Within the last 10 years or so, we’ve been told by some people in the fitness industry that, in order to see fast and consistent progress, we need to constantly “confuse” our muscles. To be clear muscles don’t get confused. They respond to stimulus by adapting to become more resilient to or more efficient at performing said stimulus. Eventually, if the stimulus stays exactly the same for too long your muscles will have fully adapted and will stop trying to adapt (or change) any further. This is probably where the concept of muscle confusion came from. It was a label that explained our attempt at preventing our muscles and body from plateauing by constantly throwing different stimulus at them.
The problem today is that the muscle confusion concept has been taken way too far. Changing your workout structure and programming too frequently or simply for the sake of “confusing” them will result in little to no progress. There are aspects of exercise you want to master in order to maximize what they have to offer your body.
Strength and performance involve much more than just your muscles. It is true that a bigger muscle will contract harder and produce more brute force than a smaller muscle (when all other factors are equal), however SKILL plays an equally, if not more important, role in how much you lift or how well you perform athletically.
When you do a barbell squat, you are calling upon the muscles of your body to drive the weight upwards, but you are also sequencing how muscles should fire, how to balance your body and how much juice your central nervous system needs to output. Your squat numbers can go up without building ANY muscle at all just by getting BETTER at squatting. Here is the kicker, up to a certain point, the better you get at squatting, the more strength and muscle growth potential you can squeeze out of it. When I train clients, we often times don’t see remarkable results from an exercise until they get good at them and this can take weeks or sometimes months.
Switching up movements too often doesn’t give your body enough time to get good at the skill of the movement and this results in slower progress. It’s important to stay with a particular type of workout programming long enough to extract the maximum benefits of the workout. For most people this process can take between 3-6 weeks. Once you have gotten good at a particular workout for a few weeks of practice, then it becomes appropriate to switch it up.
The first thing you should change up is the rep range and/or the amount of resistance. Your body will tell you when to change this up because you will simply get stronger. If you can do 5 more pounds than you did the previous week for the same reps then go for it. This represents some change in your workout programming. The same is true for reps. If you can do more reps then do so. I like to keep people within a particular rep range for 3-6 weeks and add weight rather than add reps. The rep ranges I usually work within are 3-6 reps, 8-12 reps and 15-25 reps.
The last thing you should change up in your routine are the exercises themselves. In fact, some exercises can remain as staples in almost any routine most of the time. Barbell squats, deadlifts, barbell rows, bench presses and overhead presses are examples of exercises I have clients do every week or almost every week. For most people making dramatic changes to exercise selection shouldn’t happen for 2-6 months at least.
One thing is for sure, changing variables weekly is NOT conducive towards better or faster results for most people. It’s too much change, too fast and too often. Doing so does not allow your body the time to get good at anything and, aside from the calorie burn, you will find yourself with slow to no progress. Get a routine and set it up so you aim for a particular rep range for 2-4 weeks. After this period move to a new rep range but don’t change the exercises themselves much. After another 2-4 weeks change to another rep change. Follow this process for 3-6 months at which point you have probably gotten really good at the exercises you are doing and THEN change up the exercises themselves. Utilizing this strategy will give you the best odds of plateau free progress for a very long time.