Is Muscle Confusion a Shortcut to Fitness?
Though working out daily is great, doing the same workouts over and over might not be, which is why you might want to try a muscle confusion workout.
Just like anything else, practice makes perfect—and working out is no exception. If you’re a veteran jogger, you can probably think back to the days when you could hardly run a mile without stopping. Now, you scoff at the idea. Or if you’re a regular gym buff, you can probably remember when you struggle to heft 25 pounds—and now, you’re topping 50.
But once you hit your fitness goals, you may notice your body no longer responds to challenges in the same ways that it used to; you’re not seeing the same gains. You’ve hit an exercise plateau. What happened? Has your body “gotten used to” all the hard work you’ve been putting in? One theory is that if you don’t mix up your workouts, your body adjusts. The proposed solution? A type of training called “muscle confusion.”
You may have heard the phrase in your gym. After all, muscle confusion is the main principle behind popular exercise programs like P90X and Insanity. The idea is that if you want to continue to see gains then you need to “confuse” your muscles with different movements and workout styles.
Sounds good, but is it true? The short answer: Maybe.
“A muscle cannot get confused, it has no internal neurology,” says Helen Kollias, PhD, exercise physiologist, kinesiologist, certified personal trainer, and Director of Science for Precision Nutrition. “This is an advertising idea, not a concept that exists in exercise physiology.”
However, your muscles can adapt to a program. As your muscles get stronger and more efficient, the movements will feel easier because you’re better at them, she says. But this isn’t a flaw, it’s a good thing and means your program is working. If you feel like you’ve adapted to the point where you’re not seeing progress anymore, then you can use progressive overload training to force your muscles to work harder—which means increasing the amount of weight and/or the number of sets and reps you do, she says. This allows you to target each muscle group. Also, you could even see more progress with this approach than by trying a bunch of different things, according to a 2015 study published in Frontiers in Physiology.
Basically, says Kollias, lift heavy enough weights that you’re forced to do fewer reps until you’re exhausted—and then maybe add more sets. “The design of these workouts build on adaptions,” she explains.
While muscle confusion workouts may not make your muscles stronger than simply lifting heavier weights, they do offer one big benefit, Dr. Kollias says. “Variety is very motivating for some people,” she says. “If boredom is preventing you from going to the gym, then changing your workouts constantly can inspire you to start again. Just understand there is no physiological reason to do it.”
Bottom line: If you love your workouts there’s no need to change to a different method and you can break through plateaus by tweaking your current program. However, if you get bored easily or enjoy the challenge of new activities, then give muscle confusion workouts a try. Get inspired by these gym hacks to make exercise less of a chore.