If you’ve watched any late night fitness infomercials in the past 5 years, you’ve probably heard the term “muscle confusion” plenty of times. It’s a topic widely talked about (though the theory is not a recent revelation) and most exercisers think they have a good understanding of what muscle confusion is and how it can help them make huge gains at the gym. But do they really understand muscle confusion? How about you? Do you think you “get it”?
In theory, muscle confusion doesn’t seem very confusing. It’s simply a principle regarding the ability of your muscles to grow accustom to the same, habitual type of training, thus leading to a plateau. The obvious and most elementary form of muscle confusion would be an exerciser lifting 175 pounds with a bench press, for example, for a period of time well past the point where he or she feels any fatigue after a certain number of repetitions. This weight was challenging at one point but no longer. This exercise is ineffective for gaining strength, and the exerciser will not see the same results they saw at the beginning of the exercise.
This training principle can be applied to any form of training. Muscle confusion isn’t just limited to resistance training. Cardiovascular training and flexibility training are other ways that your body can build up accommodation to a habitual exercise. If you set out to run a mile, and it took you 3 weeks to accomplish that goal, what advantage would you gain from continuing to run only a mile for the next 6 weeks? If that’s all you want to accomplish, that’s perfectly fine, but your muscles and cardiovascular system will grow accustom to running that distance.
Have you ever heard of athletes cross training? The muscle confusion concept birthed the idea for cross training. It gives your body a chance to train in different ways and your muscles to adapt to new challenges. If you are a tennis player who spends most of his or her time using the fast-twitch muscles of your legs to chase down and return shots, wouldn’t it be a great “shock” to your muscles to go for distance runs or distance bike rides to really build up your endurance?
When it comes to flexibility training, your body will get used to the same stretches performed in the same way. You need to branch out and try different forms of stretching like yoga, which holds stretches for a longer period of time, or stretch-relax-stretch techniques.
So next time you go to the gym, try some muscle confusion. Re-visit your numbers and ask yourself if it’s time to add weight and reps to your current exercises. Attend new classes to refresh your mind and keep you motivated. Pick new exercises to work out the same muscles you’ve been targeting. Stick with each program for 4-6 weeks and then mix it up again. You don’t want to hop around with each workout or change routines too often, but feel free to experiment!