Tony Horton started his career as a comedian. He was apparently a pretty terrible one. But when it comes to being super cheesy and making you almost embarrassed for him by the things he says in his videos, he is king. I still remember working out to a P90X video in college and laughing at him. Not because he was funny, because he was so corny.
You probably know Tony because of the ridiculously successful P90X program, which is now in what seems like its 80th rendition. You probably also know Shaun T and his Insanity program. He took a shot at Tony because Insanity only required 60 minutes to get ripped each day, not 90. It turned out to be a wildly successful shot. He’s now worth over 11 million dollars.
Both of these guys along with many others, like Tracy Anderson, all preach one constant as to why their programs continually work. Muscle confusion.
Tony even talks about it ad nauseum in his program. You have to confuse your muscles. You have to keep them guessing so they don’t adapt. This brings more results.
Does it really work that way though?
Spoiler alert: No, muscle confusion is complete bullshit.
Here’s the truth. You can’t confuse your muscles. Your muscles don’t read an algebra book and solve for the variable. They don’t try to figure out the theory of relativity, debate about the President, or give you their unsolicited opinion on why who you voted for was wrong. That’s your grandparents.
Your muscles don’t have a thinking brain. They just do what your brain tells them to.
They do however adapt to stimulus. We evolved to be able to work as little as possible. It’s a survival mechanism. So that way you can conserve energy and use it in times of need. This is precisely what happens during exercise, and you probably have already noticed that.
P90X is really freaking hard right when you start it. 2 months in though you know what to expect, you have an idea of the routine, and you’ve gotten used to it. You probably still sweat and you might get a little sore. But it’s nothing like it was.
The same thing with cardio. The first time you step on an elliptical you’re gonna burn the hell out of some calories for the first 30 minutes. But each subsequent time your body burns less and less to perform the same amount of work.
Some studies even suggest this takes place after 4 cardio sessions. You may wind up all sweaty. But you haven’t actually worked near as hard.
That’s the flaw with muscle confusion. You don’t actually confuse your muscles to make progress. It’s just a stupid saying at best, and at the worst it’s fucking dangerous.
Why is muscle confusion so dangerous?
People are addicted to fatigue. There’s a whole legion of gym rats out there who can’t leave the gym unless they feel like they’ve been run over by a truck. P90X, Insanity, Crossfit, and other programs like this cater to these people.
This is an incredibly dangerous mindset. It’s a quick way to burn out. And a nearly sure fire way to guarantee that whatever you’re doing is something you can’t stick with. Go at it as hard as you can for long enough, plus hold a full time job, raise a family, and find time for a social life and you’re sure to fail. It’s called burning the candle at both ends.
Not only will you feel like death, your central nervous system will hate you for not providing it any time to recover. Your central nervous system is one bad motherfucker that you do not want to screw with. Give it it’s time to rest, and it’ll pay you back with good performance in the gym.
How do you go about making progress without being addicted to fatigue and confusing your muscles?
In strength training there lies a concept known as progressive overload. Which basically states the entire goal of a training block (a group of training session, anywhere from 4-12 weeks) is to progressively overload the muscles to cause greater stimulus. This leads to more adaptation from the muscles thanks to a concept known as overreaching. Overreaching with your poor little muscles causes them to recover, and come back bigger, stronger, faster, and still without a brain.
This is also usually accomplished with quite a few training sessions that send the athlete home feeling better than they walked into the gym. There are planned recovery days. Planned days of lighter lifting. In fact people who make the most progress through plans like this usually spend far less time working out than the at home P90Xer.
It’s a concept known as periodization. The Russians first pioneered it. And say what you want about the Russians, but they could grow some strong dudes. Periodization is periodizing your training. Blocks of training that are more intense (read: heavier work) blocks that have more volume (read: more total work) and blocks that are designed for recovery purposes.
Properly periodized programs are the key to success and longevity in the fitness world. Far too few people walk into a gym and just go through the motions. Do what they’ve always done. Or worse use some program in a magazine that a roided out bodybuilder says he was following.
I’m all for people working to get healthier and more fit. Everyone has to make mistakes in their fitness journey, that’s understood. Just quit trying to confuse your muscles. They don’t have a brain, and if they did they’d probably look at you tell you what a fucking idiot you are for jumping around your living room in the name of plyometrics.