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.


2013-02-01 The 1-Arm Pull-Up Plan

I write a lot of articles about getting yourself to the gym, about losing a few pounds, or about basic health. Here’s one on the other side of the spectrum… How about getting really strong?
This plan is built around getting an athlete to be able to do a one-arm pull-up. Although this program works well for this purpose, we have also used variations of this program to develop big strength gains in single-leg squats, one-arm push-ups, and other exercises. We’ve modified parts of an old Alwyn Cosgrove chin-up program for this, and the results are awesome.

There are two requirements of this program:
1. You must be willing to prioritize this program until completion. Trying to do this program in conjunction with another plan will not lead to success…in either plan. It is possible to train other movements and to do some other activity while going through this plan, but the priority has always got to be to do your pull-up workouts fresh.

2. You have to be able to do at least 8 strict (straight-arm to chest touching the bar) pull-ups. If this is not within your ability, this program can still help you improve, it just might not get you to a one-arm the first time around.
Weeks 1-4 – Diminished-Rest Intervals
Start by figuring out how many perfect pull-ups you can do. Don’t BS this one, either. It’s for your information only and if you fudge the numbers, you’ll only hose yourself when the workloads go up. Take your max number, and divide it in half. If you can do 10 pull-ups, your starting number is five.
Week 1. Three times this week, you’ll do three sets of pull-ups at your starting number (5 in our example) with 60 seconds between sets.
Week 2. Three times this week, you’ll do 3 sets of pull-ups at your starting number (5 in our example) with 45 seconds between sets.
Week 3. You’ll do 4 workouts this week. 2 times this week, do 3 sets with just 30 seconds between. The second two workouts are 3 sets with 15 seconds between.
Week 4. This week you’ll do pull-ups for three workouts. Do three sets of as many pull-ups as you can do for each workout.
Weeks 5-8 Loaded Pull-Ups
Week 5. Three times this week, you’ll wear a weight belt to do your pull-ups. Add as much weight as you can while still maintaining perfect form for the prescribed number of reps. This week you do 6 sets in the following rep configuration: 8-6-4-8-6-4. Obviously you’ll add more weight as the reps decrease.
Week 6. 3x per week, 6 sets, 7-5-3-7-5-3. Add two one-arm negatives on each arm at the end of the sixth set.
Week 7. 3x per week, 6 sets, 6-4-2-6-4-2. Add three one-arm negatives at the end of the sixth set.
Week 8. 3x per week, 6 sets. 5-3-1-5-3-1. Add a one arm negative on each arm after sets 2, 4, and 6.
Weeks 9-12 One Arm Training
Week 9. Three times per week, do three sets of two offset pull-ups. The offset is best done with a 24” long sling girth hitched around the bar. Grasp the bar with one hand and the sling with the other.
Week 10. 3x per week, 3 sets of 2 offset pull-ups plus 3 sets of 1 negative, done as slowly as possible.
Week 11. 3x per week, 3 sets of 2 offset pull-ups with minimal help from the low hand plus 5 sets of 1 negative, done as slowly as possible.
Week 12. Get good and warm, then go for it. If you don’t quite make it, take a week off from pulls, then start in again at week 5 for another build.

2013-01-01 Kill Your Weaknesses

I’ll start this article the same way I should start every one I write: If you’re happy where you are, read no further. If, however, you’re not totally satisfied with your body, listen up. Your habits and the weaknesses they’ve created have helped you get the body you now have. The quickest road to getting your body where you want it is to eliminate, once and for all, your biggest weaknesses.

If you look at what you do in training, you’ll see patterns. Although these patterns or habits are occasionally useful, most of the time they are responsible for holding you back, as well. You find a new training plan, play with it a few weeks, and slowly modify it back into what you were doing before.

How do you deal with limiters? The same way. You do a little hamstring stretching at the end of each session for say, two days, then you skip one, then eventually it becomes clear that you can’t possibly fit in all of your bench press variations if you waste all this time stretching.

Weaknesses are inherently problematic—part of the reason we have them is because we don’t like doing those things. I’d much rather talk about rock climbing than my feelings, so I’ve become very good at talking about rock climbing and even better at rationalizing why talking about feelings is stupid.

Weaknesses demand action. How much is your bench max going to drop if you commit to flexibility training for 6 out of 7 workouts? Maybe 5-10 pounds. How long is it going to take the new, flexible you to pick up those pounds next month? No time at all.

Your weakness-killing action plan should go like this: Figure out how much total training time you have in a typical week. Take that amount of time, and commit 75% of it to training your one weakness. Make it specific: “flexibility” is not enough— you’ve got to train for a very specific kind of flexibility, and one you can measure.

The other 25 % of your training time will be dedicated to maintaining all those things you usually do, but not trying to move forward in any one of them.

You have 4 hours to train each week? Good. 3 of those hours are going to be spent trying to get your lifelong hamstring inflexibility to go away.

Take a month and work the weakness, then go back to your “normal” training. The following month, reassess where you are weakest, and attack that for another 4 weeks. Stay after the weaknesses in this way, and soon they’ll be very hard to find. Ignore them, and they’ll put the brakes on everything eventually.