We’re all told about reps, sets, rests and all sorts of other factors which kick into play during a workout, but something which often slips under the radar is muscle confusion.
In fact, if you were to ask most people what it was – they themselves would be confused. Not only that, their workouts are probably going against all of the principles which govern the muscle confusion rules, so to speak.
Therefore, to get your jargon and workout in order, we’re going to lay everything bare regarding muscle confusion. Here goes.
What is muscle confusion?
It might be something that few bodybuilding enthusiasts seem to have a grasp of, but believe it or not muscle confusion is actually very simple. As the name may have given away to some of you, it’s all about confusing your muscles as much as possible.
When we talk about confusing your muscles, we’re really focussing on how you should be using as many different muscles as possible – using as many different exercises as possible. The overall aim is to stop your body being used to performing the same set of actions each and every workout.
If we refer to muscle memory, it might become even easier to understand. This is something which is talked about a lot and basically refers to how your muscles are trained to perform certain movements after repeating them time and time again. If you’re a golfer, you rely on muscle memory for your swing. If you know how to ride a bike, the same rules apply here.
The problem is that when your muscles start to rely on muscle memory to complete exercises, the benefits are immediately slashed. It’s at this point where your body has well and truly adapted to its environment and is in something of a comfort zone – it is used to the type of stress you are putting it under.
Therefore, you need to go against the grain. You need to adapt your environment and throw your body out of its comfort zone. If you look at the good old ‘survival of the fittest’ phrase – it revolves around those animals who were able to constantly adapt and beat whatever was put in front of them. This is very similar to muscle confusion.
Unfortunately, our muscles can adapt much quicker than many of us realise. It means that a lot of workouts stall and you just don’t make the progress that your hard work should promote.
How can you cause muscle confusion?
Following on from the above, the big question is how exactly you can cause muscle confusion and avoid all of the problems that blight most workouts.
Fortunately, this is a topic which has been well-researched and there are several ways which can cause it.
Most people are under the impression that the only way to promote muscle confusion is to switch exercises on a frequent basis. While this can obviously help, there are even simpler ways which can at least allow you to keep the core of your workout the same.
Let’s now take a look at some of the common ways you can cause muscle confusion.
1 – Supersets
This is perhaps one of the hardest ways to incorporate muscle confusion into a workout but if you are serious about results, it might make all of the difference.
The basis of supersets is performing several exercises – without taking any rest whatsoever.
There are actually two versions of supersets; compound-sets and trisets.
To start with, most people will probably concentrate on compound-sets. This is seen as a slightly easier version, as you will be primarily working opposite muscle groups. A common example is where an athlete will firstly perform a chest exercise, before immediately switching to a movement which focusses on the back.
Then, there are the trisets. This is where you will try and choose two or three exercises that focus on the exact same area. Again, no rest periods are allowed – meaning that your muscles will be under complete pressure towards the final set of exercises. If we were to pick one example here, you could choose to perform cable lateral raises, dumbbell shoulder presses and barbell shoulder presses successively.
Suffice to say – it’s not easy, but the rewards can be phenomenal and you will have immediately tackled the muscle confusion problem.
2 – Rest-Pause
If you’re looking for something slightly easier, we’ll now introduce the rest-pause method.
Like a lot of things, the name should do all of the talking here. The basis of rest-pause is that you do several reps, resting briefly, before then proceeding with additional reps.
The benefit here doesn’t only come from the fact that you will be performing more reps, but it actually arrives from the rest period as well. During this period you will be breathing and allowing your body to transfer more oxygen to your muscles. It ultimately means that your workout will be both aerobic and anaerobic.
Starting with the rest-pause method is easy. It’s advisable to begin with a normal set, resting for 20 seconds, before proceeding with another set until failure.
3 – Changing the number of reps and sets
It goes without saying that this is one of the easiest ways to cause muscle confusion – and probably the first one that many people think of.
