Do your muscles need to be confused?

I ran into a friend of mine recently at the gym. I hadn’t seen her in quite some time.

As is typically the case when I run into friends, we started talking about her workouts. She told me about her class schedule. Mondays she was going to boxing class, Tuesday was HIIT Circuit, Wednesday was Spin, Thursday she went to yoga, and Friday was TRX. At the end, she added, “I’m just trying to confuse my muscles.”

I walked away from that conversation being confused myself!

Muscle Confusion.

It’s a catch phrase that caught on through P90X to combat the dreaded plateau. And I think it might be brilliant marketing, although it’s a completely made up concept.

The idea is that, to avoid a plateau, we must constantly ‘confuse’ our muscles – otherwise, they get used to what we’re doing.


So, there might be a grain of truth in this – but if there is, it’s the size of the grain of sand. . .

. . . At the bottom of the ocean.

Why Muscle Confusion isn’t a ‘thing’

Let’s say that I give you a workout. And you do that workout 3 times a week for the next 6 months.

For those 6 months, you use the same weights for the same exercises.

You’re going to plateau in strength, and muscle size.

So, what you need to do is change something.

But here’s the thing: you don’t have to change a lot! All you have to do is change one of the following things:

  • Resistance
  • Volume
  • Timing
Your muscles don't need to be confused - Just challenged.
Your muscles don’t need to be confused – Just challenged.

Resistance – (aka: change the weight you’re using)

Our muscles adapt and grow stronger in response to external force. Lets say that the first time you do a particular exercise, you use a 20 pound weight, and it’s hard. It’s so hard that you can barely get through 10 repetitions. And oh my lord! You were so sore after that workout!

So the next time you use that same weight, and it was still hard. But after a while, it’s not going to be as hard. In fact, you could probably go up to the next weight size.

But you don’t.

Because you’ve always used 20 pounds for that exercise before, so that’s what you do.

When you don’t increase the resistance for a given exercise, you’re cheating your muscles the opportunity to grow.

As your muscles get stronger, they need to be challenged with more weight.

It’s similar to the weary we learn to read. When you were a kid, reading picture books was tough. But the only way you got to be a better reader was to read more advanced books. Right?

If you never tried to read anything more difficult than a picture book, you’d be an adult reading ‘The Hungry Caterpillar’.

. . . And that’s just embarrassing.

So, when picking a weight for strength training, select a weight that is going to fatigue your muscles in such a way that another 1-2 reps would cause you to fail on your last set.

Volume – (aka: the number of repetitions and or sets)

Okay – so let’s say that you exercise at home, and you only have access to a few dumbbells. What to do then?

In that case, you want to challenge yourself by doing as many repetitions as you can. (You could also add one or more sets).

This is another way of challenging the muscle.

Let me back up for just a minute.

General guidelines as far as what repetition range to use depend on your goals:

  • Size and Power – 6-8 repetitions
  • Physique – 8-10 repetitions
  • Muscle Endurance – 15-20 repetitions

What’s interesting about these guidelines is that you can perform the same set of exercises in the same order, but change the weight every 2-3 weeks so that you are performing a different repetition range. This is a fantastic strategy to gain overall strength!

[Example]  – Chest Press: Weeks 1-3,  12 lb dumbbells, 20 repetitions;  Weeks 4-6, 17.5 lb dumbbells, 10 repetitions; Weeks 7-9 25 lb dumbbells, 6 repetitions.  Then start back again at the beginning (but this time, test how many repetitions you can do before just assuming you’d go back to 12 lbs. Right? See above re: the Hungry Caterpillar)

Timing – (aka: moving fast or slow)

Timing can take two different forms: The speed of your workout overall, or the the speed that you perform your actual repetitions.

Repetition tempo – It’s pretty standard to count 1,2 up,  and 1,2 down. But the relaxing phase of the exercise is the one that ultimately produces strength. So, you could slow that part of the exercise down.

Some tempos to play around with are 1,2 up, 1,2,3 down or 1 up 1,2,3,4 down. The goal is to keep tension on the muscle for as long as possible. Additionally, this is a great technique to use if you don’t have heavier weights!

Take less rest – Get focused in your workouts. The more quickly you move between exercises, the more quickly you’ll fatigue your muscles (because they have less time to rest).

I love this technique & it’s especially beneficial for multi-body part workouts. I use this myself because as you work a muscle, your heart has to move blood into that muscle. As you work more muscles, your heart has to work that much harder to pump blood into each of those muscle groups. The harder your heart has to work, the more it raises your heart rate, and you are now doing cardio as you’re strength training.

Brilliant. Right?

But because you’re moving faster, and your muscles have less time to rest, you won’t be able to use as heavy weight (again, could be good if you don’t have heavier weight to advance to – like, if you workout at home).

I recently published bunch of workouts that I do. They’re only 20 minutes, but they’ll kick your butt. You can get them HERE. They use minimal equipment, and there are modifications to make both the workouts and the exercises easier or harder depending on your ability & level.

Check them out and let me know how you like them!