What is Muscle Confusion? This Common Fitness Methodology Has Some Pros & Cons
Commonly, there are two main hurdles to a good fitness plan: Finding an effective way to do it (there are many), and finding a way to do it that's engaging, enjoyable, and manageable long-term. One solution to both of these challenges has long been something called "muscle confusion." But what is muscle confusion, exactly? Why do people use it, and what are the pros and cons? Here's what you need to know about this lifestyle approach.
Muscle confusion refers to the act of constantly switching up your fitness routine as a way to keep your body guessing (and your muscles "confused"), avert routine, and avoid plateaus. Many fitness gurus have hailed this technique as the ultimate in staying healthy: One day, you're cycling; the next, you're boxing; the day after, you're bodybuilding. Your muscles are constantly being exposed to new stimuli, everything will always feel like a challenge, and you'll never get bored.
Sound like a solid plan to you? You're not alone. Countless people have flocked to this approach. It's one of the reasons functional fitness, which relies on muscle confusion, has so many fans: One workout might consist of four or five different movements done in the span of minutes. The next day, you're doing something completely different. You break a massive sweat, wake up sore the next morning, and you're hooked. The variety is what keeps it so exciting, and what — argue many — gets people results.
But like any topic that has a group of supporters, muscle confusion has its opponents as well. (And as a preface, I'm not hating on functional fitness. I appreciate it for many, many reasons. I just think it's important to look at both sides of the argument, so that's what we're doing here.) In this case, some fitness experts argue that muscle confusion is a load of silliness. They say that switching up your routine on the regular will prevent you from making any progress, because you never give the same muscles a chance to learn and improve. As Brett Bartholomew, Director of Performance at a gym named Unbreakable (which Yahoo named the most elite gym in the country), told Science of Us, "The number-one reason people don’t get results is that they don’t have the attention span to stick with something."
Bartholomew argues that the wiser approach is something called progressive overload, which is essentially the opposite to muscle confusion. With progressive overload, you regularly work on something specific — like a muscle group (your back) or a certain movement (squats) — and make it more challenging over time. This could mean using heavier weights or doing more reps.
Progressive overloading looks very wholly at your lifestyle, suggesting periods of active recovery or complete rest after very taxing days in the gym.
Let's be honest: Like many (if not most) debates in the arena of health and fitness, there is no one-size-fits-all answer; what works for one person may not work for another, and I doubt there will ever come a day when we've all sided with either muscle confusion or progressive overload. So, if you want to cover all your bases, the wisest choice might be to combine the best of both worlds.
I'll use myself as an example — not because I think I've got it all figured out, but because I do know that I found an activity I love, and I've stuck with it for three years. I started with CrossFit, and while it was enjoyable, I wasn't the biggest fan; it was very hard on my body, and I didn't get the results I wanted. (Again, though, that's just me. We're all different.) I ended up switching over to Olympic weightlifting, which is one of several facets of CrossFit — and as it turns out, focusing on lifting ended up being the solution for me. It's varied enough that I don't get bored, and the cherry on top is that I'm in better shape in which I've ever been.
Why is that? Because over time, I'm lifting heavier weights. It has been demonstrated that resistance training of some kind is key in staying lean and strong; in fact, cardio can slow your progress, if done the wrong way. So, I get a hint of the variation that's the hallmark of muscle confusion, but I also work the same muscles everyday in some capacity — whether I'm doing cleans, squats, pulls, deadlifts, you name it. Three years later, I still love going to the gym four or five days a week.
The internet is totally saturated with fitness advice, but I personally believe that the ultimate rule is this: Find what makes you happy. You may find a fitness routine that gets you results, but if you absolutely loathe doing it, you won't stick with it (or you will and you'll just be unhappy). Exercising should be something you enjoy and maybe even crave. That's when you'll seamlessly make it part of your everyday life — and something you can't live without.