whole muscle confusion thing isn’t so bad after all.

Muscle Confusion and Periodization

The concept of periodization is based on the general adaptation syndrome. Basically this phenomenon states that your body will adapt to the stress that you place on it in an attempt to better meet those physical demands in the future.

This is why when you first begin weight training, you experience a period of rather rapid strength and muscle gains, often followed by a period of slow (or no) progress. Basically, a plateau.

Some may argue that by increasing the weight, you can continually increase the stress placed upon your body and therefore, you will continue to build muscle and grow stronger.

But I’m sure you can agree that this just isn’t always the case. Sometimes it takes a change in exercise selection, number of repetitions, or other acute variables in order to trigger new muscle growth.

This is where periodization and muscle confusion come into play. The difference between the two is that periodization requires you to plan this variation by deciding when and how the best time to ‘switch it up’ may be.

You decide ahead of time when you will change certain variables and exactly how you will do it. You then plan this variation and change into your workout routine in order to outsmart your body’s adaptive nature, which allows you to continually make progress.

Can you see how this “planned muscle confusion” is an absolutely vital part of any effective training program?

The Right Way To Use Muscle Confusion

Hopefully you can agree that planning variation into your training program is far more effective than simply relying on progressive overload by means of increasing weight as your only form of progression.

Fortunately, there are a number of other ways to incorporate progressive overload rather than by simply increasing the weight. Changing the intensity, number of reps, number of sets, frequency, volume, and rest time are all ways of putting progressive overload and muscle confusion into action in your own training.

For example, most people beyond the beginner stage understand that if your primary goal is to train for endurance, you should generally use lighter weight and more reps. On the other hand if your primary goal is to train for maximal strength, you should generally use heavier weight and less reps.

And if your primary goal is to increase muscle size, you should generally stay somewhere in the middle with regards to weight and number of reps.

Notice my use of the word “generally” in the two paragraphs above. It is important to remember that just because your primary goal is to increase maximal strength doesn’t mean you should train with heavy weight for low reps all the time. Likewise, just because your primary goal is to increase muscular endurance doesn’t mean you should train with light weights for high reps all the time.

Remember the general adaptation syndrome? By strictly adhering to these “rules,” eventually your body isn’t going to respond by getting stronger. Or at least not by getting as strong as possible.

Have you ever wondered why some people seem to consistently make gains in the gym and why their progress never seems to slow down or stop? Some of it has to do with genetics, nutrition, etc., but the large majority of it lies in the fact that these people understand how to use muscle confusion to their advantage.

They know that in order to maximize their results, they must find an effective balance between progressive overload and muscle confusion.

Now, remember that I’m not talking about Broscience muscle confusion here. I’m talking about knowing exactly when, how, and which acute variables to change. That way, you can take advantage of all kinds of progressive overload instead of just progressive resistance (increasing weight).

That’s the secret that nobody wants to tell you. Or maybe they would if they could but they stayed on the Tilt-A-Whirl a little too long and lost their ability to think outside the box. Who knows.

Final Word On Muscle Confusion

I hope you can now agree that not changing your exercise selection and training variables when you should be and using an increase in weight as your only method of progression is a huge mistake.

The key to being able to continually progress without ever hitting this plateau is finding an effective balance between progressive overload and muscle confusion (or periodization).

By varying your training at the right times and in the right way, you will not only enable yourself to break through all barriers and continue to progress, but you’ll also avoid boredom and limit your likelihood of injury.

Maybe the common misunderstandings about muscle confusion have led most people to believe that it’s a myth and it should be seen as having only negative effects on your ability to build muscle and get stronger.

But I believe that if you avoid the status quo and keep your mind open to thinking about muscle confusion in a different light, you will find that it’s actually an absolute necessity in any effective training program.

To your success,

Colby Smith
A1 Fitness Coaching

Colby Smith

Colby Smith

Colby is the Head Trainer & Founder of A1 Fitness Coaching. He has always had a passion for helping ordinary men and women achieve extraordinary results -- and designed this site to be a place where busy people can find useful information, advice, resources, inspiration, and coaching for improving their lives through health and fitness.
Colby Smith
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