Muscle Confusion: A Quitter’s Approach to Lifting

October 20, 2008

I’m sure most people reading this have heard of the Muscle Confusion Principle.

The idea is to change exercises and set and rep schemes on a regular basis, to keep the muscles guessing. How can you make great progress in any one exercise if you don’t focus on it long enough?

Sticking with and practicing a skill is the only way to master it. I don’t recommend jumping around when trying to be successful at anything, including lifting.


[Pistol Pete Maravich, carried a basketball around with him 8 hours per day from the age of 12 until he reached the NBA. When asked why…”You don’t get here by just wishing”. I love that quote!]

Going from a Beginner to an Intermediate is Easy…

Getting stronger is a skill to a certain extent.

Just like any other skill, the quickest amount of improvement happens when starting out. Within a few years a soccer player can go from a complete beginner with no skill at all, to an Intermediate who has great control of the ball.

The route from beginner to Intermediate is a short one…going from Intermediate to Elite can take decades. The same thing goes with lifting. Don’t expect to master the bench press or military press in 2-3 years. It can take 10-20+ years to reach your highest potential in these lifts.

You Don’t Perfect One Skill by Switching to Another

Getting in top shape and getting stronger at a lift isn’t that much different from any other skill. Take the example of a soccer player. It doesn’t make sense for that soccer player to switch to baseball to improve his soccer skills.

On the path to greatness this soccer player will go through periods of time where progress “appears” to be at a standstill. The “greats” in any sport or endeavor are the ones who practice in spite of no visual signs of progress.

“The Jack of All Trades, Master of None”

Becoming great at anything involves doing practicing a skill even after the initial enthusiasm wears off. It is fun to “hop from one thing to the next”, but mastering a skill involves performing that skill with a ton of repetition.

Most people quit when things get boring. To reach the top in anything…push through the boring times. This isn’t just an approach to lifting, it applies to anything worth doing.

How This Applies to Lifting Weights and Exercising

I recommend picking at least one basic exercise per body part and keeping it a constant in your workout routine.

Do it first so you have a way of measuring progress. For variety, you can change the other exercises in your routine…but keep this one a constant. Pick one exercise for each muscle group and measure your progress over a period of years.

Take Breaks from This Lift for Periods of Time…

You certainly can take breaks from these lifts for a month or two at a time, but then come back with a renewed focus on these lifts. I’ve been mastering the basic barbell curl, the seated dumbbell military press, the incline dumbbell press, and one arm dumbbell rows for over 15 years.

I’ll mix it up every now and then to give my joints a rest, but I always come back to these lifts for sets of 3-5 reps. When I come back I try to work my way up to personal bests.

After 4-6 months I may only get stronger by 2.5 pounds or one more rep, but over a period of many years this has translated into impressive weight as well as major muscle definition in the muscle group being worked.

The Myth of “Hitting the Muscle from Every Angle”

I will do a post on this subject as well at this point. Just realize this…there isn’t a need to work a ton of different angles to insure that a muscle gets worked. This should be good news to you who workout at home with limited equipment.

One Last Thing…

I’m not talking in “absolutes” here. You can switch things up and get great results as well…just don’t be afraid to stick with something for a while.

Many people hop around too much in my opinion.

----> (New) Facebook Comments..."Cause all the cool kids are doin' it!"

{ 30 comments… read them below or add one }

Chris - Zen to Fitness October 20, 2008 at 3:43 pm

Awesome post, this is something I have always done through instinct. I always liked to build my chest routine around a Dumbbell bench Press and at the moment I build my full body workouts around front Squats and then role from there.
Its great to train your nervous system into the movement and let it get used to the range of motion. Very innovative thinking with this post Rusty!

Adam Steer, Momentum Wellness October 20, 2008 at 3:56 pm

Interesting post. I come at this from an angle of movement quality rather than physique, but I definitely agree with at least part of what you are saying. Learning efficiency of movement is as much a part of one’s physical development as the physiological adaptations that come along with movement. If you don’t “stick with” an exercise and seek to improve it, you can’t hope to attain any kind of efficiency.

To take that to extremes, I have even done extremely long sets of certain Clubbell exercises just to dig into that zone where you need to groove the movement in order to pull it off (up to 800 straight reps with the double Clubbell Swipe using 15 lb Clubbells).

