Muscle Confusion: A New Fitness Craze Demystified

A definition of muscle confusion is “A training principle that states that muscles accommodate to a specific type of stress (habituate or plateau, also called homeostasis) when the same stress is continually applied to the muscles over time, therefore one must constantly vary exercises, sets, reps and weight to avoid accommodation”.

Mixing up your routine in general, whether its frequently to create “muscle confusion” or just to mix up your routine, can help you prevent your workout results from plateauing. You could gain steady results by continuing to add weight and repeating your routine.

Mixing up your routine is definitely recommended, but how frequently you change it up is completely up to your preference. If you follow certain workout routines, often times, the changes will be done automatically for you. If you are comfortable with your own workout routine and want to maintain that routine, steady increase in weights is not a bad way to go, but it is probably more recommended for those who are just starting up their workout.

“Muscle Confusion” is definitely a marketing term (I think Beach Body/Tony Horton made it up for P90X). It’s just making sure you change up the routine to maximize your gain.

“Muscle Confusion” is a widely misunderstood concept in fitness, thanks to celebrity trainers like Tony Horton from P90X. Understanding the meaning of “muscle confusion” may help you keep safe and avoid making some very common mistakes at the gym.

First of all, our muscles do not get “confused.” Better yet, our muscles do not make “memories” — our brain makes memories and our muscles adapt because of it. “Muscle Confusion” is a marketing gimmick capitalized on by many gyms and trainers over the last 5-10 years. Our brain is responsible for sending electrical signals to our muscles, causing muscular contraction. As we repeat this pattern of sending an electrical signal many times, our brain becomes more efficient at synchronizing and recruiting muscle fibers, making us muscularly fit–hence the term “muscle memory”. Exercise technique is a learned skill through repetition. 

Muscle confusion workouts, such as P90X, operate under the theory that, by constantly changing movements, our bodies will be forced to respond. Not only can this way of exercise be less effective, it can be dangerous. We do not want our muscles to be “confused,” we want them to adapt. Most exercise injuries occur when our bodies fail to adapt to a certain stress. Once our bodies have adapted to a new stress, it is appropriate to increase the intensity of a workout (progressive overload). This takes weeks, sometimes months and it certainly takes more than one workout.

Muscle confusion sells. There is no other explanation. Anyone using the term “muscle confusion” does so only because it will sell. In order to make significant gains, you need a planned progression. Trainers often mistake muscle confusion with a planned progression we call “periodization.” “Periodization” means to have specific training objectives and variations throughout a training cycle to maximize adaptations. This variation is planned and systematic; it is not designed in any way to be “confusing.” In fact, if your body gets “confused,” it is much more likely to do nothing at all than to adapt.

As you perform an exercise repeatedly, your brain starts to synchronize and recruit muscle fibers more efficiently. As you raise the intensity of that particular exercise (increase load, increase repetitions or decrease rest intervals), your body will continually adapt to the stress. Eventually you will reach your genetic potential, at which point simply maintaining is an appropriate goal (though most people will never train at a frequency or intensity to hit that mark).

It is important to keep one’s body healthy and fit. A balanced diet and exercise are necessary to achieve this. Sometimes people find that despite their best efforts they are unable to lose weight or gain muscle tone as well as they hoped to. This often leads to one abandoning the fitness training schedule. The concept of muscle confusion is not a new one in the world of body building. However, it is only recently that trainers have started making people, who wish to lose weight, aware of the importance of muscle confusion.

When the body performs a set of exercises and repetitions in a certain pattern, it starts to get accustomed to it, and is not as effective as it initially was. In order to ensure that the muscles work out adequately, it is important to ensure that the body does not get used to a certain exercise routine. Thus, one would need to regularly change the cardiovascular and strength training exercises that are part of one’s fitness regime.

