If you're tired of seeing buff bros telling you to "shock your muscles" as if they're implementing the power of surprise or "muscle confusion" sounds strange to you, you're at the right place. It's not that variation is bad, it's just that there is a strategy to implementing them. Knowing how to bump up workouts in different ways makes all the difference. At the end of the day, my favorite buff bros do workouts that seem pretty boring.
For starters, the muscles in your body don't have a mind of their own. Think of it more so as a network--they're all strung into this mesh that relays information to your brain. The more you use your muscles, the more connections form. And the more you vary how you move, the greater the necessity to form new connections so that you can better coordinate those movements. (Just like cell phone networks benefit both from delivering great service in bigger cities and from covering more area so you don't lose service out in the country.)
So what happens when you try to "shock the muscle" and instead of hitting another set of standard squats, you do something more funky? (Optimally...) Depending on what you choose to do, you might be improving cardio, or maybe teaching your body a new movement, or possibly getting more agile. Most likely, you aren't improving much at all unless that funky thing you've chosen to add is something you'll keep adding.
But then that takes the "shock" factor out, doesn't it?
This is where the principle of progressive overload comes in.
When we workout or start training for a run or a bike ride or swim...whatever it might be, we place a physical demand (stress) on our system and our body has to adapt. This adaptation may vary between people and types of training. Still, at the end of the day, our body responds and the workout or run or ride or swim we started with starts to feel a whole lot more doable. This allows us to pursue greater challenges over time, assuming you're approaching the exercise of choice in a consistent way.
If you want to deadlift heavier, you need to deadlift. If you want to run faster, you need to run. To improve in a certain movement, you need to train the system that propels it.
But what about variation? What about changing things up? Variation doesn't just break the monotony of what you're doing (which is important in maintaining motivation in long term goals). Earlier I mentioned the network (neuromuscular connections) that connect your muscles to your command center--the brain. One of the cool things about becoming more fit is not only in muscle growth and strength development, but in the ability of our bodies to fine tune movements, to develop quickness, and to better coordinate movements. These elements can not only mitigate injury and improve our health with aging, but can make us a better athlete in many ways.
Here's an example of why just slowly increasing weight (physical demand) over time might not be all you need: Take your collegiate athlete. They're a modern day hippie trying to be a better ultimate frisbee player and compete at the international level. They've just started hitting the weight room for the first time in their lives and learned how to squat with a barbell. It's been a few months, things have been going smoothly, but it seems like just upping the weight on the bar isn't translating to the field in speed or vertical (jump) height. In this instance, the great news is that they've built a fantastic foundation. At the very least, strength is present. The next step is to add variety to the squats (and hopefully other lower body motions that include deadlifts and hip thrusts...more on this in the near future). The garnish is to introduce sport specific plyometrics.
Are we shocking the system by adding these two steps? No. The goal is to increase the reach of your network and to increase the power of the network. In other words, we are creating greater neuromuscular connection so that more muscles and more of each muscle is "in network" with the brain. By introducing different types of squats or different lower body movements, this athlete will have to use different parts of their quads and muscles that may have taken a bit of a hiatus during their training. Secondly, introducing plyometrics (and/or higher power demands) will mean that the network has to coordinate and switch on at the same time. Even so, these additional elements need to be implemented in a progressive way, consistently, and over time.
A well greased system will be able to switch on more of these connections as the body needs it and at a greater speed.
This is where the exciting stuff happens and certain movements feel more fluid and quicker. This is where athletes surprise themselves on the field or in events.
There is a lot we can vary within a training regimen, but trying to blind side your muscles isn't going to be an effective one.
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Founder, Project Green Beard
UCSC Banana Slug