Over the past several years, the concept of “muscle confusion workouts” has made its rounds in the fitness world as a super way to accelerate muscle growth.
Just What Are Muscle Confusion Workout Routines Anyways?
Proponents of this approach to accelerating hypertrophy claim that it’s the result of introducing varied workout routines in an unpredictable manner to your body, thereby “shocking” the muscles into becoming bigger to accommodate unexpected demands.
Whew! Sounds great on paper, but…it’s really all a bunch of hype and has made some fitness gurus very wealthy.
Because fitness gurus have made muscle confusion workout routines the bases of their workout DVDs, personal trainers all over have jumped on this marketing bandwagon and have “sold” this concept to unsuspecting clients.
In fact, so prevalent now is this idea of keeping the muscles confused, that some personal trainers casually answer, “It’s to confuse your muscles,” when an inquisitive client questions the reasons behind a strange new routine.
And it works. When a client hears “muscle confusion workouts,” this sounds legit and even scientific, and therefore is taken as a logical explanation for that new crazy routine.
As mentioned already, the concept of shocking the muscles actually sounds good in theory, but it is flawed. Muscles respond to tension only, and they also respond to volume. And that’s it.
Muscles “Guess” Only At Tension Loads And Volume Loads
They can’t be tricked because they know what their job is. Their job is to either push, pull, lengthen, shorten or absorb stress while unchanged in length.
You cannot confound muscle fibers by making them do what they were designed to do: generate force.
Let’s Take A Look At Back Routines As An Example Of Why This Approach Is Flawed
There are many, many back routines: seated rows, barbell rows, bent-over dumbbell rows, lat pull-downs, chin-ups, pull-ups, T-bar rows, tension tube rows.
Within these many exercises are sub-variations, such as distance the hands are placed from each other on a barbell, palm position (such as facing your body or away from yourself), and grip angle (as determined by cable machine handle or resistance machine handle choice).
Now, according to muscle confusion advocates, the way to mystify your muscles would be to:
1) Switch up the sequence of your back routines
2) Replace back routines you’ve been doing a while with new ones you’ve been avoiding.
So, if you normally follow the sequence of lat pull-down, T-bar row and bent-over dumbbell row, then you’ll supposedly shock your muscles by performing the bent-over dumbbell rows first, followed by the lat pull-down and then the T-bar.
This alteration in order should mystify the muscle fibers and they will grow faster and bigger in response.
Better yet, if you just chuck these three routines and replace them with, say, seated row, barbell row and pull-ups, you’ll really baffle your muscles.
Again, Sounds Like A Logical Outcome, But Here Is The Flaw
No matter what the sequence or type of exercise, the common denominator remains unchanged. And that is the joint action of pulling!
The joint action of pulling occurs when the bones of the back, called the scapulae (singular, scapula), retract (pull in towards each other).
A pulling motion may also involve different scapular actions, but they all involve adduction: that of the bones moving towards the midline of the body—in this case, the spinal column.
So whether you are pulling tension tubes towards you while standing on a wobble board, or leaning over and pulling a barbell up towards your chest, the same joint motion occurs: pulling or scapular adduction.
Where, Then, Is This Confusion?
Your muscles only know pull, pull, pull in a back routine sequence.
They do not know of any changes in sequence of routines, or of old routines replaced by new ones. They only know of pull, pull, and pull.
This same understanding applies to other joint motions, such as scapular abduction (the bones move away from the spine).
This is the main joint action in chest exercises like the bench press, pushups and seated chest press.
So if you’ve been doing bench press and dumbbell press this whole time and not experiencing mass gains, the solution isn’t to “trick” your muscles by abandoning the flat bench press and dumbbell press in favor of the seated chest press and decline bench press.
After all, the joint action will not change! In all four exercises, the same muscles will get worked: mainly the pectoralis major and minor, and serratus anterior. Same joint action; same muscle groups.
The secondary joint action of elbow flexion (which works triceps) also occurs in all four exercises. It’s push, push, push, no matter what. There is no confusion.
But What About People Who Swear That After Switching Up Their Program Or Varying The Exercises, They Grew A Lot Of Muscle?
This can be explained by boredom being replaced by something new for a change.
A change in routine will produce a favorable psychological effect in the trainee, creating a new-found energy and enthusiasm.
Naturally, this upgrade in enthusiasm will effect the workout. The trainee will push harder, excited at trying chin-ups for the first time, or perhaps enjoying the funky feel of bent-over dumbbell rows.
This resurrection of motivation will result in a harder workout, which of course will then promote hypertrophy.
Even if you normally do your back with biceps, and think that switching it to back and triceps will confuse your muscles, this won’t happen, because despite the change in muscle-group pairing, the very same joint actions will still occur: scapular adduction and elbow extension (triceps work).
If you’re still begging for a way of how to confuse your muscles, change up the tension and volume.
In short, lift heavier weights. Having to move a heavier weight than last time will give your muscles a good jolt and force them to get bigger.
Increase the volume by performing lat pull-downs right after your chin-ups: a compound set (two routines in a row that work the same muscle group). Muscles respond to progressive overload—lifting heavier and heavier weights over time.
Some personal trainers really do believe in the concept of shocking muscles, and it’s easy to believe this idea because it is so easy to explain in simple English.
But if there truly is a way to provide shock to muscle fibers and make them grow, it is to heap onto them a heavier weight, i.e., drive up the tension.
You’ll want to consider reading No-Nonsense Muscle Building Program by Vince DelMonte, because he goes in-depth about how to manipulate tension and volume for maximum hypertrophy.
This is an ideal source for both beginners and intermediate/advanced individuals who are seeking to build lean muscle mass.
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