The Muscle Confusion Principle
The other day, I received an email from one of the readers of building muscle 101 regarding “muscle confusion”.
He had “heard” muscle confusion was one of the better ways to build muscle and wanted to know how he should be performing this type of weight training.
Should he be speeding up his exercises and repetitions? Should he change his routine up every other week? Or should he be doing different exercises?
According to the email, he’s actually making great improvements with his current workout but sources around him are telling him he needs to perform “muscle confusion” to build more muscle.
This got me thinking. I remember first hearing about muscle confusion back in the mid ‘80's when just about everyone I talked to was trying it. This technique was being publicized everywhere.
In fact, one of the guys I was training with, used this technique every other workout. One workout we would hit the bench press, incline press, and flat bench fly and the next workout, we would do a few giant, circuit type sets using a totally different set of exercises. It was all pretty crazy and it worked great.
My muscles got super pumped and they started to look more defined. I really enjoyed the results but something weird happened after two months, I stopped making gains. No matter what else we tried, we stopped growing. I thought muscle confusion was supposed to avoid all the “training plateaus”? What the heck happened?
Before I get into why it stopped working, let’s find out what muscle confusion is and where it came from.
Muscle confusion is a training principle meant to keep the muscles working and growing using a variety of sets, repetitions, exercises, volume, rest periods, and other elements to help boost intensity levels. The main goal of this principle is to keep the body and muscles from adapting to exercise stimuli. By frequently changing a weight training routine, the muscles avoid exercise adaptation and become “confused”.
The “muscle confusion” school of thought is to avoid the bodies internal equilibrium mechanics (Often called homeostasis) and keep the body and muscles from adapting to outside stimuli (Exercise). You see, the body is constantly trying to maintain equilibrium and in doing so, will adapt to changes and “threats” in order to survive. For example, when a person gets cold, she will shiver in order to help bring increase body temperature. When a person gets hot, he will sweat and this is done to help decrease the bodies temperature.
When a person weight trains, the muscles will adapt by getting stronger (Over time). If this stimuli happens often, the muscles will add additional muscle mass in order to handle increasing weight loads. This is the bodies response (Homeostasis) to a stimuli such as weight training. Now, the official definitions of homeostasis is as follows:
(1) The tendency of an organism or a cell to regulate its internal conditions, usually by a system of feedback controls, so as to stabilize health and functioning, regardless of the outside changing conditions
Any changes in a persons external environment, such as increased workloads on the muscles, will bring about a change in that same persons internal environment (Muscle strength and growth). The harder your force your body to work on a consistent basis, the harder it will try to adapt to this new level of effort by getting stronger and building more muscle.
Does it work?
In my personal opinion, there are a few things wrong with this picture. First, the muscle confusion principle was one of Joe Weider’s babies and it was heavily publicized in his magazines for years. For those of you who can remember, Joe Weider was the ruler of body building and muscle magazines. Whatever he said was law and everyone who was working for, or being promoted by him, abided by it. If you wanted to be in his magazines, you had to tow the line and for professional body builders looking to make a living, there was no other choice. So, for two decades (‘70's and ‘80's) the muscle confusion principle was heavily promoted.
Secondly, this principle was heavily promoted by professional body builders. For those of you who didn’t know this, most (If not all) of the pro bodybuilders of the time were heavily into anabolic steroids. Those promoting the muscle confusion principle were all heavy steroid users. We all know, there is a huge dividing line between steroid induced and natural athletes. I don’t care what anyone says, steroids has a way of making just about any type of resistance training work like magic.
So, you can imagine how the muscle confusion principle worked it’s way down the information line, from top body builders to the natural, hard working weight trainer. It wasn’t long after, that everyone in the weight training world was using “muscle confusion” to try and build muscle, just like Arnold and Sergio.
Ok, so does it work?
I have a few problems with the muscle confusion principle which I will discuss below.
1) Muscular effort and increased exercise intensity
I’m not going to get into the science of building muscle here, but suffice to say that, in order to keep building additional muscle mass, there has to be a consistent increase in muscular effort. There has to be a reason for your muscles to get stronger and grow, and if you provide that reason (Muscular effort) they will adapt and grow.
