The Muscle Confusion Debate

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This week I had a great conversation with a client and it led me to writing this blog post.  We were talking about the principle of Muscle Confusion.  Which States that muscles accommodate to a specific type of stress and plateau when the same stress is continually applied to the muscles over time, therefore one must constantly vary exercises, sets, reps and weight to avoid accommodation.  (Althlepedia)

In a way, this principal has been used for decades by weight lifters and bodybuilders in the form of periodization and cycle training via progressive overload.  However today the principal is used to describe popular programs like p90x and T25 which are known to help novices loose weight and get in shape.

This is where the debate comes in….

Muscle confusion is often described as frequently changing your fitness program to avoid plateaus and maximize fat loss.  The problem here is that people take this as a token to rapidly and randomly change their workout routine.  When you are constantly changing your routine with no rhyme or reason, you are not getting stronger. You may be in a constant state of soreness, but that is not because you are building muscle, you are simply working muscles that are not regularly worked. This is not all bad, you are still working out and working hard.  That is more than most can say.  So if this is you, don’t fret. 

Many bodybuilders and lifters believe that progressive overload is the best way to see the results you want.  With progressive overload you must keep increasing the weight you are lifting or the amount of reps you are performing in order to build strength and increase lean mass.

So if I read the definition of muscle confusion, it seems like progressive overload could be a form of the principal.  You may not be changing the exercises performed, but you are varying the reps and weight to avoid homeostasis.   With progressive overload you are typically only changing your program every 4 weeks to 3 months (depending on your goals). 

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I definitely take part in many different forms of exercise.  I run, lift weights, sling kettlebells, HIIT with plyometrics, and practice yoga.  If I did the same routine day in and day out, I would lose my mind.  The variety I have in my workout week is what keeps me motivated and excited. 

That being said, I do consciously plan my workouts to create a routine that allows me to build muscle and recover.  When you are constantly changing your routine at random you will lose the progression a planned strength or endurance program will give you. 

It’s important that I note we all have different goals.  Three years ago my goal was endurance.  I just wanted to run 7 minute miles for 10+ miles and I was happy.  I would have never imagined myself buying barbells and drinking protein shakes, but my goals have changed and so has my workout routine. 

So here are some takeaways about muscle confusion: 

  • Change alone is not enough-You will not stay in shape by simply being inconsistent in your workout routine. 
  • You will not progress without consistency-If you are changing your workout every time you exercise, you are not going to see the results you want to see. Your muscles will not grow to increase your lean body mass.  You are burning calories not building strength. 
  • Workouts should build on one another-After 4+ weeks in one program you can progress to higher weights/reps.  Also be sure that workouts complement one another.  Start reading up on exercise programs and learn how to properly train, or hire a trainer…
  • Avoid Boredom-Muscle confusion is about challenging your body.  It’s okay to try new things and experiment.  Just be sure to have a regular routine with the variety sprinkled in.  For example: I strength train three times per week and run/practice yoga 2-3 times per week.  You can have variety, you just must be consistent.
  • Just keep moving-If you just want to exercise to feel good and have fun, by all means exercise anyway you want.  Regular exercise is already a step in the right direction.  It’s those who have specific fitness goals that need to know the basics of muscle confusion and progressive overload. 
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