One week you're squatting like a sane person – in the squat rack with a barbell on your back – and the next week, in the name of variety, you're squatting on a BOSU ball while juggling chainsaws, blindfolded. You know, to keep the body guessing, which is otherwise known as muscle confusion. Some variety is important to training, but most people don't need as much as they think they do.
Muscle confusion is one of those arbitrary words people like to keep in their back pocket to sound smart, akin to "corrective exercise" or "anterior knee pain." Ask ten different people their definition and you're bound to receive ten different answers. Muscle confusion is nothing more than the practice of changing things up in your training program every so often, including using different modes of activity and exercises.
Bodybuilders will incorporate different set/rep schemes or exercises to target specific muscles and even specific angles to achieve the look they're after. Powerlifters will rotate their main movements – squat, bench press, deadlift – on a weekly or biweekly basis to address a technique flaw or to otherwise lift as much weight as humanly possible in those three movements. CrossFitters will perform scoliosis for AMRAP (also called high-rep Olympic lifting) for, well, I don't know why. But they do it.
It's all good, but for 90% of people, 90% of the time, the best way to make progress and to ensure consistent gains is to do more work per session. This is especially prudent if the goal is to get stronger. If you did "x" amount of weight this week on a given exercise for a given number of sets/reps, the goal should be to do a little more work the next week. Tracking total tonnage from a session-to-session and week-to-week basis is always smart.
While very important, there's more to consider than sets and reps. For instance, far too many people program hop. One week someone starts a 13-week Smolnov squat cycle (not coincidentally, maybe 5-10% of the people who start one actually finish), only to jump to a new program six days later that promises to add 17 inches to their biceps in two weeks.
There's never a shortage of bright, shiny objects to distract our attention. For beginner lifters especially, constant program and exercise hopping is a one-way ticket to Average Town. Marrying yourself to the idea of muscle confusion will rarely, if ever, allow you to truly master a movement.
Not to keep kicking CrossFit in the face, but outside of the high-level competitors it's uncommon to walk into a box and watch someone "own" an exercise. In other words, they don't bother to master a pull-up because kipping pull-ups are an option. Understandably, it's not the goal of CrossFit to master any one exercise, but they're herding people into thinking they need endless variety. The smartest CrossFit coaches have evolved beyond this.
Muscle confusion and program hopping will never allow your central nervous system (CNS) to adapt to any one movement. Think about the massive learning curve that exists when introducing exercises like the squat and deadlift into someone's training repertoire. The curve exponentially increases when the Olympic lifts enter the equation. And the weeds grow even thicker once we start adding load, speed, and repetitions into the mix.
The truth is, progressive overload is king. Everyone should make an effort to increase load (increase sets or reps or both, or decrease rest intervals) – to do more work – each and every week. This is a fantastic approach and something many lifters often overlook in favor of the more sexy or unconventional answer.
It's not the lack of chains or bands or some lost Eastern Bloc Undulated Block Periodization scheme written in Elvish that's the reason you're not getting stronger or making progress, but a failure to do more work. Track total tonnage from a session-to-session and week-to-week basis. Do more work. Did you lift more total weight or not this week? All you need is a notebook, a pen, and simple math.
These aren't always the factors we need to be most aware of, however. Let's use an example everyone can probably relate to. Have you ever crushed a certain weight on any exercise, only to feel like gravity increased tenfold when you added five or ten pounds? The weight doesn't want to budge. Or if it does, it's infinitely more challenging. What gives?
Simple. You haven't "earned" the right to increase the load yet. You haven't performed enough reps at "x" to increase to "y." Stick with the lower weight. Stay there. Own it. You're not hell spawn if you perform the same exercise with the same weight for multiple weeks in a row. Life will go on.
You'll make better progress in the long run. You'll grow more comfortable with the exercise. You'll learn it. You'll respect it. Moreover, by making your strength base wider with more sub-maximal volume (60-80% of 1RM), you'll attain a higher peak when you do eventually test your max numbers.
And this point doesn't just apply to beginners. Advanced lifters can reap some serious benefits as well. Working above those percentages – in the 85-95% of 1RM range – is important from a neural stimulation and adaptation standpoint for all levels of lifters.
However, the stronger one is, the more neurally taxing and draining things are going to be. What's more, the joints are going to take a beating when using loads that high for a long duration. So, for advanced trainees, sub-maximal training has a lot of validity.
Neither beginners nor advanced athletes require a ton of variety in their training, especially when the goal is to get stronger. Beginners need to learn the basics: squat, hinge, lunge, push, pull, carry, etc. Advanced lifters need to own their competitive lifts and that's it. The stronger someone is, the less variety they require to maintain that strength. For advanced lifters, "variety" comes in the accessory work and is dictated by what their technique flaws are in their main lifts.
- Technique Flaw: You fall forward in the hole.
- Accessory Movement: Give more attention to detail on the setup – upper back tightness and lat activation. Also, include more paused squats – more time in the range of motion that's troublesome.
2 Bench Press
- Technique Flaw: Weak at lockout.
- Accessory Movement: Higher rep, close-grip bench press.
- Technique Flaw: Weak off the floor.
- Accessory Movement: Stop bouncing the weight off the floor. Deadlift like a grown-ass man, and train your reps from a dead stop.
Ironically, intermediate lifters can be a little more Willy Wonka-ish and immerse ourselves in the crazy, zany world of variety. Still, most lifters don't need as much variety as they think they do. Simplicity is the key to progress.