Progressive Overload vs Muscle Confusion Part II

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Ok, so the question of the day is “what do you think about constantly changing programs who shoot for “muscle confusion” (their words) as opposed to linearly-progressing overload-type programs. Yesterday I went over the three primary systems involved in training, their roles, and very loosely how they’re trained. In case you missed it, check it out here.

Today we’re going to get into the pros and cons of each system and I’ll give my opinion.

First, let’s get into the constantly changing programs.

These programs thrive on inefficiency. As you become more efficient with certain movements (remember the CNS) you perform them easily. This over time can lead to stalled progress and a slightly less effective workout. As an extreme example: If I throw you into a pool and you can’t swim then you’re going to expend all sorts of energy thrashing about trying to stay alive. After a few months of swim lessons you’re going to be pretty comfortable in the water and you’re ability to tread water will be pretty efficient. Will you still burn calories treading water? Sure. Will it be as much as when you were thrashing? No.

The idea behind their “muscle confusion” is that by throwing lots of different movements at you then you’ll make use of this inefficiency and burn a ton of extra calories. To some degree this might be true. This could conceivably be better for fat loss, although the effect is probably fairly minimal and could largely be mitigated by the heavier loads of the progressive systems (assuming we were still comparing lift to lift).

And here we reach one of the big flaws in the regularly changing programs: The lack of progression. Remember how I said the CNS was the boss and it learned how to perform movements more efficiently? Well, that neurological learning is important for strength. When new trainees start exercising, there’s a period of several weeks where they don’t see a whole lot of physical adaptation. They do, however, tend to make some very substantial gains in strength as far as overall poundage moved. This is because early in their training career the body is refining their movement patterns and the CNS is learning the most efficient way to move the weights. They’re literally developing a skill. The more substantial physical adaptations to exercise, especially as far as strength and muscular development, tend to occur once they’ve reached an appreciable level of skill with a movement.

Here the progressive overload programs come out way ahead. While the frequently shifting programs can still foster skill development (people that are brand new will improve with pretty much anything you throw at them) the progressive overload programs trump because the frequency of skill practice is far more consistent, frequent, and regular. Basically, if you squat three times per week you’ll probably become a much better squatter in a month than if you squat twice in that month.

Here’s my first take-away for you: Figure out where you (or your athletes) stand on the beginner to advanced continuum.

Beginners need to learn and develop a foundation of basic skills, regardless of what your overall goal is. I start all of
my beginning athletes with a handful of basic movements which we practice frequently. These movements are the cornerstone of my training (squatting, pressing, deadlifting, etc) and I want them to be able to do them well. This makes up the bulk of their early training. We push these exercises as long as they can continue to make progress in them, sometimes week after week for months on end.

I then do throw in a variety of other things as I want them to develop a wide variety of athletic skills, but that’s minor compared to the meat and potatoes exercises. This type of training is usually what I use to develop their overall conditioning, keep them interested and occupied, and as I said, develop a wide range of skills.

Once the athletes have taken the basic movements as far as they realistically can, they’re not beginners anymore. They’ve reached the level of intermediate. This is where most of us reside for a lot longer than we are willing to admit. The intermediate athlete is fairly strong in the big movements, has accumulated a fair degree of muscle mass, has developed solid technique and body control, and has a pretty good toolbox of other exercises to pull from.

The intermediate is able to still make good use of progressive overload as the primary driver for progress, but they are much more likely to stall on a particular exercise than a beginner. An intermediate lifter, in order to continue to progress, needs to be using loads that are much more taxing and their CNS is much more efficient. These athletes tend to improve using progressive overload in more of a brief, cyclical fashion. Now we’re starting to blur the lines between progressive overload and rapidly changing programs. Depending on how you choose to structure your programming, intermediate athletes generally see pretty good progress from progressive overload cycles where they start fairly light (for them) and as the weeks go on shift into heavier training phases.

For their lighter assistance work they can go either way. They can bring up weak points through progressive overload training or they can continue to work towards new challenges and combinations of exercises, depending on their goals.

Advanced lifters are very practiced at their lifts and the variations of them. Their CNS is highly attuned to a good number of movements and they can quickly go from movement to movement in their training program and continue to see progress. Likewise, they will quickly burn out on a movement if they push it hard. These athletes, especially if their goal is pure strength, frequently need to change their movements. They also, because there’s not much new CNS learning for them, regularly change their assistance exercises and still see progress. While a beginner or intermediate lifter might spend several weeks performing a movement and largely getting better neurologically before getting into real muscle gains, the advanced lifter can hit a movement for a session or two and see appreciable gains from it.

Ok, so it sounds like it would make sense only for advanced athletes to use rapidly changing programs, right? Well, then why are they marketed to new trainees?

Well, first off, because they look and sound cool. So the marketing is a big thing, and there are a lot more newbies out there than there are advanced lifters.

However, as I alluded to earlier, it doesn’t have to be quite so cut and dried, and it really depends on your goals. The rapidly changing programs make use of inefficiency to improve overall conditioning, aid in fat loss, and develop a very broad (but somewhat shallow) base of movement skills. On the other hand, a program stressing progressive overload tends to develop far more strength, muscle mass, and skill with the more frequently practiced movements but tends to be able to only improve in a few areas at a time.

With my athletes I combine the two and skew it one way or the other depending on the goals of the athlete in particular. For a fitness client who wants to look great, be generally strong, and be able to do a bunch of fun stuff, I stick with some basic movements that we progress and develop (again, squats, presses, deadlifts, etc) but then do a variety of movements that enhance their ability to perform basic human movements.

For athletes that have a more direct goal or narrow focus such as powerlifters, football players, bodybuilders, etc I skew the training more towards dominating big lifts. The assistance work for these athletes is less frequently variable in order to maximize efficiency of those movements and develop more muscle mass. Then variability is thrown in to prevent boredom and to keep them a bit athletic and on their toes, so to speak.

Like most topics in the fitness world, this one has firm battle lines drawn. People tend to be very strongly focused on their particular style of training when the answer is usually in the middle. The focus needs to be placed less on “the way we’ve always done it” and more on what works and especially on why the decision is being made to perform a certain skill.

Put your thoughts below, I’m interested to hear them!

Pings on Progressive Overload vs Muscle Confusion Part II

May 17, 2011

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December 14, 2010

Sylvia Mavros @ 10:39 pm #

Well Isaac, you nailed it to the detail.Not much more to add then,great read.Well informed

December 15, 2010

Trevor @ 2:37 am #

I have found that even some of the assistance work can be handled like the big lifts when it comes to training beginners. Bands, to bodyweight, to weighted pulls are great, rope climbing can be handled in the same way, as can carry exercises. I have seen my athletes get constant gains for months with only minor alterations to these lifts.

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