Muscle confusion forms a core idea of many popular programs. Supporters argue that it prevents the body from adapting to a specific stress, aiming to allow improvement without plateaus. You achieve this by changing the variables of your program through different exercises, sets, reps, orders, rest periods, and so on.
It plays an important role in complicated programs such as periodization and may lead you to believe the concept has great merit.
Variety in exercise may help with motivation but has no real benefit. Your body will certainly adapt to a stimulus, but instead of changing things up when it feels tough, you should instead always try to improve by discovering and using the best possible methods. Striving for progress itself gives you a new stimulus. By including muscle confusion in your program, you may get disappointed instead.
Variations in training are of value if for no other reason than the fact that they prevent boredom – but such diversity of training should be contained within the actually very narrow limits of a few very productive exercises; if not, then results will be far less than they should have been.
– Arthur Jones
- Learning creates the illusion of fast progress.
You may believe the quick results you get when changing up your program comes from true physical changes. In reality this comes almost entirely from your nervous system. Much of the progress is misleading.
When you pick up a new or older exercise again, you have to develop skills. This also changes your standards. You have a less clear expectation on how well you can do.
Imagine the process of learning to ride a bike. Would you say that your muscle strength limited you? No, you just needed more practice.
Progress from muscle confusion comes mostly from changes in how your body works with what it already has. It grows more efficient. Real changes such as more muscle arrive mainly after this process, so the initial burst creates an appealing illusion but an illusion nonetheless.
Consistency in your exercises allows you to gain skills then focus on real improvement.
- It only indirectly boosts results through recovery.
Perhaps you overtrained on your original exercise. Taking a break from it and moving on to another gives your body a layoff. Once again this occurs because skills prevent you from expressing your true physical potential at first.
While you learn a new exercise, your intensity suffers for awhile since you are poor at it. This then could lead to actual changes since the body will recover while picking up the new skills. You get better because something was wrong in the first place.
If the trainee has enough variety to address the major muscle groups effectively and safely then variation serves no purpose. You may need to make changes as you grow more fit. This occurs on a long-term basis though and not within the span of weeks and days.
- It contrasts with the principle of specificity.
Exercise must be specific to a goal. You would never expect to build much muscle running countless miles everyday. Neither would you expect to elevate your heart rate much with heavy sets of 5 in the bench press.
For the sake of variety, trainees may make changes that fail to best address their goal. If you make your fastest progress on sets of 8 for the squat, then why change it up with sets of 3 or 15? If you fail to make progress, consider improving your recovery with more calories or better and longer sleep instead. In some cases you may do well with lower or higher reps but this makes less of a difference than you may think.
You must apply enough effort with fairly heavy weights to build muscle. You must elevate the heart rate for long and hard enough to get in shape. Any deviations from the right settings to just add variety could harm your results.
- Delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) has nothing to do with progress.
DOMS results from serious muscle damage. Many trainees seek out DOMS only to harm their results. Changing things up may brings back DOMS but you have to ask yourself if this serves any good purpose.
Think of it this way. Beginners tend to get very sore. As they grow stronger, in some cases almost doubling the strength in a few months, they get sore less often and far less severely. As they advance, they inflict more stress on their bodies yet get less sore.
Focus instead on more weight, more reps, and faster paces. Ignore soreness as an indicator for results. It will mislead you.
- It invites bad exercises.
Those in favor of muscle confusion argue that you need to vary exercises to avoid overuse.
If you have a well-rounded program with good exercises though then this will never happen. Trying to change things up often harms the joints and works the muscles less effectively. There exist only so many decent exercises.
Our bodies adapted to use specific joint combinations for handling heavy weights and other normal motions. Squatting, pushing, pulling, and running are normal patterns of muscle action. Adding bad exercises to avoid so-called repetition of the good ones, such as through isolation or overhead presses, will do more harm than good.
This concept has good intentions but leads many astray. I suggest keeping your resistance training constant. Vary your cardio should you have a desire for change. You will have better progress if you keep the best and most safe exercises forever. Abandon the concept of variety.