There is a type of exercise program that surfaced about a decade ago called ‘muscle confusion’ that promised to ‘confuse’ complacent and ‘bored’ muscles and help people past a stagnation, or plateau, in their workout.
The concept probably arose from the idea that muscles have a memory and can ‘remember’ exercise movements. But if they keep performing the same movements, they are not challenged anymore and become stagnant. They need to be confused into working again.
Does this concept make sense or is it utterly confused?
Muscles do have a property which is often called ‘muscle memory,’ since rehearsed movements become engrained in the nervous system to a larger degree than new movements.
With respect to anthropomorphizing your muscles – that’s about as far as it goes.
Muscles don’t get bored, complacent, confused or enlightened. They don’t become depressed, creative, angry or lethargic. It just feels like it sometimes. They are muscles, after all.
Muscles do respond to challenges they are faced with in two distinct ways. One is due to the principle commonly referred to as SAID, which stands for specific adaptation to imposed demands. The principle states that the body will adapt to the specific demands placed upon it.
In other words, you get what you train for.
The other is what is known as the principle of progressive over-load states that a muscle will keep improving if you continually challenge it slightly beyond its capacity, but not enough to injure it.
And this is contingent on allowing enough rest between sessions so the muscle can adapt and grow or change in some way.
There is nothing wrong with completely changing your routine every four weeks or so. You will certainly burn plenty of calories and increase the fitness of the muscles you are using. That is, as long as you are stimulating them sufficiently to change.
But what is your training goal?
Exercise variety, like muscle confusion programs, are great for general fitness or burning calories. If you are training for a specific goal, however, then a less variable, standard training program will produce better results.
Examples of specific goals would be training in order to run a marathon, or playing a specific sport like hockey or basketball.
In sport training, coaches do vary the training routine – a concept known as periodization. Periodization refers to sticking with a fixed routine for about eight to 12 weeks, then changing it, not to ‘confuse’ the muscles, but to focus on a different aspect of muscle function that corresponds to the season of play the athlete is in.
A program in the off-season will have a different focus than an in-season or pre-season program will. The differences in these programs has to do with varying the metabolic demands, the strength loads, the speed of movement with load (called power) and nervous system patterns.
But they keep performing the same movements because they want to allow the muscles to adapt to the patterns of movement that are specific to their sport – thus the term ‘sport-specific’ training. When an athlete does this, they are making the most of the SAID principle and progressive overload.
The results of training will be greater than if the athlete continually varies the program.
Some would-be body-builders will try to incorporate ‘muscle confusion’ in order to overcome plateaus in their workout.
But plateaus do not arise because the muscles are not confused enough. They occur for other reasons.
Stagnation of results usually come about because the athlete is either bored and not maintaining the concept of progressive overload, or sometimes it can be due to insufficient recovery.
If the athlete does not give enough time or the proper nutrition in their recovery, their body won’t respond and build up to a higher level of strength, endurance or power.
If this is the case you are actually over-training and running the risk of an injury.
Kerry Senchyna holds a bachelor of science degree in kinesiology and is owner of West Coast Kinesiology.