Progressive Overload vs Muscle Confusion


Last week a popular fitness pro posted up a question on Facebook where he asked what we (as pros) thought about the recent trend towards “muscle confusion” and frequently changing training programs. I didn’t get a chance to respond at the time, but the topic is interesting so I thought I’d stick it out here.

The trend he’s talking about is shared by a handful of recently popular training systems but they all boil down to the same idea: Frequently (daily/weekly) changing movements and training stimuli will result in “confusing” the muscles which forces rapid growth, fat loss, and develops superior overall athleticism. Sounds great in theory.

The other extreme of training theory is old school, linear periodization-style progressive overload training. In this type of training a few basic movements are used over and over again with increases in load or volume overtime to push the body’s adaptation abilities toward creating a bigger and more powerful muscular system. Also sounds great, right?

So which one works and which should you be doing? Well, it depends.

Let’s start out by looking at what’s really going on when you train. When it comes to strength, speed, or whatever you’ve got three real systems that are working together somehow to create the movement you’re looking for.

First, there’s the Central Nervous System (CNS). The CNS is the boss. It tells pretty much everything in your body how to do its job. Bear in mind that the goal of the CNS is to get you through life quickly and efficiently. So performing similar movements on a regular basis will train the nervous system to be very efficient at those movements. Challenging the CNS with progressively heavier loads in similar movements will train it to recruit more muscle fibers and to utilize the most efficient movement paths and thus you’ll get more strength out of the same muscle. This is why you have relatively small powerlifters, fighters, and olympic lifters who can move much more weight than larger, more muscular bodybuilders; Their recruitment ability is far more refined.

Next there’s the muscular system. This is, of course, what most people target with their training. The muscular system is the big mover; Your muscles contract and pull on your bones which results in movement. The method by which your muscles contract is through the contraction of actin and myosin fibers within the muscle. To increase both your muscles’ size and strength your body needs to be convinced, through training, to create more of these actin and myosin fibers. By and large this is how you get bigger muscles. There’s a whole bunch of other little things that can come into play (pretty much nothing in the body is ever totally simple) but that’s the idea.

Finally there are your energy systems. The training of the energy systems is often lumped into the muscular system training, but in order to develop top condition (for whatever your goal is) it makes sense to look at the energy systems on their own. I’m not going to get deep into them here, although I did write a good basic article on them a while back if you’re interested in learning more. Just know that the body has to turn the food you eat into the energy you need to move your muscles. With proper training it can become better at delivering that energy.

Now that we know the players involved, I’ll be back tomorrow to discuss how the game affects the strategy! Stay tuned for Part Two!

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December 13, 2010

Sylvia Mavros @ 5:05 pm #

Great read!! Looking forward to part 2.I shared on my FB page 🙂

Isaac @ 5:22 pm #

Thanks Sylvia! I appreciate the support!

I should have known that a picture of Branch would bring you out of hiding! 😉

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