Muscle Confusion: Myth or Miracle?

When muscle confusion first came on the scene, it was as if the clouds parted and the light dawned on a new and glorious day.  A day of reckoning.  A day when blurred visions of fitness success finally became clear.  A day that would live in infamy.

Okay, too far.

Anyway, on that day the secret to the universe rained down upon the befuddled masses.  And it was good.

What is Muscle Confusion?

Muscle confusion is the long-held theory that frequently changing exercises within a workout program will decrease weight loss plateaus and increase muscle gain.  While only changing the exercises often comes to mind when it comes to muscle confusion, changing the repetitions and sets for each exercise counts as well.

Muscle confusion is often marketed as a miraculous answer to all our fitness problems.  But in reality, if done correctly, it is actually a form of progression.  Progression is good.  Changing your exercises constantly without increasing sets, reps or weights, however, is just fluff.

Why is Progression Good?

Your body is not a big fan of change.  It strives to regularly maintain equilibrium.  This state of equilibrium is known as homeostasis.  When the body is placed under a fair amount of physical stress, it will adapt in order to achieve balance.

If you lift the same amount of weight for bench press every workout, you will become very good at lifting that weight.  This means you’ve put the body under stress (bench pressing “X” amount) to a point that it had no choice but to adapt (get stronger to match the stress).

That’s great and everything, but you can’t use that weight for an extended period of time and expect to continue to get stronger or bigger.  This is where progressive overload comes in.

Progressive overload is the method of frequently increasing weight, and/or reps and sets, in order to gain muscle and increase strength.  You must challenge your muscles so that they will move beyond adaptation, thereby forcing your muscles to adapt again, and so on.  This is one of the main components in muscle and strength increases.

Adaptation (1)

Adaptation

The principle of adaptation refers to the process of the body becoming accustomed to a particular exercise or training program through repeated exposure.

–  National Academy of Sports Medicine

When first embarking upon a new training program, the initial adaptation that occurs is neural.  This exercise-related adaptation involves reprogramming your nervous system.

Your first time squatting, or your first time bench pressing can leave you feeling like a newborn baby deer.  Everything feels wobbly, and uncoordinated.  However, consistently squatting and benching over time creates neural adaptations that enable the body to more efficiently move the weight.  When this happens, the movement pattern of these exercises will feel more natural.

During this phase of adaptation, there is strength increase but very little in the way of muscle growth.  Once adapted to the motor pattern of the squat or bench (usually within a few months), however, your body can then more efficiently move more weight, culminating in the stress needed to spur muscle growth.

A Muscle Confusion Quandary

So, let’s take a look at muscle confusion from the standard viewpoint: The Marketed Miracle. This would mean changing exercises from workout to workout or week to week, at a minimum.  We’ll go with week to week for the following example:

Week 1
Barbell Bench Press
Back Squat
Barbel Row

Week 2
Incline Dumbbell Press
Front Squat
Pull-Ups

Week 3
Dumbbell Fly
Lunges
Deadlift

As you can see, the first exercises of each week work the chest, the second exercises work the legs, and the third hits the back.  Because you’re hitting each muscle group consistently, this is good.  Right?

I would argue that it’s good.  But it’s missing one thing.  Adaptation.  Neural and physical.  How is your chest going to adapt to the weight and stress of your barbell bench press if you switch to the incline DB press the following week?

For one thing, if you are new to the barbell bench press, it’s impossible for neural adaptation to occur after such a short period of time.  Because, as stated before, it actually takes a few months of consistently performing an exercise to become efficient at it.  And, as we recall, muscle growth comes after neural efficiency had taken place.

But say you are pretty coordinated when it comes to performing the barbell bench press.  This isn’t your first rodeo.  One week’s worth of lifting a particular weight (barbell bench) might be enough to adapt physically, but switching to a different exercise (incline DB bench), with a different lifting device to boot, does not necessarily lend itself to progressive overload.

Lifting with a barbell and lifting with dumbbells are two different animals, not to mention, a flat bench press differs from an incline bench press in the amount of muscle fibers recruited and the motor patterns used.

In both cases, one is going to be easier than the other.  In order to get a true idea of how you are progressing, while continuing to move forward, it is better to stick with the same exercise and only change weights, sets, and repetitions.

Unfortunately, It’s often recommended that one should change exercises before their progress becomes stagnant.  There is an argument for that, sure.  We don’t want to stand still, we want to move forward.  But in this case, it is advocated that the trainee preemptively change things up, before any adaptation or stall has occurred.

While this staves off boredom and keeps things fresh, it’s not doing much for you physically, beyond making you sore.  Physical training is beneficial only as long as it forces the body to adapt to the stress of physical effort.(2)

What About that Soreness, Anyway?

We’ve all been there.  After having an amazing and especially strenuous workout, the following day feels as if you should be in a full body cast.  It hurts sit down.  It hurts to stand up.  It hurts to lift your arms up over your head just to wash your hair.  The dreaded DOMS have descended upon you.

DOMS: Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness

Most often, DOMS set in when exercises are changed frequently.  We become sore when our bodies are not used to a new exercise.  This is because our bodies are not accustomed to (adapted to) these new movements.  When you stick with the same exercises, your body has time to adapt, and eventually that soreness decreases.  That is, until you up the stress again.

But soreness is good, right?  Right?  While that soreness feels like an indicator of a job well done, it is not indicative of progress.  All it means is there was a new stress imposed on the body.

When switching exercises, the new stress in question is the new movement.  When consistently training one movement, the new stress is the new (higher) weight, or increased reps/sets.  And as we’ve noted, the higher weight is superior to the new exercise, if your goals are strength and size.

There will be Stalls and Stagnation

If you stick to a particular workout program, implementing progressive overload as you go, you will hit a wall eventually.  Everyone does.  I’m talking months down the road, though.

When this happens, you can reduce your weights by 10-20% and start your progression over.  Eventually, you will break through your previous plateau and continue to move forward.  Or you can switch up your exercises and progress with those until you stall again.  This is a case where switching things up works in your favor.

The Miracle of Hard Work

Anything marketed as a miracle is just pandering to our quick-fix nature.  We would, naturally, rather take the path of least resistance because work is hard.

If you want to make significant changes in your physique, or dedicate yourself to a lifetime of fitness, however, there are no quick fixes.

If you’re trying to stave off boredom, or just want to get moving–and keep moving–go ahead and change it up.  Something is always better than nothing.

Remember, if you’re trying to reach a specific goal, progressive overload is your friend.  While muscle confusion is by  no means a miracle, it isn’t exactly a myth either.

 

References:

  1. Schoenfeld, Brad. The Max Muscle Plan. Champaign, IL:  Human Kinetics, 2013. Print.
  2. Fahey, Thomas. “Adaptation to Exercise: Progressive Resistance Exercise.” Internet Society for Sport Science, Mar. 1998. Web.

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