You may have heard that confusing the muscle is a key to growth, but unfortunately this suggestion might be a bit shortsighted.
While varying exercises regularly is important for continued progress, that’s quite different to radically changing workouts from one session to the next in the hope of ‘confusing’ your body.
In this article, I’ll discuss some of the major flaws behind the idea of muscle confusion and also present some alternatives to ensure that you continue progressing.
Exercise Brings Adaptation
Before understanding specifically why you wouldn’t want to constantly change exercises, you need to first understand exactly what exercise is and what it actually results in.
When you’re exercising, you’re stressing the body to some extent, essentially putting your body under some sort of duress that it’s not used to. In response, given that recovery and food intake is adequate, you’ll adapt.
But the adaptation that occurs is largely related to the type of stress you’re putting your body under, which makes sense. For example, if you run all the time and on your next run, run a bit further, it’s likely that your body will get better at running longer distances (1).
If, for example, you lift weights and decide to lift fairly heavy, your primary adaptation will be to get bigger. If you were looking to get smaller, then workout sessions which encourage calorie burn would probably be your best choice.
Overall, exercise is a stress that comes in a wide variety of types, which all encourage adaptation and growth in one form or another. Once you begin to understand how these adaptations take place within your own body, you’ll be able to really change your appearance and performance with relative ease.
Why Muscle Confusion Doesn’t Work
To clarify why I had that first section, I want to speak about the idea of muscle confusion and why it’s not a great idea if you’re looking to truly change your body and even if you’re simply trying to improve.
Muscle confusion, if you’ve never heard of the concept, is an idea that each time you go into the gym, you should try to ‘confuse’ the muscle by exposing it to different exercises, rest intervals, rep, set and weight. It’s then thought that by ‘confusing’ one’s muscle, this will somehow stimulate some form of response.
While each and every exercise will in fact produce some sort of effect, given it’s intense enough, it begs the question if those adaptations are actually ones that you would need and, further, whether those responses are even meaningful, long term.
Essentially, when you exercise, the body responds by either increasing muscle size or strength, improving fatigue resistance (as would be the case for a runner) or reducing body size. However, it’s not as simple as just working out once and calling it a day.
You have to consider that the benefits you receive from exercise are cumulative rather than a result of just one workout. If you want to be a good runner, you’ll need to consistently run, and consistently run in similar conditions to your event.
Further, as I’ll get into a bit later, while occasionally varying your exercises is beneficial, you also have to consider that regularly performing certain exercises will also improve your ability to complete the movement, which means you’ll be better able to lift heavier, for more reps and sets.
While variation is important, attempting to confuse your muscles or your body as a whole is a fool’s errand, simply because you could end up not making any real progress.
The Interference Effect
You’ve probably heard of the interference effect in some of my other articles, but as a refresher, the interference effect is a phenomenon where different training styles can actually inhibit growth (2, 3, 4).
For example, when you resistance train, your body’s goal is to get stronger and improve muscle mass and definition. When you do cardio for example, the body’s goal is actually to get smaller and more efficient as that’s beneficial for goals such as running.
As you can see, these two benefits are wildly different from one another and research says they actually interfere with one another. In fact, it’s the number one reason I suggest doing cardio after, or on separate days from, resistance training.
That’s one of the main issues with this idea of muscle confusion. If you’re constantly changing the stimulus that your body receives and that happens to provide differing adaptations, you could run the risk of making little to no progress, simply because the types of training you’re completing interfere with one another.
Paying attention to the types of exercise you’re doing and when you’re doing them is essential for avoiding interference.
Use Block Periodization
Even though you don’t want to use the muscle confusion style of training, you do occasionally want to vary the exercises and the rep, set and weight configurations you’re using.
For this reason, I suggest using a form of block periodization.
Block periodization is just a scientific term for scheduling out when you make changes over the course of a few months. During this entire process, you’ll spend “blocks” or periods of time, focusing on one style of training and then moving to another, once the initial block is up.
Here’s a brief example. Let’s say you had the goal of getting stronger. With a block periodization model, you can split your training over the course of, say, 3 months.
