Those are common refrains around muscle confusion, a principle often discussed in the fitness field, whether via your online training app, trainer, or your social media feed. The thinking goes that to best challenge your muscles and boost your fitness, you have to constantly switch up your workouts. By “confusing” your muscles, you get the most out of every workout.
But is muscle confusion really a thing? Well, as with most fitness myths, there’s a nugget of truth to it—but unfortunately, it’s been blown out of proportion to the point where it doesn’t do a whole lot of good. Here’s what you really need to know when it comes to muscle confusion and structuring your workouts.
There is some bit of truth to muscle confusion.
One of the tried-and-true tenets of strength training is to add challenges to continue to see results.
“Fitness improvements are dependent on the body adapting to handle a new training stimulus,” David G. Behm, Ph.D., a university research professor at the Memorial University of Newfoundland, tells SELF. “Once it adapts to handle a stimulus, it doesn’t have the need to adapt any further.”
But you keep running that same 10-minute mile and doing those 10 push-ups. Months or even years down the road, when you run that mile and crank out those push-ups, you’re going to have just as much strength and endurance as you did when your workouts first became easy. You didn’t push your body any harder or differently, so it had no reason to gain more muscle or cardio fitness, Dr. Behm explains.
Of course, if you’re trying to maintain a level of fitness or overall health, that’s okay, he notes. After all, your goal there isn’t to progress. It’s to stay the same—and if you like what you’re doing, what’s the harm in sticking with it?
But if you want to improve any part of your fitness—whether it’s to get stronger, build muscle, or boost your cardio endurance—your body has to continually adapt. And to do that, you have to keep challenging yourself.
But here’s where muscle confusion fails.
Problem is, if you switch up your workouts too much, you likely won’t be improving your fitness as much as you could otherwise, Holly Perkins, C.S.C.S., founder of Women’s Strength Nation. You may think you are, though, because the workouts probably leave you super sweaty and spent.
“People who subscribe to this idea of muscle confusion get a good workout each time they exercise. They feel fatigued at the end of each workout,” she says. “But if you track them over a period of time, they aren’t making substantial improvements in their fitness.”
That’s because muscle confusion doesn’t ensure effective progressive overload, a strength-and-conditioning principle based on increasing challenge over time, Perkins says. The other side of the fitness-adaptation coin, progressive overload is all about systematically and consistently increasing the stimulus on your body to keep it adapting.
Most of the time, progressive overload takes the form of lifting heavier weights, doing more reps, running faster or longer, or swapping out an easy exercise for a more challenging variation of that same movement. But you can also progress your workouts by reducing how long you rest between sets, moving more slowly through each rep, and making an exercise more complicated, Dr. Behm explains. For instance, trading out your seated shoulder presses for standing ones is a legit way to up stability requirements and core recruitment.
There’s a pretty neat physiological reason for this too, and it all comes down to what’s happening in your brain and body when you’re first starting a new exercise. No matter how fit you are, when you perform a new exercise, workout, or routine, your initial strength gains—lasting for the first few weeks—have a primarily neurological foundation, Dr. Behm explains. The motor neurons that tell your muscles to contract and lengthen “learn” how to fire most efficiently and with the best coordination possible. As a result, your neurological system gets more skilled at a given exercise. These are the “newbie gains” you might hear about.
During these initial weeks, your muscles are definitely working, but they’re also letting the neurological system do the bulk of the adapting. After all, your body doesn’t necessarily know how long you plan to stick with a given exercise. And if an exercise is just a fleeting thing, why spend the energy building muscle? It’s easier to just let the neurological system handle things.
It’s not really until after that point that the majority of your fitness gains will actually take place in your musculoskeletal system, Perkins says. This is when your muscle cells grow, become stronger, and your body composition shifts. The amount of time it takes for this to happen depends on your current fitness level, exercise history, workout frequency, and more. Expect to spend at least six to eight weeks, if not more, with your base workouts before switching up your exercises, Perkins recommends.
Reinvent the wheel before your muscles have really even adapted and you’re not really spurring your muscles to grow. Ditto with your connective tissues, bones, heart, and lungs.
But what if you like to switch up your workouts?
“Oftentimes, people think they’re training for muscle confusion because it’s what’s going to help them—but in actuality, they’re just the personality type that gets bored easily and doesn’t like to do one thing for very long,” Perkins says.
If that’s you, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. And if your goal for your exercise routine is to maintain the fitness you already have, or just move more, let off steam, or manage stress, switch it up all you want. It’s your workout, so you want to make sure you’re doing something you enjoy. (Just make sure that you’ve built a strong foundation before dabbling in advanced exercises or variations, to reduce your risk of injury.)
But if you get bored easily and have fitness goals like building strength, endurance, or muscle? You still don’t have to sacrifice workout enjoyment for progress. And how you structure or plan your workouts can make a difference.
Perkins recommends setting a weekly plan for yourself. Maybe one day you’ll work upper body, lower body, or full-body strength. Another day, maybe you’ll do cardio or yoga.
Week over week, you’ll repeat those same workouts with the same exercises, but you’ll still have plenty of variation within the week to keep things novel. Plus, every week, even though you’ll be cranking out the same base workouts, you’ll perform them with slightly new stimuli. You’ll lift slightly more weight, do your exercises with slightly better form, or run a bit faster—however you want to employ progressive overload.
It’s that slightly increased challenge that equals progress and, over the long term, will allow you to progress exercise variations, Perkins explains. Depending on your current fitness level, exercise schedule and the progress you see, every few weeks or months you can add new challenges by altering your exercise choices. For instance, maybe you progress from a goblet to barbell squat.
Of course, none of this progression works if you don’t stay consistent with your plan, which is why it’s important to craft it around exercises you actually enjoy. Focus your workouts on exercise you’re fired up to master and progress, and you’ll get the perfect combination of consistency and novelty, Perkins says.