Confusion surrounds us. It has become a part of our daily life. No place more so than in the fitness industry, where we even make it a part of our fitness programs. Muscle confusion is a popular training “technique.” Based on a frequent rotation of exercises for a body part, muscle confusion is supposed to shock or stimulate the muscle in the hopes of preventing adaptation. By preventing adaptation, we are told that our bodies will be continually forced to progress.
As promising as this sounds, what does confusion generally lead to any other time we try to apply it? Come to think of it, when else or at what other time do we apply confusion as a valid technique? Your body doesn’t need confusion. Our bodies actually thrive on consistency.
What is needed and is necessary in the field of fitness programming is the intelligent manipulation of specific variable within the program. Traditional fitness variables such as; duration, frequency, intensity and volume need to be appropriately applied to achieve the specific goal or goals of the individual.
What’s Wrong with Adaptation?
Since when is adaptation a bad thing? It is understandable that body builders get bored with curls. As a result, there are now a multitude of variations from which to choose, and since trainees stop feeling sore and have failed to gain a sought after inch on their arms, the solution must be a different curl. (However, do you really believe that sitting or standing dumbbell curls is confusing to your muscles?) Hence the need to confuse the body and rotate exercises so that soreness and “hopefully” size is assured.
Stop for just a minute and apply the same thoughts as above to a sports related skill. Take the tennis serve or a free throw in basketball, and apply the same confusion techniques as above. Trainees would switch racquets “size and weight,” switch balls “size and weight” and switch their position or location on the specific court. While constantly changing these variables, what chance do you think the athlete’s body would have in developing a consistent routine or pattern?
Do not treat your strength training as any less of a skill. Building strength through the development of efficiently pre-programmed patterns of muscular firing is dependent upon skill development. Call me crazy, but if you want to improve at doing something, you need to do what it is you want to improve. A popular example would be the bench press. If you bench once a week, do not wonder why you are stuck at your one repetition maximum. If you want to improve your bench press, you need to bench press frequently. Constantly switching the skill means you never develop an efficient program. The adaptation to the consistent refinement of a skill is essential to optimal performance.
Confusion does not play a role, only the intelligent manipulation of the exercises, specific to achieving the goal or goals of the trainee. To achieve that purpose, the exercise must be similar enough to the skill it is meant to enhance. For example, the good morning exercise has tremendous carry over to the squat. Therefore, it is an approved variation in a power lifter's routine.
Meat Loaf Again?
Powerlifters and Olympic lifters thrive and continually progress at the same lifts. Any variation in these programs has a purpose (and it is not soreness). Exercises are rotated in and out of the routine, based on the need for specific assistance in targeting part of a lift.
US Olympic Weight Lifting Coach Mike Burgener had this to say about the training of Olympic lifters.
“First off, Olympic lifters compete in the snatch and the clean and jerk, therefore, the exercises they need to train are: snatch, clean and jerk, back squat, power snatch, power clean and jerk and the front squat. The intensity levels are dictated by the ability of the athlete to recover from strenuous workouts. I might, on Monday, train the snatch heavy, the clean and jerk light and the back squat medium. Then on Tuesday, train the clean and jerk heavy, the snatch light and the front squat medium. The intensity always depends on the ability of the athlete on that day.”
What you should note in Coach Bergener's statement is a very simple rotation of intensity and exercise focused on improving the targeted skill. No confusion here!
Powerlifters follow much the same philosophy. This camp of strength athletes has a focus on improving three lifts: the squat, the bench and the deadlift. They typically devote a specific training day to each lift and related assistance exercises, although more frequent training is becoming more popular. Again, no confusion – just a basic rotation of variables focused on skill enhancement.
The refinement of technique leading to a high level of skill is the keystone of any athletic training. Martial artists spend countless hours performing repetition after repetition of the same basic movements. They do not progress from the most basic front kick until it is firmly ingrained and mastered. Steve Cotter, two-time US Full Contact Kung Fu Champion, recently referred to skill development by saying that “after the first 10,000 repetitions, you know the skill, but it is the next 10,000 repetitions that will master the skill.” The act of strength training should be treated as a martial art. Development of strength requires focus, dedication and consistency. By approaching something as “simple” as the deadlift as a skill to be ingrained and honed through consistent practice, you will begin to see adaptation as something to strive for, not against.
Now apply the same time proven and successful strategies of martial arts, Olympic lifting and power lifting to your fitness program. Determine a goal. Determine the skill(s) needed to achieve that goal. Determine the variables that can be manipulated, and you have your program. Now end confusion and focus on your program. Consistent effort will succeed where jumbled switching has failed.
Very often, the tool is not the problem. It is the application of that tool that is the issue. Exercises are simply tools. Just as switching to a different screwdriver will not help you hammer a nail, switching exercises is often not the answer. In Part 2, we will examine the traditional exercise variables and how to manipulate them to enhance adaptation and skill development.