Why Exercise Variation Isn’t Always Optimal
During our long flight from Vienna to Tokyo I’ve got a bunch of downloadable magazines for free. Of course I’ve taken some of the fitness related ones even if they are often full of bro-science (=not evidence based crap), but they are a good inspiration for writing blog posts though. One of them was looking really nice: it had a really strong looking woman on the cover, instead of just one of the pretty & skinny girls. I started reading the training and coaching philosophy of this apparently “evidence-based” lady and my jaw dropped as the words “muscle confusion” (=constantly changing the exercises in your training plan) as driver for muscle growth were used. Well -spoiler alert- the opposite of muscle confusion is rather a driver for hypertrophy. Let’s see why and where variation may or may not make sense.
What makes muscles grow?
While some details of muscle growth may still not completely be clear, there is one point where all the scientists agree. When you use enough mechanical tension on a muscle that its structural integrity is compromised, an adaptive response is triggered: the muscle fibers undergo a remodelling process, which can include muscle protein synthesis to increase the size of the muscle. Mechanical tension does not mean muscle damage (=soreness) which isn’t required for muscle growth to our current knowledge. Other factors like metabolic stress and exercise induced anabolic response may also play a role but there is currently not enough evidence for it.
To cite Menno Henselman: muscle confusion is perhaps the most ironic broscience theory in fitness. Why? If you have red carefully the paragraph about what makes muscles grow, you will have noticed that you do want adaption to occur: with enough mechanical tension you put stress on your muscle and it will adapt to that stress by growing. Once adapted to it, you should increase the stress to the muscle by imposing higher levels of mechanical tension by increasing weights or performing more sets or reps and so on.
This is called progressive overload and it’s the fundament of every well designed hypertrophy program. Be aware that the first times you perform an exercise, the initial adaption which occurs is mostly neurological: you become better at performing that exercise. As your technique stabilizes more and more, also muscular adaption will occur and you will get bigger and stronger. That’s another reason why you should stick to some defined exercises for a while and not jump from a program to another.
To sumn this up again, because it is so important: First your technique improves as your muscles learn to work together to perform an exercise. After this initial phase you are proficient enough to increase mechanical tension by moving more weight. More tension equals more growth!
Think about how hard certain movements can be in the beginning. Take one of my personal favorites, the Bulgarian Split Squat, which is essentially a one leg squat that you load by holding onto weights. In the beginning this exercise feels like crap! Balance is the main challange here, not the weight you have to move. You have to learn how to perform this exercise, only after that you have any chance to add more weight. If you only do Bulgarian Split Squats once every month, you will never get good enough at them!
Exercise variety – Practical applications
However, every now and then it could make sense to switch to a new exercise in order to hit muscle fibers you haven’t really taxed in a while. Nevertheless, you should then stick to those for a while again. The more you are a beginner and the more large, multi-joint movements you do, the less often you should change, maybe once or twice a year. Most people will profit of changing every 3-6 months, especially if you are plateauing for a long time on an exercise.
There is a second kind of variety and it is referred to how many different exercises you use for a given muscle group in your training program. Again, simplicity is the key: focussing on a couple of basic exercises should be enough for most beginner and intermediate. If you would like to see a sample how this could look like, check Stefan‘s article on the bare bones of a training plan. For advanced lifters close to their genetic potential it’s of course a different story: they need more volume, they don’t need to work that much on technique and regional muscle growth becomes more important. In this case you may want to have more exercises per muscle group in your program.
A case for many different variations of the same exercise is the number of involved muscles and how many different movements those muscles can perform. Think about your back: “the back” consists of many different muscles and they let your perform many different movements. Therefore it makes sense to include many different pulling/rowing exercises in your training plan. On the other side you have the front of your thighs, which only consist of one muscle, the “quads”. And they only have one movement they need to do, they extend your legs. Due to this, you can probably just do one movement that really allows you to hit your quads and yield optimal results with no exercise variation.
- Progressive overload is king. Work on increasing weight without compromising technique.
- Stick to your training plan especially if you are constantly progressing.
- Do not worry too much on hitting every single muscle fiber if you are a beginner or intermediate lifter: keep exercise selection simple in your training plan.
We hope we did help you to have a more clear view on what really matters for muscle growth. If so be so kind and share this article and help us in the war against bro- and broette-science.
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