Muscle Confusion or The 'Non -- Routine' Routine

Get in touch with your body’s feedback, and put an end to bad workouts forever!

Over the years, I’ve used just about every training protocol available in my quest to build my body to its genetic potential. I’ve tried volume training, power training, Heavy Duty, H.I.T., heavy weights, light weights, high reps, low reps and every intensity technique you can think of…and also some of my own invention. I’ve also tried every conceivable training split from 2 days a week, to 7 days a week, and everything in between, with varying degrees of success… and of course varying degrees of failure as well.

I don’t have the most favourable genetics for bodybuilding…not by a long shot, In fact, simply put, my genetics suck, but I love to train and compete, so I refused to quit, and instead, I kept plodding along year after year doing the best that I could do to make gains in some form or another.

As a kid, I had the metabolism of a hummingbird on ephedrine, and a tiny sparrow like bone structure, so I had to literally slave in the gym to earn every little bit of muscle I have added to my frame thus far…in spite of these shortcomings, I have put on over 80 pounds since I first started training, so if you garner only one single bit of advice from this article, it should be that persistence pays off!

All throughout my training career, which is quite extensive, I have always used a routine for 4-6 weeks at a time, and then discarded it. At times, if I felt I was still making gains, I would do it for 8 weeks, then alter it, and go for it again doing the usual 4-6 week stint. I would follow the workout routine religiously…exactly as I had written it out on paper, never deviating from it even if I was making nothing for gains. After all, most of the magazines said this 4-6 week time period was the amount of time needed to actually give the workouts time to do their supposed ‘magic’, this was how professional bodybuilders trained, so who was I to argue with that kind of ‘time tested’ logic?

A few years ago, while training with a friend of mine at our local gym, I dipped into my gym bag to retrieve the new program I had written out the night before, to review exactly what I had on the agenda for today’s workout. This workout routine was just another one in a long line of great routines that would propel me to the top of the bodybuilding ladder…just like the thousands of others I had written over my many years of training. Watching me intently as I perused the notebook I retrieved from my bag, my buddy asked me what I was reading, I told him it was the new workout that I’d be using for the next 4 to 6 weeks.

He looked amazed and shocked, and asked me why I didn’t train instinctively, and make up my workouts according to how I felt on any particular training day. He went on to say that training in this instinctive manner was an advanced technique used by tons of advanced
bodybuilders, and that it was sort of a “muscle confusion” type of system, which kept the body from adapting to any set routine or exercise scheme, thereby guaranteeing continuous slow but steady gains in size and strength.

I honestly felt that he may as well have been speaking Greek as I explained to him that all my training was well thought out, and was designed to accentuate weak points, and to de-emphasize my better body parts, with the main intention of building better proportions and
balance to my physique. I also told him that if you failed to plan, then you planned to fail, and that his line of thinking sounded like a hit or miss affair at best. He went on to say that if I was to train in the manner that he described, it would allow me to use a much wider variety of exercises to keep things fresh and interesting, and he also talked about the body’s ability to adapt very quickly to a set routine.

After much discussion with him and mulling things over in my mind for a few days, I decided that his training ideas were pretty sound, I certainly had nothing to lose…it wasn’t like my usual pattern of training was going to transforming me into a Mr. Olympia contender anytime soon…and after all, I would still be training hard, just not on my usual type of set regimen, so I more than likely wouldn’t lose any of my previous gains, and just possibly, I thought I might just make some much needed progress due to the extreme change in training.

What really solidified my decision to begin implementing his ideas was that when I talked to other friends who were also very serious trainees, I found that the majority of them all did something similar to the training approach that he had described…I felt like I had been living in a cave or something!

Muscle Confusion vs. Instinctive Training<?h1>

‘Muscle Confusion’, is somewhat similar to what people call ‘instinctive training’ but those who say they train instinctively, if there really is such a thing, sometimes skip workouts, train the same body part two times in succession, or take time off from training entirely, just because their bodies ‘tell them to’.