If your workout is constantly focussed on the eight-rep, three sets principle – then changing these up is a sure-fire way to promote that elusive confusion.
The changes don’t have to be permanent (after all, you’re looking to promote as much change in your workout as possible), and you may one day try performing twelve reps and one set, as opposed to the three sets you normally have.
We should also add a point on the number of reps you should be completing as well. While it will vary depending on your goals, don’t think that you have to stick to eight, ten or twelve – which are the usual figures branded around in the fitness industry. Some people can do as many as a 100 – now that would be some muscle confusion.
4 – Change the order of your exercises
As you’ll come to realise by the end of this article, muscle confusion isn’t necessarily a straightforward topic. Some of the ways to get around the issue can be quite complex – yet this solution is for those of you which are looking to keep things as simple as possible.
It’s not going to work for every exercise, but merely changing the order of some of your exercises can be sufficient at times.
There are some muscle groups where there just aren’t enough exercises around to change it up considerably (the hamstrings being a good example), so it’s in these cases where you can simply change the order in which you perform them so it’s not as much of a “routine”.
5 – Partial-Repetition
This is perhaps one of the more surprising suggestions, as the basis of partial-repetition is that you don’t perform a full version of your repetition. Instead, it’s something of a shortened version, meaning that you don’t have a full range of motion.
The reason for this is simple. By performing half an exercise (for example, half a crunch) you are immediately throwing your body out of its comfort zone.
It’s not used to dealing with this movement and as such, you’re actually putting it under more pressure. Rather than the full rep which has become automatic for you, your muscles are now under a much different type of stress.
A common example of this in action is within powerlifters, who are sometimes seen benching wooden planks (or anything of a similar ilk) from the top of their chest. Suffice to say, this isn’t a standard movement for them – it’s from a completely different position to the normal bench. It means that muscle confusion kicks in – as do all of the benefits we have talked about.
6 – Continuous Tension
Another method that a lot of people will take advantage of is continuous tension. This time, the aim of the game is to take away the pressure which tends to build on your joints at the end of a movement.
For example, when you perform a squat and straighten your legs at the end of the movement, you are immediately switching the stress from your muscles to your joints. It’s also known as “locking out” and continuous tension eradicates this problem.
Therefore, instead of locking at the top of the movement and shifting the stress to your joints, you need to keep the tension on your muscles. It means not locking out at the top and effectively not completing the whole movement. You are taking out the pause which tends to occur after each movement and if you want to make things even more difficult, take longer to perform the initial movement as well.
With the squat, this could mean taking a couple of seconds longer to sink down – and ignoring the pause at the top which most people include.
7 – Rep speed
The previous point leads perfectly onto this issue. As we’ve just pointed out, rep speed can be something that well and truly changes things up for your body.
While the last suggestion may have focussed on not fully completing exercises, this one eradicates that part and instead concentrates on speed. Instead of performing reps at your normal speed, vary it up. This means sometimes performing them slowly, whilst sometimes carrying them out more quickly.
This is one of the easiest ways to make the same exercise, with the same weights, feel completely different.
8 – Change your exercises
We’ve left this one last, because it’s probably the easiest and most obvious one. While a lot of our suggestions focus on movements and rest periods, all this suggestion revolves around is changing your exercise.
Instead of always churning out the same exercise for each muscle group, add something else into the mix. It’s another sure-fire way to cause that muscle confusion.
A summary on muscle confusion
As you can see, muscle confusion is a topic which can become really detailed if you put your mind to it.
It’s something that a lot of people don’t know a lot about – yet it’s also something that can make the world of difference to a workout. From seeing your muscles comfortably deal with whatever is thrown at them, to experiencing the burn and results that everyone craves is something that can become a definite reality thanks to this principle.
As we have highlighted, it can also be implemented in various ways. While there are some methods which will really put your body under significant stress, there are others which aren’t quite as brutal but still cause the confusion which can help you reap better rewards through your training sessions.