What, Exactly, Is Muscle Confusion?

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To be clear, muscles don’t get confused. They respond very predictably to regular (or irregular) exercise. So even the phrase “muscle confusion” is a little, well, confusing. The term gets thrown around a lot by personal trainers and well-meaning fitness enthusiasts as a way to encourage a varied workout routine. But sadly, it often amounts to the gym version of the game “Telephone”: Maybe the first person understands and applies the concept correctly, but by the time it has been passed from one person to the next, the meaning gets lost. So stop relying on your best buddy’s interpretation. Here’s what you need to know.

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Constant Change Doesn’t Help Specific Goals

One of the most common misinterpretations of “muscle confusion” is that to gain muscle and get stronger, you need to constantly switch up your routine to keep your muscles guessing. While there’s a modicum of truth to this, it’s misleading, especially when you’re pursuing specific goals.

“One big problem with the muscle confusion principle is that you don’t spend enough time working on an exercise to really master it,” says Doug Barsanti, owner of ReInvention Fitness. “It’s like training to ride a bike one day, then a skateboard the next, and then rollerblading after that. Your skills on the bike aren’t really going to get better.”

If you want to get stronger and develop mass in the most efficient way possible, you need to follow a specific plan that focuses on repeatedly training specific muscle groups. Likewise, if you want to train for a marathon, you need to do a lot more running than any other form of exercise.

Constant Challenge Is Important

It’s important to understand that following a specific plan doesn’t mean you don’t challenge yourself. “If you do the same exercise the same way every day, your body will adapt to that level of stress and you’re less likely to see progression,” says Dr. Dana Ryan, the senior manager of Sports Performance and Education at Herbalife Nutrition. “The key is to challenge yourself by gradually increasing reps, intensity, and resistance.”

So again: Follow a specific plan, then keep working hard. You may get bored occasionally, but you’ll reach your goal faster than if you were to subject yourself to an erratic workout schedule that jumps from HIIT training to heavy strength work to boxing to 50-mile bike rides to gymnastic calisthenics.

Know When to Switch Things Up

Just because you need to follow a specific plan to reach your goals doesn’t mean you need to follow that plan forever. “Plateaus do occur, but not after the first training session,” says Dr. Karl Smith, the Director of Health and Fitness at Cortland Partners communities. Instead, you should switch up your workout about every six to eight weeks to follow a more effective periodization program, “where reps, sets, recovery time, and volume are manipulated on a regularly scheduled basis,” Smith says.

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Learn to Manage Boredom Effectively

Instant gratification and constant stimulation are societal norms, so following a single training program may sound like a special type of torture. If you can’t fathom doing the same workout for six weeks straight — it’s practically a lifetime, really — Barsanti suggests switching up lower-skill exercises, such as cardio, or smaller muscle-isolation exercises.

Functionally, this means following the same general-strength-training program for a full six weeks, but changing up your weekly cardio, hitting the rowing machine one day and the stair climber the next, or, while following your routine, adding or changing isolation exercises here and there. This means continuing to work your plan for squats, lunges, deadlifts, bench press, pull-ups, and the like, but maybe you isolate your biceps, calves, or triceps a little differently each routine. 

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