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If you ever get confused by fitness fads and trends, don’t worry, you’re not alone. Apparently, your muscles get confused, too. Muscle confusion, thought of when changing things up often in your workout to avoid a plateau, isn’t a scientific term.

You won’t find it in exercise science research journals or textbooks. You’ll also be hard-pressed to find a certified trainer or fitness expert that believes wholeheartedly in it.

That’s because the theory of muscle confusion is really just a myth that’s found its way into the marketing for popular fitness programs such as P90X.

The theory behind muscle confusion

At first glance, the theory behind muscle confusion sounds convincing. In order to make progress toward your fitness goals, you need to keep your body guessing. Which means, changing up your workouts frequently so you don’t hit a plateau.

So, just how often is frequently? Well, some programs that rely on muscle confusion say to vary your exercises weekly or every other day, and others recommend you switch things up daily. By changing things, your body won’t be able to stay the same and will have to adapt to the changing workouts.

But here’s the thing, our bodies don’t change that quickly. Sure, changing up your workouts can be helpful, but only after some time.

That’s why workouts should remain mostly the same for at least four to six weeks.

So, is it real or hype?

Compared to other fitness theories that’re grounded in science, it’s pretty safe to say that muscle confusion is hype. What muscle confusion completely misses, is the fact that we’re exercising so our bodies adapt by getting stronger and leaner. So, we actually want to be consistent with what we do in workouts so that our bodies work hard to adapt.

What are some ways to break a fitness plateau?

If you find that your progress is lacking and your motivation has left the building, you might want to consider the fact that you’ve hit a plateau. The good news is there are several ways to break through a fitness plateau.

“To break through a plateau, we first need to identify whether it’s actually a plateau or not,” says Dutton. For example, if your weight hasn’t budged, or you haven’t gotten stronger for a few weeks, it’s time to change things up a bit.

Try progressive overload

One theory you can design your workout around is progressive overload.  

The idea behind progressive overload is that you challenge your muscles by changing the stress you put on them. This stress comes in the form of intensity, or the number of sets and repetitions you perform, and duration, or the amount of time you engage in the activity. Ways to use progressive overload to break a plateau include:

  • increasing the amount of weight you train with during your strength training days
  • increasing the duration of your cardiovascular workouts
  • changing your current exercises for new ones, such as taking an indoor cycling class instead of running on a treadmill
  • changing the number of sets you perform
  • changing the number of repetitions you do each set by adding resistance

By changing up the number of reps you perform and adjusting the resistance, you can elicit more significant increases in strength. For example, performing lower reps with heavier weight on one day and lighter weight with higher reps the next day.

A note about weight loss

If it’s a weight loss plateau you’re facing, a few days of tracking your food can give you insight into how much food you’re really eating and what you might be lacking. Most people need more protein in their diet.

When should you see a personal trainer?

Fitness newbie or not, anyone can benefit from a fresh set of ideas. There really is no wrong time to hire a personal trainer. Some people like to have a trainer to get them started, while others bring one on when they need some motivation and a fresh way of working out.

That said, hiring a personal trainer might be beneficial if:

  • you’re new to exercise and need help designing and implementing a program
  • you need help with proper form on strength training exercises
  • you need a boost of inspiration and motivation that a trainer can provide by taking you through a workout
  • you’re getting bored of doing the same workouts and need a trainer to design a series of new workouts based on your interests, goals, and current fitness level
  • you’re looking for a challenge
  • you have a specific injury or health condition that needs modifications in order to participate in an exercise program safely

At minimum, a qualified personal trainer will have a certification from a reputable organization such as ACSM, NSCA, NASM or ACE. Additionally, many personal trainers have degrees in areas such as exercise science, kinesiology, or pre-physical therapy.

The bottom line

The hype behind muscle confusion may continue to circulate in certain fitness circles, but one theory that will always stand the test of time is being consistent with how you train.

By following the principles of progressive overload — increasing the number of reps or sets you perform or adding time to your workouts — you will continue to see progress and reach your fitness goals.