In month 1, you can have certain exercises that you use, in a certain rep range. Throughout the course of “block 1” you’ll use these exercises, weight and rep range exclusively, to ensure that you’re actually progressing.
Once the block is over, you can move to different exercises, rep and weight ranges. Essentially, this process allows you to adapt fully to certain exercises before moving on.
Here’s a brief outline of what I’m talking about:
Resistance Training Goal: Improve Strength
Block 1 – 4 weeks – Leg Training Examples
- Exercises: Squat, Leg Press & Lunges
- Rep Ranges: 8 -12
Block 2 – 4 weeks – Leg Training Examples
- Front Squat, Lunges, Hip Thrust
- Rep Range: 5-8
Block 3 – 4 weeks – Leg Training Examples
- Leg Press, Back Squat, Split Squat, Romanian Deadlift
- Rep Ranges: 2-8
As you can see, this is a bit different from attempting to ‘confuse’ the muscle. In this case, you’re spending a significant amount of time working in specific rep ranges and with specific exercises. Then, after a couple weeks, you move towards heavier weight and slightly different exercises.
This method will ensure that you’re maximally improving before moving on. Additionally, it will give you time to actually improve your ability with certain movements, such as the squat.
Varying Exercises Is Still Important
Just to clarify, I’m not saying that you shouldn’t vary the exercises that you’re using. As I mentioned, it’s entirely possible to adapt to certain movements, meaning they aren’t as effective anymore, specifically for trying to build muscle or lose fat.
It’s just that many people take this to mean that you shouldn’t use certain exercises regularly. Rather than changing exercises constantly, I suggest using certain movements every other time you train certain body parts. Then, after a month or so of using certain movements, switch it up.
Just make sure that after a few weeks, you return to certain movements again. I suggest rotating certain exercises in and out of your routine on a fairly regular basis, such as every month.
In light of the nature and complexity of this information, here is a brief recap, so that you can best understand what I’m trying to convey.
- While you do occasionally want to change the exercises you’re using, that suggestion is much different from trying to “confuse” your muscles with new movements every time you exercise.
- Consider using block periodization or a technique of sticking with certain movements for extended periods of time before switching.
- Constantly changing exercises, reps and set ranges from one workout to the next can create an interference effect, reducing the effectiveness of those workouts.
- Remember that regularly using certain exercises can help you get better at performing them, which means you can make them more effective.
- Regularly vary your exercises, but do so with purpose. Spend a few weeks with a few exercises and then rotate in new ones. Just make sure you rotate the old exercises back in on occasion.
Is Muscle Confusion The Right Move?
Overall, this idea of muscle confusion sounds like it makes sense, but once you have a basic understanding of how exercise produces the results you desire, the idea sort of falls apart.
While regular variation of exercises is important, that’s much different than the idea of changing everything radically from one workout to the next, in the hope of ‘confusing’ the muscle.
I suggest spending extended periods of time working with certain movements and then rotating them out for a period of time. Doing so will allow for variation, but also enough time to respond fully to certain workouts.
- Schoenfeld, B. J., Contreras, B., Vigotsky, A. D., & Peterson, M. (2016). Differential Effects of Heavy Versus Moderate Loads on Measures of Strength and Hypertrophy in Resistance-Trained Men. Journal of sports science & medicine, 15(4), 715.
- Hickson, R. C. (1980). Interference of strength development by simultaneously training for strength and endurance. European journal of applied physiology and occupational physiology, 45(2-3), 255-263.
- Wilson, J. M., Marin, P. J., Rhea, M. R., Wilson, S. M., Loenneke, J. P., & Anderson, J. C. (2012). Concurrent training: a meta-analysis examining interference of aerobic and resistance exercises. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 26(8), 2293-2307.
- De Souza, E. O., Tricoli, V., Franchini, E., Paulo, A. C., Regazzini, M., & Ugrinowitsch, C. (2007). Acute effect of two aerobic exercise modes on maximum strength and strength endurance. Journal of strength and conditioning research, 21(4), 1286.