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Should I “confuse” my muscles?

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Nick McClary

Shortly after I graduated high school there was a new, revolutionary fitness product that was all the craze: P90X. For those of you not familiar, P90X is a cross-training, periodized weight training program that involves video-guided workouts. It was often featured in short commercials on TV or longer infomercials. Back then it seemed to be the talk of the town when it came to fitness.

I never really got into it as I was in college playing baseball, and had more athletic needs than what I felt P90X had to offer. P90X was a general fitness program focused on getting people in shape, whereas I was focusing on building strength and power for baseball. To give credit where it’s due, however, P90X incorporated more power and strength moves than your typical fitness program, which I think is great. But it is tailored to home workouts and doesn’t include all that I’d recommend for someone with access to a gym full of equipment training for improved athletic performance.

While I didn’t personally perform P90X, one of the big components that was featured on their infomercials was “muscle confusion.” After hearing this, watching some of the infomercials, and viewing some of the workout program, I decided muscle confusion was the key to making unprecedented progress in getting bigger, stronger, and faster. So in my own training program, I started changing things up every workout. For example, I would alternate barbell bench presses one day with dumbbell bench presses on a second day a week with something else in my next workout. I was giving my muscles all the “confusion” they could handle.

So what was the result of all of this “muscle confusion” you might ask? For me, not much progress.

While I progressed on some things as you would expect someone relatively new to working out to do, I remember being stalled on bench press and many other exercises for weeks on end. Since I don’t have access to P90X anymore, I can’t speak to the specifics of the program. However, if I remember correctly, years later I discovered that the “confusion” part of muscle confusion actually occurred every few weeks, not every single workout. This periodic variation is a key topic I want to cover with you in the next few articles.

In my last column, I covered variation in exercises when coming back to the gym from COVID induced shutdowns. Now I want to cover variation again, but more so in the context of a normal periodized plan. If you’re wondering what a “periodized” plan is, don’t worry. We’re going to cover that in this series of articles.

Variation is a key part of a training program to ensure progress over the long-term. There are many reasons to implement variation into your training. Variation can help key injuries away. After all, if you’re doing the same things over and over again and at a high enough intensity to make progress, overuse injuries can occur.

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Variation can prevent staleness. Have you ever had that experience where you’re about to start the same old workout you’ve been doing for months on end and you just don’t want to do it? Variation can breathe new life into a training program and provide something new and exciting to try.

Variation can also help spur new growth and progress. When you work out, your muscles adapt to the stimulus you provided during your workout to get bigger and stronger so that they can withstand that stimulus again. As you continue to work out, though, more stimulus is needed to trigger your muscles to continue to grow. Eventually you can’t add any more weight, sets, or reps, and your muscles don’t make any more progress. If you introduce variation by changing the

exercises you’re doing for a specific muscle group for example, you provide a new stimulus to that muscle group. Different exercises, even for the same muscles, stimulate the target muscle differently. Additionally, different repetition ranges stimulate muscles differently. For example, performing sets of 5-10 repetitions stimulate a muscle differently than sets of 10-20 repetitions.

There are other potential benefits to variation but these are typically the three I think of most when reasoning why variation should be included in an exercise program.

Now you may be wondering, why am I praising variation so much if in my example above where I varied my workout every session resulted in stalled progress? That’s where there’s a nuance to variation. Variation is not beneficial if taken to the extreme. Your muscles need a few sessions performing an exercise to become proficient enough for a strong stimulus. If you change too frequently, you don’t give the muscles time to become proficient at the exercise to really get the most benefit. Over the next few columns, we’ll cover how to find the sweet spot on variation as well as how to develop a long-term periodized plan to help you progress for years and years to come.

(Nick McClary earned his doctor of physical therapy from the University of Tennessee. He also holds a masters in business administration. He is a native of Georgetown County and lives and works in Pawleys Island. Send him your health and fitness questions at: nmcclaryDPT@gmail.com.)

Reach Nick Masuda at 843-607-0912. Follow him on Twitter at @nickmasudaphoto. 

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