How to build bigger biceps: A little flexing each day does it best

It's not the weight, it's the frequency of lifting those barbells that gets the results.

It's not the weight, it's the frequency of lifting those barbells that gets the results. Photo: Getty

Do you go to the gym once a week and give it all you’ve got for an hour or two with the barbells and the pully-downy thing and feel pretty pleased with yourself?

Hang on to that pumped up self-esteem, please. Because maybe you’re going about your weights training in a way that generates a bucket of sweat – but isn’t the most efficient way of building muscle strength.

Research from Edith Cowan University suggests “a little bit of daily activity could well be the most beneficial approach”.

What do they know?

These Edith Cowan researchers were the same people who came up with the three-second workout that we reported on back in March.

It’s worth revisiting that study.

The participants were healthy couch dwellers, divided into three groups.

Five days a week they visited a laboratory and did their mini-workout on a contraption called an ‘isokinetic dynamometer’, a fancy version of a weights machine.

On the machine is a lever that is be pushed or pulled, up or down, with a varying degree of resistance.

Just a few of these every day builds better muscles than a weekly marathon at the gym.

The machine was weighted so the participants had to work as hard as possible, but only for three seconds. And they were done for the day.

Some of the participants slowly lifted the lever’s weight, as if curling a dumbbell: This is what’s known as a concentric contraction, during which the biceps are shortened.

A second group lowered the lever, as if lowering a dumbbell, creating an eccentric contraction, which lengthens the muscle, which is more demanding than a concentric contraction.

A third group held the lever’s weight steady, against gravity, in what’s known as an isometric contraction.

This was repeated, five days a week, for four weeks: 60 seconds of working out in total.

All groups showed benefits for doing very little.

But the group that had pulled the lever down, making the more demanding eccentric contraction, enjoyed the best results: They increased their biceps strength by up to 12 per cent.

Which is significant for a group of people who, until the study, had done no exercise at all.

You can read more about this study at Edith Cowan.

The point being

The Edith Cowan researchers, in collaboration with Niigata University of Health and Welfare in Japan, have an ongoing investigation into how little exercise people can get away with – and enjoy meaningful results.

They’re part of a world-wide trend of inquiry.

The latest study builds on the previous one, using the same fancy machine.

Professor Ken Nosaka. Photo: ECU

This time, three groups performed the same demanding ‘maximal voluntary eccentric bicep contraction’  that gave the best results in the earlier study – where they lowered the lever on the machine as if they were lowering a dumbbell.

The study ran for four weeks.

Two groups performed 30 contractions per week – with one group doing six contractions a day for five days a week (6×5 group).

The other crammed all 30 contractions into a single day, once a week (30×1 group).

Another group only performed six contractions one day a week.

Over the four-week period, “changes in muscle strength and muscle thickness were measured and compared”.

The results

After four weeks, the group doing 30 contractions in a single day did not show any increase in muscle strength, but their muscle thickness increased 5.8 per cent.

The group doing a measly six contractions once a week did not show any changes in muscle strength and muscle thickness.

However, the 6×5 group saw significant increases in muscle strength – more than 10 per cent – with an increase in muscle thickness similar to the 30×1 group.

What does this suggest?

ECU Exercise and Sports Science Professor Ken Nosaka said these studies “continue to suggest very manageable amounts of exercise done regularly can have a real effect on people’s strength”.

He said that people think “they have to do a lengthy session of resistance training in the gym, but that’s not the case”.

He said that “just lowering a heavy dumbbell slowly once or six times a day is enough”.

Of course there are other muscles in the body that need to be exercised – but as it goes for the biceps, maybe those other muscles don’t need to worked to death to get good results.

The study is presumably aimed at slackers, with a view to educating couch dwellers that just a little workout each day makes a difference, and won’t cut into too much of your lazing around.

“Muscle strength is important to our health. This could help prevent a decrease in muscle mass and strength with ageing,” said Professor Nosaka.

“A decrease in muscle mass is a cause of many chronic diseases such as cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, some cancers, dementia, plus musculoskeletal problems such as osteoporosis.”

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