Many people, who work out on a regular basis, find that they encounter a ‘plateau effect’. This essentially means that despite exercising well, the body and muscles show little change. This can be quite disheartening. To avoid this from happening one should try to follow a variety of exercise programs, instead of performing the same sets or repetition of exercises. This would challenge the muscles into optimal performance. It is not just important to vary the work out program that one follows but also the rest periods that one takes between repetitions.

Experts recommend that one change the fitness routine every four weeks. It would also be a good idea to include varied styles of exercise. For instance one could do aerobics on one day and schedule a power yoga class on another day. Yoga, tai chi and dancing are also excellent options to the conventional gym routine. The term muscle confusion does not refer to undertaking a difficult work out that would confuse the muscles or the body. It means that one has to plan the fitness schedule in a manner that the body does not become comfortable with a specific routine without being challenged.

To gain the best results it is important to be consistent and regular with one’s fitness program. This would include a work out of a minimum of 45 minutes. One may like to concentrate on specific parts of the body on different days. You could include sets of upper body training on one day, while on another day one could concentrate on the lower region. It is also important to do stretching movements at the start and end of the program. Varying the work out routine also ensures that one is not bored easily. This is especially important for beginners, and for people who find it difficult to keep to a fitness regime. Creating a work out schedule ensures that the fitness routine can be followed easily. One may also wish to work with a trainer to select appropriate exercises.

Does “Muscle Confusion” Important for My Weight Loss Goals? No. Nonlinear periodization progressions are important for general muscular fitness, athletes and body builders, but you do not have to go through these phases to shed fat mass. Your focus should be on calorie expenditure, large muscle exercises, and perfect form. Switching between weight lifting, cardio, “plyometrics,” and yoga (to lose weight) does not allow your body to adapt; often leading to an injury. Squats, lunges, push-ups, rows, and crunches can be labeled boring, but when it comes to your weight loss goals, they are effective.

Continually changing your workout plan in fear of a plateau is a very common mistake. In reality, plateaus come from an individual’s failure to progressively overload their muscles and push themselves to new limits. As you lose weight and get leaner, it becomes harder to continue the trend. This makes sense because if it were linear, eventually we would have no body fat (which makes us dead). Diet also plays a critical role in continually making progress. Amount of calories, quality of calories, and nutrient timing can propel you through a plateau if you are diligent and take the time to food log. Attempting to “confuse” your muscles from day to day is not the answer. It’s the marketing gimmick that is “Muscle Confusion.

In layman’s terms, the concept behind muscle confusion is to constantly vary the exercises, sets, reps, and weight in an exercise program. The idea is to prevent the body from reaching a plateau, where the muscles have fully adapted to the exercise and results are no longer seen. While this concept is actually based on a scientific training principle called the law of specificity, the term “confusion” tends to distort what this principle actually means.

To illustrate, let’s say you hate running but get a sudden burst of inspiration to sign up for a 5k race. If you don’t do much running (except to chase after your kids), chances are you’ll feel pretty sore the first few times you do it. You may actually have to alternate walking with jogging until the burning in your lungs subsides and the soreness in your legs goes away. This is called the process of adaptation. Your body is adapting to the stress by making physiological changes such as stronger bones, increased lung capacity, and better blood flow. Now that you are fitter, you have a greater capacity for workload. Meaning, instead of having to alternate jogging with walking, now you can just jog. If you decide not to jog but rather just stay with your jog/walk combo, you would no longer see any further benefits. This is what we refer to as a plateau.

Muscle confusion is just a cool sounding phrase to explain this concept. But what is missing from most fitness DVDs and cross training programs, is the process of adaptation. Chaos training, random exercise, and constantly varied protocols can all be very effective tools for those that have adapted to a certain stress. For example, an elite distance runner would produce better gains if he ran various intervals at different distances and times rather than just a slow and steady pace. The ability level and the goal of the individual are extremely important if we want to see further results.

For more information visit: Confuse-Your-Muscles. 


The Content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.

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