But at the same time, I am very much a believer in looking at training as a continual upward spiral. So once you reach a certain level in an exercise, I believe it is time to increase the sophistication and make it more “functional” (excuse the use of the most cliché of terms in the industry…). The interesting thing is that in many cases when you come back to the more “simple” exercise months later, you actually end up having made gains without even doing the movement!

Thanks for another great post.

Cheers,
Adam

Ty October 20, 2008 at 6:32 pm

Rusty,

Great article first off! I have a question for you that’s been on my mind for a while:

Will doing big compound exercises like deadlifts and squats make someone bulky looking even if they don’t get eat like an excess of 4,000 calories a day? I’m deciding whether or not I should incorporate them into my strength training, I just don’t want to get bulky in the process – just really strong. Thanks

Helder October 20, 2008 at 6:41 pm

Good post Rusty, persistance and progression are two fundamental keys, if one keeps changing all the time won’t get nowhere, it’s true that when the body adapts to something we need to challenge it even more or change things, but only then one should change, changing just for nothing won’t bring results.

John Fit October 20, 2008 at 7:50 pm

I love Pistol Pete and I love that you noted his work ethic in this post.. Awesome article buddy..

John Fit..

Yavor | Relative Strength Advantage October 21, 2008 at 3:31 am

Oh man, it is great that you mentioned Pistol Pete. I am a bit younger and only found out about him this year by watching his Homework Basketball DVD series. I played basketball this spring and summer and would warm up for the pickup games with his dvd.

As far as muscle confusion goes, I have two things to say:

1.first people should reach some baseline strength goals on the basic exercises.

2. if people want to get evern stronger, they should stick to some of these basic exercises and train, train, train…

Yavor

Morgenster October 21, 2008 at 6:19 am

Hey Rusty,

great article on how one principle for one domain shouldn’t just be used for another domain.
The whole ‘keep the body guessing’ thing doens’t work as advertised for lifting or anything that needs to be mastered, unless you vary your routines to adapt to new conditions.
If I’m not mistaken the muscle confusion principle is only usefull if you want to train to lose weight, not to make any gains.
An inexperienced runner will burn more calories over a three mile run than an experienced one with the same characteristics because his muscles and nerves haven’t fully adapted to it. The body has a natural tendency to conserve energy and will work to that end by adapting to repetitive exercises in such a way that performing this exercise will cost less. If your goal is weightloss and not to get good at something, switching things up isn’t a bad idea. It’ll help fighting off plateaus in fatloss and boredom.

Son of Grok October 21, 2008 at 11:14 am

Hey Rusty,

I would agree and disagree with you. If you want to get very good at an excercise, then practice does make perfect. By doing the same activity repeatedly, we get more efficient or “good” at it. This is true, but her-in lies the problem. While trying to get better fitness, we are wanting to exude maximum effort but we have gotten more efficient at the excersize, therfore having to work significantly harder to exude that effort. This is were the idea of muscle confusion comes from which I think is extremely beneficial to fitness. I don’t necesarily want to be and expert bench presser, I am not a competitive bench presser. I wan’t to get to my maximum fitness level for health.

Personally, I think that the idea you set forth is the best one. Keep some excersices fairly regular (great for guaging progress) and mix up others. This offers kind of a best of both world scenario!

Mike OD - IF Life October 21, 2008 at 12:35 pm

I’m just upset I didn’t make and market P90X first…..good god how much money is that guy making?

caleb - Double Your Gains October 21, 2008 at 12:45 pm

Rusty!

Great post. Strength is most definitely a skill. The more you practice it the better you get…

I like your advice about picking a couple lifts and mastering those, hardly every changing them. This is a definite, even if you wanted to mix it up a bit with the rest of your routine.

Later!
Caleb

Tom Parker - Free Fitness Tips October 21, 2008 at 6:28 pm

Thanks for the post Rusty. I’ve been getting a little annoyed with my progress at the gym recently. I had a couple of weeks off and really seemed to be struggling with my strength. However, after reading your post I thought back to when I first started lifting and realised how much progress I have actually made in the long run.

nelrock October 21, 2008 at 10:09 pm

Hey Rusty, I have seen you give this schedule for a 5 day routine before:
Day1: Chest, Back, Abs, 30 minutes Cardio
Day2: Shoulders, Biceps, Triceps
Day3: off
Day4: Chest, Back, Abs, 30 minutes Cardio
Day 5: Shoulders, Biceps, Triceps
Day 6: 60 minutes of Cardio
Day 7: off
Where does legs fit in and does this apply for strength training. I have been out of the gym for medical reasons, I went from 143lbs. of 96% muscle to 104lbs. of no muscle or tone. I’m up to 128lbs now but want to reach 135-140 within 3-4 months….does this sound unrealistic?

