I am Confused about Muscle Confusion?

*Note – This is a blog from the summer of 2012. It has been slightly updated/revised. I mentioned this, because some of the scenarios are referring to the 2012 Summer Olympics. Hope you enjoy 🙂

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Have you heard about the 10,000 hour rule? This rule, states that it takes about 10,000 hours to become an expert at a particular craft. In other words, it can takes years of dedication and years of hard work to become really, really, really good at whatever “craft” it is you choose. It doesn’t matter if it is playing a musical instrument, basketball, painting, martial arts, wood working, archery, or crochet. In order to become really great at something you must do that “something” as much and as often as you can. And the world of fitness is no different. If you want to become physically fit you must workout as much and as often as you can.

10000-hours-rule1

But what does it mean to “workout”? Are all workouts created equal? Or better yet, what type of training produces the best results, focused training or random training? Is it better to “mix-up” and randomize your workouts or is it better to have a more focused/structured approach? Is it better to have a plan or be confused? Well in my opinion the answer is simple, focused training is the best! You see random training leads to random results. Think of it like this, the best/quickest way to reach a destination is to have a map and a planned route. How likely are you to reach the same destination if you just start driving, no map, no GSP, no directions scribbled on a napkin, no nothing, just you, your car and a “gut feeling” ? Sure maybe the “lets just go with the flow” approach will eventually get you there (highly unlikely) but it will take you a hell of a lot longer and the journey will be much harder.

When it comes to travel, a structured approach is a no-brainier, but when it comes to developing the body of your dreams, structured approaches are slowly being replaced by the lazy “randomized” training method. Yes, instead of sticking with a particular method for a good amount of time (earning our 10,000 hours) we have been tricked by slick marketing that random or “muscle confusion” is the new “black”. That’s right, P90X, CrossFit, and Groupon  have convinced many of us that confusion is not only a good thing, it is the best way to reach our desired fitness destination!

Brilliant!!!

Brilliant!!!

I run a specialty gym, which means we specialize in a very specific type of focused training (Kickboxing). Because of this focus/specialization, I often get asked,“So all you do is kickboxing?” After I explain that while class routines can and do vary a lot, at the end of the day, we will most likely be punching and kicking a bag. This answer usually produces a confused looked on the person, which then leads to the next question is, “but I though you are supposed to confuse your muscles, keep them (your muscles) guessing, or else you will stop making progress, correct”?

Ok, it is time to finally drive that wooded stake right through the heart of this fitness myth and kill it once and for all!

First lets discuss where the idea of muscle confusion actually came from. As I mentioned earlier all credit goes to P90X and CrossFit for at least popularizing the term “muscle confusion”. While there is some truth to this idea (I will explain), however, it is mostly a marketing gimmick and even a recipe for less than stellar results.The idea behind “muscle confusion” is that over time your muscles will adapt to certain movements, thus becoming extremely efficient at these movements, and once this happens you will cease any and all improvements (hitting that dreaded fitness plateau). How do you prevent this? By constantly changing your workouts, which means to doing different (random) exercises, changing the order in which you complete the exercises, and changing the amount of reps/sets all in an effort to trick your muscles into getting stronger.

muscle-confusion

There are two real problem with the muscle confusion myth:

  1. It can actually hamper progress – From a scientific standpoint muscle confusion adds too many variables to the equation. You don’t know what is working and what is not and it is very hard to track your progress. Also you never really spend enough time on a particular aspect so you never really get good at anything. I know because I have been a victim many times. Let me give you an example: If your goal is to do 10 pull-ups before Christmas you better add pull-ups to your training plan. I guarantee you won’t improve at pull-ups unless you practice them all the time.
  2. It leads to injury – Workout, rest, recover! In its simplest form, that is the recipe for fitness success. You workout, your muscle “breaks down”, you then rest and your muscles rebuild slightly stronger than before. The problem with “muscle confusion” you are not allowed to plan for the future, when do you rest? What days do you train the lower body? What days do you train the upper body? Is it a hard training week or a light training week? If you can’t answer these questions your workouts are random, and randomness leads to chaos, chaos leads to disaster, and disaster usually mean injury.

