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Confused About Muscle Confusion Workouts? Here Are the Straight Facts

Confused About Muscle Confusion Workouts? Here Are the Straight Facts

Does introducing “muscle confusion” into your workout routine actually help you build muscle and strength?


How many times have you heard that you need to constantly change your workout routine to continue making gains?

That you have to “confuse” and “shock” your muscles into growth by subjecting them to new stimuli every week?

Well, like much of mainstream health and fitness advice, the theory of muscle confusion sounds plausible but, upon deeper inspection, just doesn’t hold up.

Let’s find out why.

Muscle Confusion 101

Thanks to the rise of various exercise regimens like Crossfit and P90X, the “science” of muscle confusion has again become a popular talking point in the fitness space (it’s nothing new, actually–it emerged a couple decades ago from the world of bodybuilding and has been since revived by clever marketers).

The idea is simple: if you perform the same exercises in the same way and order every week, your body will eventually adapt to the routine and fail to progress any further in terms of size and strength.

To avoid this, we’re told by muscle confusion advocates, we need to regularly change things about our workout routine: the exercises we perform, the order we perform them in, inter-set rest times, time under tension, and so forth.

As a theory, it sounds pretty sensible and agreeable. If we want to improve something, whether a skill or a muscle, we have to continually push the envelope and challenge ourselves in new ways, right? And what better way to challenge our muscles than subject them to new types of physical demands again and again?

Well, while it’s true that performing the exact same routine every week–down to the weights lifted and reps performed–will cause stagnation, the principles of muscle confusion miss the forest for the trees when it comes to building a strong, muscular, and functional physique.

Let’s find out why…

Muscle “Confusion” Is Silly–Muscle Progression Is Everything

Let’s start with making something clear: unless your muscles are made of brain matter, they have no cognitive abilities.

They’re not trying to guess what workout you’re going to do today and can’t be “confused.” Muscle tissue is purely mechanical in nature and can contract and relax, and nothing more.

That said, there’s validity to the basic premise that for your muscles to keep growing in both size and strength, they must be continually challenged.

Where “muscle confusion theory” misses the boat, however, is what type of “challenge” actually drives muscle growth.

You see, you can change up your routine every week–hell, every day–and easily fall into a rut of no gains simply because “change” isn’t a primary driver of muscle growth–progressive overload is.

In case you’re not familiar with it, progressive overload refers to progressively increasing tension levels in the muscle fibers over time. That is, adding weight to the bar, lifting progressively heavier and heavier weights over time.

You see, the key to building muscle and strength isn’t merely changing the types of stimuli (new exercises), but increasing it. And the most effective way to do this is to force your muscles to overreach and lift a bit more than the last time they performed that movement.

This gives us natural weightlifters a simple rule of thumb: if you want to get bigger, you have to get stronger. 

Yes, muscles can get stronger without getting bigger (thanks to neuromuscular adaptations), but there comes a point where additional strength requires bigger muscle fibers, and progressive overload is the key to making that happen.

What this means in practice is that you should move up in weight once you reach the top of the rep range you’re working in. 

For example, if you’re training in the 4-6 rep range and get 6 reps on your first set of an exercise, you move up in weight (5 pounds if using dumbbells, 10 pounds if it’s a barbell exercise).

You then work with this new weight, with which you’ll likely get 4 reps on the next set, until you can lift it for 6 reps (this may take one week or three depending on the exercise and how advanced of a lifter you are), after which point you move up, and on it goes.

If you just did this with the core, muscle-building exercises like the Squat, Deadlift, Bench Press, and Military Press, you’d be miles ahead of the average gymgoer trying to continually “confuse” his muscles.

In fact, popular weighlitfting programs such as Starting Strength and Stronglifts 5 x 5 are built on just that approach and have stood the test of time as effective methods for building significant amounts of muscle and strength.

That said, these programs bring me to my next point, which is the value of properly changing your workout routine…

How to Effectively Change Your Workout Routine

Programs like Stronglifts and Starting Strength are indisputably good, especially if you’re new to weightlifting. They’ll get you bigger and stronger, no doubt about it.

I believe they have one major drawback, however, based on my experience working with thousands of people with at least several hundred having had done or were/are doing these programs…and it’s related to the development of their physiques.

The look you often see in guys that have exclusively done Starting Strength or Stronglifts is a big lower body with a disproportionately small upper body, with the arms, shoulders, and chest lagging the most. The middle of the back is usually thick from all the deadlifting, but the lats are often behind because, for most guys, deadlifting alone isn’t enough to really bring them out.

Now, my point isn’t to bash those programs, but we can learn from their weaknesses.

By rotating through various effective exercises for each major muscle group you train, you’re able to work them in slightly different ways and achieve a balanced, well-proportioned physique that can both “show” and “go.”

For instance, if you only do Military Presses for your shoulders and never any isolation work for your lateral and posterior deltoids, your shoulders are never going to “pop” like you want.

As another example, if you only do Squats for your legs, chances are your quadriceps aren’t going to develop and separate as well as they would if you also included some exercises that emphasize them such as the Leg Press or Hack Squat.

