We are all too familiar with the term “muscle confusion.” The concept of “confusing” our bodies by constantly switching exercises and training splits has been touted for years as an essential component to avoid plateaus and optimize results – the idea being that once a muscle “gets used to” a certain movement, it will suddenly stop repairing the damage done during training beyond simply maintaining current size and strength. Not only is this rationale biologically impossible provided that sufficient progressive overload – increasing volume in the form of either weight, reps, or time under tension whenever physically possible – is practiced, it also seems to disregard the nervous system’s entire role in the process of growing stronger.
Neuromuscular Crash Course
You know about “newbie gains” – that first year or so of intelligent training where the body is at its most responsive due to all the completely new stimulus. Well, part of that period, right in the beginning, are the sudden, rapid jumps in strength, especially in previously sedentary individuals. This is not actually due to you getting stronger really fast. You’re becoming more efficient. Your nervous system is learning how to perform these new movement patterns, how to best fire signals to the motor neurons in the muscles being used, how to use the baseline of strength you already have, and with each practice of the specific movement, it gets a bit better at doing it, thus doing it better.
This is why light, easy training with meticulous form is so crucial in the beginning – you are literally teaching your body how to perform that movement from then on. Program a faulty code into the system, and that function will always be performed with the original faulty code you gave it. This is where another commonly-misused term, “muscle memory,” comes from – when your nervous system recognizes something it has done before, a program code it already has, it can quickly retrieve that code from its “library,” without the same delay of the learning stage. Think of the “like learning how to ride a bike” effect. “Muscle memory” does not mean that you keep a certain level of muscularity forever because you played a sport once in high school.
Don’t Try To Keep Your Body Guessing
Once your nervous system masters one particular movement and is now fully utilizing the baseline strength you started with, you are finally able to actually use enough force to challenge the muscles themselves with that movement. Then, and only then, can hypertrophy and actual strength gain begin to occur. For this reason, beginning with low-volume, basic training focused on the core compound barbell movements (even body weight mastery first if necessary) with perfect form for a solid phase is not only important for establishing correct motor patterns, it’s actually quite useless to try to jump into anything harder until the neuromuscular learning phase has occurred.
And this process applies to every new exercise you introduce, no matter how long you’ve been training; a new movement is a new movement pattern, and while accessory movements and simple angle or variation changes certainly do not require as substantial a neural adaptation phase as compound movements, they still require one. Therefore, if you’re constantly throwing out exercises for different ones in an effort to “keep your body guessing,” what you’re really doing is keeping your body constantly in the neural adaptation stage and allowing very little time, if any, to actually experience stressful loads from the movement and respond before you’ve replaced it with another new pattern to learn.
After a solid phase of re-learning the deconditioned primal movement patterns most of us lost after childhood due to unnatural lifestyles, a variety of exercises and angles can definitely be ideal in a well-structured program for complete physique development as well as reduced likelihood of overuse injuries, but the aspect of structure is critical – instead of haphazardly barging through a never-ending list of new exercises and workouts every other week, pick similar exercises with tweaks in angle, grip, equipment, etc., and rotate them (tracking performance with respect to each variation and ensuring progressive overload), so your body’s “motherboard” is always operating with efficient codes that it knows and you can actually spend most of your time pushing limits and progressing.
Don’t stray too much when it comes to the big compound movements, as those involve many simultaneous movements and demand a lot from the nervous system. Use your accessory movements to hit all the angles and keep it fresh. But keep the “confusion” somewhere like cardio time, where the goal is just some extra expenditure and/or conditioning.