Study suggests: Focus on eccentric muscle contractions for less gym time with the same result

Can you lift weight for three seconds every day? Because that is what it only takes to have a positive impact on your muscle strength!

Incorporating gym time into your busy schedule can be hard. As much as you want to stay fit, your work may hinder you from fulfilling your fitness goal.

The good news is a new study found that you can ultimately lower your gym time by half and still gain the same results by focusing more on eccentric muscle contraction.

The research discovered that people who only lowered a weight experienced similar muscle strength and size improvements compared with those who raised and lowered weights, despite doing half the number of workout sets.

The muscle contractions study

The majority of us struggle to work out consistently because of our unavailability – well, the muscle contraction study from Edith Cowan University (ECU) [1] has great news that may further optimise your gym time without compromising the results.

It reveals that one specific type of muscle contraction from lifting weights can be most effective at building the body’s muscle strength and size.

Achieving results similar to performing a whole set can be possible even though you reduce your weight training. The study emphasises lowering weights rather than lifting them. 

The muscle contractions study

The study was conducted in collaboration with some researchers from Niigata University of Health and Welfare (NUHW) in Japan.

They asked 39 healthy university students to do one type of muscle contraction at maximum effort for three seconds per day within five days a week over the span of four weeks.

On the other hand, there were another 13 students who were asked to perform no exercise over a similar period and were also measured before and after the four weeks timeline.

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At the end of the study, it was found that students who only lowered a weight discovered similar improvements compared with the participants who raised and lowered weights – despite only performing half the number of repetitions.

Furthermore, Professor Ken Nosaka from ECU’s School of Medical and Health Sciences stated that the results of the study reinforced past research studies recommending a focus on eccentric muscle contractions, as it can significantly help in increasing the strength and size of muscles rather than the volume.

Professor Nosaka further emphasised that one eccentric muscle contraction per day has the potential to increase muscle strength when performed five days per week, even if you only perform it three seconds every day.

Meanwhile, concentric muscle contractions or lifting a weight and isometric muscle contractions or holding a weight do not provide similar effects [2]. 

3 types of muscle contractions 

There are three primary muscle contractions: eccentric, isometric and concentric. These are the options provided to the participants of the study [3]. 

1. Eccentric muscle contractions (muscle lengthening)

This is a muscle movement that lengthens the movements of your muscles. Your muscle fibres are being stretched under tension from a force greater than your muscle can generate.

Eccentric movements decelerate a joint at the end of a movement rather than pulling a joint in the direction of a muscle contraction. 

To further illustrate an eccentric movement, the force brings a dumbbell back down to your quadricep from your shoulder during a bicep curl exercise.

When activated by eccentric movements, your muscles become elongated, which include simply walking, squats, triceps extension, calf raises and lowering a dumbbell.

A good reminder to note is that you may be more prone to exercise-induced injuries when having eccentric muscle contractions. 

2. Concentric muscle contractions (muscle shortens)

This is another type of muscle activation that can cause tension in your muscle. When your muscle shortens, it then generates enough force to move an object. 

Additionally, concentric is also the most popular type of muscle contraction among the three. You can easily spot concentric movements during weight training, especially when doing a bicep curl.

You can see that your bicep muscle swells and bulges as it shortens by lifting a dumbbell toward your shoulder.

Concentric movements can strengthen your muscle and encourage hypertrophy, which is an increase in muscle size.

In building muscles, concentric contractions are considered important; however, they can also cause wear and tear on your joints.

It increases your risk of injury and overuse. Moreover, concentric movements depend on your joint movement for their proper function, but repeated exercises and contractions can lead to strain and soreness.

3. Isometric muscle contractions (muscle is stationary)

These refer to the muscle contractions that do not cause your joints to move but are still active. Your muscle does not necessarily need to lengthen or shorten.

Consequently, isometric muscle contractions generate force and tension without any movement through your joints. 

Visualising an isometric movement is like when you push up against the wall. You consistently release tension to your targeted muscle but do not exceed the weight of the object you are applying force.

Some examples of isometric movements are planking, holding an object in front of you while in a steady position and holding a dumbbell weight in place halfway through a bicep curl. 

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Which type of muscle contraction is the most effective?

Research shows that the three muscle contractions have their own benefits in strengthening the muscles. However, among them, eccentric contraction is found to give faster results. 

The muscle contraction study divided its 39 participants into three groups who performed dumbbell curls two times a week within five weeks and a control group that was left doing nothing.

The training groups are categorised into the following: (1) performed only eccentric muscle contractions (lowering weight), (2) performed only concentric muscle contractions (lifting weight) and (3) performed both concentric and eccentric muscle contractions (lifting and lowering weight alternatively).

Which type of muscle contraction is the most effective?

Furthermore, it was then found that despite the eccentric-only group performing half as many reps as the participants lifting and lowering weights, the gains in strength were closely similar.

Plus, the eccentric-only group also saw more improvements in muscle thickness – an indicator of muscle hypertrophy or about 7.2 percent, while the concentric-eccentric group is only 5.4 percent.

Eccentric contractions in doing workouts

Now that we know how eccentric contractions can ease our time doing our workout routines or exercises, how do we actually follow its movements? Professor Nosaka recommends doing several simple exercises that you can do even outside a gym studio.

You can also apply the same principles even though you are not in weight training. With the following exercises, you can feel your muscles contracting slowly and continuously stretching from the beginning to the end of the range of movements:

  • Using a dumbbell, use your two hands to help with the concentric (lifting weight) phase before using one arm for the eccentric phase (lowering weight) when doing weight training–bicep curls, front raise, overhead extension and shoulder presses. 
  • When using leg weight machines, you can also use the mentioned concentric or eccentric technique when performing knee extensions, leg curls and calf raises. 
  • For the chair sit exercise, position yourself into a half-squatting position and sit down slowly on a chair in three seconds. Take note that narrower and broader stances may create different effects. If you find it easy, try to sit down with one leg.
  • In chair recline, you should sit on the front of a chair to allow a space between your back and the backrest. Then, slowly recline back in three seconds. Make sure to put your arms crossed at the chest or hold them at the back of the head. 
  • To do an uneven squat exercise, you must stand behind a chair, lean to one side to put more weight on one leg, and then squat down in three seconds.
  • For heel-down exercise, you should stay behind a chair, lean forward and raise your heels. Next, you must lift one leg off the ground and lower the heel of the other leg in three seconds.
  • In doing a wall kiss, you must lean against a wall with both your arms fully extended. Then, bend the elbow joint slowly over three seconds until your face becomes closer to the wall.

After you perform each eccentric muscle contraction, you should minimise the effort in returning back to your starting position for all the mentioned easy-to-do exercises inside your home. 

The bottom line on longevity

As we understand the benefits of eccentric-focused training, this study can allow many people to spend their exercise time more efficiently.

Performing eccentric movements can potentially optimise and maximise our day-to-day workout routines while still receiving the same results.

In fact, even a small amount of daily exercise can provide you with improvements. You don’t really need more time or even go to the gym, as you can easily add eccentric exercise into your everyday routine.

As eccentric contractions contribute to muscular strength, the possibility of further longevity is attainable.

In fact, in a 2021 review of 16 studies from different countries, it was found that about 30 to 60 minutes a week of muscle-strengthening or resistance exercise can potentially increase your life expectancy by 10 to 17 percent. 

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