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What Is Muscle Confusion?


I recently heard a client say, “I need more muscle confusion. I am getting used to all of the exercises here. My muscles aren’t getting confused, so I’m not getting stronger.”

This statement made me realize that “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.

Can Muscles Be “Confused”?

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 as It Relates to Exercise

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.

Why Is It Called Muscle Confusion?

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.

Can I Make Significant Gains Repeating the Same Exercises?

Yes, in fact it’s the ONLY way to do it. Like I previously mentioned, 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).

Is So Called “Muscle Confusion” Important for My Weight Loss Goals?

No. I know that goes against everything you have seen on TV or read in the latest issue of your fitness magazine, but any educated fitness professional will say the same thing. 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.

Take Away Message

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 time we expose the marketing gimmick that is “Muscle Confusion.”


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