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muscle confusion

The term, “muscle confusion” isn’t a scientific term by any means; instead, “muscle confusion” is a simplification of a valid concept – forcing the muscles to adapt to new movements. A related term you likely have also encountered is: “muscle memory.” Again, this is a simplified version of a real phenomenon.

Listen to Dr. Neal address this topic on Episode 195 of the podcast Optimal Health Daily.

Our muscles can get used to doing the same thing over and over again and it’s a good idea to change your workouts to force your muscles to adapt. In fact, this is something I discussed when reading from Part 1 and Part 2 of Leo Babauta’s posts.

Changing your workouts, and therefore, “confusing your muscles,” has a number of advantages, such as helping to prevent injury.

How Does Muscle Confusion Help to Prevent Injury?

When we repeat the same movement over and over, day after day, we can actually increase our risk for injury. There are a number of reasons why this may happen. For example, because we’re so used to performing this same movement over and over again, we aren’t being mindful and instead our attention is elsewhere. As a result, we may get sloppy in our form which can lead to injury. Repeating the same movement may also fatigue those muscles. If we continue performing the same movement after the muscles are fatigued, that too, may lead to injury. If we think about our overall fitness and even the shape and size of our muscles, muscle confusion can be beneficial here, too.

Let me stop for a moment, and clarify something: when I say “muscle confusion,” it doesn’t mean you have to quit lifting weights and start doing Pilates.

It can be as simple as, when lifting weights:

  • perform the same move but use a heavier weight and perform fewer reps
  • use a lighter weight and try for more reps
  • try a different lift altogether but uses the same groups of muscles
  • change the amount of rest time

These are all ways to confuse your muscles.

The FITT Principle

There’s a pneumonic device that certified trainers have to learn: it’s called the F.I.T.T. Principle. This principle is all about muscle confusion. Stick with me here:

  • F in F.I.T.T. stands for frequency. This means that if you want to confuse your muscles, change the frequency of your workouts. If you normally lift weights twice a week, add one more day, or only go once a week. Changing the frequency doesn’t mean you have to increase how often you work out!
  • The I in F.I.T.T stands for intensity. If changing the frequency doesn’t feel right, change the intensity of your workouts. Again, you could do this by having a longer or shorter rest period between lifts. For cardio, instead of jogging a 5k, just try and run 1 mile as fast as you can. You get the idea.
  • The first T in F.I.T.T. stands for time. Instead of jogging for 30 minutes each time, jog for 35 minutes. Manipulate the amount of time you spend on your work out, or like I said before, the rest time between sets.
  • The second T in F.I.T.T refers to type – or “type of exercise.” Instead of jogging, try swimming or cycling.

When you really think about it, this FITT Principle is all about muscle confusion. And again, this is a fundamental exercise physiology concept – all certified trainers need to know and understand this. So, yes, muscle confusion is real and is just a simplified version of the FITT Principle. But by mixing things up, it will force your body to adapt, which is what we want to have happen.

Breaking Through Plateaus

The last thing I will mention is that we often get comfortable in our workout routines. We don’t experience the same amount of soreness, the moves are comfortable so we think we are less likely to injure ourselves, it’s not as tiring, etc. But this is where we end up hitting those plateaus. You go to the gym day after day, performing the same types of workouts and expect your fitness to continuously improve and your muscles to get bigger and bigger. In reality, this doesn’t happen. When you perform the same exercises over and over, you will hit a plateau. By incorporating this idea of muscle confusion, or really the FITT Principle, you can break through some of those plateaus. It will work whether you are trying to lift heavier weights or trying to run a marathon.

Bottom line: to reach these goals, you have to mix things up!

Listen to Dr. Neal address this topic on Episode 195 of the podcast Optimal Health Daily.

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Neal Malik

Dr. Neal Malik ("Dr. Neal") has a Doctorate in Public Health with emphases in disease prevention and nutrition. He is also a Registered Dietitian and Certified Health Education Specialist. He is currently an assistant professor at California State University, San Bernardino. Dr. Neal has published peer-reviewed scientific research and been featured as a nutrition and wellness expert in over 70 media outlets including Parade and The L.A. Times. Send in your health related question and Dr. Neal will answer it on the Optimal Health Daily show!
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