You should always listen to your body’s feedback and adjust training, diet, and rest accordingly, but the above scenarios in my book are almost sacrilegious. Training the ‘Muscle Confusion’ way, we have certain variables that we adhere to at all times, these are a constant and some of these are that consistency is paramount above all else…..this means we do not miss a scheduled training session unless we are near death, also I never would dream of training a body part two days in a row…it’s all about recovery or your best efforts are wasted.

Now a well deserved layoff and periodic breaks from training can be very beneficial…in my case however, they are rarely taken, as I simply cut back volume and intensity at times…kind of an ‘active rest period’ if you will. At this time I just coast and enjoy my workouts…nothing too intense at all.

If these people truly trained instinctively, their instincts would be telling them to cease training altogether as tearing down muscle tissue is far from pleasurable, and not something often done by the average person in their right minds. Of course, a bodybuilder is far from being average as we all know.

Eking out the hard reps on your last set of ass to the grass squats is surely a painful experience that our instincts would definitely ‘tell’ us to avoid at any and all costs! We must therefore use our minds to motivate us to push through these hard sets and reps …….we have to coax, will, push, and force our bodies to get more muscular, while our instincts would tell us to simply never make the attempt…and what kind of fun would that be for a pain seeking bodybuilder?

So, as you can see, instinct may not be the best choice of words when it comes to training…I prefer to simply adjust things according to my body’s feedback. This takes a long time to learn as you truly have to be in touch with your body and how it responds to different training stimuli.

Training Experience and Muscle Confusion

This is where a great deal of training experience comes into play…a beginner should not even attempt to train in the manner I am describing, and should just do basic bodybuilding exercises until he/she has built a solid foundation on which to build upon. In your first 2-3 years of training, depending on the individual of course, you should follow a set program to the letter until you learn how to train hard and with intensity. After this time period, if you feel you have grown stagnant and have stopped progressing, by all means give ‘Muscle Confusion’ a whirl!

When ready, instead of revamping your entire schedule, just make slight changes here and there substituting different movements for similar movements until you get a better feel for what may be needed.

Now a little bit about how our bodies adapt to training and some ways to get around it using The
‘Non-Routine’ Routine!

Adaptation to Training

Our bodies are literally miracles of adaptability, they are quite capable of altering themselves in response to any workloads placed upon them in such a way, that future and similar loads will be less stressful…adaptability at its finest. Likewise, they can, and will, adapt to having no demands placed upon them, becoming increasingly weaker and less capable, if we were to cease training entirely…in a nutshell, the processes of hypertrophy and atrophy.

Strength training involves, first, causing damage in the muscle cells we train, second, allowing time and providing resources necessary for the body to mend that damage. Modern science has confirmed that strenuous weight training sessions do indeed cause damage to the muscle fibres in the form of micro tears. The damaged fibres release particular signalling
substances that lead to the arrival of cells that clean up the damaged fibres, and then signal the nucleus of the cells to produce new proteins that are used to repair the muscles. These proteins, coupled with sufficient sleep and rest, enable the muscles to recuperate and

Over periods of time, these repeated bouts of training and muscle damage, leading to muscle repair, can result in an increase in the amount of muscle protein. Thus the muscle becomes bigger and stronger, and capable of handling greater resistance. In order to generate larger, stronger muscles, you must subject your muscles to a great enough force to create muscle damage. To do that, the muscle must be overloaded. In other words, it must be subjected to demands to which it has not yet adapted…a constant and ongoing challenge to build muscle. The longer you have been training, the more frequently you need to change the stimulus that your muscles are receiving.

Most training experts agree that the muscles will adapt to a certain exercise or workload after 2-3 training sessions. There are numerous ways to get around this adaptability by the body, but since we are discussing ‘Muscle Confusion’ in this article, let’s check out how it applies to adaptation, and some of its numerous other benefits.


In order to get the muscles to adapt, they must be exposed to a load greater than what they normally can handle or are accustomed to handling. That is, muscles must be challenged or overloaded. Overload can be accomplished by manipulating several variables:

1. Progressive Resistance: The most basic tactic used to create overload is to simply increase the resistance on the bar or machine that you are using.

