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What Is Muscle Confusion And Why It’s a Big Fat Lie

31 Comments | Training

Muscle Confusion workout

“You gotta switch it up man. If you keep doing the same routine, your body is going to plateau.”

That’s just so not true.

I’m sure you’ve heard it before – programs like P90x and personal trainers telling you that the only way to get results is by constantly switching up your exercises and workout routines. But the problem with muscle confusion and “switching it up” isn’t that it’s particularly bad for you but is because it’s a flat out lie.

Wait, what is muscle confusion?

For those that don’t know, the theory behind muscle confusion is that your muscle building and fat loss progress will hit a plateau if you keep doing the same routine and the only way to make consistent progress is by switching up your routine.

I mean this sounds great in theory but in reality it’s nothing more than a slick marketing scheme used by some of the most popular workout programs in the world. And hey, if millions of people believe in muscle confusion, then it must be true, right?

So what’s the problem with muscle confusion?

I don’t like muscle confusion simply because it’s a falsely marketed concept. There’s simply no evidence that shows that “switching it up” will lead to greater fat loss or muscle growth.

If muscle confusion is a lie, then what works?

Your muscles will only respond to progressive overload. That’s it

Progressive overload is a law that states you must continuously increase the amount of weight or reps lifted each workout in order to increase muscle mass.

If you continuously increase the amount of weight you push, then you will gain muscle. And similarly, if you continue to increase the amount of reps you push, you will gain muscle.

But if you go into each workout and do the same amount of work each time, then your body isn’t going to change. Make sense?

For example if you’re trying to get bigger biceps, you don’t need to do 20 different bicep curl variation to hit the muscle from “different angles.” All you have to do is pick a handful of exercises and continuously increase the weight or reps over time and I guarantee your biceps will grow bigger. Doing a wide variety of exercises is fine for the sake of variation but it’s definitely not necessary to induce consistent muscle growth.

muscle confusion workout

But why does it work for some people?

“But but but it works for me.”

– Person who got results from doing muscle confusion workouts

Well no shit buddy.

With muscle confusion, you’re simply switching up your routine on a consistent basis but that doesn’t necessarily further increase fat loss or muscle growth.

Remember, everything can get you results. And I mean everything. Crossfit works, pyramid training works, steady-state cardio works, HIIT works, hell even the Shake Weight probably works if you jerk it enough times.

Being sore doesn’t always mean your workout was effective

I mention soreness in this article because a lot of people tend to equate being sore the day after a workout to having an effective workout.

And with muscle confusion workouts, people tend to get sore a lot. And since people constantly get sore, they think that their workout was effective.

But in reality being sore is simply the result of doing something your body isn’t accustomed to.

And due to the nature of muscle confusion workouts, people are more likely to get sore and are thus more likely to believe that their workout was effective.

But soreness doesn’t always mean progress.  Being sore simply means that your body is doing something it isn’t used to.

The real reason behind plateaus

When it comes to training, plateaus aren’t created because you didn’t “switch it up.” Plateaus are created because you’re not progressing forward anymore.

If you’re not consistently adding more weight or more reps or if you’re not training with enough intensity, then you’re going to plateau. People don’t plateau because they don’t mix it up, they plateau because they aren’t progressing in their workouts anymore.

Many muscle confusion workouts work because the workouts are progressively getting harder and harder. And it’s due to that increased difficulty, not the varied exercise selection that people are continuously able to progress.

Keep it simple

Besides being physiologically impossible, muscle confusion just makes it all the more confusing for people who simply want to look good.

I’m not saying switching up your routine every once in a while is bad, but just make sure you’re doing it for the right reason.

Every workout has a purpose – whether it is to increase size, strength, speed, etc… but don’t start randomly changing your routine just for the sake of changing it.

Always add more weight, always do more reps, always move forward – rules to live by.

Let me know your thoughts on muscle confusion in the comments below.

Ocul - April 18, 2017

The reason why I do muscle confusion is to assimilate “natural training” and develop “creative muscles”. Before we get all factual about what this actually means, consider the following example…take a jogger who has only jogged on a good flat track for the past five years, their muscles are strong and they have done their best at avoiding muscles strains. Now take that very same jogger and put them on a mountain trail, all of a sudden those strong muscles can no longer deliver their true strength when put in new positions, and they fatigue quite fast too, they get “confused” and burn out because they are not used to adapting to creative positions. For me, muscle confusion isn’t about fast gains, but developing flexible strength. A body that can easily adapt to new situations without losing out on performance in the process, this “muscle confusion” I refer to is one of the mind and the body, mastering the body.

