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Muscle confusion training for athletes:
Is it beneficial?

Matthew Rowe looks at the popular concept of muscle confusion and discusses whether it can help improve our athletic performance.

The term muscle confusion has gained a lot of popularity in recent years, almost becoming a new buzzword - all this, even though the concept is nothing new. Bodybuilders have been using it since the 1970s as a way of generating increased muscular gains, strength and also improve athletic performance. It just was not known by this term. But what does muscle confusion mean, and is it something we should all be doing?

The Concept of Muscle Confusion

Firstly, let us examine what the concept means. The term muscle confusion is used to describe the process of changing up an exercise routine with each new workout, so we confuse our muscles into not knowing what is coming next. It is based upon the premise that following the same exercise plan week in and week out, will sooner or later lead to plateaus in our gains.

Why? Because our muscles adapt to performing the same routine very quickly. Only a change in routine will result in a changing response from our body.

How Muscle Confusion Can Be Applied

The important aspect of introducing muscle confusion is about making changes in a planned and deliberated manner. Your body can be challenged in new ways by making the smallest of changes to intensity, repetitions, or form. However, turning up to the gym and just trying to think of something new to throw into the routine for the sake of it, is not going to benefit you, because it is something new. Indeed, it is logical that if you substitute an exercise that you currently find hard for one that is much easier just because it is different, this will have no positive effects at all.

Practical Applications for Athletes

As a result of this, many athletes will use periodisation. This concept is similar to muscle confusion but has a more logical and pre-planned series of phases, exercises, and intensity variations. The changes usually are reasonably small, and each workout phase will typically change every 4-6 weeks. This type of training usually is more consistent with the sports-specific nature of athletes' training as well as more sympathetic to the on and off-season training phases. The idea of periodisation is to reduce plateauing while minimising overuse of muscle groups to reduce injury before a competition. This type of training is widely used by athletes and has been used for hundreds of years.

However, an interesting study by Hoffman et al. (2003)[1] found that over 12-weeks the exercise subjects (all athletes) who followed a program of muscle confusion performed almost twice as good as those following a program of periodisation. Does this mean that athletes should all be switching their training programs daily? Probably not.

Most athletes have a very targeted and planned form of fitness training that is explicitly aimed towards their sporting discipline. But like many things in life, it comes down to personal preference and what works best for your individual needs. There is strong evidence showing that muscle confusion may help us to challenge our bodies and adapt to different conditions which would seem beneficial to any athlete. On the face of it, many athletes probably already follow some form of muscle confusion, albeit occasionally. If they turn up to the gym with a plan of action but find that they have a sore back, for example, they have to make instant changes to their planned program to accommodate their situation. This means changing a pre-planned workout. Many athletes may use muscle confusion without even planning it.


There is no evidence showing that we should randomly change our exercise program at every workout. There is strong evidence showing that structured and cyclical changes in our exercise routine can have benefits in terms of our physical progression. It challenges both our muscular and our neuromuscular systems, it keeps our workouts interesting and in so doing, keeps us more motivated. When we begin fresh new exercises or routines, we tend to have a renewed vigor, and we may find ourselves, therefore, putting in a greater effort than before; this keeps our body progressing. This can be enough to help produce better results.

So, whether you use muscle confusion, periodisation, or just something in between, it would be beneficial for all of us to start thinking more carefully about our workouts and ways we can make our routines, less 'routine'. In so doing, we can adapt our workouts to challenge our bodies better, improve our performance and increase our exercise motivation.


  1. HOFFMAN, J.R. et al. (2003) "Comparison between linear and nonlinear in-season training programs in freshman football players." J. Strength Cond. Res., 17(3), p. 561-565.

Page Reference

If you quote information from this page in your work, then the reference for this page is:

  • ROWE, M. (2013) Muscle confusion training for athletes: Is it beneficial? [WWW] Available from: [Accessed

About the Author

Matthew Rowe, BSc, ACSM is an exercise physiologist and advanced personal trainer. Matthew helps train athletes and sports professionals at all levels to help improve their conditioning and athletic performance. For more information visit