So yes, it is true your muscles do adapt over time. If you ran a 5K every day at the same speed, on the same route, your muscles would eventually adapt. This means you would see very little physical improvement despite running everyday. Same goes with lifting, if you lift the same weight for the exact same amount of sets and reps you will never get any stronger. So, as promised I will explain my version on “muscle confusion”.

First, let me say you can’t confuse your muscles, you either use your muscles or you don’t. You can’t tell you leg muscles to take the day off because you are just going to train your upper body today and then quickly run over to the squat rack and start doing squats hoping to catch your legs by surprise. With that said, you “confuse” your muscle by changing the volume load, or the speed/power of the exercise, not the exercise itself. It is like they say in triathlons “it never gets easier, you just go faster”, the same is true for kickboxing you can always punch/kick faster or harder, you can always improve your form thus leading to a more fluid like movement, you can always sprint faster, you can do more push-ups or  jumping lunges in a set amount of time. I am sure you are getting the point. Not to mention we are always adding variety to the classes with different instructors (all have a different style), conducting different cross-training movements and changing up the combinations

Right now as I write this the Olympics are in full swing. The Olympics are a spectacle of athletic achievement and the athletes are always pushing the limits of what we think is humanly possible, it is a beautiful thing! These athletes are just about as close to super humans as one can get. Not to mention the majority of these athletes have phenomenal bodies. So while every athlete has different training needs and methods (different sports require different training plans) the one thing they all have in common is that they do not “confuse” their muscles!

Let’s take the 100-meter sprint. Could you imagine training for that event without a proper plan? Let’s look at a mock scenario: You show up to the track one day to train

Swimming?!?! You must be out your damn mind!

Swimming?!?! You must be out your damn mind!

Coach “We are not running today we are swimming.”

You say, “But I am not a swimmer, plus the race is just a few months away and I feel like I still need more work.”

Your coach says, “Exactly you thought you were going to run today but we need to trick your muscles, your muscles were not expecting to swim so we got them right where we want them”.

Well after all he is your coach so you agree to go swimming and it turns out to be a good workout after all so you are not too mad. Then the next day you show up to the track and while you are lacing up your track shoes the coach says we are also not going to run today.

You, “why not? What are we doing”?

Coach, “rock climbing.”

You, “what the hell does rock climbing have to do with the 100-meter sprints”?!

Coach, “Ah now you are learning we can’t let your muscles get used to sprinting we need to confuse them”.

Let’s now assume this scenario goes on for the next few months where you only actually are doing proper sprint training once or twice a week. How do you think you would fair at the race?  If you guessed poorly, you guessed right!

His muscles look confused

What about a real life story using Michael Phelps. Unless you have been living under a rock, you know the Michael Phelps story but please bear with me as his story really helps my point. Michael Phelps is the most decorated Olympic athlete ever and some would even argue the best Olympic athlete of all time. His dedication to training is awe-inspiring. In fact he was on record saying that he swam 6 days a week for nearly six hours a day for the 3.5 years leading up to the Olympics in Beijing (2008) and it did not matter if his training days fell on his birthday or Christmas morning he went swimming.  What was his training plan? Swimming, swimming, and more swimming. Sure he did some cross training but it was always done in a calculated manner. So obviously I am not suggesting that you train like Michael Phelps, unless you actually want to swim in the Olympics, then you better start swimming now, I am also not suggesting that you need to workout for 6-hours a day to get a great body. I am just using him as an example that training in a very specific way (no “muscle confusion”) will not lead to a fitness plateau. Not to mention he has the 6 pack abs, and low body fat giving him the lean “ripped” look that most of us want.

I am not saying that you can’t do any other workouts other than kickboxing. I am a big fan of cross-training. In fact I can show you a great strength training workout that perfectly compliments the kickboxing classes. I am just helping you navigate through this crazy world of fitness! Because at the end of the day, the only thing that matters is results! So before you think you need to mix it up (again), find a good gym, find a good trainer, and dedicate at least 1-year to a more structured program and see what happens. But be careful you might actually succeed 😉
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2 thoughts on “I am Confused about Muscle Confusion?

  1. Pingback: Do Simulated Workouts Give Real Life Results? | The Healthy Life Experiment

  2. Pingback: The Grass is Greener (Self-Sabotage Series) | The Healthy Life Experiment

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