Muscle Confusion: Myth and Science

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin

Maybe you’ve reached a plateau in your workout. Or maybe your fitness goals seem to stay just out of reach. You’ve heard about “muscle confusion” and think that might be the answer to your problem.

Jeff Monaco, director of education for Gold’s Gym, sees people get that idea all the time. But the phrase “muscle confusion” leads to a lot of, well, confusion. Before you do anything, he says, you need to understand what muscle confusion really is, and what it could mean for you.

Clarity on muscle confusion

When you train, your body adapts, Monaco says — to lifting weights or doing cardio or any kind of training. Your body is a highly adaptable machine, and through repeating the same movements, it will start hitting plateaus and you’ll stop seeing results. People think that’s when you need muscle confusion.

But the idea behind muscle confusion is that you change your training at certain intervals to avoid plateaus.

The term “muscle confusion” first became popular with branded workouts that offered different ways to stay out of a rut by constantly changing your routine. It was used to sell the idea of constantly changing your workout to confuse the muscles and avoid plateaus.

The importance of rest

Another way people incorrectly apply the concept of muscle confusion is by simply intensifying their existing workout. When they hit a plateau, they’ll up the weight or duration to get more results. Bad move, Monaco says. When you do that, you could again be denying the rest that your muscles need to grow.

“Rest is a vital component to training,” he says. “It often gets overlooked.” Rest is key to exercise success. Always listen to your body. The period of rest after exercise is when your body is getting stronger and your cardiovascular system is improving.

“We coach our trainers to perform an assessment about how the clients are feeling today versus previous workouts,” Monaco says. Simple check-ins like “How are you feeling today?” or “Did you rest after the last workout?” actually are important steps to take to maximize your progress. If someone is still sore, trainers will work on flexibility and mobility training instead of pushing the fatigued muscles.a

The need for assessment

Monaco sees a lot of people who are stuck in the same routine. “They just want to come in and do the treadmill at the same speed every day,” he says. He’ll ask about their results and their targets. After talking with him, they’re in a better position to reach their goals.

He has seen how different people’s goals can be, and how much they crave variety. But you don’t need to rely on muscle confusion for that — just change your workouts.

“Generally, one or two changes can yield great results over time,” Monaco says. “For each type of training, resistance or cardio, pick one or two variables to change in your training program periodically instead of just changing everything or randomly selecting a different workout each day.”

Changing one or two variables allows for better monitoring of your training program to understand what works and what doesn’t. When you change multiple variables constantly, evaluating your progress is difficult.

The more conditioned you are, the sooner you hit plateaus because your body is already closer to its full potential. Check your heart rate, while resting and during exercise, to get a good indicator of how your body is doing. “The range for a healthy resting heart rate varies but is around 60 to 80 beats per minute,” Monaco says. 

How to Eat for Better Emotional Health

Health experts warn that a lingering effect of the coronavirus pandemic could be a mental health crisis. While therapy and medications for stress and anxiety