The Confusion About Muscle Confusion, Toning and Bulking.

By Dafna Hayman – Personal Trainer

Last night we had a fun kid-free night out with friends. Over dinner we chatted about the usual things parents talk about: kids, careers, work-life balance, etc… Eventually the conversation turned to exercise. First, one friend told me she mostly does cardio for her workouts because she wants to lose weight and get toned but doesn’t want to bulk up. Then, her husband told us he likes to switch up his workouts so his body doesn’t get used to any specific exercises because of, you know, muscle confusion!

AHA! There you have it! Two of the most common misconceptions in the fitness world today! And, since I had already written this post, I was thrilled when these topics came up in such a timely way.

Muscle confusion, in simple terms, means changing a variable in your training to allow the stress on your muscles to be significant enough to cause adaptation, change, and growth. But muscle confusion is often misinterpreted to mean that you need to change up your workout often in order to prevent your body from getting used to the exercises you’re doing as this would hinder progress.

Let’s clarify: muscles don’t get confused, they respond to the stimulus we provide. Rather than trying to confuse our muscles, we need to make sure we are applying just the right amount of stress to elicit the desired response. Insufficient stress will result in no change while too much will result in injury or over training. This might be a subtle difference, but it’s very significant. It means that rather than trying to come up with new exercises each week, you should consider changing other variables such as repetitions, weights, or time. I’ll explain.

Most of us are not preparing for a job at the Big Apple Circus. For people competing in the “sport of every day life” getting good at the basics will be far more beneficial than getting overly creative and finding yourself in a situation like this:

il_fullxfull.285166549 clueless

While that might be amusing to watch, it’s both unsafe and unnecessary.

Sticking to the basics and following a longer-term program allows you to safely and effectively progress through the stages of learning. If you are in the early learning stages of any movement (squat, deadlift, kettlebell swing) there is great value in repetition. When your body is learning new movement patterns, you want to achieve many successful repetitions with perfect form. Once the movement becomes second nature, your mind is free to focus on weights. That is when you want to increase the weights so you fatigue after 6-7 repetitions. If you complete 12 reps (repetitions) and feel like you can still keep going – chances are you can go heavier. If you are a beginner, you might still be building tissue tolerance so be careful to stick with small increases. Once the weight you’re using doesn’t fatigue you anymore, increase the weight by 5%-10%. You may need to decrease the number of reps and then work your way back up.

This brings me to misconception number 2: Cardio vs. strength training. Cardiovascular endurance training such as running burns calories during the act of running but the calorie burn will stop about 2 hours after you finish the run. When you lift challenging weights you break down muscle. That requires your body to repair and rebuild, a process that takes 72 hours. That is a full 72 hours of calorie burn while resting and eating properly.

But, you ask, won’t lifting weights cause me to bulk up? NO. If bulking up were that easy the supplement industry would go bust. Unless you are willing to lift really heavy and commit to about 3 hours a day at the gym, a rigid diet, and lots of supplements – you will not bulk up (especially if you are woman – you simple don’t have enough testosterone in your system to really bulk) When you ask to “tone” what you are really asking for is to change your body composition – more muscle, less fat. That is building muscle, not toning. Contrary to common belief, fat doesn’t turn to muscle and muscle doesn’t turn to fat but you can change your body composition to have more of one and less of the other. Strength training is an excellent way to do that.

Confused? Don’t be. Here is a simple step-by-step starter guide to weight training in a way that is safe and will promote both strength gain and calorie burn and no, you wont bulk up!

  1. Pick 5-6 exercises.
  2. Learn the movement pattern of those exercises so you can do them with perfect form by doing lots of repetitions with light weights or body weight.
  3. Once your form is perfect (or good enough), load the movement pattern with appropriate yet challenging weight that you can lift for about 6 times, recover and repeat for 2-3 additional sets.
  4. Work on the loaded movement pattern until the number of reps does not feel as taxing.
  5. Increase the weights by 5-10%.
  6. Repeat and enjoy!


Contact Us