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Idrian Evans - December 26, 2016

I always thought muscle confusion was a bunch of B.S. because you simply can’t confuse muscles. In a literal sense, muscles can’t think. Progressive overload has always been it. Thanks for this.

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Ravlix - October 18, 2016

Well, I don’t follow any particular program by some trainer, I combine HIIT workouts and weightlifting and I do switch a lot my exercises (some stay standard and I have a bunch of variables). I’ve seen it in practice, this really makes the body very sore and does not promote that much muscle growth. The reason I do it is that I’ve realised there are many minor muscles or regions that you can’t target directly by any exercise, but only with this increased complexity.. I haven’t grown much but I have achieved an excellent shape, nothing protrudes anywhere, everything is toned and quite ripped. It’s also very functional as I cope with highly demanding HIIT kind of stuff. I’m also very flexible, I do yoga to maintain it, and from what I’ve seen when I focus on weights I lose a lot of flexibility no matter how I try (I’m always sore and those muscles rip apart). I would like a little more muscle mass but I definitely don’t wanna lose what I have now by keeping it simple and only increase weights. Is it possible to find a middle ground to achieve that mass and maintain the rest, or do I have to make some sacrifices? I’d love to read your thoughts on that.

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    Keith - October 19, 2016

    Well by default, the only way to get bigger is by blowing pass whatever your previous levels of muscularity. So i’m a bit confused by your question.

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Art Carnage - January 1, 2016

OK buddy, then what are YOU selling. Lol

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Christian - July 24, 2015

Progressive overload is muscle confusion. By increasing weight, you are making a change to your routine = muscle confusion. Most people overcomplicate the principle. Muscle confusion is not a big fat lie. Not to mention that muscle confusion applies to cardio and diet, as well. It seems this is solely about gaining strength and size thru muscle confusion. I agree that progressive overload is the only way to get bigger and stronger. I use the muscle confusion principle as a way of preventing & breaking plateaus.

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    Keith - July 24, 2015

    Uneducated people actually believe muscles have the capability of being confused and what’s required to actually break a plateau is heavily exaggerated.

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Sabre - May 13, 2015

Progressiv overload is THE key. It is OK. But- end this just a plain speculation – strength comes from 2 distinct progress in the body/muscle. Firstly, ony partilal fiber recrution (fireing) occure at any exercise. Let say 50-60 % fiber is fired in the progression phase. With time you hit nerve (and blood vessel) system adaptation and can fire even more 70-80 % of you muscle fibers due to the same exercise/motion path has repeated frequently for a long time. Muscle size development hits a platou, strength development – without very specialized strength routin (like oly lifts) – also hits a platou.. Secondly, if you change the motion/path for the same muscle group, the already specialized nerve adaptation (mind- muscle control) lost its effectivnes, therefore less amount of fibre can fire during the new exercise. And voile, your muscle size getting develop again – because less fibre get more stress to overcome the resistance.
I think, this is the true benefit -apart psihology- to confuse your specialised muscle nerves periodically.

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    Keith - May 13, 2015

    Wat?

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      sabre - May 18, 2015

      Sorry for bad english. During any resistance training the muscle fibers’ size adaptation (gaining mass and strenght) progressing paralelly with neuromuscular adaptation (gaining strength by fireing more fibers syncronously). But, after some weeks the neuromuscular adaptation win over the mass development due to low relativ avarage intensity or load on one muscle fiber. That time you feel difficult to increase resistance in the same rate as before. You hit a platou. Even forcing it may cause injury. Fibers need 60-100 repetition weekly with min. 70% 1RM (max.) Load to gain size. When you already recrutes most of your fibres due to neuro adaptation two things happend: 1. moderate reps becomes easy,. 2. higher resistance, low reps causes fatige quickly because near max. fibers exausted by the reps. What can works? Muscle confusion by any of the following method: You need to detrain 8-10 days to loss neuro muscular adaptation, or you switch workouts for other set/rep sheme, for other rutin, for other order, other technics e.g. negatives. One popular method to engage those remaining not fireing fibers when you on platou is the breakdown sets: exausts adapted fibers quickly than decrease weigth repeatedly on each fllowing sets till 70%1RM. Other end of the workout sprectum is olympic lifting style: practice every day with many 1 RM sets and lot of rest, to avoid fatigue, but reach those necessady weekly repetition with stimulating avarage resistanc on your highly adapted muscle fibres.