Yavor October 22, 2008 at 2:24 am

nelrock,

1. you will gain the weight you lost due to the illness within 2-3 months. just focus on improving your major lifts

2. Rusty does not recommend training the legs with weights, hence no direct leg training. He however stresses that cardio should be priority to get extra lean.

Your first goal should be to get back to your original weight. If I were you, I wouldn’t worry much about cardio at this point.

Yavor

eric October 22, 2008 at 10:43 am

hi again! i have a similar question like nelrock: due to a bit too radical diet i lost fat but also i am lacking of a well-proportioned amount of overall muscle . my problem is that back to the times had more muscle and lifted weights regularly i never had the feeling of making a good progress.. ..there was no difference between lifting heavy or light..i used to lift ridicilous light weights in the gym in comparison to other guys or to you!..but seriously, i want to give it all a fresh start and slowly gain 5-10 pounds of muscle…according to your recent post, what would recommend me to do? please help to not feel

eric October 22, 2008 at 10:44 am

like a complete wuss in the weight room again!

eric October 22, 2008 at 6:45 pm

what about cardio? i am sort of getting addicted to it once i started it so i quit it all..the thing is i stay lean (as i post in another article) without cardio…thanks to ESE..now i am a bit afraid of not getting the “extra sharpness” and losing functional fitness..i also think that sprinting shape my legs very well. so what about doing ESE just once a week and adding some intervall training? i am sorry, i use to ask to much questions but i have been struggling for getting a great body for around 10 months now.. and it seems to end in a fiasko…guess i need much more continuity and patience, or didn`t i?

admin October 22, 2008 at 11:15 pm

Chris,

Thanks for the compliment. Powerlifters talk about mastering the “groove”. Repetition of a movement is how this happens. Digging your blog, buddy. I need to spend some more time reading your posts. Great stuff.

Adam,

I just spent about 20 minutes on your site! I really want to give Club-bells a try to build forearm strength. I have always felt that wrist curls didn’t do the trick. I do like one arm “suticase lift” with a barbell for grip strength, but I would love to find an alternative to the wrist curls for direct forearm work. I’ll probably just go over to your blog and comment. I’ve been searching for an effective forearm movement that felt healthy on the wrists…wrist curls feel a little damaging to me. Does that make sense?

Ty,

Most of the readers of this blog know I’m not a big fan of squats or deadlifts, becasue I think they are TOO efective at building mass. That being said, you can certainly do them until you notice that your legs hips and butt are looking too large…then it is time to drop them. To limit the growth, stick to lower volume low rep sets. My waist went down an inch two years after dropping them from my routine at the same body fat level. Give them a shot, but just monitor how they affect you. I think most people will do better without these lifts, but I’m in the minority here.

Helder,

Good point…I agree with changing it up as long as you come back to track your progress with a movement that you are trying to master…and spend some quality time with that lift.

John Fit,

Before there was Magic Johnson, before Steve Nash, there was Pistol Pete! He was the originator of “Showtime”! Dr J is still my all-time favorite…he was super-smooth.

Yavor,

You can’t go wrong with the basics…or slight variations…good call.

Morgenster,

Good call, there is certainly a benefit to switch up cardio. I’m the master of the treadmill, but put me in a spinning class and I’m toast. That reminds me…I need to switch up my cardio!

Son of Grok,

Yep…I think it works best to master one exercise per muscle group and switch around the other exercises so you don’t get bored to death.

Mike OD,

You are bad! (Mike is being very sarcastic here. Neither of us likes the P90X system…it is based on never repeating the same workout over 90 days…actually you don’t do anything resembling the previous workouts over 90 days). I’m jealous of their marketing campaign…that has to covert extremely well. Yes they are making a killing, just like the Thigh Master (which to this day is one of the most successful infomercials of all-time).

caleb,

I love it that all the guys with the fitness blogs are chiming in! Now I need to come on over and read what you are up to. It has been a little while since I visited your site. Thanks for the comment buddy.

