If you’re into fitness, you’ve probably heard of the term “muscle confusion”. It’s a popular concept that claims you need to constantly change your workouts to keep your muscles guessing and prevent them from adapting to the same routine. Some fitness programs, such as P90X, are based on this idea and promise to deliver amazing results by switching up your exercises every week or even every day.
But is muscle confusion really a thing? Does it work? Or is it just a marketing gimmick to sell more DVDs and subscriptions?
As a health enthusiast and bodybuilder for over 20 years, I’ve tried many different workout routines and methods. I’ve also done my fair share of research on exercise science and physiology. And I can tell you this: muscle confusion is mostly hype.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that changing your workouts is bad or useless. In fact, it can be very beneficial for your fitness goals, as long as you do it right. But you don’t need to confuse your muscles to make progress. You just need to challenge them.
Let me explain.
What is muscle confusion?
Muscle confusion is a fitness strategy that encourages mixing up your routine in order to keep your muscles “second-guessing”. The idea is that muscles quickly adapt to exercise routines, and therefore you need to “surprise” your muscles by constantly switching up your workout routine and incorporating different exercises.
Muscle confusion may help prevent overuse injuries and boost performance by varying intensity levels and calling on new muscles for different exercises.
Why muscle confusion is a myth
The theory behind muscle confusion sounds convincing, but it’s not backed by science. You won’t find the term “muscle confusion” in any exercise science research journals or textbooks. You’ll also be hard-pressed to find a certified trainer or fitness expert that believes wholeheartedly in it.
That’s because muscle confusion completely misses the fact that we’re exercising so our bodies adapt by getting stronger and leaner. So, we actually want to be consistent with what we do in workouts so that our bodies work hard to adapt.
Consider this perspective; When you embark on an exercise regimen it initially feels demanding. Your muscles ache, your heart rate. You perspire profusely. This occurs because your body is unaccustomed to the stimulus and must exert effort to cope with it.
However over time as your body becomes stronger and more efficient the same workout gradually becomes less arduous. Your muscles experience less soreness, your heart rate decreases and you perspire less. This adjustment happens because your body has adapted to the stimulus and can handle it effectively.
Now if you continue performing the workout repetitively without introducing any changes eventually your body will cease adapting. You will reach a point where no further improvements, in strength, muscle mass or endurance are observed. Referred to as a plateau. At this stage it becomes necessary to modify elements of your workout routine in order to again challenge your body.
But changing something doesn’t mean confusing your muscles. It means applying the principle of progressive overload.
What is progressive overload?
Progressive overload is the key to breaking through plateaus and making continuous progress in your fitness goals. It’s a scientific principle that states that you need to gradually increase the stress or demand on your muscles in order to stimulate further adaptations.
There are many ways to apply progressive overload to your workouts, such as:
- Increasing the weight or resistance
- Increasing the number of sets or reps
- Increasing the range of motion or difficulty of the exercise
- Decreasing the rest time between sets or exercises
- Increasing the frequency or duration of the workout
- Changing the type or order of the exercises
As you can see, changing the type or order of the exercises is only one way of applying progressive overload. And it’s not even the most effective one. In fact, changing your exercises too often can be counterproductive for your fitness goals.
Why changing your exercises too often can be bad
If you switch up your workouts too much, you might end up doing more harm than good. Here are some reasons why:
You won’t master the exercises
Every exercise comes with a learning curve. It requires time and consistent practice to grasp the correct form and technique, for each movement. If you constantly switch up your exercises you won't allow yourself time to truly understand them. This can result in performance diminished effectiveness and a higher chance of getting injured.
You won’t track your progress
Tracking your weightlifting, repetitions, and running speed can help you track your improvement. This method lets you track your progress and customize your training. Avoid changing exercises because it might make progress monitoring inaccurate and take away motivation and clarity from your training regimen.
You won’t stimulate your muscles optimally
Muscle groups and fibers are targeted by different exercises. Some exercises build strength, while others build muscle or endurance. Maintaining an exercise habit helps achieve goals and adaptations. Changing your exercises frequently can distract you from your goals and hinder you from reaping the benefits of repeated repetition and specialized training.
How to change your workouts the right way
So, how often should you change your workouts? And how much should you change them?
Well, there’s no definitive answer to these questions. It depends on many factors, such as your fitness level, goals, preferences, and schedule. But here are some general guidelines to help you out:
Change your workouts every 4 to 6 weeks
This gives your body time to acclimate to an exercise routine and then add new challenges. You can adjust workouts less often depending on your progress and motivation or boredom.
Change one variable at a time
Instead of making multiple changes to your workout all at once consider modifying only one aspect at a time. For instance if you wish to increase the weight maintain the sets, reps, rest time and exercises. Alternatively if you prefer to switch up your exercises keep the weight, sets, reps and rest time consistent. This approach allows you to isolate the impact of each variable and observe how it influences your performance and results.
Change the exercises within the same category
If you're looking to mix up your workout routine consider selecting exercises that focus on the muscle groups and involve similar movements. For instance if you're thinking of switching up the bench press you could opt for another chest press variation like the dumbbell press or incline press. Similarly if you want to change things up with squats you can try leg exercises like lunges or leg presses. By doing so, you maintain a level of consistency and flow, in your training regimen while avoiding any potential loss of strength or muscle mass.
My personal experience with muscle confusion
I used to believe in muscle confusion when I first started working out. I thought I had to keep changing my workouts every week or even every day to keep my muscles guessing and growing. I followed some online programs that promised to deliver amazing results by doing this.
But guess what? I didn’t see much progress. In fact, I felt like I was going backwards. I was always sore, tired, and frustrated. I couldn’t lift more weight or do more reps. I couldn’t track my progress or set any goals. I felt like I was wasting my time and energy.
Then I learned about progressive overload, how it works, and fueled myself with pre-workout supplements. I realized that muscle confusion was a myth and that I didn’t need to confuse my muscles to make them grow. I just needed to challenge them.
It changed my approach. I started a simple yet effective program that included squats, deadlifts, bench press, rows, etc. I modified one variable at a time to make it difficult after 4–6 weeks of the same program.
And guess what? I saw amazing progress. In fact, I still do. I’m stronger, leaner, and happier than ever before. I can lift more weight and do more reps. I can track my progress and set new goals. I feel like I’m making the most of my time and energy.
Muscle confusion is a myth that has been popularized by some fitness programs and marketers. It’s not a scientific principle or a proven strategy for fitness improvement.
Changing your workouts is not bad or useless. In fact, it can be very beneficial for your fitness goals, as long as you do it right.
But you don’t need to confuse your muscles to make progress. You just need to challenge them.
The best way to challenge your muscles is by applying progressive overload. This means gradually increasing the stress or demand on your muscles in order to stimulate further adaptations.
You can add gradual overload into your training. Add weight or resistance, do more sets or repetitions, increase the difficulty of the exercises by expanding their range of motion or intensity, reduce rest times between sets or exercises, increase the frequency and duration of your workouts, and change the type or sequence of exercises.
You should change your workouts every 4 to 6 weeks and change one variable at a time. You should also change the exercises within the same category.
This way, you can keep your workouts fresh and fun without compromising your performance and results.