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Muscle confusion is a workout principle that has gained some popularity in recent years though versions of it have been around for decades. While the actual term “muscle confusion” may not have been used, the method was prevalent in the routines performed by golden era bodybuilders of the ’60s-’70s. However, is it something you should use in your hypertrophy training?
Simply put, muscle confusion is when you’re applying a constantly varied stimulus to the muscle. Instead of performing the same exercises for the same sets and reps every time you hit the gym, you change things up on a fairly frequent basis. Doing this keeps the muscle “guessing”, therefore in a more adaptive state. The question that comes into play is just how often you should alter your workout and how drastically.
You may think that muscle confusion is the antithesis of the “SAID” principle. SAID stands for specific adaptations to imposed demands. Essentially, it means that when you put a stimulus on the muscle, the muscle adapts specifically in order to be able to deal with it. So if you do heavy bench presses, the chest, shoulders, and triceps get stronger. If you squat for high reps, the legs build muscular endurance.
SAID implies that if you want to maximize muscular adaptation, you pick one stimulus and stick with only that. In other words, don’t barbell bench press heavy one workout then do dumbbell bench for max sets of 15+ reps the next. Doing so will “confuse” the muscles (which is good), but never allow enough exposure to any one stimulation in order for adaptation to occur (which is bad). If you want to improve, there has to be some regularity to your program.
One thing you have to realize about both muscle confusion and SAID is that you don’t have to go to one extreme or the other. Instead, utilize a moderate amount of both. Have enough variability in your training to ensure your muscles never “get used to” your workouts, but with enough constants that your body still has the chance to adapt. And in this case, “adaptation” leads to more muscle size.
You know that a good approach to building muscle is to start a workout off with strength-based hypertrophy work. Do a compound movement for sets of 6-8 reps to work strength as much as size. After that, you might want to do another compound movement, but this time with a little more volume – say sets of 8-10 reps. Then you could finish off your workout with an isolation exercise for sets of 10-12 reps.
Well, what you could do would be to use this structure every time you train. This would represent the constants in your routine that SAID needs to work. However, you can then employ muscle confusion by picking different exercises every workout. That way, you’re working in the same vein/style every session, but with a different direct application.
To see this idea in action, here’s a chest workout you could do:
There’s an exercise for each category described above. However, your next chest workout could switch things around as follows:
Then your next workout could be:
See how this works? You’re giving your body enough of the same sort of stimulus (both with how you’re training as well as the type of movements) to illicit a hypertrophy response. Yet at the same time, you’re taking advantage of muscle confusion by doing different exercises in each category every time you train. This gives you the best of both worlds, and ensures you’re in the best possible situation to put on muscle.