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.
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…
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…
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.