Kyle Cook, M.S.
Is Muscle Confusion Real?
Updated: Aug 22, 2022
Let me start off by saying that I'm not here to bash anyone or anything or start a Twitter war. I'm all for anyone doing any form of exercise rather than do nothing. Truthfully, I don't really care how you choose to train. I myself really enjoy barbells, progressive overload, lifting heavy, and periodization. I understand there are many ways to get to the same goal (especially if that goal is weight loss). And I get that there is no one size fits all, perfect program for every individual out there.
BUT, because I'm an exercise nerd who went and got his masters degree in kinesiology, I feel a certain responsibility to spread the word of exercise backed by good science. Trust me, I get sucked into clever marketing too. I really really want certain programs and pieces of equipment to work better or be more valuable than they are.
I've wasted money and time trying these things so you don't have to.
Now, muscle confusion is an older topic, but one that deserves to be revisited. Mostly because the impact of 90X - muscle confusion still impacts new gym goers today. One of the biggest mistakes of gym "newbs" is following whatever cool looking exercise program they saw on Instagram while warming up on the treadmill. With no rhyme or reason, they change exercises, sets/rep schemes, and all the other variables every workout.
A quick google search of muscle confusion reveals that by performing a different exercise, intensity, set/reps each workout you force your body to continually adapt to the new stimulus, effectively avoiding the dreaded "plateau" because you're not giving your body a chance to fully catch up; the muscle stays confused - they constantly have to adapt and be ready for anything. I also want to note that often times the workouts are chosen at random, in order to be "ready for anything."
Except, that's not really how the body works.
A more scholarly search for "muscle confusion" on scientific databases such as pubmed and
web of science reveals - nothing. Yep, no peer-reviewed scientific study has been done on specifically "muscle confusion." Odd, seeing that it's such a well marketing principle.
Jokes aside, the idea of muscle confusion has some fatal flaws. Say you want to get stronger in the bench press. You go into the gym, find the bench, load the weight, and decide to follow a very modest strength routine; you do 3x5 bench at your 5 rep max (lets say it's 225 lbs, you're very strong). Two days later, its time to workout again. How do you know you got stronger? Would you try to max out your pushups? No, that would be more muscular endurance, not entirely max strength; also it's a different exercise. How about try and do 135 lbs for 3x20? No... again, thats more muscular endurance, and while strength is a factor, doing 135 for 3x20 probably wont increase your max strength. What you should do, is load 230 lbs on the bar, and bench THAT for 3x5. Same stimulus, working the same adaptation, AND you will know that you got stronger.
In order to improve and get fitter you need to work just a little harder almost every session. How do you know the workout you just did made you better? You test it 2 days later, by trying to go a little further, or heavier, or deeper, or whatever.
Additionally, the body doesn't adapt to stressors THIS FAST. Certainly not fast enough to require you to change the workout every session to avoid plateauing. Everyone is different, some people adapt and recover faster than others. Advanced lifters recover faster than novice lifters.
Also, it should be common sense but you can't just slam together a bunch of random movements with random sets/reps every session and expect to come out the other end much better. The people who get the best results have a solid plan based on scientifically backed principles. They follow a well laid out program that has different phases and focus on different aspects of their goal. Like cycling through an endurance, strength, and power phase, slowly increasing each aspect.
So the concept of muscle confusion has flaws.
Muscles don't get confused, you need more time to adapt, you need to continually progress the same/similar movement in order to get better over time. To quote someone, "rare is the person who just did a bunch of random stuff and got jacked."
But what should you do? Well, what is your goal? The answer will depend on that. If you want to get stronger, lift heavy things, and try to lift a little more each week. If you want to lose weight, you need to maintain a slight calorie deficit, and lift weights to get stronger and build muscle. If you want to run a marathon, you need to start running to build your aerobic base.
Here are 5 ways to progress your workouts:
Increase the load - sounds simple, but it's the obvious, and simple, choice. But simple doesn't mean easy. Take whatever exercise you did last week, perform the same number of sets/reps with a little more weight; 2.5-5 lbs for upper body, 5-10 lbs for lower body.
Increase the volume - choose the same exercise as last week and either perform 1-2 more sets with the same load, or perform 2-3 more reps per set with the same load.
Increase the range of motion - this may not pertain to every exercise you choose, but it is effective. Perform the same exercise/sets/reps and load as last week, only perform it by bringing the working joint through a greater range of motion. For example: deadlifts -> deficit deadlifts, reverse lunge -> reverse lunge of a 4 inch plate.
Add tempo - this is the speed at which you perform the exercise. If you're doing the exercise at a moderate/fast pace, try slowing it down. Go 4 seconds down, and 2 seconds up. Or if you're doing it slow already, go as fast as you can. Remember to use the same weight, and perform the same sets/reps.
Add a pause - this one is brutal. Pause at the hardest part of the lift for 2-3 seconds. That means squat down, stop, 1 one thousand, 2 one thousand, 3 thousand, STAND UP! Same load/sets/reps.
I understand that there's lots of programs and workouts out there. If you're just looking to get some exercise in, and you want to follow a random workout program because it's fun and doesn't require much thought - go ahead. I encourage some movement over no movement Like I said, I'm all for you doing something instead of nothing.
Just understand that there are probably better methods that are equally as fun and 10x more effective. I love what 90X has done for the home fitness world, it got people moving and was motivating as heck! Eventually though, you're probably going to want more. Randomly stringing together workouts will only yield so-so results.
I hope this gave you some ideas for your next workout! As always, follow a plan. Even a loose plan is better than no plan at all. In the words of rapper Kendrick Lamar, "Proper preparation prevents poor performance."
If you're ready to change your life and your body, contact Kyle now so he can make a plan that fits your busy life and budget.