Confusion Over Muscle Confusion

The health and fitness industry is largely powered by buzzwords. We’ve gone through our antioxidant phase, our HIIT phase and are currently in our gluten phase. One concept that has managed to endure for a surprisingly long time, though, is that of muscle confusion. First coined in the 1960s by fitness legend Joe Weider, the idea sort of faded into the background for a few years until it was recently resurrected by P90X and other similar programs.

So, I think you know where this post is going: Does muscle confusion work? Well, in researching the topic, it became apparent that there is a significant amount of confusion over exactly what muscle confusion is. To really answer any questions about effectiveness, then, we need to first define what in the world we’re talking about here.


What It Is And Isn’t

The basic truth that gave rise to the muscle confusion concept is that your muscles adapt to any stimulus. Not only is this an undeniable fact, it’s the entire reason that we work out in the first place. Those adaptations – like increased strength and endurance – are exactly what we’re looking for when we devote hours to exercise each week.

It is also true that if you continue to do the exact same workout for extended periods you will stop seeing benefits and even risk injury. This is why periodization – the practice of making scheduled changes to your routine – has found its way into the repertoire of so many fitness professionals and athletes. Simply put, it works.

In some cases, this is what people have in mind when they talk about muscle confusion and this form of it is solidly proven. But when you look at these periodization techniques, the details differ considerably from modern muscle confusion programs.


Nuts and Bolts

For one thing, when most people talk about “mixing things up” and “shocking your muscles” they have in mind very rapid changes that take place from week-to-week or even day-to-day. While muscles do adapt, it simply doesn’t happen that quickly. The exact time-frame will depend on your fitness level and can range from a few months for beginners to two weeks for more experienced athletes. But it doesn’t happen after just a day or two.

Another issue in the common concept of muscle confusion deals with what the variables are. Generally speaking, the first thing people change is the actual exercise. This can be problematic, though. It takes time for you to learn exactly how to do an exercise with proper form and, if you jump around too quickly, you could be risking injury by not giving yourself a chance to master a movement before leaving it behind for another.

What proponents of the modern version of muscle confusion forget is that traditional training programs – when they’re designed properly – do change. The key difference is that the manipulations are much smaller. Instead of going to a totally different workout from week to week, periodization makes tweaks to the rep, sets, rest and weight structure of the routine. And this makes complete sense when you think about it. Adding more weight to your squat than you previously did will shock your muscles and force adaptations.

And, remember, we want our muscle to adapt. The trick is to keep making those changes happen. Fortunately, this doesn’t require you to totally change your workout day after day.

Okay, so to review: It is true that your muscles adapt and, left unchecked, this can make you plateau. Unfortunately, this fact has been misinterpreted in recent years. Instead of worrying about throwing in totally different exercises workout after workout, a series of small changes will get the job done without risking injury or wasting time figuring out exactly how to do these new moves.



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About jonathan.thompson

Jonathan Thompson is a Certified Personal Trainer and Running Coach with the American Council on Exercise, specializing in nutrition. In addition to his real-world experience working with clients, his articles and blogs on fitness advice have been published on many websites and magazines.