There’s a method to proper exercise rotation, though. Namely, there are two types of exercises:

1. The “non-negotiables,” which are exercises you should be doing every week, without fail.

These are the big compound lifts vital for building a strong, muscular physique: the Squat, Deadlift, Bench Press, and Military Press.

2. The “negotiables,” which can be seen as “accessory” work done in addition to the above.

These are mostly compound exercises like the Dumbbell Press, Barbell Row, and Dip, but also include isolation exercises like the Side Lateral Raise, Face Pull, and Dumbbell Curl.

An easy, effective way to program a workout is to do 3 to 6 sets of your “non-negotiable” exercises followed by 3 to 6 sets of your “negotiable” exercises, and to change the “negotiables” every 4 to 8 weeks.

The key to it all, however, is ensuring you’re making progress on these exercises. That is, that you’re increasing the amount of reps you can do with given weights and thereby, over time, increasing the amount of weight you can actually lift.


What are your thoughts on muscle confusion? Have anything else to share? Let me know in the comments below!

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  • AD

    Great article, its about time this muscle confusion nonsense is put to bed. I’m still amazed how many good coaches still teach it in one way or another. I guess it’s just the entertainment aspect of the business that people feel the need to be constantly entertained by their workouts.

    • Michael Matthews

      Thanks! Yeah it’s just an easy way to make people think you have some kind of advanced knowledge.

      “Wow, he knows so many different exercises! There must be something special about this…” Haha.

  • Alex K

    Hey Mike,

    First of all, thanks a ton for all the work you’re doing here on MFL. It’s nothing short of amazing and has opened my eyes like never before to the true world of fitness. I often get asked in the gym these days, if I’m on steroids or something, and I always just refer the people to your site.

    Regarding this specific article: Have you seen any studies done on the topic of muscle confusion? I agree with what’s written, but I can’t seem to find any scientific studies here or with Google.

    • Anonymous Atom

      Checkout the links in my thread.

    • Michael Matthews

      Thanks Alex! I really appreciate it.

      Check out my reply to Atom’s comment. 🙂

  • Anonymous Atom

    I like your site Mike, one of my fav’s. But I can’t agree 100% w/ this article. And while I realize your stuff is geared largely towards noobs, even a mid-level athlete can greatly benefit from (so-called) “muscle confusion” techniques. (even the phrase is so ambiguous and no doubt misinterpreted, it could mean so many things)

    Look at someone like hypertrophy expert Brad Shoenfeld. Much of what he recommends could so easily fall under the category of “muscle confusion,” and he is highly respected on his research.

    Same goes for world powerlifting champs Westside barbell — hell their conjugate method is almost the definition of ‘muscle confusion.’

    Just last night, I was reading an old article by Andy Bolten. Look at his deadlift routine — he almost never maxes, doesn’t do progressive overload, and instead works on speed and explosiveness:

    The list of athletes, bodybuilders, and powerlifters who do SOME kind of variations beyond simplistic old “progressive overload” — all of which could fall under the terms “muscle confusion” –is overwhelming. Almost all the top notch people do it in some way, shape, or form. (isn’t your new book going to address some of this?)

    Regardless, love the site, keep up the good work. (can’t wait to make that Chinese BBQ Pork LOL!)

    • Donald

      The major point that he is addressing is that many programs claim the reason people plateau in the gym is that they are not incorporating muscle confusion into their workouts. That the only way to make any gains is to mix it up. In reality those individuals are not tracking their progress and are not focusing on compound lifts. Like you said more advanced lifters can benefit from periodization but anyone new to lifting (for the first 1.5-2 years) needs to primarily focus on the compound lifts with progressive overload.

      • Michael Matthews

        Exactly. 🙂

    • Michael Matthews

      Thanks for the support and comment!

      I may not have communicated myself clearly enough in that my point is simply changing the exercises you do doesn’t inherently do anything special in terms of building size and strength.

      Conjguate lifting is just a periodization method and is actually what I do personally. It’s the foundation for my BBLS program, which will be in the book.

      If you check out your typical “muscle confusion” workout program it just has you doing all kinds of crazy exercises for crazy reps day after day. Silly stuff.

      Oh and remember that what works for drugged-up powerlifters isn’t best for natty lifters, haha.

  • James

    Hi mike. I’m following the 4 day split from bls. How would recommend I get an extra legs day in or additional work for legs as I feel mine are lacking compared to my upper body. Cheers james

    • Michael Matthews

      Hey! I would add 3 sets of squats to your pull day.

  • T Mags

    One thing we can all agree on is that Tony Horton is funny and highly entertaining:)

    • Michael Matthews


  • Steve Crook

    I’d wondered about this and the relation to slow and fast twitch muscle fibres. Does lifting at 85% address only fast twtich? Would an occasional switch to more reps at lower weight develop slow twitch?

    I recall a piece you wrote about this w.r.t calf exercises.

