A question that pops up from time to time goes something like this, “Mark, I’ve been told that I need to completely change my routine every few weeks and use different exercises in order to confuse the muscle and keep growing. However, you advise us to train the same way for 10 weeks and use only the exercises from the exercise bank to switch things up. I’m confused”.
So let’s have a look at this…
You select an exercise and make some great progressions in strength. After a few weeks you notice that progress begins to slow, but doesn’t stop altogether.
You become convinced that this excise “no longer works” so you select a different movement for this body part and drop the old one.
What happens? You notice that your progressions start going up faster again. Great!
Perhaps this “muscle confusion” thing is real and effective!
Do muscles get confused?
No. Let me explain…
If you’ve ever had the pleasure of coaching an absolute newbie, you’ll notice that when using free weights they’re kinda all over the place! When moving the weight through the range of motion, they’re wobbling about like jelly i.e. they just aren’t in control of the weight at all.
What’s actually happening there? Basically they’re “learning” the exercise, NEURALLY speaking.
As the weeks go on they start making the necessary neural adaptations and can generate a lot more force in these exercises. From an outside perspective it seems that their strength is really EXPLODING!
While there is no doubt that they are getting stronger, the majority of these “gains” are due to the nervous system learning the movement and increasing its ability to generate greater levels of force.
Now, that is obviously at the extreme end of the spectrum. However, the same thing is still happening every time a more experienced lifter changes his/her routine – just to a lesser degree.
This is what has led many to conclude that changing to a new routine every few weeks (even as little as 2-4 weeks) is the best way to proceed. I say it’s counterproductive.
Switching your routine too often means that those initial weeks of training are going to be mostly about making new neural adaptations, not genuine strength (and size) increases. This can be a huge waste of your time and effort.
It’s perfectly ok, and even to be expected, that after a few weeks of training the rate of strength increases starts to slow down.
This shouldn’t be alarming to the intelligent bodybuilder. Rather it should be accepted and welcomed because you are secure in the knowledge that you are now making REAL increases in strength.
If you already know that training to the outer limits of your current strength is necessary to stimulate increases in size and strength, this should make perfect sense.
For example, if you can generate 100 units of force in a particular exercise because you are accustomed to the movement, it would be counterproductive to drop it for something else. If you did sub it for an exercise that you’d never done before, you may only be able to generate 80 units of force until such times as your nervous system learns to master the movement. If this took until your 3rd week of training, you can see that your first 2 weeks could not possibly have been MAXIMALLY productive in terms of stimulating an increase in muscle size. (Above “units” are arbitrary and are used only to illustrate the point being made).
If you totally changed your routine every 3 or 4 weeks, you can begin to see how ineffective your training would actually become! It makes a LOT more sense to really master a movement (neurally speaking) and KEEP PUSHING and progressively overloading the muscle.
So in THT we use the same program for 10 weeks at a time. We simply seek to make strength progressions in every single workout! After 10 weeks we move to a new cycle of THT and take the opportunity to go the the Exercise Bank and select new exercises from the recommended list.
(1) Psychological reasons. New exercises keep you motivated. If you become bored of your workout, you’re not going to give it 100% anyway.
(2) Plateaus. While the THT trainee will experience these less than others, plateaus may still occur from time to time. It’s a good idea to make a change when they do.
However, do you HAVE to change exercises when starting a new cycle? Not at all. If you were still making strength gains, there’s no reason to stop performing an exercise. In fact, it may be counterproductive to do so.
Again, substituting an exercise prematurely may slow hypertrophy since you’ll have to go through learning adaptations first before reaching the stage where strength gains are in fact STRENGTH GAINS. Muscles don’t get confused.
If your current routine is recruiting all the muscle fibers for a given body part, then using a new routine can’t improve upon this since there are no additional fibers to recruit (assuming all other factors are equal).
Either you’re recruiting all the available fibers and stimulating them to grow or you’re not. It’s that simple. By sticking to a small number of exercises that involve all the fibers, you can be confident that you will continually get bigger and stronger.
The common belief that if you continually use the same exercise your body will “get used to it” and just stop progressing, has no basis in reality.
If you find this happening more often than it should, you need to ask yourself in all honesty, “Did I REALLY just give 100% in that last set?” If you’re like the majority of people in gym these days, you didn’t even come close to it.
You can convince yourself that the exercise or routine no longer works and that you need to change it. And yes you’ll experience those phony gains in the early weeks. But in terms of REAL strength gains and REAL size gains, you’ll just be spinning your wheels.