Tom,

I know you plan on lifting the rest of your life. You are a young guy still…I actually love getting older. You will begin to lift impressive weight and get ultra defined after doing this a couple of decades.

nelrock,

I don’t recommend direct leg lifts. I am definitely in the minority here. Take soccer players for example. Very little if any leg lifting at all, but muscular legs that are perfectly propotioned to their bodies. I think that intense interval training followed by a bit of steady state cardio builds the best looking most functional legs…plus it will help you get ultra-lean if you keep your diet in order.

Yavor,

Thanks for the perfect repsonse. He will certainly get all the muscle back…and he doesn’t need to worry too much about cardio. Maybe just 10 minutes of HIIT to keep the legs defined…but not so much that he is burning a ton of calories.

eric,

Gain strength in the 5 rep range. Keep it simple…do 5 sets of 5…start with a weight you know you can do 5 times without that much struggle. You will probably be able to do 5 reps on your first 3 sets, but maybe 4 on set number 4, and then 3 reps on your last set. If that is the case stick with that same weight your next workout. Only increase the weight, when you can do 5 sets of 5 (5 reps on all 5 sets). Increase the weight by a ‘tiny’ bit. Jumping too high of an increment is a mistake I see a ton of begginners make (you just gave me a great idea for a post)…go up a little bit, so you don’t reach a sticking point.

If you are already lean…do HIIT for maybe 10-15 minutes, but probably no need for you to add in the 20-30 minutes of steady state cardio right after. You will do fine with getting brief workouts based upon performance. I wouldn’t imagine it taking more than 6 months to see a dramtic improvement in your physique. Hope that helps.

Thanks everyone!

Rusty

Andrew R October 23, 2008 at 3:55 am

Rusty,

I love the title of this post, it absolutely made me NEED to read it!! That being said, I’m half and half on this argument. First off, I agree with you completely with regards to lifting weights in leg workouts. I can’t even wear a suit or jeans after a month of leg training with weights.

However, when I feel like my HIIT workouts are progressively getting harder on my legs, I’ll throw in a day of heavy lifting on legs, a day or two of rest and then I’m back even stronger.

I find that a lot of the time, if you just listen to your body, you will find the answer. Of course, this applies to the seasoned veteran because it takes time to hear what your body has to say.

For the new comer, I would agree with you that you should by all means, stick to at the very least one (I would say maybe even 75% of your workout for each body part) exercise and get good at it, not necessarily to “perfect” the execution of the movement, but to derive the greatest gains from the exercise. The favorites being bench press for chest, bar curls for biceps, dips for triceps, yada yada yada!!

I definitely agree with what you have to say in the section ‘Going from Beginner to an Intermediate is easy’, except the level of consistency from stage one to two can be the hardest part of transitioning into a healthy, fit lifestyle.

I’m a big fan of taking so-called ‘established principles’ of health and fitness and questioning them in order to better understand the idea behind them. What other posts have you written that do that?

Thanks bud,

Andrew R

Adam Steer, Momentum Wellness October 23, 2008 at 9:28 am

Hey Rusty,

Really interesting reflection about wrist curls being potentially damaging. It got me to thinking and I ended up writing a quick blog post about it.

Were We Built For Wrist Curls?

Cheers,
Adam

Yash October 23, 2008 at 10:13 pm

Few things with this post. You mentioned p90x, which i actually stuck to and completed. however, i didn’t stick to it 100% because i did it over the summer, living at home [i’m a student] so sticking to the preset diet would not have been an option. i thought it was a decent starting program to get me into the habit of working out regularly and things like that. the real progress however, came when i started throwing in a little HIIT like outlined in your blog and eating primal which i found on mark’s daily apple. now i hit the gym regularly and im doing a much more consistent schedule and not switching everything up week to week.

I’ve also been doing squats and dealifts and so far i’m up to squatting my body weight. i’m trying to gain a little weight since i think i’m a little scrawny, but i can’t figure out why i can’t gain an ounce. assuming the rest of me stays the same, i should at the very least put on some leg mass! [i’ve got scrawny legs. so i wouldn’t mind it] help rusty! should i start eating raw butter and a fuilly grown cow each day??? [grass fed of course]

Yavor October 24, 2008 at 2:34 am

Yash, you should progress in your workouts. Simple as that. If you don’t get stronger, there is no reason for your body to change.

Yavor

John October 25, 2008 at 8:58 am

Very cool man…I couldn’t agree more.

Yavor October 26, 2008 at 2:32 am

Hey guys, you should check out John’s blog. He has developed a great body!

admin October 27, 2008 at 5:29 pm

Andrew,

I do my best to write eye catching and creative titles, to get people to stop and read these posts. I’m glad it worked! As far as questioning commonly held beliefs…a big portion of the blog is dedicated to that. The main things I questions are in regards to gaining muscle definition, getting stronger, eating frequency, and metabolism.

