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Does mixing up your exercises really make a difference to muscle growth?

Posted by Dayne Hudson in Muscle Building

Estimated reading time: 5mins

Does mixing up your exercises really make a difference to muscle growth? | Bulk Nutrients

Does changing exercises lead to more muscle growth?

A very recent study looked into this again, examining trained subjects.

They compared a muscle-building program with fixed exercises to a program with various exercises. Both groups did the same amount of sets for each muscle group and trained to failure in the 6-12 rep range. In the various exercise group, the exercises they performed were randomly assigned by a training app. 

So, what did the researchers find?

Muscle gains were ~350% greater for the rectus femoris (a quadriceps muscle) and 50% greater for the other two heads of the quadriceps in the group doing the same exercises constantly. The same was found for the other muscles worked.

So "mixing up exercises" didn't help muscle growth at all. 

But in a positive for the mixed exercise group; the researchers found that they were more motivated to train. So if motivation sometimes becomes hard for you to find, then changing up your exercises may be beneficial to get you through and back on track. But just don't expect it to bring you more gains.

But the motivation factor isn't something to skip over. Research shows that motivation is the reason we keep training or don't.

Muscle confusion doesn't lead to more muscle growth

And stepping out of the study and utilising common sense, it's obvious that by doing the same exercises (ie, bench presses) for a prolonged period, means you're getting more comfortable with the exercise and are building up your strength there. 

The subjects were training in the 6-12 rep range and given research shows muscle growth occurs at a variety of rep ranges, it makes sense that staying put and getting stronger working in the 6-12 rep range, is better than moving to another machine and spending time getting familiar (and stronger) on it.

When does mixing up training actually work?

We must be very specific here as to what we're directly discussing.

A previous study examined two groups either doing just the squat, or a variety of leg exercises. They found that the variety of exercises was better for muscle growth.

But of course, this is in comparison to just ONE exercise. In reality, no one goes to the gym and just squats. We perform a variety of exercises, such as the following:

3 sets x leg extension

3 sets x squats

3 sets x leg press

3 sets x lunges

as opposed to:

12 sets x squats.

The findings are that a varied workout with four different exercises is better than just doing squats. Yep, makes total sense.

The rest of the findings are that sticking to a varied workout long term is better than what the first cited study in this article did: randomly doing various quad exercises each time.

But of course, one of the key findings was the motivation factor: mixing up exercises in a workout was found to motivate the trained subjects even more.

Whilst it won't make us grow more muscle, mixing up our training can improve motivation in trained subjects.
Whilst it won't make us grow more muscle, mixing up our training can improve motivation in trained subjects.

So how can we implement this in our training? Well, if we find we're getting stale, we can do the dreaded "muscle confusion" strategy and mix up our exercises for a workout to keep our motivations humming. However, it's critical we know it's due to motivation reasons only, and not to "confuse our muscles" into more growth.

Because according to the aforementioned science, that's just not going to happen.

Growing muscle effectively

Rather than examining "muscle confusion", we need to examine the three principles of muscle growth:

  1. Mechanical tension
  2. Metabolic stress
  3. Muscle damage

We detail all of these points in this Bulk Nutrients article here, but as a brief recap:

  • Mechanical tension refers to lifting heavy. And we must progressively overload the weight as we get stronger (ie add more weight to the bar each workout).
  • Metabolic stress refers to the pump: going to failure and making sure we train in the higher rep range (12-25 reps).
  • Muscle damage refers to implementing slower negatives and practising an extended range of motion. 

"Confusing" our muscles is of little importance or consequence when we focus on the above.

Focus on the three principles of muscle growth ahead of "muscle confusion".
Focus on the three principles of muscle growth ahead of "muscle confusion".

The bottom line is that mixing up our exercises for "muscle confusion" isn't a good strategy for optimal muscle growth. In fact, it's detrimental. But it can increase our motivation to train which may be helpful when our motivation is low.

If optimal muscle growth is the goal, the best strategy is to stick to a fixed workout and focus on the three principles of muscle growth. 

References:

  1. Baz-Valle E, Schoenfeld BJ, Torres-Unda J, Santos-Concejero J, Balsalobre-Fernández C. The effects of exercise variation in muscle thickness, maximal strength and motivation in resistance trained men. PLoS One. 2019 Dec 27;14(12):e0226989. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0226989. PMID: 31881066; PMCID: PMC6934277. 
  2. Fonseca RM, Roschel H, Tricoli V, de Souza EO, Wilson JM, Laurentino GC, et al. Changes in Exercises Are More Effective Than in Loading Schemes to Improve Muscle Strength. J Strength Cond Res. 2014;28: 3085–3092. pmid:24832974 
  3. Schoenfeld BJ, Grgic J, Ogborn D, Krieger JW. Strength and Hypertrophy Adaptations Between Low- vs. High-Load Resistance Training: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis. J Strength Cond Res. 2017 Dec;31(12):3508-3523. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0000000000002200. PMID: 28834797. 
  4. Schoenfeld BJ. The mechanisms of muscle hypertrophy and their application to resistance training. J Strength Cond Res. 2010 Oct;24(10):2857-72. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0b013e3181e840f3. PMID: 20847704. 
  5. Sperandei S, Vieira MC, Reis AC. Adherence to physical activity in an unsupervised setting: Explanatory variables for high attrition rates among fitness center members. J Sci Med Sport. 2016;19: 916–920.  
  6. Van Roie E, Bautmans I, Coudyzer W, Boen F, Delecluse C. Low- and High-Resistance Exercise: Long-Term Adherence and Motivation among Older Adults. Gerontology. 2015;61: 551–560. pmid:25997778.
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