Muscular improvement is that one magic ingredient that ensures muscle building success. By improving muscular performance (Hence muscular effort), one can expect to get stronger, faster, and build additional muscle mass. In order for our bodies to grow, we must constantly add progressive effort into our exercises.
My question is this. How do you know you are working harder when using muscle confusion? You may think your working harder but are your muscles actually exerting more effort than your previous workout? The answer is you don’t. By constantly changing workout routines, a person really doesn’t know whether or not they are making the necessary improvements to build more muscle mass. This becomes a guessing game and a person “hopes” to build more muscle with each passing workout.
By using a set routine and logging each performance, a person comes to measure each and every workout and tries to improve upon sets, repetitions, and weight used for each exercise. There is an element of improved measurability that comes into play that the muscle confusion principle lacks. Measurability is the key word here. A person now has a rough measure of the necessary effort needed to match that of increased intensity levels. For example, let’s say in your last workout, you bench pressed 150 pounds for 8 unassisted repetitions on your last set. You now have a measurable bench mark.
In order to build additional muscle mass, based on the information on hand, you have to:
1) Perform additional unassisted repetitions on your last set using the same weight and same rest periods;
2) Use more weight for the same amount of repetitions on your last set using the same rest periods; Or
3) Use the same weight and repetitions as your last workout but perform the exercise in a faster manner
By measuring muscular effort, the body now has a blueprint of where it currently is, and where it needs to be in order to build muscle mass. This is missing from the muscle confusion principle. By constantly switching your workouts, how do you know you are adding the necessary effort in order to stimulate further muscle growth, you don’t.
In fact, you may be putting in less effort which can have the opposite effect thereby, decreasing muscular effort (Which you don’t want). By sticking with your current routine, you have a better gauge of how much effort you need to exert in order to improve muscular effort.
2) Muscular adaptation
Proponents of the muscle confusion principle argue that muscle growth stops/declines as muscles start to adapt to regular external stimuli patterns such as a set weight training routine. In other words, the bodies response to regular patterns of exercise is to stop adapting and therefore, stop growing. It’s only a matter of time when a routine will eventually go stale and the body stops adapting.
By constantly changing a persons weight training routine, the body will always be in a state of “trying to adapt”, and therefore a state of growth, according to proponents of muscle confusion.
However, the body will always be attempting to reach a state of equilibrium. Personally, I want my body to keep trying to adapt to my external stimuli such as weight training. As I mentioned in point number one, my body now has a blueprint to follow. It now knows certain variables, such as how many sets, repetitions, weight and rest times it currently follows.
It’s quite simple really. Work harder and improve upon each of your workouts (Especially compound lifts) and give your body the rest and food it needs to grow.
Here is the main problem I have with making the muscle confusion principle the driving force of my weight training regiment. Let’s say my routine is progressing great after 6 weeks. My core compound exercises are improving and I’m getting stronger. Each workout is getting better and better.
However, let’s say after reading some advice from certain web sites, I decide to change this routine because these sources say I’ll build more muscle. So, instead of following my routine, I decide to change it all up and do all isolation exercises. I ditch my compound lifts (Which were improving) and start with isolation movements. In effect, what I just did was to put a halt to everything that was working and go with something that “may” work.
We have to put the muscle confusion principle where it needs to be - As a supplement to an already progressive weight training regiment.
Now, let’s get back to why the muscle confusion stopped working for me in my earlier experiments. The whole reason for muscle confusion training is to avoid training plateaus. However, since the body doesn’t know what to adapt to (When using muscle confusion training), it stops growing because it doesn’t know how hard to work. Sounds kind of silly but it’s true. Personally, I thought I was working hard enough but my body simply didn’t match the intensity levels.
My body didn’t know if it was working hard enough to grow additional muscle mass. Was it getting stronger in each exercise? Was it performing more repetitions than the previous workout? Was it improving with each passing workout? My body simply didn’t have this information because I was changing my workouts in an all too frequent manner.
"Building muscle is all about making improvements in each and every workout. If you don’t make these improvements, you simply won’t grow."
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