Adam,

I’m pumped you wrote an entire blog post around this question. It is a great one too! Hopefully people will head over, read, and comment on it!

John,

I like your clever articles and blog name. You have some good stuff happening on your site. Keep it up!

Rusty

eric November 2, 2008 at 4:11 am

thank you rusty for your great advice. about lifting for beginner i have one question. is it usefull for me to follow the approaches of hard contractions and irradiation while starting lifting or should i concentrate on getting used to the weights and add these styles of lifting later?

Jake November 19, 2008 at 3:52 pm

Hi. I just have a quick question about your comments on P90X. I own the system, and although I moved away from it after a month or so, they do repeat workouts. Your comment had me a little confused. There are only 12 or so workouts and you do in fact, repeat each one quite a bit. I just wanted to clear that up.

matt April 18, 2009 at 5:42 pm

Adam have you seriously done 800 continious swipes with 15 lb clubbells? that doesnt even sound possible but i wouldnt know iv never used clubbells before

Kent June 22, 2010 at 7:11 pm

“…the P90X system…it is based on never repeating the same workout over 90 days…actually you don’t do anything resembling the previous workouts over 90 days”

That’s not actually true. I did P90X to build some muscle mass over the course of 6 months (2 cycles of the program). I didn’t eat the diet. I’m a life-long scrawny person (6’3 160lb was my max weight until P90X) so I just wanted to add a little mass and tone to my boney frame. I regularly took protien (60G’s a day) and creatine.

The way P90X actually works is that you repeat the same workouts quite frequently (which is why I stopped after 6 months – it got boring).

The schedule is something like this:
Week1 day 1: Chest and back (pushups/pullups) and Ab Ripper X
Week1 day 2: Plymetrics (actually a very good workout DVD)
Week1 day 3: Shoulders and arms (weights) and Ab Ripper X
Week1 day 4: Yoga
Week1 day 5: Legs and Back (brutal for me – stick legs) and Ab Ripper X
Week1 day 6: Kenpo (Think Tae Bo)
Week1 day 7: Rest/Stretch
Repeat for 4 weeks

Week5 day 1: Chest, Shoulders, Tri’s (Pushups and pullups) and Ab Ripper X
Week5 day 2: Plyometrics
Week5 day 3: Back and Bi’s (Weights and pullups)
Week5 day 4: Core Synergistics (another great DVD)
Week5 day 5: Legs and Back
Week5 day 6: Yoga
Week5 day 7: Rest/Stretch
Repeat for 4 weeks

The last month you perform alternating weeks of Week1 and Week5 until you reach day 90. Repeat (if you want).

I gained almost 30lbs using P90X. Some of that was because the physical effort made me incredibly hungry at all times. I definately put on some muscle and I was “in the best shape of my life”, so as far as that claim goes, I believe it. I could basically do 1 pullup when I started the program and I could do about 5-6 (depending on the day) when I completed the program.

There’s definately a benefit to the program especially for people that want to do SOMETHING and want to give it 100%. P90X is not easy. You have to be dedicated to get through the workouts and see any benefit. You’d have to be REALLY dedicated to do the diet and the exercises.

I think P90X has it’s place in the fitness world. For minimal equipment cost I thought it was a good program. My wife did it too and she was never hotter! …of course, now she’s 7.5 months pregnant, so… Make of that what you will.

KW

Kent June 22, 2010 at 7:13 pm

Forgot to mention that you do the Ab Ripper X every other day throughout the program. That gets pretty repetitive after 3-4 months, so I bought the P90X + set which wasn’t worth the money, but did have a really good ab routine in the set.

Fred February 6, 2013 at 1:17 am

Good article on lifting! This is certainly an “old school” approach to training where one works on a skill over and over to see improvement. Whilst I’m all for variety in my workout, I’m also all for practice. I do lifting, sling training and stamina building exercises like skipping and running. I am starting to understand it isn’t the variety of exercises you do but the quality of each exercise. Many web sites talk about “cross training” this or “total body workout” there but seldom talk about practice, so what you’ve written here is a breath of fresh air. I currently lift to help build up strength for my legs and shoulder muscles, both of which I feel are still quite weak. Sling training helps for my off days when I feel real sore but still need a workout.

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