2. Increasing Training Volume: The number of repetitions, and/or sets can be increased.

3. Intensity of Effort: The amount of time between sets can be shortened to create a training environment where you perform the most possible amount of work, in the shortest possible amount of time.

4. Frequency Of Training: The number of times a muscle group is trained in any period of time can be increased.

When we train using the technique of Muscle Confusion, we use all of the above scenarios at various times in our workouts to create overload, keep intensity high, and to alleviate boredom…the body never gets a chance to adapt to a set system or pattern of training. Lets say for example the first two days of our training split last week were heavy days using lower reps, on the third scheduled day of training, we were feeling a bit tired and lacking enthusiasm, do we stay home or try to go heavy anyway?

We simply adjust the stress of our workout by manipulating your reps, sets, rest intervals, training frequency, etc.

This is where you read your body’s feedback and adjust things accordingly…adjustments in training and eating patterns are a constant part of ‘Muscle Confusion’!

Heavy vs. Light

The term ‘heavy day’ is a relative one when you are a bodybuilder, or at least it should be. We all know that an all out one rep maximum effort is certainly heavy, as is a triple with a ponderous weight, but is that possible all the time while training, or even desirable for bodybuilding purposes?

A set of 10-12 reps on barbell curls can be heavy also, as long as you are working hard to squeeze out those reps, and not dogging it. Likewise, 20 rep squats are heavy if getting to the 15th. rep is a struggle, and you still have 5 more reps to perform. So, heavy is not always 1-3 or 5 or 6 reps, it can be any rep scheme at all, as long as you are training in an all out fashion, and completing those reps is taxing the body to its fullest…which you should be attempting to do 90% of the time.

If a heavy weight feels extra heavy on a particular day, or if even your warm-up poundages are tough, simply lower poundages and rest less between sets, these shorter rest periods, coupled with the use of use drop sets and triple drop-sets, X-Reps, Super-Sets, or some other intensity techniques thrown in, will ensure that even though your energy levels are low, or you didn’t get much sleep the night before, or whatever the variable is that’s contributing to you feeling a bit off, you still have a good and a productive training session in spite of it. So on our third day of training for the week, we may not go as heavy as we might have hoped to, but we still get in a good productive workout!

We all have bad days, but we do not have to have bad workouts, just some that are perhaps a bit better than others!

Rep Cadence / Time Under Tension

Lately, I have been experimenting with using greater times under load by doing reps at a slower pace and extending sets by using X-Reps and drop sets as well as Super-Sets and Giant-Sets. All of these techniques allow you to extend a set much further than you ever could training in a straight set fashion. This extending of a set results in greater time under load or tension which taxes the muscles for longer periods resulting in an increase in size and strength……best case scenario anyway!

Variations in the speed of an exercise recruits different muscle fibres also. Certain fibres will respond better to heavier loads moved at a slower cadence, and other fibres will likewise respond better to high velocity type training…both should be used occasionally. Training with an exaggerated slow rep cadence using a tempo of 5-0-5 for instance, will increase the muscles time under tension or stress, resulting in another way to make progress.

All of these weapons should be in your training arsenal and used from time to time to alleviate boredom as well as to keep the muscles from adapting to any set training pattern. By constantly varying your trainisessions, your body will not have a chance to adapt. The “Muscle Confusion” training routine is about the only way to train to beat adaptation!

Playing All the Angles

The angle of an exercise also plays an important role in recruiting specific muscle fibres. If you change the angle of any exercise just slightly, you are creating a new pattern of recruitment which in turn will stimulate different muscle fibres, we vary the incline angle on our sets of Incline Dumbbell Curls for instance, we are still working the biceps, but by switching up the angle of the bench, we now create a new recruitment pattern of muscle fibres in the biceps. When we change the angle of any given movement, we are activating different muscle fibres. Different exercises work muscles from different angles, causing the recruitment of different muscle fibres that would not be recruited if only one exercise were employed. So again, switch things up to keep things fresh, and your enthusiasm will never wane.
How It Works

Your body adapts to a workout routine very quickly as I explained above. This is evidenced by the people you see train for years and get little or no results. With muscle confusion the body never adapts because no two training sessions are quite alike. I constantly change my workouts for each body part. For example, let’s take chest day. In one workout I might do barbell bench presses first, then move on to dumbbell inclines, then flyes, followed by parallel bar dips. On my next chest workout I would reverse the order of the exercises, or start with dumbbell inclines first, or do Super-Sets, or whatever scenario I thought might hit the pecs the most effectively, going by how I felt that day, and taking into account what I did at my last workout.