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Teddy - May 11, 2015

Hi, i follow an intermediate routine and i have stuck to the same weights on almost all exercises, my diet is ok as i gain weight but it’s only fat. So if changing exercises doesn’t help what should i do?

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    Keith - May 11, 2015

    you can try varying rep ranges, but it seems you’re eating too much to start with if you’re only getting fatter.

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Ryan Gruich - January 7, 2015

Progressive Overload IS muscle confusion…. you may not be switching the exercises, but the fact that you are fighting for extra reps and/or weight workout to workout IS confusing the muscles because it is overloading them with a force and workload that they are not accustomed to which in return causes them to adapt. Just my 2 cents. I do agree with you that switching exercises is NOT required. Everyone should incorporate basic BIG compound lifts when strength training ( Bench press, squat, pull ups, dead lift, military press, bent over rows, etc). That is your base and your base should stay the same. The guy who holds the world record for bench press max didn’t get there by switching from bench press to pullovers, believe that! It takes time and progression like the author stated. If you absolutely must change up exercises then you should focus on switching up isolation exercises that target ONE muscle (such as dumbbell bicep curl, chest flys, tricep kickback, etc.). This is NOT required and you can keep the same isolation exercises as long as you don’t neglect a muscle over others and have a good balance between your isolation exercises. Some people DO like to change their isolation exercises because it keeps the workout interesting and keeps them from getting burned out on the same routine. The main reason you can change isolation exercises is because they aren’t meant to have major strength increases like the compound lifts. You should still use a weight that you fight for that last rep with on your sets though even if you choose to switch exercises.

I really like the part of this article about the plateus and the “No pain no gain” concept.

I am a graduate of a Clinical Exercise Physiology degree by the way.

Great article! Great read

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    Keith - January 7, 2015

    yes while you shouldn’t switch exercises frequently, you should rotate them periodically (e.g. incline barbell bench for incline DB bench). Isolations too.

    Thanks, I just hate how the term “muscle confusion” is advertised.

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    Barry - May 3, 2015

    A lot of those isolation exercises are little but a good way to get tendinitis, and to spend more time in the gym than does you any good. (Yeah, there might be a purpose for a biceps curl in a clinical setting, like if you got shot in the bicep or something.)

    Too much time in the gym means boredom, as well as conflicts with life in general. This will kill anyone’s progress. Unless someone is like some guys at my current gym, who go there to hang out for a few hours a day, wasting time and finite energy on isolation exercises is the key to failure in the big picture. If you’ve still got so much gas in your tank that you feel the need to sit around doing curls, after you’re done with squats, deads, bench, military, pull-ups, and whatever other compound exercises you want to do, you didn’t work hard enough at the important exercises.
    .
    Also, safe chest flys aren’t isolation, really. Doing flys as a true isolation exercise means one of two things: you’re lifting trivial amounts of weight vs. what it would take to do anything for your pec majors, or you’re ripping your shoulders up. Want a change-up? Just do parallel grip compound chest presses. I like doing pushups while gripping the kicktails of a skateboard (switch around since modern “popsicle stick” boards look symmetrical but are slightly different on each end).

    The best way to keep from getting bored? Only do the exercises at the gym, that offer genuine bang for the buck, then get the hell out of the gym and play. With those muscles, you can ski, hike, snowboard, surf, play basketball, chase your kids up a hill, etc., etc. THAT’S how you avoid boredom in the long term!

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David - September 2, 2014

Great post, I had a guest post written on this exact topic. You can check it out here

http://www.strengthconditioning.ca/2014/08/the-truth-behind-muscle-confusion.html

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Mike - June 29, 2014

This article is a true lie. Muscle Confusion is the only way to develop muscle. I’m living proof that muscle confusion is very necessary. I’m the king of my gym because I go to the gym 6 months out of a year total. 3 months at a time. Than I change it up by doing P90 and insanity. Every time I come back to the gym, I reach new gains because of confusion. Who the hell wrote this article?

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    Keith - June 29, 2014

    No, what you said is a true lie. The only way to build a muscle is by getting progressively stronger.

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    AH - August 8, 2014

    King of your gym LOL, did not know such royalty existed! Absolutely agree with article, progression is key!

