If there’s one thing the fitness industry understands, it’s that novelty sells. The programs claiming the latest and greatest in the fitness industry will catch the eyes of fitness enthusiasts, and become the next fad, at least for now.
I get it, I know I tend to get bored with my workouts, and mixing it up sometimes can make working out more exciting and enjoyable, and hopefully keeps you coming back for more!
This is where Muscle Confusion comes in. Muscle Confusion is a popular theory in the fitness industry, which claims that switching up your workouts will help you avoid a plateau.
However, there’s another reason muscle confusion became so popular, muscle soreness. People interpret soreness after a workout as meaning that it was more effective.
However, studies show this is not the case. Studies show that soreness is not a reliable indicator of the effectiveness of your workouts. Let’s break it down:
You're more likely to experience DOMS (which means Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness) after performing an activity that your body isn't used to.
So many people get discouraged when they find themselves sore after trying something new. So many times I have heard "I thought I was strong, but I guess not." The good news? You are strong! Your body was simply challenged differently.
A perfect example, the first time I played a casual game of pickleball, my hips were so sore the next day. I know I am strong, but my body just isn’t used to cutting and sprinting. It just means that I did an activity that was relatively foreign to my body.
While soreness can measure inflammation to the muscle, studies show soreness does not indicate the level of microdamage to the tissue.
In some cases, more severe microdamage after a hard workout showed no muscle soreness, and in other cases, almost no microdamage resulted in soreness.
So if you felt like you had a great workout and you’re disappointed when you aren’t sore the next day, it doesn’t mean that your workout isn’t moving you in the right direction.
What will happen as you begin to use progressive overload, is that you will have workouts that don’t result in soreness. And I think people have come to assume that if they aren’t sore from their workouts that they are plateauing, which research says is not true.
So the question is… is muscle confusion a real thing, and should we be constantly exercising in new and different ways to avoid plateauing?
My answer: Yes & No.
Yes, you definitely should be “learning” new movements throughout your life.
This is for a few reasons. Your brain has what’s called the motor cortex. This is the part of your brain responsible for learning a new motor (or physical) skill, like doing a cartwheel or a layup.
As kids, we constantly used our motor cortex to learn new skills. Learning how to walk, run, skip, bike, and for many of us, we even utilize our motor cortex into our teenage years by learning skills in sports.
But as we transition into adulthood, many of us stop learning new motor skills, and this part of our brain can become atrophied from under-use. We stop learning new skills in sports and shift to spending most of our days sitting, standing, walking, or laying down.
The brain is a use it or lose it organ, and we want to challenge as many different areas of our brain as possible in order to keep it well-functioning and sharp.
This is part of the reason why I am such a huge proponent of learning new skills, even if it’s small. This is part of why in my classes, I like to include exercises that will challenge you to learn how to coordinate a new mobility drill like rib cage circles, circling your ankle in figure 8’s, learning how to individually move each of your toes, and more.
Now, while I may be a huge proponent of learning new skills, I don’t necessarily believe that this applies to your resistance training routine and workouts.
Because if you’ve ever tried to learn a new skill, you know that it takes a lot of concentration. When your brain is learning a new skill, it has to focus very hard.
Coordination and strength are two very different systems within your body, and should not necessarily be merged together.
If your brain is too busy focusing on coordinating your movements in a workout, it won’t be able to focus on producing force from your muscles, and you won’t be able to load your muscles as much or as effectively.
The outcome might be that you are better at a movement, but it may not result in optimal “damage” to your muscle tissue.
So again, we take a look at our goals. If improving strength and muscle definition in your body is your goal, which is what I recommend for anyone who is exercising, constantly challenging your coordination and motor learning cortex can actually inhibit this.
You can test the concept yourself: Go ahead and try doing bicep curls with both feet flat on the ground, and see how much you can curl, and how many reps. Then try to bicep curl on one leg, and see how many reps you can do. Odds are, you will be able to do less repetitions when you are on one leg.
Because your brain is focusing on coordinating your balance and doing a bicep curl at the same time, your muscular output actually declines. That means your biceps are getting less quality work, and the results won’t be ideal.
If you want to work on your coordination, you absolutely should! But if you want to work on your strength, you should focus on your strength. But merging the two at once will just end up diminishing the benefits of either one, instead of getting better outcomes from working on them separately.
To create optimal change and adaptation in your muscles, your movements don’t have to be super creative, it just has to load the muscle in the direction that muscle contracts.
But I’ve come to realize that for each muscle group, there are a set of exercises that load that muscle group the best based on physics principles, and therefore create the most desirable change in them.
“Mixing it up” by introducing a new pattern of movement that your body has to learn won’t necessarily drive better results for a couple of reasons:
One, your brain is focused on coordinating the new movement, not on effectively contracting the muscle.
And two, since certain movements are better for targeting muscles, doing a “less desirable” movement for that specific muscle will result in less desirable outcomes.