November 9, 2018

Falsehoods of Fitness: Muscle Confusion Theory (Episode 1)

This is the first episode of our new Falsehoods of Fitness video series covering the truth about muscle confusion theory.

Full Transcript

Okay, so let’s get started. A lot of people on Instagram.

Origins of muscle confusion theory

Muscle confusion theory came about for a couple of different reasons. One reason is that people noticed, after they drastically changed their exercise program, that their muscles became sore. And the question is: Does soreness equal growth? Is that gains? Is that something that we need to go looking for? Do we need to go looking for soreness?

The answer is no. Soreness has nothing to do with gains. There’s never been any evidence confirming that. In fact, micro tears in muscle are highly associated with soreness. Marathon runners and cyclists have the most micro tears of any type of athlete. They don’t build “big” muscles. So why get excited about muscle soreness?

I think the second reason was that Arnold Schwarzenegger was a big promoter of “shocking” the muscle into growth. That’s not a valid thing. While we all love Arnold Schwarzenegger, that’s still not a valid thing.

The role of the central nervous system

So what we need to look at instead is what happens to the central nervous system when you expose load to the body, whether you lift a weight or even if you’re running, or something similar. Why does adaptation happen?

Let’s say you give a clear signal to the central nervous system. Then the central nervous system will respond and make a determination: “We don’t have enough of X.” For example, “We don’t have enough bicep, so we’re gonna work really hard to build more bicep tissue.” So to build more bicep tissue, there are certain strategies.

Muscle confusion vs. regular standard lifting

The American College of Sports Medicine put out a position paper looking at hundreds of studies testing muscle confusion versus regular standard lifting, with an aim towards having a greater output every time.

When you bench press x-amount of weight for 10 reps, and then at the next workout you can do that same weight for 11 repetitions, you have gotten stronger. That’s a greater output, which means you have increased your strength and therefore have grown muscle. When sticking with the same program, you’re going to have a greater amount of success compared to just haphazardly doing different things.

For example, let’s say you do a chest workout, pushups, and then your next workout is all based on flys, and then the next one is all based on one-arm work or cross-body work. You are not really building a skill because you’re doing that exercise one time.

You’re haphazardly doing one thing or another, and then you go do something else and you’re haphazardly doing that too. Ultimately, it just makes you evenly bad at everything. You’re not building any skills, and it’s not optimum for muscular growth or performance.

Part of the reason the American College of Sports Medicine looked at this topic was for athletic training with a very specific purpose, namely training elite athletes.

You wouldn’t take an elite swimmer and say to him, “All right, now what we want you to do is become a great cyclist because that’s really going to help you in the water.” Nobody would do that. Nobody. If you want be a better swimmer, you’ve got to swim. And you have to stay focused on what you want.

What I’m encouraging people to do is be as strong and as lean as possible. Those are two goals that we can get to pretty easily by using the right triggers and the right stimuli for the central nervous system.

So when you: show the central nervous system that you have a deficit of bicep issue or trapezius tissue by going to a fatigue from a myofibril standpoint, then a sarcoplasmic standpoint, meaning first, the amount of contractile protein, the actual tissue there, and then the amount of fuel held in the tissue – you ram all of that into one experience.

Then the central nervous system doesn’t have a choice: “We’ve just gotta build more traps.” That’s it. And both stimuli manifests in both types of growth, and the growth can happen very quickly if you really, clearly fatigue that musculature.

Effective vs. not effective

Now another justification for mixing up your workout is boredom. I hear that from trainers, “Oh, I wanna keep my clients from being bored.”

Well, to me, there’s effective and not effective, right? You wouldn’t brush your teeth with your socks because you’re really bored of your toothbrush, right? You just wouldn’t do that. You use a toothbrush every day. So is it exciting? I don’t know. I don’t particularly feel like high-fiving a lot of people when I brush my teeth, but, you know, I’d probably feel a little bit better after I do it.

But I feel a lot better after I do my X3 workout, so I apologize if the proper program seems monotonous. It will be monotonous, but you’re not doing it for the sake of getting a workout.

That’s another thing—I want to throw somebody off a building when somebody says, “Hey, can you get a workout from that?” What does that even mean, “get a workout”? A workout is the vehicle, not the destination. That’s completely confusing what your objective is and, I think, basically foolish.

The workout is to trigger your result, and you’re always driving towards triggering that result. So, working out? It’s not entertainment.

The entertainment—the enjoyment—is being stronger and leaner everywhere you go. Having better posture everywhere you go. That’s what you enjoy.

And for the people who say, “Oh, yeah, strength training is hard, it hurts,” I say, “Suck it up.” You don’t have a whole lot of time to commit to getting that work in, that very brief period of time, and pulling those triggers in the body and doing the protocol the right way. Once you do that, then you just wait for the growth to happen, because it will.

So a few other things I want to recap, and then I think we’re just about good on this subject.

Now I don’t want to beat a dead horse here, but the Workout Of The Day thing that Cross Fitters do? That’s using the same muscle confusion theory. Ultimately, workouts do work. If somebody does pushups one day and does something else another day, it’s not like they’re going get nothing out of it.

They just won’t get as much out of that, as opposed to really sticking with something consistently and applying it, and analyzing it, analyzing it, and analyzing it, and trying to get a little bit more, and a little bit more, and a little bit more out of it each time. Then you have to measure the results in your head, or write it down, or make a video of yourself so you can critique it later.

All of these things are with an eye towards progress, not just shuffling the deck and doing “some stuff.” So, Workout Of The Day? Yeah, sorry. Thumbs down. I wouldn’t do it.

I did a podcast yesterday where the interviewer said to me, “Wow, you’re throwing a lot of ideas that are really upsetting to the strength-training industry.”

Well, you know what? The strength-training industry: is it really doing that great? When I walk down the street, who looks like they exercise? Nobody, that’s who. Basically, nobody.

So why are people just grabbing a hold of so many of these principles that you can just do a Google Scholar or Medline search on and realize that they’re not real? People are so emotionally tied to these things that obviously aren’t working.

So why be tied to it?

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