The Only Thing 'Muscle Confusion' Confuses Is Our Poor Small Brains

Another study adds to the mountain of evidence that wildly varied workouts don't add anything.
Hannah Smothers
Brooklyn, US
Progressively adding weight is more effective than a highly varied routine
M_a_y_a via Getty

The New York Times reported Wednesday morning on a small study from Spain that tested the theory of “muscle confusion,” or an idea that muscles need to be tricked by constantly varying exercise routines, or else they won’t ever get stronger. To do that, researchers enlisted 21 men who lift regularly, and split them into two groups: one that did the same routine four times per week, steadily upping weight as the regimen got easier; and another that used an app to do a different workout each day, also four times per week.


The study found, as similar studies found before it, that muscles aren’t actually confusable. Both groups of men saw almost identical gains in muscle size and strength; the only significant difference was the men who varied their routine say they were “more motivated” to work out than the group that did the same thing, over and over again. Or, in other words: Your brain is what craves variety; your muscles simply couldn’t give a shit.

Muscle confusion has been thoroughly debunked by scientists and elite personal trainers, all of whom say the best way to gain strength is to simply increase the amount of weight we lift, and how many times we lift it. But the myth that muscles are savvy little tricksters that refuse to get stronger if subjected to the same workout all the time persists—perhaps because it’s an excellent way to sell personal training sessions, ClassPass memberships, and extreme regimens like P90X. You could spend hundreds of dollars on a program that gives you something new to do every day, or you could just go to the gym and lift progressively increasing weights. If this gets boring after a while, as it very well may, you can always mix up your routine in other, free ways, like making a new lifting playlist, maybe giving podcasts a try, or dragging a friend along to lift with you.

You don’t need to trick your muscles into getting stronger by taking them to a $30 boxing class one day and a $40 Pilates class followed by a four-mile jog the next. Your muscles are big, dumb machines; they aren’t “onto you,” or your scheme to get stronger. If anything, if you treat them nicely and recover appropriately, they welcome it.

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