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Clint - Crude Fitness - May 19, 2012

Whilst I do agree with a lot of this (namely the fact people are too quick to change programs because the previous one wasn’t working), there’s a couple of points I don’t.

The first is the fact that continual program variance is ‘key’ to avoiding training ‘boredom’.
Sure you could train for months on end doing the same thing. Would you enjoy yourself in the gym? Probably not. Intensity and progression will prove more and more difficult.

The other is the fact that you mention ‘people aren’t progressing in their workouts anymore due to the increase in difficulty’. — i don’t wanna upset the apple-cart here — but the fact that an exercise is becoming more difficult to improve upon raises valid reasoning as to why a ‘change’ in exercise selection is warranted. ie. You build strength in neighbouring stabilising muscles, you increase the chance of lifting more on the major lift you previously struggled with.

Further to this, you’re promoting Visual Impact at the bottom, which as you know, contains a pretty varied approach in terms ‘changing it up regularly’. Depends on your idea of ‘time frame’ really.

Lastly, genetic potential can prevent one from progressing. We can only reach a finite point in our training before ‘anabolics’ are the only thing that will allow one to ‘go further’.

C.

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    Keith - May 20, 2012

    Hey Clint,
    Thanks for the comment but I never told people to do the exact same routine day and day out. I would be bored out of my mind too. Having some variation is good but if all you’re doing is switching exercises then you’ll never make any respectable strength gains. As for progressing forward, it’s true that some exercises may help in increasing your strength in other exercises but overall you still need to be focused on getting stronger. Throwing in some new exercises every now and then is fine, but don’t let that deter you from your main goal. And I promote VI because it’s a well-structured program to help people get results. It does provide a varied selection of exercises but it never really strays too far from that. And lastly, of course there will come a point when people will no longer be able to get and stronger, faster, or more muscular. But let’s face it, most people never hit that limit.

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Michael @ somebodylied.com - May 15, 2012

You hit the nail on the head on a lot of points. Progressive overload is the key. A tip I learnt about plateaus is that they happen when your body isn’t recovering enough from the previous workout, will tend to happen the closer you are to your genetic potential of strength. A way around this which I found in Mark Rippetoe’s strength reprogramming book was to decrease the weight by 10% and do the same amount of reps. This allows for extra recovery while also not getting into a detrained state. Then you simply work your way back up and you should get past your plateau. I have used this on myself and my brother and it’s a great tip.

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    Keith - May 15, 2012

    Thanks Michael. Of course recovery is key as well. You can’t constantly push your body 365 days a year, but most people just don’t push themselves hard enough in the gym.

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Niko - no eXcuse fitness - May 14, 2012

Keith, you are spot on, the key is progressive overload. Whenever I am asked by people what the best program is, I always tell them program is only a piece of the puzzle. The best program in the world is not going to change your body if you are not training with intensity and consistency.

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Mitchell - Home Fitness Manual - May 14, 2012

Keith, I had a very pleasant discussion with an acquaintance of mine a few months back who’s a personal trainer. Our conversation took a tangent, and he ended up going on a complete rant about how necessary “muscle confusion” training is to make significant results in a workout program. He didn’t give me much evidence to support his case, so I told him I’d stick with making subtle changes over time.

I reinforced my belief: Stick with a weight until it’s too easy, then add on more. He said my method is old-school training. I told him at least I knew it really works 🙂

-Mitchell

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    Keith - May 14, 2012

    Ha that’s awesome. I guess “adding more weight” just doesn’t sound as sexy as muscle confusion.

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      Jonathan - September 4, 2014

      Hey admin, just want to say. This site is really the doggy nuts. Enjoyable read as well as the great source and no nonsense approach to bulls**t. Keep up the good work.

      Reply
        Keith - September 4, 2014

        Thanks man. I’ve always wanted someone to call my site the doggy nuts.

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    Mohammed Farha - October 14, 2015

    I believe that both of these can be used together though. Muscle confusion by switching up the types of workouts you’re doing, but there’s still consistency to a certain extent in terms of what you’re doing, as well as progressive increases in the amount of weight you use for each workout. For example, I’ll bump up 5 lbs every couple of weeks in a certain move while doing a program like P90X3. Another example is how during a workout called “The Challenge”, which is all push-ups and pull-ups, the goal is to increase the number of each you do every week that you do this workout.

    So I’m not arguing for or against Muscle Confusion, I’m just saying that you can really use both methods together.

    Reply

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