(1) Perform the same routine for a period of 10 weeks, all while making gains in reps and/or weight (progressive overload)
(2) Take a week off after 10 weeks (deconditioning)
(3) Select a new 10-week cycle of THT
(4) During your week off, go to the Exercise Bank and substitute some exercises for an approved other. Just ensure that you swap like for like i.e. a compound movement for another compound movement, and an isolation movement for another isolation movement (these are clearly marked in the exercise bank for your convenience). If still making good gains in an exercise, keep it. Remember, it is not mandatory that you change any exercises at all.
(5) Repeat steps 1 to 4 as above. Remember that small incremental progressions work best. Trying to add 5kg to your barbell curls every time you can do 12 reps is a recipe for disaster. An increase of 5%-10% usually works best in my experience e.g. leg pressing 200kg, then increasing to 210kg (a 5% increase).
To finish let me give you a reminder in case you’ve been getting slack with your workouts and are tempted to spice things up with a new routine from a bodybuilding magazine.
You don’t need a new routine! You need 100% effort! You need 100% mental intensity, which leads to 100% physical intensity! Just cut the crap and stop making excuses. Get in there and get the job done!
Train With Intensity!
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Great article mark! I used to do muscle confusion workouts a couple years back. But I noticed over a long period of time that I didn’t really get much stronger. I enjoyed the changes to be honest but my body wasn’t changing like I wanted it to.
THT 4, where are you~ i am coming for youuuuu~~
Hey mark when is THT 4 coming out..?
You said it would be late May..?
Thank you Mark, for always providing no-nonsense, practical, easy to understand advice. Almost every other bodybuilding/strength training related website is filled to the brim with broscience and ads for crappy, unnecessary supplements. Really looking forward to THT 4, and any other material you have in the future. Keep up the great work.
Not that there’s any such thing as a bad MH article, but I soooo wanted this headline to be “THT 4.0 is here!” No matter – good things come to those who wait, even if the waiting is going to make me go bonkers lol
Meanwhile… any chance of a tome on nutrition coming behind the THT one? Not that I’m all nutzo looking to have it broken down any further, just don’t think MANS has seen an update in forever and curious if there’s any new information to be had there.
Anyway, good read as always, thanks for the unending work you put into this, Mark. 🙂
Thanks a lot Mark, my buddy and I were just discussing this the other day. We were both wrong LOL! Thanks for the great knowledge!
You’re the best Mark. Thank you for yet another free gem of knowledge. Can’t wait for the new THT!
I have not bought into the muscle confusion theory either. How would one “confuse” the biceps, for example? There is one basic motion in every biceps exercise, regardless of what’s used to make that motion (barbell, dumbbells, cables). There are slight variations of the biceps curl, but every one has the same motion. For chest there are presses and flyes. Everything is based on those two motions. Is switching from a dumbbell press to a cable press going to somehow confuse the muscles into not thinking you’ve just done a press?
And there’s a ton of crap and excuses out there Mark. I hear them all the time. It’s all up to your drive and ambition. How Bad Do Ya Want It, a well defined and muscular body. It’s all here at MuscleHack folks. EVERYTHING you need!!!!! Very good article Mark and a Big Thanks Again, For All That You Do!!!
@Mike Huber – PREACH ON! Kills me how many people will burn their hard earned money on pills and garbage and bizarre battery operated “exercise equipment” that don’t work, but when you give them something that DOES work, they say it’s too hard! It’s like, c’mon, you found the willpower to part with hundreds of dollars for nothing, but not to part with no money for results? Kinda foolish if you ask me… 😆
So what do I do when traveling and I run into a situation where the gym is limited and I have to do some different exercises?
John the whole “muscle confusion” thing isn’t a one off with alternate exercises because of equipment limitations, we’re talking intentionally rearranging everything every few weeks. I’d say if it’s once in a blue moon you’re on the road and gotta swap stuff out nbd, but maybe look at simplifying your routine if you’re running into that problem on a regular basis. Just my $0.02.
Great read Mark, so many people believe that muscles can get confused and they can generate more muscle gains from switching exercises every couple of weeks but how you’ve explained it is pretty much spot on. Sometimes switching exercises is not necessary at all, changing the amount of weight lifted or switching rep ranges is often all it takes to maintain progress in a lift.
The late and great John Christy implied that some of the trainees under his instruction were still adding weight to the bar on a continual basis on basic compound exercises after a whole year of training (albeit micro-loading). I don’t think he believed in “muscle confusion” either!
I was waiting for you to point this out as there is so much Hype, still to this day, that muscle confusion is paramount when it is NOT. It’s a hell of a marketing concept though. 😛 Good on ya man.