Variety vs Muscle Confusion
Muscle confusion suggests that by constantly changing the exercises and structure of your workouts, you will build muscle and lose fat. Let me start with a brief explanation of the motor programming in our brain. Our brain functions much like a computer. A computer programmer will design a program to execute different functions, and those functions are always executed the same way. For instance, if you double click on an icon on your desktop, it will always open your “finder” window because that’s the way the program is designed. When we teach children to walk, we teach one foot in front of the other. We help them to develop the “program” in their brains for walking. As they continue to repeat the action of one foot in front of the other every time, the program becomes solidified and then they can build on that foundation with running, dancing, jumping, etc. But what if we applied the concept of “muscle confusion” to teaching our children how to walk? And instead of one foot in front of the other every time, we tried to teach them to run one day, dance another, and jump the third, expecting that this scattered “training program” will result in the child walking. I’m guessing this would not only be a frustrating experience for both parent and child, but it would take the child much longer than necessary to learn how to walk. This is because repetition builds the programming and muscle response necessary to optimally perform an action.
We are like children as adults except that we have developed more motor programs. This doesn’t mean, however, that we don’t have to go through the same steps as children to develop new programs. Think of how you first learned to do push ups. Did you learn how to do them by doing shoulder presses and back rows? Probably not, because only the repetitive motion of push ups with minor corrections over a period of time helped to develop the “push up programming” in your mind and muscle. In summary, the concept of “confusing” your muscles does nothing to improve motor programming and, thus, muscle strength.
Please do not confuse the concept of muscle confusion with variety, however. Shoulder presses and back rows will help to strengthen the muscles of your upper body which, in turn, will improve your push up form and strength. But if that is all you do for your workouts, your strength development will plateau quickly. You should not continue the same workout program with the same exercises for longer than 6-8 weeks. At this point, your body has adapted and a change is needed.
Variety supports your strength in functional movement and basic fitness movements (such as squats, push ups, etc). Variety also adds new challenges and keeps your workouts interesting. I can find holes in any popular workout program where you are missing an important piece of training. In other words, if you are only doing one type of exercise such as barre, yoga, CrossFit, cycling, running, etc, you are missing something that your body needs to stay balanced and strong!
Good fitness programming will have a combination of variety and repetitive exercises. Do what you like as your core workout program and keep building strength in those movements, but don’t forget to add variety to keep your body balanced and strong. And, variety is not confusion – confusion is just confusing!