While you might love logging hours on the treadmill or attending the same dance cardio class time and time again, there’s something to be said for occasionally switching up your workout routine — especially if you feel like your fitness progress has hit a wall. This is the concept of “muscle confusion.”
In essence, muscle confusion is all about keeping your body guessing. “It’s the idea that constantly changing up your workout routine every week — or even every day — 'confuses' your muscles to avoid hitting plateaus,” Nikka Saadat, a certified personal trainer with the at-home workout system Vitruvian, tells Bustle. It’s thought that adding different types of workout modalities into your routine causes your body to adapt — versus getting used to doing the same thing every single time you exercise — so you never get stuck in a rut.
Instead of doing the same ol’ jog every day, for example, you might switch things up (read: confuse your muscles) by adding a kickboxing class one day, Pilates the next, and then rounding out the week with some resistance band training. The well-known P90X workout program, BTW, is based on muscle confusion since it keeps your body guessing as you do strength training one day, HIIT moves the next, followed by yoga, etc. When you do a different kind of workout each day, you end up hitting different muscle groups because you’re moving your body in new ways.
Here, trainers break down the benefits of adding variety to your exercise routine as well as the limitations of muscle confusion.
The Benefits Of Muscle Confusion
Muscle confusion may help prevent overuse injuries that can occur when you repeat the same moves over and over, Daugherty says. It varies intensity levels and calls on new muscles for different exercises, so you’re actually less likely to strain something or hurt your joints.
Another perk is a boost in performance. You may notice that you feel stronger or gain more endurance as your muscles and lungs work to adapt to all the different stimuli, Daugherty adds.
Perhaps most appealing of all, though, is how the variety that comes from muscle confusion helps prevent workout boredom. According to Drew Stauffacher, NASM-CPT, a certified personal trainer and director of fitness programming at kickboxing studio 9Round, switching things up can actually be fun. “You’ll be more energized to work out and stay consistent with having different modalities to try and do, other than just ‘going to the gym’ day in and day out,” he tells Bustle.
The Downside Of Muscle Confusion
While it makes sense in theory, some people argue that muscle confusion is a myth, says Darin Larson, a NASM-certified personal trainer and Spartan Race Coach. Some trainers argue it isn’t necessary, and for those who try it, may not make much of a difference at all. That’s why, as it often goes with exercise, it’s always best to go with what works for you.
Muscle confusion also isn’t the best choice if you have specific workout goals in mind beyond general fitness. The reason? Constantly changing your routine can actually make it difficult to track your progress, Saadat explains. “Our bodies don't adapt to a new training protocol after a day or even a week,” she says. “Training for a specific goal requires consistent practice of a set of movement patterns over four to six-week blocks.”
Let’s say your goal is to lift weights and focus your glutes. “They need a consistently challenging stimulus to grow, like via increasing intensity and volume — or reps and sets — over time,” Saadat says. “This means performing and progressing the same base exercises. In order to get stronger in a certain area, you need to stick with it consistently for weeks or months at a time.”
That said, it’s totally possible to add variety within a certain workout regimen. When weight training, Saadat says you could adjust variables like intensity, the amount of weight you’re lifting, and your number of reps and sets to provide variety, while still allowing you to measure progress towards a specific goal. “The progressive overload principle is rooted in increasing the challenge you're imposing on your muscles over time,” she says.
The Bottom Line
Muscle confusion might be a good choice if you tend to get bored easily when exercising, if you’re looking for a full-body workout, or if you want to focus on your general fitness and well-being. Adding new exercises and workouts can be fun, and it’s a great way to ensure your regimen brings you a variety of benefits, such as improved cardio endurance, strength, and flexibility.
But if you’re working toward a certain goal — like maybe you want to lift heavier weights, or work towards running at a faster pace — it really might pay to stay the course and do the same thing over and over again so that you can accurately measure your progress. TL;DR? It all comes down to what you hope to get from your workout.
Aicale, R. 2018. Overuse injuries in sport: a comprehensive overview. J Orthop Surg Res. doi: 10.1186/s13018-018-1017-5.
Baz-Valle, E. 2019. The effects of exercise variation in muscle thickness, maximal strength and motivation in resistance trained men. PLoS One. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0226989.
Nikka Saadat, certified personal trainer
Hannah Daugherty, NASM and ACE-certified personal trainer, health coach
Drew Stauffacher, NASM-CPT, certified personal trainer, director of fitness programming
Darin Larson, NASM-certified personal trainer, Spartan Race Coach