Muscle confusion: is it useful?
A big buzzword in fitness in recent times has been the theory of muscle confusion.
Some of the fastest growing fitness followings such as Crossfit are built on the idea that doing traditional programs that focus on the development of the body through repetition and practice are not the optimum way in which to achieve results.
Instead, you should be ‘confusing’ the muscles by frequently changing and varying your workouts.
So for example one day you’ll do a workout just doing sets of press-ups to failure. The next workout you’ll ditch the press-ups and just do heavy sets of the bench press, using only a few reps. The workout after that you’ll be doing circuits of overhead press mixed with dips and press ups,
The idea is that your muscles never know what is coming next so they have to undergo rapid and continuous adaptation to cope with the ever-changing stresses, with the result that you’ll develop faster.
The Crossfit method is at the extreme spectrum of this belief. The core principle of Crossfit is ‘functional fitness’ i.e. you have to be ready for anything, anytime. At the showpiece event, The Crossfit Games, they don’t even announce the events until hours before the start time to emphasise this.
At amateur level, training is built around the concept of the Workout Of the Day (WOD), a completely random routine posted up on the website or made up by the various ‘boxes’ (gyms).
Muscle confusion is also often promoted in more traditional exercise methods like bodybuilding or weight training in general by the idea that you should change your program every 4-6 weeks, with the same goal of taking advantage of the ‘shock’ treatment and added growth.
So does it get you results, faster?
I might be stretching it a bit as an analogy but imagine this.
You have a dog and you want to train it to do a lot of stuff- jump through a hoop on command, bring you sticks, walk on its hind legs, hold its paw out to shake etc, etc.
You can either focus on training it to do one thing and mastering it before moving on to the next, or you choose something from your list at random every day.
After a few months what sort of results would you produce with each method?
Do you want the dog to be really good a t a few things, or pretty average at a lot of things?
I’m not comparing anyone to a dog, but I am analogising the way your muscles and body behave.
As I’ve said before, your body and muscles couldn’t give a damn about your goals or results. As far as the body is concerned it wants to stay in a comfortable, best-chance-of-survival state.
It will always try to return to this default state.
The reason you have to be consistent and keep training to maintain your performance is because what you’re actually doing is constantly teasing your body out of its comfort zone.
In this way it’s kind of like training a dog- dogs don’t care about what you’re trying to teach them they are just doing it for the reward. You have to do something over and over again to make it learn, remember and develop its skills otherwise it won’t develop more than its inherent natural intelligence.
Training is skill development for your body. Like any skill it has to be practised diligently and repetitively in order for it to become natural and part of the ‘default’ setting.
Muscle confusion programs are actually confused about muscle soreness
The big reason why muscle confusion seems to be logical and enthusiastically championed by its followers is that by doing random workouts you get really, really sore.
This is another hallmark of the Crossfit world: how do you know someone does Crossfit? Because they will tell you.
People new to training love to talk about soreness, as if the only way they know they have progressed is by how sore they are two days later. I’m sore, so it must be working!
Well guess what, the first time you ever touch a weight you’ll be sore as hell the next few days, even if you only lifted 10 kgs. Meanwhile the advanced trainer is training 4-5 days a week with ten times more weight but is never so sore that they can’t walk.
Who is progressing more, or getting more out of their workouts?
You’re super sore the first time you workout because your muscles are not used to being stressed like that. Over time, as you keep doing it the soreness will be less and less, because your body is getting used to the demand being placed upon it.
With random or ever-changing workouts you’re placing constantly changing demands on your body so you’re stressing it a lot of different ways. You’ll be sore because of that, but because the muscle isn’t being stressed in a consistent way it won’t adapt as quickly: you’ll keep feeling the soreness even when the reps or weight aren’t moving much.
If, however you focused on a program that was to choose a specific goal, like increasing your strength endurance by doing workouts of high repetitions, and you gradually increased the weight and reps week by week you’d find that by the end you’d be repping a higher weight for longer but not feeling as sore as you did when you first started.
The key way to regard training is as a skill. You’re much better off sticking to something and concentrating on goals one at a time: achieve your objectives before changing things up or moving to a new program.
The roots of muscle confusion are valid: by putting a new stress on a muscle, either from a different angle or by testing its endurance over its strength is a good way to elicit new development.
But you still have to hone these new skills: changing the exercise every couple of weeks won’t make you better at anything, it’ll just make you feel like you’re making huge progress by the virtue of cramping up because you’re sore.
I don’t want to keep hammering Crossfit but another big beef I have with it is that there’s no way its elite athletes, who are meant to embody the results and abilities you can achieve through their method, are producing their performances following the WOD method.
They are all developing and working on specific skills, like any athlete; following consistent strength programs if they need to get stronger, bodyweight exercises if they need to be more agile, speed and sprint training if they need to get faster.
That’s the only way to train if you actually want to get good at something. Pick the specific goal and consistently work on it, until you’re good at it. Then adjust your sights and go again.
Alternatively if you want to stay pretty average at everything then be my guest: just don’t come running to me when your dog still can’t fetch a stick.