I do this with every body part…always something different. A few things do remain constant though, I will always do a mass building heavy basic exercise or two, before doing any isolation movements, unless I am doing a pre-exhaust Super-Set…and I always go as heavy as I possibly can for the amount of reps I’m shooting for. On days when I’m not feeling too strong, I will train faster or add some Super Sets or Drop Sets or 1 and 1/2 reps, or some other technique to increase the intensity. I very seldom go beyond 12 sets for larger body parts, and 6 to 9 for smaller ones. Once in a while I might throw some low reps or extremely high rep sets in to shock the body part I’m training so it will respond accordingly with a growth spurt…hopefully.

No Excuses

One major factor I forget to mention, training using this system is not an excuse to get out of squats, deadlifts, heavy rows, chins, or leg work in general, or other often hated, tough movements, that should be the backbone of any routine. You can’t tell yourself that you don’t feel like doing squats today because you are listening to your body. That type of mindset is not gonna work if you expect to make optimal progress.

Having a ‘go to war’ attitude every time you set foot in the gym is a prerequisite, no matter what training protocol you might be using at any given time. tough it out and never shirk the hard reps or result producing basics…they are bodybuilding staples and are time tested and result producing. You still have switch things up for variety, but don’t do all your favourite exercises at every workout.

In other words, pay your dues!

Sample Workouts

Now we’ll take a look at some sample routines that you can use over a 3 week period, I’m just using 3 weeks as an example because of space and time restraints as you can change things up on a daily basis which is what I do. Personally, I like higher volume as a rule, but at times I switch this up also as I do with everything, according to how I feel and what I did in
the gym at my last training session.

OK, first we’ll take a look at 3 workouts we can use on a weekly basis for legs…..this is taking into account that you train each body part once weekly, as I do, but any training split can be used.

These are actual workouts right out of my journal…I did not list poundages as they are irrelevant.

Legs-Week # 1:
Quads, Calves, Posterior Chain:

Leg Press: 5 sets (add weight each set, while decreasing reps, rest periods
are brief…just until breathing returns to normal)
50 reps
40 reps
30 reps
20 reps
10 reps

3 x 12, 12,10 (add weight each set…..the last set should be heavy enough
where you have to use the rest pause technique to complete it)

Dumbbell Lunges: (constant weight-30 seconds rest between sets)
Do these one leg at a time for increased time under tension.

Leg Extensions: 3 Descending Sets (decreasing weight slightly on each set, 45 second rest periods)
12, drop set for 8 more reps.

Standing Calf Raise-5 x 8-20

Leg Press Calf Exytensions-5 x 10-15

Posterior Chain:
Reverse Hyperextensions-20, 12, 10, 8, 6.

That’s it for the lower body…I find personally that I need plenty of sets and reps to stimulate some growth into my stubborn legs. This may not be the case for you, but the beauty of it is that you can alter it to fit how best your body responds to certain training methods or rep ranges.

Now at the next leg session, you might start out with Squats, followed by Leg Presses, and then do a Super-Set of Leg Extensions with light Smith Front Squats.

Following this up on the third week, you could add in Hack Squats and a Leg Sled type of machine, and create another scenario using lower reps perhaps…the possibilities are endless if you are creative, and you never get stale, bored, or in a rut, and the best thing about it is that the legs don’t have a chance to adapt to a set training routine although they are being stimulated every week from various angles using various rep schemes and intensity techniques.

