Have you ever noticed that when you workout for the first time, where everything is brand new, it seems like a daunting and physically painful act? Have you also noticed that when you go the second time, it’s almost immediately a bit easier? Or if you are a seasoned gym veteran and throw in a new exercise, at first it seems difficult and you can’t move as much weight as you can with similar exercises you perform more often? Then when you do the exercise a second time you are already stronger at it. This is called Muscle Adaptation. Why this is of importance to you is because utilizing your body’s ability to adapt and progress can give you that added edge in reaching and surpassing your goals in a shorter period of time. Be it gaining muscle size, muscle strength or increasing your muscular stamina/endurance.
Muscle Adaptation Principle is when your skeletal muscle adapts physiologically and biochemically to the resistance placed upon it. An example of this is to compare how hard it was to bench 135lbs a year ago to how hard it is now. Also, how the shape of your chest and triceps look now compared to a year ago. For those new to the fitness scene, think of that first time you used a piece of equipment in the gym or a dumbbell at home. Using that same weight now should be easier, less overall effort and the actual act should be almost routine without having to think awfully hard on how to use that weight.
So how do you utilize your body’s unique ability to adapt to your benefit? The best way is to constantly increase weight for each exercise (even if it’s only 1-2.5 pounds) and use different exercises for the same muscle groups ever 2-4 weeks. The aforementioned is the concept of muscle overload while the latter is the theory of muscle confusion. Let’s talk about overload first. Overload means using more weight than you previously have on any given exercise (usually with a spotter or assisted as in a machine) to shock your muscles.
Your muscles will view that additional load like your white blood cells view a virus, adapt to maintain balance in your system. Your muscle cells will increase in size and number, therefore will adapt to the stress put upon them in preparation for when they are called upon again to move that amount of weight a specific number of times. For example, if you can bench press 225 pounds for 6 repetitions in week one and then throw on an extra 10-20 pounds and get that for 4. Within two weeks of doing the exact same exercise, you should be able to either move 225 for 7 or 15-25 pounds more for 4. The same can be said if you bench 225 for 10 with two negatives or two assisted repetitions, that within two weeks you should be able to do 12 repetitions. Now that you have an understanding of overload to enhance muscle adaptation, let’s look into the second approach, or how I like to put it, a compliment.
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Muscle confusion is simply, confusing your muscles. For every muscle group (i.e. chest, shoulders, back, etc.), there are numerous muscle tie-ins and stabilizer muscle groups (synergists). Doing one simple exercise, the bench press, actually involves numerous other muscles to perform that one pressing motion. So in order to get the most development of any one muscle group you not only have to attack that muscle in different ways but also the muscles that are the support group.
And since your muscles adapt quickly (roughly 2-4 weeks), doing a decline bench press for week 1-3, then an incline bench press for weeks 4-6, then back to flat for weeks 7-9 can actually strengthen, create greater muscle size and tone from all angles for the agonist (main muscle being work) as well as the synergist (i.e. triceps). Never let your muscles know how you plan to attack them and they will respond accordingly in the most beneficial way.
For the next 12 weeks of your resistance training program, try at least 1 different exercise per week and per body part, increase weight for every exercise (even slightly), and never do the same exercises in the same order for more than 2-4 weeks at a time. Not only will you feel the difference in your workouts, see the difference in your body but it may even help give you that added push to continue working hard to reach your goals.