Muscle Confusion Got Ya Confused?

If muscle confusion has you confused, don’t worry because you’re not alone.  There has been a lot of misinformation regarding this pseudo-scientific training method bandied about the past couple years over the Internet, as well as in local personal training studios, gyms,  and bootcamps.  Hopefully this article will help clear up some of the major myths and misconceptions surrounding muscle confusion.

First off, let’s define what the term muscle confusion means as it’s currently used.  In a nutshell, it refers to the idea that one should constantly vary exercise selection from workout to workout in order to keep the muscles guessing and avoid the plateau that comes when muscles adapt to exercise.  On the surface this seems to make a lot of sense.  Gains remain consistently high and plateaus are avoided.  So what’s the problem?

Let’s start with the part that’s true.  Muscles do adapt to exercise and gains will slow down, level off, and then eventually stop if we continue to do the same workout over and over again.  However, it does not happen overnight and certainly not from workout to workout.

Who SAID What?

In order for the body to produce an adaptation for improved performance in life, sport, or martial art, we must apply specific stimulus as per the SAID Principle (Specific Adaptation to Imposed Demand). This basically means that the body adapts with a specific type of fitness to any demand which is imposed on it. When the same exercise is performed for too long, the body adapts to the stresses of each set and the adaptations or returns get smaller and smaller. Once it has adapted to the stress, then it’s time to change or increase the stress or else we fall into that trap of diminishing returns.

Usually though it takes the body a period of 4-to-6 weeks to adapt and then it is advisable to begin changing exercises. This does not mean that we need to completely throw away everything we have been doing; far from it. An exercise or drill can be changed by increasing intensity, increasing volume, decreasing rest periods, or increasing complexity or sophistication.

What About Strength?

If your goal is to get stronger with muscle confusion, well then I’ve got some bad news for you.  Ain’t gonna happen.  Strength is a skill and must be trained as such.  That means you have to practice, yes practice, the same set of exercises over and over again to get better at them – stronger.  The nervous system becomes more efficient and allows the muscles to recruit greater and greater amounts of tension which result in an increase in strength.  So, to get stronger one must work the same exercises as often as possible while staying as fresh as possible.  Changing your exercises too frequently in order to confuse the muscles doesn’t result in an increase in strength.  Nothing confusing about that.

Is Your Trainer Confused?

This pseudo-scientific concept of muscle confusion made popular by programs such as P90X and Insanity has opened the door for some less than scrupulous, or less than knowledgeable, trainers to take advantage of the unsuspecting public.  By playing on the popular myth that exercises must be changed every workout or else you risk the dreaded plateau they can avoid doing the difficult, yet necessary work of properly programing workouts, sessions, or classes for their clients.  They simply throw together a random bunch of exercises and call it a day without regard for whether or not these jumbled exercises meet the goals and needs of the clients.

Remember, it takes at least 4 weeks for your body to adapt to a particular program and for you to determine what is actually working for you and what is not.  If you constantly change up your routine then you have no idea which exercises are giving you the best return on investment (ROI).  As I always say, random exercise selection yields random results.





Jon Haas is a certified Underground Strength Coach and has been involved in the martial arts for over 30 years. He has been training in the Budō Taijutsu arts of the Bujinkan for more than 22 years and is currently ranked as a Kudan (9th degree black belt) under Jack Hoban Shidōshi.
Jon is the Head Strength & Conditioning Coach for VX Global and is a certified VX Sport Coach.

He is the owner and founder of Warrior Fitness Training Systems and author of the book, Warrior Fitness: Conditioning for Martial Arts.

Jon Haas is also a certified conflict resolutions specialist through Resolution Group International (RGI)

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  1. Great article, Jon. Thanks! That clears up many questions I had.

  2. No, thank you. This article never would have been born without your muscle confusion questions on Saturday!

  3. What has your knowledge and research found about training certain aspects (strength, endurance and power) in periods (1 month each then switch to the next)? I personally train for pure strength (5 or less reps), then drop down in weight enough to do at least 15 reps (extended expression of that strength), and polish it off with power (10 – 15 explosive reps). Do you have any advice about this program?

    Another thing I noticed that has become popular among martial athletes is the application of CARDIO training in EVERY aspect of their training. In my opinion, this not only takes away the ability to develop efficient body expression (functionality) but also decreases the overall effectiveness of technical training by sloppily performing the movements while exhausted. Muscle memory development is a double-edged sword and has a very fine line. Which explains MMA fighter’s sloppy and often pathetic performances in their “boxing and/or muay thai” skills.

    There are so many aspects that can be brought up and discussed but I will stop it here…preventing this comment from getting any longer. LOL

  4. Just a quick addition to the above comment: most of the exercises mimic or are performed like the actual application of the specific technique to trigger and develop the muscles used for those maneuvers. I do not isolate exercises for the biceps and latissimus dorsi. They are supplementally developed through the various exercises (pull-ups, chin-ups, push-ups, curl-to-press = uppercut, etc).

  5. Hey Diel,

    Thanks for the question! Personally, I do not like that method of periodization. Training just one aspect of strength at a time is great if you are a strength athlete, like a powerlifter for example, but this doesn’t work too well for Warriors and other types of athletes. My preferred method of periodization is concurrent where multiple qualities – strength, endurace, work capacity, etc… – are trained at the same time. This is how we develop much more multi-faceted athletes and martial artists.

    We include conditioning with almost every training session (not martial practice or skill sessions), but not cardio.


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