Now we’ll take a look at a sample chest day:

Barbell Incline Press- 5 sets, 5-12 reps, (X-Reps performed at the end of the two heaviest sets)

Weighted Dips-4 sets, 5 -12 reps

Flyes-3 sets, 10-15 reps

Next session could be a pre-exhaust Super-Set of Flyes followed by Benches, then some Dumbbell Inclines, for 8-12 reps, followed by Low Cable Crossovers for 3 sets of high reps…the following week could be all Giant-Sets, low reps, less rest time between sets compared to the previous weeks chest routine, or just anything that you feel might be beneficial to try at this time……as stated above, the possibilities are truly endless, and you’ll always keep the muscles guessing and off balance, which will equate to continued progress without becoming bored silly.

Now, one for the arms…everybody loves training their arms!

Super-Set # 1:
{Barbell Curls-3 x 12,10,8
{Skullcrushers-3 x 12,10,8

Super-Set # 2:
{Seated Alternate Dumbbell Curls-3 x 12,10,8
{One-Arm Dumbbell Extensions-3 x 12,10,8

Super-Set # 3:
{Cable Preacher Curls-2 x 15-20
{Pressdowns-2 x 30, 20

Finish off with some forearms training and there you have it…a good arm day using Super-Sets alternating the biceps with the triceps in true Super-Set fashion.

Next arm training day, you might do all straight sets with a different rep scheme, or include some other intensity techniques such as strip sets, or 21’s for biceps, and all cable exercises for the triceps, as long as it’s different from the previous week, heavy for the targeted rep range, whether it be high, low, or medium reps, and most importantly, it should be enjoyable
instead of monotonous. For the third week, you can do all exercises using machines and train with just 30 seconds rest between sets, and finish off with down the rack curls and down the rack overhead dumbbell extensions for a final bit of growth producing, sleeve splitting torture.

When you are fresh and enjoy training, it will definitely be more result producing than training on a set schedule that you will become bored with very quickly.

The above scenarios should give you an idea of how to switch things up for every body part.

Although training this way can take a little while to get used to, let me assure you that in the long run, you will be satisfied with its ease of use. It is absolutely the best way to train that I have found to date, and I never have bad workouts anymore at all, and my progress is slow, but continuous, as just this past September 2006, I believe I achieved my best condition ever at 51 years of age in placing second in the NABBA USA American Bodybuilding Championships.

I credit being able to continue progressing at my age to the type of training described in this article.
Record Your Progress

A few other things that are a must no matter how you train are the use of a training and diet journal.

The importance of a training log cannot be overlooked, especially when training on “The Non-Routine” Routine.

The journal should contain all pertinent data of your training…this includes exercises used, poundages used, number of sets and reps performed, mood when starting, date, time, place, bodyweight, and cardio, if you do cardio.

When you train randomly like this, your journal becomes very important. If I’m on a routine that I’ve been using for a few weeks, I have no problem remembering what I did in each exercise, or at least the big ones like bench or deads. On the other hand, the idea of training in a different order with different exercises, possibly every workout, and then trying to remember all that is pretty tough.

Over time, you will literally laugh out loud when you glance back through your journal and see the poundages used and how they used to be heavy for you. This is a great way to chart your progress and to keep yourself enthusiastic about your training.

Lord knows we cold all use a little boost in enthusiasm now and then.

Another great tool is to keep a diet log. The log should include, foods eaten at each meal, time of day the meals were eaten, columns for the fat, protein, carbohydrate and calorie content of each food item. For the average trainee this would help to make sure he eats all the right things. After all who wants to look back and see how much junk food you ate?

But if you eat it record it. Seeing that you ate a dozen cupcakes and a gallon of milk should make you a little stricter, especially when your abs become sloppy. Every time I put food into my mouth I think about why I am eating it, if I should be eating it, and how it is going to help me. I can make split-second decisions and change what I am doing if I think it will have a negative impact on me.

For the competitive bodybuilder a log can be essential when training for a contest…it will allow you to chart all the things you need to do when trying to get stage ready, you can record what methods worked best for you, and what didn’t work so well in your contest prep, which should make future outings much easier for you to come in looking your very best which is what bodybuilding is all about anyway. I feel that this ‘Non-Routine’ Routine type of training is the most important training principle ever, period!

I urge everyone who reads this to try to apply to your current routine. Develop a new connection between your mind and your muscles, and you will be on your way to the greatest gains of your life!

Train hard!

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