Is Muscle Confusion Real?
“What’s the low down on muscle confusion? Is that a real thing?”
That was a text I got from my friend Angie just a couple nights ago. She had told me that the strength and conditioning coach she works with out of a soccer camp had told her that he does two weeks of the same circuits and then switches it up to obtain muscle confusion because if you work the same muscles they don’t respond and the exercise basically ends up not doing what it should be.
After looking online I got this as a definition of muscle confusion; “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”`
To me this doesn’t make a whole lot of sense and basically goes against everything that I’ve ever been told or done. In fact one sure fire way to never makes gains is to constantly switch up the routine that you’re following. We call these people program hoppers, little guy, weakling, or Justin Bieber.
Although on my deload week I did decide to change up my training program by doing some WWE wrestling on the matt at the gym.
Even the word muscle confusion doesn’t seem to make sense to me, how does a muscle get confused. The body surely does adapt but isn’t adapting the opposite of being confused? I don’t know, now I’m confused.
I checked out Joe Weider’s, a famous Canadian body builder, muscle confusion principles which made some sense. The article stated that, “Be different. Make each bodypart workout substantially different than the previous workout for that bodypart. This continuously altered stress is designed to continuously spark growth. There are numerous variables that you can change from workout to work out.” These variable included sets per exercise, reps per set, exercise choice, exercise order, workout volume, rep speed, and rest period lengths.
I imagine that when people think of muscle confusion they think of changing the workout completely when they should be focusing on changing the variables that go along with a workout to progress. Let’s take a look:
- Sets per exercise: in one study the authors found that “multiple sets are associated with 40% greater hypertrophy-related effect sizes than 1 set in both trained and untrained subjects.” (Krieger). I’ve found that when going for hypertrophy or strength 4-5 sets are optimal. For hypertrophy (muscle growth) I would use the same weight in these sets. For example dumbbell press with 90’s for 4 sets of 10.Whereas for strength I might ramp the weight up, deadlifting 405 for 6, 415 for 5, 425 for 4, then 440 for 3 reps. That being said, a lot of people do up to ten sets when training for hypertrophy (German Volume Training). To progress you would do more sets per exercise.
- Reps per set- this should coincide with your goals, if hypertrophy is your goal, 10-15 reps, if strength is your goal 1-6 reps, and if endurance is your goal up to 20 reps. There is some carry over but if you want to get strong there is no need to “confuse” your muscle with endurance work. To progress you would do more reps per exercise.
- Exercise choice: Deadlift, squat, and bench, rows, pull ups, pushups, Olympic lifts, and over head presses, everything after that is just icing on the cake.
- Exercise order: Big power lifts, like your cleans, followed by big compound lifts, back squats, then another big barbell lift, weight hip bridges or lunges, followed by whatever accessory work you feel is necessary. This shouldn’t change.
- Workout volume: this refers to the amount of work that you do in a session. Volume is one of the key principles of muscle growth. People who want to get bigger need to add more volume by increasing the weight or increasing reps. To progress you would increase the volume.
- Rep speed: In one study on exercise tempo the authors concluded that, “heavier loads can be lifted and more total work can be performed using a (2/0/2) tempo compared with a slower (2/0/4) tempo, but with the exception of IGF-1, the hormonal responses are similar. Individuals may get the same metabolic responses to training by using different tempos, but they will need to use less weight at a slower tempo.” IGF-1, which stands for insulin like growth factor has an anabolic effect on the body. So if the goal is growth it seems like utilizing a quicker bar speed is the way to go. The authors of the study found this difference “pre-exercise(2/0/2) 277.4 ± 21.8, post-exercise: 308.1 ± 22.9; 2/0/4 tempo pre-exercise: 277.2 ± 17.6, post-exercise: 284.8 ± 21.2.” (HEAILEY). I’ve always stressed a controlled eccentric (muscle lengthening) paired with an explosive concentric (muscle shortening) protocol. I like to use 301 this just means 3 seconds on the way down and 1 second on the way up with a 0 second transition period.
- Rest period length: this, like reps used goes hand in hand with the goal. If your goal is strength you lift heavy weight for a few reps and take a long break (2-5 minutes) if your goal is muscle growth you rest less time (30-90 seconds). To progress you would decrease the rest period.
Now let’s go back to what this strength coach said, “two weeks of the same circuits and then switches it up to obtain muscle confusion”
Still doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. I told my friend that this coach should focus on progressing instead of changing what he is doing. I asked why he didn’t add weight to the circuit or try to do the circuit faster before switching what he does. How do you expect to get better if you’re always varying what you’re doing?
I’m really not a fan of the term muscle confusion because it detracts people from thinking about progression. That being said, you can and will experience plateaus in weight lifting, but changing your routine completely might not be the best way to go about it.
Here are two things I suggest:
1) Change the main lift after a few blocks of training: I might go from training a conventional deadlift for three four week blocks and then switch to a trap bar deadlift for three four week blocks before going back to the conventional deadlift again.
2) Change the bar speed: If I can lift a submaximal weight faster than that usually tells me I’ve gotten stronger. I like to throw in acceleration training into my big lifts. Not only does it help me get stronger but training with submax weights helps to improve form.
So there’s my opinion, I think muscle confusion is a bit of a garbage term and can definitely be taken the wrong way. Stop thinking confusion and start thinking progression.
KRIEGER, J. W. (2010). SINGLE VS. MULTIPLE SETS OF RESISTANCE EXERCISE FOR MUSCLE HYPERTROPHY: A META-ANALYSIS. Journal Of Strength & Conditioning Research (Lippincott Williams & Wilkins), 24(4), 1150-1159.
MERRITT, G. (2011). THE WEIDER PRINCIPLES: MUSCLE CONFUSION. Flex, 29(10), 210-216
HEAILEY, S. A., HENRY, K., NINDL, B. C., THOMPSON, B. A., KRAEMER, W. J., & JONES, M. T. (2011). EFFECTS OF LIFTING TEMPO ON ONE REPETITION MAXIMUM AND HORMONAL RESPONSES TO A BENCH PRESS PROTOCOL. Journal Of Strength & Conditioning Research (Lippincott Williams & Wilkins), 25(2), 406-413.