Confusion Over Muscle Confusion

It’s hard to refute the popularity of training programs that feature random “design.” From workouts-of-the-day to “muscle confusion” we hear repeated claims that you’ve got to shake it up to see improvement. A thinking person isn’t going to fall into the trap of popular = smart, but as a society we do it all the time. I’m not saying these programs never work; I’m saying they don’t work for too many people, and they certainly haven’t proven themselves against “traditional” training methods when it comes to high-level athletes.

The sales lines go like this:

“You’ve got to change your routine a lot or your muscles will get used to the same one and stop growing.”

“You’ve got to ‘trick’ your muscles and keep them guessing.”

“If muscle growth hits a plateau, you have to ‘shock’ the tissue in order to resume progress.”

Muscles respond to stressors according to the principles of exercise, confusion is not one of these principles. For very low-performing athletes, random sessions work fine. Of course ANY program is going to work for these athletes, not just random programs. Think about every other biological adaptation we make; repeated stressors cause us to adapt. Random stressors are seen as traumatic, not something to adapt to. I’ll give you a couple of examples.

You know how you tend to move to a light jacket or sweatshirt instead of a coat as spring warms up? How even the slightest warmth feels very warm compared to the cold of winter? It’s because you’ve adapted (over several cold months) to being cold, so slightly warmer weather feels downright toasty. Same thing happens in the fall. We’ve become warm-blooded over the summer and have a hard time with cold. Randomly subjecting yourself to extremes in temperature will not help you adapt well to one extreme or the other.

Looking at another example, imagine you took all of the textbooks you bought for a college semester and instead of reading a biology chapter one night, followed by working a math chapter another night, physiology, etc., you just tore out all of the pages from the books and read them randomly. How well do you think you’d learn?

If you’re trying to get stronger or gain better endurance you don’t want to “confuse” your muscles. By doing random exercises with various loads for random durations, you’ll no doubt be more entertained, and you’ll probably be sore. But soreness should never be considered the mark of a successful session. Imagine a runner going out and having a terrible run, not able to maintain pace, and falling down a few times along the way. “It was great…I was really sore after that run!”

It’s true that we do adapt to certain exercises and motor patterns. But the effective method of breaking through these adaptations is not to do different stuff, but rather to intensify the activity, change the speed of exercise, or add volume to the workout. If you get bored easily, it’s probably a bigger problem than just your workouts, but consider cycling (changing them over the course of several weeks) workouts rather than changing them all, all the time. If you really want to see progress, you’re going to need to repeat similar exercises for 10, 15 or more workouts before you change patterns.

The more advanced you become as an athlete, the harder it becomes. Ask the best athlete you know how often they see a significant jump in their ability. The answer will probably be once or twice a year. And their method will never be confusing their muscles.