Muscle confusion sounds like a sexy, advanced technique. But in reality, it’s a made-up idea with no evidence to support it.
One popular in-home fitness product touts the “advanced science of muscle confusion,” but it doesn’t explain what the science is or how it works (other than the advanced science of getting off your ass).
A strong, lean physique comes from a well-designed strength and conditioning program, not from endlessly “mixing it up.”
Where did “muscle confusion” come from?
The idea of muscle confusion has been around for a while, since the bodybuilding heyday of the '70s. There is a shred of truth to it: If you do the same thing over and over, your body will adapt. And you will plateau.
Your body is designed to get better at things with repetition. Over time, you expend less energy to produce the same result. It’s a survival mechanism, part of human evolution.
So the need for change is obvious. But the idea that you have to constantly change your exercises and set/rep schemes is a bad combination of marketing and broscience.
You need 3 things for muscular development
Strength coaches and scientists agree: If you want your muscles to grow, you need to make 3 things happen.
- Muscular tension. Tension is generated on a muscle from lifting heavy shit. The heavier it is, the more tension on the muscle. (Physics.) Muscular tension creates an anabolic response which causes growth and increases strength.
- Muscle damage. Lifting weights breaks down muscle tissue and causes microtears to the muscle fibers. This damage causes inflammation and eventual repair, making the muscle stronger and better able to deal with future microtrauma.
- Metabolic stress. The ‘burn’ you get during a hard workout, and the muscular swelling you sometimes feel — those are indicators of metabolic stress. Your body’s response to this is to initiate protein synthesis and strengthen muscle cell structure. For this to happen, your workouts need to have enough volume (total work).
Your training needs to have these 3 elements. If it does, you get results. If it doesn’t, you don’t — no matter how much you “switch up” the exercises.
Results come from strategic variation and progression (not confusion)
The key to progress is progressive overload. You need to keep adding weight to the bar to keep getting results. But eventually you’ll hit a wall and need to change your routine.
So how often should you change your workouts and exercises? There’s an art and a science to this, but for most people, changing workouts every 4-5 weeks yields the best results.
A workout could be centered around 2 “big lifts,” — squat and bench press. Plus some accessory lifts (leg press, dips, abs, etc).
On the big lifts work in the 5-8 rep range. Add weight when you can do more than 8; go for more reps when you’re stuck at 5. Use the same principle on the accessory lifts, but do higher reps, like 8-12.
After 4 weeks of this, you will be (and look) stronger. You can completely swap out the accessory lifts for new ones, or you can just change the rep ranges. And you can make small changes to your big lifts, such as foot position, grip width, etc — but stay heavy on the big lifts.
If you get bored doing the same set of workouts for 3-4 weeks, try to focus on the results, rather than the process. You go to the gym to get physical results, not to be entertained. So if you can’t stick with a set of exercises for at least 4 weeks, try to focus on mastering the task at hand (and maybe work on your attention span).
Putting it all together
If you want a lean, muscular physique, remember these 3 things:
- Muscle confusion, as a scientific principle, does not exist.
- You need to lift heavy enough to create adequate tension in the muscle and cause microtears (i.e. muscle damage). And you need enough training volume to create metabolic stress.
- You need a smart training program with the right amount of variety. The focus should be on getting stronger, mastering the big lifts, and progressing through distinct training phases.
If you follow these principles, you won’t be distracted by fitness gimmicks.