Inevitably, everyone will run into a point in their training when their progress slows or stops, whether in strength gains or overall performance. When you reach a training plateau, you may have simply stopped being able to add more weight to your sets, or perhaps you haven’t gained any additional endurance or speed in quite some time.
Many people have the impression that muscle confusion is the only way to prevent the body from adapting to their routine. This fitness method is loosely defined as the process by which an athlete randomly changes their workout routine to prevent the body from adapting. In fact, muscle confusion aims at changing a workout routine nearly every exercise session. This includes repetitions, sets, volume, and intensity, as well as the types of movements themselves.
The thought process is that the body adapts very quickly to a stimulus, so it should be changed often. While muscle confusion can be an effective way to keep workouts fun and exciting, it might actually prevent you from reaching your goals.
For example, if you are an endurance athlete and you are trying to increase the plyometric component of muscle contraction to reduce fatigue, you would want to include plyometric training into your program on a regular basis. In order to become more efficient at a movement, you must practice that movement.
The fact of the matter is, muscle confusion is not a new concept. It has been around for quite some time, and has become a default method to prevent muscle adaptation. Fortunately, we can take things a step further and adjust our workouts using variable repetition training, or undulating periodization to attack plateaus and more likely achieve our desired results.
Undulating periodization offers the best of both worlds. It maintains the same types of movements in each workout, but varies key components of the workout such as rest periods, number of repetitions, and repetition tempo. This way, you can focus on becoming more proficient at a specific movement, but still provide a varying stimulus for every workout.
Fitness Coach Alwyn Cosgrove popularized the concept of undulating periodization. He indicates that the human body adapts fastest to a certain repetition range rather than to a movement. In other words, in order to break past plateaus, it is not the exercise selection that makes the difference, it is the number of repetitions in a given set. Endurance athletes do something like this regularly in their training.
For the endurance athlete, undulating periodization offers many benefits. Running may be the key movement, but each type of workout should provide a different stimulus to the body. This method allows the endurance athlete to save time by not having to create a new workout routine every time they hit the trail or go to the gym. Rather, they can come up with just a handful of workouts. With each workout, the intensity, distance, and time can be thoughtfully adjusted. This also helps the endurance athlete become more efficient in the gym as they perform squats, deadlifts, and the bench press (for example) — all great movements to increase total body strength.
For strength training, the key movement might be bench press. If the athlete always bench presses for three sets of ten, their body will adapt very quickly, which will lead to a training plateau. However, if the athlete changes the repetitions, weight and (perhaps) speed, the body should respond positively, enough to blast through a plateau.
There is yet another benefit of planning your workout using undulating periodization: it keeps your mind fresh. You may no longer dread using your valuable time to hit the gym just to do the same workout you did two days ago. Yes, parts of your new program may be similar on a day-to-day basis, but there is just enough change in the routine to break the monotony of doing the same things over and over. Because of the subtle changes in the acute variables of the program (sets, reps, intensity, rest periods, etc.) the athlete’s body will not be able to adapt as quickly, which will help prevent unwanted training plateaus.
Whether or not it is referred to as muscle confusion or undulating periodization, the fact remains that workouts must be varied frequently to be effective. But workout programs don’t have to be changed drastically to provide results, they just have to be changed intelligently. Using undulating periodization as an organized form of muscle confusion will keep your workouts fun and exciting while offering the tremendous benefit of blasting through plateaus.
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