Are your muscles confused?

Have you recently heard the term, “muscle confusion” and wondered what all the hype was about? Do you know someone who ordered a fitness DVD or joined an intense cross training program and hear them throwing around phrases like, “random exercise,” “chaos training,” or “constantly varied?”

These concepts all sound very mysterious and alluring…but what are they? And more importantly, do they work?

In layman’s terms, the concept behind muscle confusion is to constantly vary the exercises, sets, reps, and weight in an exercise program. The idea is to prevent the body from reaching a plateau, where the muscles have fully adapted to the exercise and results are no longer seen. While this concept is actually based on a scientific training principle called the law of specificity, the term “confusion” tends to distort what this principle actually means.

To illustrate, let’s say you hate running but get a sudden burst of inspiration to sign up for a 5k race. If you don’t do much running (except to chase after your kids), chances are you’ll feel pretty sore the first few times you do it. You may actually have to alternate walking with jogging until the burning in your lungs subsides and the soreness in your legs goes away. This is called the process of adaptation. Your body is adapting to the stress by making physiological changes such as stronger bones, increased lung capacity, and better blood flow. Now that you are fitter, you have a greater capacity for workload. Meaning, instead of having to alternate jogging with walking, now you can just jog. If you decide not to jog but rather just stay with your jog/walk combo, you would no longer see any further benefits. This is what we refer to as a plateau.

Muscle confusion is just a cool sounding phrase to explain this concept. But what is missing from most fitness DVDs and cross training programs, is the process of adaptation. Chaos training, random exercise, and constantly varied protocols can all be very effective tools for those that have adapted to a certain stress. For example, an elite distance runner would produce better gains if he ran various intervals at different distances and times rather than just a slow and steady pace. The ability level and the goal of the individual are extremely important if we want to see further results.

What’s the risk?

Let’s go back to our 5k race example. Let’s say you plan to run the 5k but decide not to train for it at all. You feel confident that you can just “wing it” even though your current exercise is limited to channel surfing on the couch. How do you think your body will hold up after the race? Worse, is there a chance you’ll get injured? In one word, YES. Going from a sedentary state to a high impact activity will put your chances for injury at an all time high. Your body is not prepared to handle all that stress. You need the critical adaption process to finish the race healthy and happy.

What’s the point?

The moral of the story is, change for the sake of change is not effective until your body has adapted to stress. It’s the same reason we don’t walk before we can crawl, or run before we can walk. Any attempt to do too much too soon leads to burn out, over training, and eventually, injury.

Finally, whether you love your fitness DVDs or cross training program, be sure the program is geared towards your individual goals. If you want to lose fat, make sure the program you’re doing is designed for fat loss. The same thing goes for gaining muscle mass, or training for a sport. One size does not fit all, so make sure you understand what you are training your body for and that you have a roadmap in place to do it.

If you know your goal but haven’t found a roadmap to get you there, come see us at Folsom Lake Fitness. We replace “chaos,” “random” and “confusion” with training that is customized, effective and confidence-building.

Stay informed and be well,

Mindy McFall, B.S., CSCS

Comments are closed.