Fellow meatheads! I’ve been getting a lot of questions from clients lately about “muscle confusion,” a buzzword that is getting a lot of media attention. Do we need to “confuse” our muscles in order to see results? If so, how much and how often?
To answer this burning question, I’d like to talk about a training principle known as progressive overload. Most exercisers have a general understanding of this principle. You know when you start an exercise but quickly realize it’s too easy (because you’re a superwoman, obvi,) so you pick up a heavier weight for a greater challenge? Surprise, surprise – you’re practicing progressive overload.
Let’s break it down:
Progressive overload simply states that in order to see change in muscle size, strength or power output, we consistently need to do more, causing an ‘overload’ in the systems at work. This could mean more load (heavier weights,) more volume (higher reps,) or an increase in complexity (ex: single leg squats vs. two leg squats.)
In practice, it’s important to progress one variable only at a time. For our sake, let’s focus on increasing load only. According to the progressive overload principle, any increase in load past your current max (whether that’s a PR or a max for the day,) will elicit change. That’s awesome, because it means you can get results faster and more efficiently by simply increasing your load with seemingly very little effort – like adding 5lbs to your last set of squats, or grabbing 27.5lb dumbbells instead of 25s.
A note on increasing load: generally (depending on your current strength & training status,) when progressing large, full/lower body lifts (barbell squats, deadlifts, lunges, etc.) it’s safe to increase between 5-15 pounds per week. For upper body exercises (barbell bench, rows, etc.), that number is closer to 2.5-10 pounds per week. Remember, however, that strength is not linear – and after any initial strength gains, progress may ebb and flow.
I’m sensing a point here…
Okay, this is all well and good – but you totally practice this already by picking up the heavier dumbbells, right? So what does this have to do with the idea of ‘muscle confusion’?
Here’s the rub: in order to progress a lift, whether it’s as complex as a barbell back squat or as simple as a seated cable row, you have to consistently repeat the lift. Meaning you have to repeat exercises. Repeat whole workouts. For at least 4 weeks, preferably 8-12. You can’t consistently add safe increments of load to a lift that you haven’t done in 2 weeks, because you’ve been off trying to ‘confuse’ your muscles.
Progress takes practice.
Muscles don’t get ‘confused’ – they react very specifically to whatever demands you impose on them. If you consistently perform different workouts, with differing loads, rep schemes, and exercise complexities, your body will adapt accordingly: you’ll get very good at performing a variety of exercises. What you likely won’t see are adaptations in the size, shape and strength of your muscles. Which, as meatheads here, is really what we’re after.
Moral of the story? Stick to your script (whatever your program may currently be,) progress intelligently, and prosper.