“Here’s the true secret of how P90X works: Muscle Confusion. P90X uses targeted training phases so your body keeps adapting and growing. You’ll never “plateau”—which means your body will never get used to the routines, making improvements slow down or even stop.
- Short training cycles constantly challenge your muscles with variety and intensity.
- P90X maximizes fat burning and muscle sculpting in different ways every day.
- No plateau effect means each phase of P90X is as effective as the first.”
This is the exact text from the P90X “science” page on the BeachBody website. But this post isn’t about P90X or Insanity or BeachBody or anything like that. It won’t be a dissertation on why lifting weights is more effective than jumping around in your living room while watching a bunch of half-naked people do the same thing on a DVD. This post is strictly about the idea of muscle confusion.
(If you want to read a post that contrasts P90X with progressive resistance training, here’s one: http://www.t-nation.com/training/p90x-and-muscle-confusion-the-truth.)
The core philosophy behind many popular exercise methods nowadays (not just exercise DVDs) is the idea of muscle confusion. The idea that you muscles need to be “confused” in order to adapt to a stimulus. By doing this, we achieve the following ends:
- Avoid plateaus
- See consistent progress
Both good things, right? I love seeing consistent progress without a plateau. So let’s delve a bit deeper into these ideas.
A plateau is defined as, “a state of little or no change following a period of activity or progress.” In exercise, we usually reach a plateau for one of two reasons: either we’re no longer giving our body adequate stimulus to adapt to or we’ve reached our genetic potential and can literally become no fitter than we already are.
At the risk of sounding like a jerk, I’d like to suggest that nobody reading this post right now is anywhere close to their genetic potential.
That leaves us with inadequate stimuli for adaptation, which is a simple fix. Apply a greater stimulus! Let’s say you’re working on pushups. You start by performing 8 pushups to near volitional fatigue (you cannot complete another rep without compromising your form) for three sets. You rest 48 hours and come back to the gym for some more pushups. This time, you realize on the 8th rep of the first set that you can probably complete a 9th rep without compromising your form. Do you go for it?
If you do, you’re applying progressive overload to your exercise program. If you never push past those 8 reps, you will eventually “plateau”. You will exhaust your body’s ability to adapt to the exercise because, as you get stronger, the pushups become too easy to demand adaptation.
But this doesn’t just apply to weight training. Let’s taking running, for instance. You start by running one mile in exactly 10:00. The next time you run a mile, you push yourself a bit harder and complete it in 9:50. Progress! However, if you neglect to push yourself to that 9:50, your body will eventually stop adapting to that ten-minute mile.
While it may be true that progress will eventually slow down, this asymptote only occurs near the limits of human potential. And again, at the risk of sounding like a jerk, there are very few people in the general “fitness” industry that are challenging the potential of the human body (if the limit even exists). So, for all intents and purposes, let’s just put the idea of “plateauing” to bed.
Here’s the truth:
Muscle confusion is a myth. But as we can see, it has been born from truth. If you do not increase the stimulus, your body will not adapt to it. However, the main issue with muscle confusion is that initial, short-term adaptation does not equal long-term results. I’ve illustrated this idea to the right.
In the top graph, we can see that when we change the stimuli every four weeks (or however long our cycle lasts), we bring ourselves back to zero in terms of progress. While each four-week block of “progress” might seem substantial, we could never expect to return to the first cycle on week 13 and have made significant progress in those movements.
The T-Nation article above says it best, “Think about learning a language in high school. If you take 4 years of French, you’ll be quite proficient by the time you graduate, right? Now, along the way, there will be days (and perhaps weeks) where you’re sick and tired of studying the subject, but that’s the price you pay for personal development. If instead, you took French as a freshman, Spanish as a sophomore, Italian as a junior, and Japanese in your senior year, you’ll be a lot less bored, but the price you’ll have to pay is reduced competency.”
In the bottom graph, we can see that each four-week block essentially builds on the cycles before it. Even if we vary our movements slightly, we still continue to make progress and are left with greater results at the end of a 12 week program. Is it sexy? No. Is it how the greatest athletes and bodies are always created? Yes.
For a conclusion today, I’d like to simply use bullet points to sum up my thoughts on muscle confusion and plateaus.
- When people hit plateaus, they assume they need to hit the panic button and throw the baby out with the bathwater. Just apply an intelligent system of progressive overload to your exercise program and you’ll be fine.
- Muscles don’t get confused. We simply present them with a stimulus (or lack thereof) and they adapt to it.
- P90X isn’t the only system touting the benefits of “muscle confusion,” so beware. The idea is used in many different programs (maybe even by your own trainer), but now you’re educated so you’ll be able to spot the B.S.
- I’m sorry, but the last thing I want to be while exercising is “confused.”
- The basic premise is this: you want to continuously build on what you’ve already accomplished. Instead of learning how to say “hello” in four different languages, wouldn’t it be more satisfying to learn how speak one, fluently?
Progressive overload isn’t just for bodybuilders or strength athletes. It simply means challenging yourself beyond what you were capable of yesterday. And that doesn’t mean until you vomit. Just one more rep will do.