  • lee

    Hi Mike,
    For my work sets i’m doing 3 sets, with a target rep of 6.
    When i hit 6 reps on my 3rd set – i.e. 3 sets of flat barbell bench press and on set 3 i hit 6 reps, i then up the weight for my next chest work out.
    From the artical i get the impression that when i hit 6 reps on the 1st set i should be upping the weight?
    Please advise.
    Many Thanks,

    • Michael Matthews

      I like increasing my weight once I hit 6 reps. So set 1, 6, add weight, get 4 or so next 2 sets, work with that weight next week until 6, go up, etc. If, however, you only get 2 to 3 reps after increasing, drop back and work with that lower weight until you can do TWO sets of 6, and then try to move up again. If that still fails, then work up to 3 sets of 6 and you’ll be fine.

      • Harry

        I take it you don’t go to failure on every set, otherwise I would only manage 1-2 reps on the last set

        • Michael Matthews

          I go until I can no longer do reps without help. So not absolute failure but within 1 rep of it…

  • Fred K

    Mike, I recently found your articles, and they’re all fantastic! I really prefer full body splits, and I was considering starting the Stronglifts 5×5 program, however upon reading this, I was curious as to how you would improve upon it? I was considering doing all 5 big compound lifts on each day, but reducing the volume on certain days to prevent overtraining. Additionally, I would add in 2 upper body “negotiable” exercises, at low volumes, to help combat the weak points of the program. I’m sorry if this sounds overly complicated, but I’m not sure how else to simplify it. Any advice?

    • Michael Matthews

      Thanks! Good questions. Check this out:


      • Fred k

        Mike I appreciate the quick response. So I guess the question is, if you were to set up a 3 day program for lifting, would you do something similar to stronglifts? Or would you do something entirely different?

        • Michael Matthews

          I would keep it simple:

          Chest & tris or push

          Back & bis (pull)

          Legs or legs & shoulders

          • Fred K

            Thanks Mike. I appreciate the helpful articles and advice you provide to the public. Just ordered BLS, I hope to use it to put together a workout program.

          • Michael Matthews

            My pleasure. Thanks man. LMK what you think.

  • victoria

    just got back from the gym where a trainer was preaching a bunch of muscle confusion nonsense to me. I just nodded my head and thought ‘I wonder what mike matthews would have to say about this’. aaaaand of course you have an article outlining everything I ever needed to know on the subject. thanks once again for your knowledge.

    • Michael Matthews

      Lol thanks Victoria. 🙂 Glad I could help.

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  • Matt

    It’s easy to pick apart a program like p90x and point out that “muscle confusion” is non sense because muscles don’t have brain matter. I don’t think the creators of p90x believe that a muscle could be confused, but instead wanted to say something fresh for marketing purposes ie muscle confusion = progressive overload. But let’s face it, people who follow and finish p90x get in better shape due to 2 things 1) the program puts you through a grueling workout 2) the nutritional philosophy puts you in a caloric deficit and most likely has a person eating better then they ever have before.

    The problem is, is the program will not get you looking like tony in the videos. You will be skinny and lean with small but decently defined muscles. I know that tony has to being doing something else, such as a comprehensive weightlifting routine, in order to look like a body builder. And this is the lie of p90x.

    P90x is great if your looking for athletic performance, or are moderately out of shape and need complete structure in order to learn, or unable to join a gym

    Overall I am happy with the results I achieved from p90x but it’s time to move on.

    (Did p90x for a year, lost 28 lbs, body fat, per the calipers, went from 24% to 13%)

  • Gerardo Amezquita

    I have a question, so currently I’m phasing out of my bulk and going into my cutting phase. I’m on my deload week so I can recover from a 10-week intensive program. My question is: should I change workouts? If so, how would that affect me since I’m use to lifting heavy weight on these same workouts but switching them to new ones? Since I will start with different workouts where my RM is not really determined wouldn’t that hinder my progress?

    • Cool you’re about to start cutting! BTW, when you’re ready, go straight to cutting cals. Don’t drop cals slowly.

      Cool you’re doing a deload week before you start your cut too.

      Nah, you can keep the workouts the same. You can make some small changes to the routine if you’d like, but the focus should always stay on the heavy, compound lifts.

      Hope this helps! Talk soon!

  • Kameron Stover

    Starting Strength is totally awesome but I agree with you: Even though I am really big and strong (stronger than you, in fact :P, if your lifting videos are up-to-date) I do not have a very well-proportioned or aesthetic physique. So now I am continuing to do the “non-negotiable” SS Program and have added in a few negotiables (incline DB press and calves on bench days and lateral/rear raises and calves on press days). Mark Rippetoe wrote some great books but he clearly sees no value at all in aesthetics which I think is his biggest and most glaring flaw. Wish me luck!

  • Tony

    I’ve been following a https://stronglifts.com/5×5/ 5 x 5 type plan. What I’m concerned about is getting tiny legs. What leg exercises could I do on this current plan to address this? My Gym has hardly any equipment :/

  • Croquete

    I’ve learned so much from you! More than I’ve learned from the 1000 workout plans I’ve spent time with. Isol

    • That’s great to hear! Keep me posted on you progress and let me know if I can ever help with anything 🙂

      • Isol

        I will! I have one question, I’m the same Isol
        from instagram btw, well I’m doing the gluted workout, the head turning one, well is it only three sets from each exercise because it’s three times a week and there’s not enough time for recovery? Thanks! I’m having great results!

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