When P90X came on the scene in 2005, nobody had heard of “muscle confusion.” Now most trainers and gym members alike throw the term around — but not everyone knows exactly what it means and not everyone agrees it’s the best way to train.
When most people talk about muscle confusion, they mean switching up your workout. It could be the exercises, the sets, the reps or a combination of things. Proponents claim it helps you avoid plateauing in your fitness progress. But many others say that’s BS.
Our muscles need to be fatigued to be challenged, not confused.
“Our muscles do not require ‘confusion’ to make progress,” says Jonathan Ross, creator of Funtensity and author of “Abs Revealed.” “Our brains might, as we crave novelty and when bored with an exercise or workout, we put less effort into it. But our muscles need to be fatigued to be challenged, not confused.”
If you’re a workout virgin or getting back to the gym after some time off, switching things up all the time could get you to nowhere fast. “For newer exercisers, constant change means you will take longer to get better and make progress on something,” Ross says. “Skill is developed through repetition. People get better at musical instruments, riding bikes and learning a sport by practicing it regularly and often.”
If you’re always doing something different at the gym, you’ll put most of your effort into learning movements and figuring out what you’re doing, rather than developing a skill — exercise — and then being able to perform that skill with greater effort.
WHO MUSCLE CONFUSION IS GOOD FOR
If you’re still learning your squats from your deadlifts and are focused on consistently working out, this kind of training probably isn’t best for you.
“If you haven’t been in the gym in a long time, or ever, I would not recommend training like this,” says Christopher Berger, PhD, a professor of exercise science at Arizona State University. “You need goals and you need to see that you’re making progress toward those goals.”
Similarly, if you are an athlete focused on a specific goal, you should have a program that is tailored to that, he adds.
On the other hand, if you have been working out for some time, know you have good form and particularly if you want to add size and strength, structured undulating periodization — call it “muscle confusion,” if you wish — may be a good idea. Research backs it up, too.
In a 2014 study, researchers split 49 people into five exercise groups. For 12 weeks, one group stuck to the same exercises but switched up the reps, the second switched up the exercises but kept the reps consistent, the third changed up both the exercises and reps, the fourth kept everything consistent and the fifth was a control group. At the end of the workout program, those who changed their exercises but kept the reps the same saw the greatest improvements in strength.
A BETTER WAY TO TRAIN
Whether your goal is adding size, losing weight or something completely different, Ross recommends sticking to a workout for 4–6 weeks rather than worrying about confusing your muscles. Then when you switch it up, you don’t need to scrap your plan entirely. Simply swapping a few moves, tweaking some exercises or changing your reps, sets and weights can help you progress.
“The novelty is more to satisfy our brains than our bodies,” he says. “The body responds to fatigue.”
You can create that fatigue in any way — high rep and low weight or low weight and high rep or fast movements or slow movements. The key is to get your muscles near exhaustion by the end of the set.
If that’s too confusing, focus on getting to the gym and doing something, anything. “Try not to worry about the details if you are new to exercising. Just get off the couch,” Berger says.