There are a lot of terms being thrown around in the world of fitness and weightlifting. One of the buzzwords you might have heard being discussed lately is “muscle confusion“. Some people swear by it and others make fun of the term, saying that muscles don’t have a brain, so how can they be confused? With all these different opposing viewpoints being thrown around, no wonder that novice (and even many more advanced) lifters get confused about what advice to actually follow. You are probably going “WTF?” right now. 🙂
In order to dig deeper into this discussion, we have to define what muscle confusion actually is. Muscle confusion basically means varying up your training. It’s based on the premise that in order for your body to grow and become better performing, you need to vary the exercises, angle of motion, stress, reps and other things that you are doing in the gym. The reasoning behind all this is that if the body gets used to the exercise, it no longer responds to it. Training based on muscle confusion is supposed to be good for general preparedness training and also to break out of plateaus. To illustrate a routine based on muscle confusion, let’s say that on Mondays you train your chest. If you are incorporating the principle of muscle confusion in your routine, then for example one week on Monday you train the chest by doing bench presses and pushups and the next week you switch up to doing flyes and the pec deck.
Even though the concept has been getting a lot of buzz lately, it’s actually not a new concept. Muscle confusion is a concept that was discussed by Joe Weider since the 1960s. It’s one of his principles for weight training. In the 1970s and the 1980s, a lot of the famous bodybuilders of the day endorsed this principle as one of the pillars of their training routines. Lately the term has been popularized by people like Tony Horton, who developed the P90X training program. The basis behind this program is muscle confusion and a lot of variance and changing up of the exercises you are doing.
The concept of muscle confusion might seem similar to another concept that is sometimes discussed, periodization. Periodization means changing up your routine from time to time, which is something that most lifters do. The difference between periodization and muscle confusion is that periodization is planned, while muscle confusion is doing different things on the spur of the moment (similar to instinctive training – which is the term used to refer to a concept which is similar to muscle confusion, but differs in some aspects).
Now to get into the meat of the argument over whether muscle confusion is a valid concept or not. You have to keep in mind that most discussions in weightlifting and fitness are based on what is referred to as bro science (this term makes me laugh 🙂 ). Bro science are statements based on the observations of some guys. Just picture a bunch of buff guys sitting around a table and shouting at each other and comparing their biceps to “prove” their point. This picture perfectly summarizes the discussion about muscle confusion.
This means it is all based on the opinions of different fitness experts and there is really no conclusive scientific evidence pointing either way. Each fitness expert has their own view and opinion on the subject and many times these views and opinions are completely opposite from each other. Because of this, there is no real way of settling this dispute. Another problematic thing is that different people define the concept differently as well (their definitions are not semantically interoperable 🙂 ).
The basis for the argument against muscle confusion is the statement that in order to grow, you need progressive overload. Progressive overload means that you need to constantly keep on lifting heavier things. Critics of muscle confusion state that muscle confusion does not respect this principle. The argument goes that by constantly doing different exercises, you are not progressively lifting heavier things and might instead be even applying less resistance to the muscle and thereby regressing, as some exercises are not always equivalent.
However people that support the concept of muscle confusion argue that the variance itself can serve as an overload. You can argue that as you train the muscle with the same exercise all the time, the effect of muscle memory (this is another charged concept that I will discuss in another post) increases and your muscle no longer responds as it used to, so at this moment you can hit a plateau and no longer make any progress – mixing it up can help in breaking through this plateau. You can also argue that by varying the exercises you also train the muscle from different angles, which means that there are no underdeveloped parts (and also utilize different stabilizer muscles). There are also some other arguments to support muscle confusion. You are not just working on muscle strength, but also muscle coordination, which is an important element in training and being able to perform. And finally, changing up your routine prevents boredom.
So is muscle confusion real? WHO CARES! 🙂 The only important thing is if it works for you! For some people it might work, for others it might not. So should you do routines based on muscle confusion? It depends on what type of a person you are and what your goals are, and also where you train. Do you get bored easily? Is your goal to bulk up or to get lean? Is your gym busy and how much time do you have? Are you experiencing a plateau in your normal training? If you are the type of person who gets bored easily, then you probably need to mix it up. If your goal is to bulk up, then I would probably stay away from muscle confusion routines (or keep them to a minimum), because the best way to bulk up in my opinion is through sticking to compound exercises and progressively increasing the weight on them. However if your goal is to stay lean, then a routine based on muscle confusion could be a good option. Sometimes routines based on muscle confusion are forced on you. For example if you train at a busy gym or the peak gym hours, then you might need to improvise on your routine. You might not always get to do the exercises you want to do and have to improvise.
When varying the workout, it is very important not to lose the progression element (overload – that is going up in weight when lifting). This is one of the dangers with routines based around muscle confusion. If you are not smart about it, then you might just end up doing a bunch of random exercises and not get too much progress. You have probably seen those types of guys in the gym. They come to the gym regularly and engage in all types of exercises, but even a year later they still look the way they did when they first started going to the gym, small and with no noticeable muscle. Don’t be like those guys! In order to get the maximum benefit out of any training strategy that you choose, you need to train smart and not just BS around.
My routine has been based on muscle confusion (although unknowingly, since I initially didn’t know about the term and only learned about it later). I have been training at a busy gym, and so usually have to improvise my routine on the spot in order to get a good workout in. The worst thing is when the benches are taken, or someone is using the weights that you want to use. Then you either have to wait or do something else. Sometimes I wait, sometimes I do something else. However as I went from beginner to a more advanced lifter, I did come up with a set of key exercises that I absolutely have to do, with the rest of the routine being based on improvisation. That is, I guess, a good compromise between a stable routine and one based on muscle confusion. When coming up with your routine, come up with a list of key exercises that you absolutely have to do every week (for example bench press, squat…etc.) and then a list of exercises that you can do based on your feeling while working out and the situation in the gym.
Remember however not to blindly follow what someone else is doing, but try to figure out what works for you. Sometimes, someone else’s routine is perfect for you, however at other times it isn’t. What works for one person, might not work for another one. So experiment and find what works for you. For me, once I recover from my ACL injury, I will try to follow a bulking routine in order to gain weight and muscle, and so my routine will be based around a small set of key compound exercises such as squats and deadlifts and progressive increase in the weights being lifted. Once I am happy with the size I achieve, I might try to mix it up a bit.
So hopefully now you are a bit less confused about muscle confusion and have some guidelines to help you in deciding whether you want to incorporate the principle of muscle confusion in your training.