How to Build “Muscle Confusion” Into Your Workout Routine

An alternative approach for getting in shape this year

A man on an indoor stationary bike.

If you know cycling's your thing, that's great. But to avoid burnout, consider mixing in different workout strategies.

By Tanner Garrity

We’re coming up on the second quarter of the year. If you’re feeling great about your exercise cadence in 2023, that’s fantastic. Keep doing whatever you’re doing. If you stopped moving in early February or something, that’s okay, too. Remember: exercise has a longer tailwind than we give it credit for. You won’t turn “unfit” overnight. And as you gear up for the warmer months ahead, you might want to consider tweaking your workout routine. Instead of forcing yourself to commit hard to one thing — upper-body lifting, cycling, what have you — be a chameleon and embrace “muscle confusion.”

Basically, it means sampling different workouts on a weekly basis. Historically, it meant something a little different. P90X used to guarantee that your body “would never get used to” the brand’s “targeted training phases.” Meaning: no plateaus, bigger and better muscles. This claim was disproven countless times.

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The HIIT-obsessed have lost the thread. Zone 2 training should be your norm.

But while muscle confusion is a physiological myth, it does hold some psychological merit. Putting yourself through the same challenges every week is the surest way to turn them into chores. Fitness is best enjoyed when it’s fun. If you’re bored by your workouts, you’re not going to do them.

Muscle confusion could be thought of as muscle inspiration — the more you shock the body with random moves and exercises, like a sort of monthly obstacle course, the more engaged your brain will be. In a study published three years ago, researchers from the United States and Spain set out to investigate the scientific veracity of muscle confusion.

This ended up being one of their main takeaways: “The men completing the ever-changing workouts reported feeling much more motivated to exercise at the study’s end than the other group.”

It helps to know your fitness goals. If you’re simply looking for more movement this year, take it anywhere you can get it. Go for walks, play pickleball, get a ClassPass membership. If you’re trying to get bigger shoulders or set a new PR in the 5K, then perhaps specialization is the way to go.

As one writer explained well for a strength training blog: “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.”

The former wants French fluency. The latter wants more exposure to language in general. Figure out your camp these next couple of months (where exercise is concerned!) and apply muscle confusion accordingly.

At times, I’ve shocked myself out of ruts by dabbling across the movement spectrum, “confusing” my muscles in kind: think boxing mixed with HIIT mixed with long runs. At other times, I’ve just wanted to really zero in on one concentration, and see what progress might look like if I stuck with it. There’s no wrong answer, and importantly, you can vacillate between the two over the course of a life spent in exercise.

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