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.
In other words, his sources are telling him to stop what’s working and do something totally different and “hope” for better results by using muscle confusion.
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
(2) The ability of the body or a cell to seek and maintain a condition of equilibrium or stability within its internal environment when dealing with external changes
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.
It’s argued by proponents of muscle confusion that by constantly changing your routine, you 1) Become less bored with your current routine; 2) Avoid central nervous system adaptations; And 3) Avoid training plateaus caused by repetitive movements
Does it work?
The muscle confusion principle first became popular back in the ‘70’s after becoming an official “Weider Principle”. Joe Weider picked up the principle and had it endorsed by some of the more popular professional body builders at the time including Arnold and Sergio. Throughout the ‘70’s and ‘80’s, the muscle confusion principle was in just about all the popular muscle magazines being endorsed (And used) by top professional body builders. The birth of muscle confusion came from two sources; 1) Muscle magazines (Popularized by Joe Weider’s Muscle Builder); And 2) Endorsed by professional body builders that were featured in these magazines.
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.
In order for my muscles to grow, my body now needs to improve upon one, or each of these variables. That is, it will need to improve upon these variables in order to adapt to more muscular effort. This is what I want, especially on my compound lifts, which as well all know, are the real muscle builders.
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.”
Now, you may be thinking that I’m totally against muscle confusion. No not at all. In fact, I’m for it but I don’t think it should form the basis of your weight training regiment. I personally think it should be used, to great effect, in a totally different manner.
Before we go any further, allow me to clarify what I think muscle confusion is and why the term “muscle confusion” is the wrong term to use. I think of the muscle confusion principle as “varying degrees of muscular effort to varying degrees of exercise intensity”. By changing exercise variables such as, tempos, repetitions, weight, angles, set structure and so on, will produce varying degrees of muscular effort. The muscle doesn’t get confused at all, but rather works at varying degrees of effort.
How should this principle be used? First of all, I’m opposed to this principle as being the staple of any progressive weight training routine. However, it can be used to great effect to produce varying degree of angles and intensity levels to SUPPORT an already successful and progressive routine.
The concept is to help support and improve upon muscular effort for muscle building exercises, such as compound movements. Here are some examples of when to use the principles of muscle confusion:
• For example, using Mondays as your heavy bench press day while using Thursdays as your light, high repetition bench days (Or adding other elements such as drop sets or giant sets). The main thing you have to remember is that alternating or adding certain exercise variables into your routine is meant to alter the amount of stress placed on your body, while supporting your ultimate goal (Or primary compound exercise).
• It can also be used to take a break from your current routine and allow your body (And joints) to recover. Sort of like a “cool down” routine meant to give your muscles time to rest while still maintaining your hard earned muscle mass. For example, a three week routine using nothing but light weight, high repetition exercises.
• Alternating different isolation exercises used in your routine which support the main compound movements, such as the squat, bench press and so on. For example, once you have completed your compound movements, try using different techniques and methods on your finishing movements such as 21’s, partials, down the racks, volume sessions and other methods.
• Changing exercises and other exercise variables to prioritize certain muscle groups. For example, let’s say I want to add more strength and muscle to my upper legs. I will rearrange my current routine to prioritize my upper leg training.
• Rearranging a set routine to overcome exercise plateaus. For example, lets say you’ve been stuck on the bench press for over three weeks, it may be time to change up your routine. However, that’s not to say you need to keep altering your routine. Change up different methods and measure the routine for 4 to 6 weeks. Also, you may want to look at your rest and nutrition levels (These are some of the main culprits for lack of growth).
Remember, these are just some of examples of how to use this principles and other methods can be implemented.
All of the successful body builders, power lifters, and strength athletes I know, have all been following their same routines for years. These people are strong, big and muscular. The only thing that changes in their routines are the variables that are meant to support their ultimate goal.
They don’t make the “muscle confusion” principle the staple of their programs but use it to support their progressive weight training program. Every other workout, they’ll throw something into their workout, such as 21’s or down the racks but keep all compound movements pretty much the same.
For beginners, there is no such thing as muscle confusion training because there is no muscle to confuse. For all beginners who are reading this right now, pick a beginners routine and stick to it. Don’t worry about altering exercises or trying to use muscle confusion because you don’t have to worry about any of that. Simply pick a routine, stick to it, make weekly progressions and you’ll do fine. If you come to a sticking point, it will boil down to your diet and rest. For a complete discussion on diet and muscle growth, see this page here:
One more thing you have to remember is that we are all different and require varying amounts of exercises, sets, repetitions, weight, and rest times. Some people may require higher repetitions while others may require low repetitions, some may require volume work and other a few sets. The most important thing you have to remember is this:
“If you’re getting stronger and improving with your current routine, keep doing it and go with what’s working. It’s only when you stop getting stronger and growing that you should be thinking of changing up your routine – There is no set time limit as to when you should be changing your routine”
Please remember, we all have different body types, metabolism, age, activity levels and lifestyles so your routine should reflect these variances. Stick to what works and keep following it for ensured success at building a lean and muscular physique.
I highly recommend you take a look at Kyle Leon’s program called “Somanabolic Muscle Maximizer”. The reason I’m recommending this 9 week program is because it is the first of it’s kind to use “body type” profiling. That is, it will customize a complete nutritional and weight training plan based around your:
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• Body type
This program has been designed by fitness experts and the software is quite amazing. I’ve used this program and I have to say, it’s something that I could have really used 20 years ago. You can read my review here.
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All the best and good luck,
Blake has been weight lifting for about 28 years now. He's 45 years of age and started seriously training when he was 18 years old.
Blake is the founder of Building-Muscle101.com, a successful fitness website that has been around for more than 15 years.