Ask LH: Is It Necessary To Vary Your Workouts?

Ask LH: Is It Necessary To Vary Your Workouts?

Dear Lifehacker, I’ve heard that I should be “mixing it up” and changing up my workouts at the gym. My friend, who’s a bodybuilder, told me that this is called “muscle confusion” and will force them to grow. I only know a few exercises at the gym so changing seems even more difficult. What do I do? Thanks, Confused Carl

Dear Carl,

First of all, muscle confusion is silly by definition. A group of cells doesn’t have the ability to think, let alone become confused. According to fitness blogger and Westside Certified Barbell trainer Jordan Syatt:

The term “muscle confusion” is based on a theory that believes constantly changing your workouts will prevent your body from adapting to training, thereby “shocking” your muscles and forcing them to make uninhibited progress. This is a myth.

In this sense, muscle confusion is not supported by anything I’ve seen in the current breadth of strength training research and should not influence you to constantly change your workouts with the hope of “shocking” your muscles. That’s nothing more than hyped-up fitness marketing nonsense.

We’ve already talked about the perils of workout hopping and the need to stick to a program — switching from routine to routine in the hopes that it will kickstart changes is more likely to foil your progress than push it to the next level. But there are two additional reasons that sticking it out is of utmost importance.

Unless you’re already fairly intermediate (being able to squat twice your bodyweight, for example), you will be able to make linear progress at the gym. This means that if you keep your exercises the same, you will be able to do more — either more reps or higher weight — at the next session, so long as you’ve allowed yourself adequate recovery time.

For this progress to occur, you must be methodical. According to nutritionist and fitness writer Martin Berkhan:

The only thing that should be changing from week to week is the load on the bar or the reps with the same load you used last time. If you’re doing it right, these should be increasing. Everything else stays the same; the movements and the order you did them in, the sets and the rest periods in between sets. You don’t add in new stuff.

Many “mix it up” because they find workouts more fun. And yes, it may be pleasurable, but that means missing out on something better. According to Martin:

This is the only way you can fairly evaluate your progress and see if you’re headed in the right direction. It might sound tedious to keep doing the same movements every week and the appeal of “mixing it up” can seem strong. But tediousness will soon be replaced by the much stronger joy you get from seeing your lifts go up on a weekly basis.

But don’t worry, you’re not doomed to do the exact same workout for the rest of your life.

It’s Still Important To Change Some Things

Ask LH: Is It Necessary To Vary Your Workouts?

[Images: Gage Skidmore]

There are reasons to intelligently alter some things. For example, low, medium and high rep ranges all contribute towards increases in muscle and strength in some fashion, and you’d never attain the benefits of them all if you had the same routine for the rest of your life.

While we’re not arguing you should continuously “mix things up”, it may be important to employ some variation within reason. According to Jordan:

The role of exercise variation in a well-designed training program cannot be understated. While you don’t need to (and probably shouldn’t) vary your exercises and workouts every single day, changing your exercises on a regular basis (think every 4-8 weeks) is an easy way to avoid overuse injuries.

There are two main reasons that you may need to change your exercise selection or program:

  • Injury, as Jordan mentioned above.
  • When a program stops working or an exercise stops progressing.

If you stop progressing on an exercise or program and have given it a good 4-8 weeks at least, you can consider switching to another program or swapping out an exercise for an alternative variation, such as closed grip bench press instead of dumbbell bench press.

But if you’re just looking to boost growth, keep in mind that there are two truths in strength training. The first is that no program or exercise works forever. Progress will naturally slow to a halt once your body nears its natural limits. Provided you haven’t reach that point, the second truth will hold true: any good routine will work if you stick to it.

Cheers Lifehacker

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  • I think one (possibly the most important) reason to change workouts is that for most people you don’t hit every muscle with a fixed set of exercises. If you’re time poor it’s just impossible to hit every single muscle group so the solution is to change up a couple exercises to at least get a couple of them each time.

    eg: Do the “big” ones like squats and dead lift all the time, but change up a smaller exercise every few weeks/months. Like dumbbell row, or skullcrushers, or whatever just to make sure you’re covering different groups of muscles.

    • This is a reason that a barbell program like Starting Strength or Stronglifts are good. You can get a very good full body workout by just using four compound lifts (Squat, Bench Press, Deadlift, Overhead Press) and pull-ups. There aren’t really any muscle groups that aren’t hit by progressively increasing loads/reps on these lifts.

      • Obliques and calves?

        And while those exercises are great (I count the first three as the “big” ones you should do all the time anyway), they are a set range of motion. It’s worth adding exercises to focus on different motion. Like the aductors or using the cable machine (I can’t think of it’s proper name) to work on different shoulder movements (yay rotator cuff tears!).

        I think though, it depends a bit on your goals too. If you’re a body builder trying to get huge then you’ll probably have a regime worked out, if you’re a person just trying to build core strength and fitness then that’s different. If you’re the latter then changing up workouts to keep from getting bored is a great idea even if it has zero “growth” benefits. The main benefit is it keeps you from quitting.

  • muscle confusion

    Oh geeze… If that ain’t straight from the Bro Science Journal, Vol 6, University (Bench) Press, Muscle Beach, California

  • While “muscle confusion” is bogus, neural adaption is real. If we continue to do the same exercise, even if we increase the load, we become more efficient at doing that exercise without muscle hypertrophy. Our brains simply get better at firing the neurons in the the most efficient way to complete the activity. It’s the same reason we get better as we learn to ride a bike, we don’t necessarily get strong, we learn to ride better.

    ‘Mixing it up’ forces us to use slightly different neurons, forcing greater muscle growth.

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