Taking three seconds a day to build your muscles can make you significantly stronger (2023)

Brevity is a word we all like to hear when it comes to workouts. And if it’s a case of hours at the gym versus a shorter, sharper session, most of us would choose the option that cuts sweaty effort to a minimum. In recent years, cardio workouts have been crunched to a minimum with HIIT workouts lasting a matter of minutes, and now it is the turn of strength training with the latest study suggesting
that a new low of just three seconds of daily weight training could make a big difference to your muscle strength if you have neglected resistance exercise until now.

A team of exercise scientists reporting in the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Science in Sports asked a small group of healthy but sedentary men and women to perform a brief arm-strengthening exercise with weights every day for a month. To ensure uniformity of movement among participants, the team from Niigata University of Health and Welfare in Japan and Edith Cowan University in Australia used a lab-based training machine called an isokinetic dynamometer that recorded precise measurements of force and range of motion as they performed a simulated three-second biceps curl with ‘maximum force’ - as heavy as they could manage – on five days a week.

There were subtle variations in how they lifted, says Professor Ken Nosaka, director of exercise and sports science at ECU and one of the researchers. “One group performed an “eccentric” lift which meant lowering the weight down from
the shoulder so that the elbow joint was forcibly extended and the muscle lengthened,” he says. “A second “concentric” group slowly lifted the weight upwards meaning the muscles shortened, as in a biceps curl, and the “isometric” group held the weight in place at the mid-point.”

They continued with this single three-second daily contraction on Mondays to Fridays for four weeks, completing 20 sessions, with the total muscle contraction time reaching 60 seconds in the month-long trial. They did no other exercise during this time and a control group did nothing.

When Nosaka and his colleagues came to re-evaluate the effects of the three-second workouts the results were impressive. All of the participants had some strength gains in their biceps with improvements of 6-7% among the concentric and isometric exercisers, yet it was the eccentric lifters who made the biggest leap, ending the short trial with arm muscles 11.5% stronger than when they started.

“People think you have to spend vast amounts of time exercising to improve their muscle strength, but that’s not the case,” says Nosaka. “Our study results suggest that a very small amount of exercise stimulus – even 60 seconds in four weeks – can increase muscle strength and that every muscle contraction counts.”

Of course, he says, the improvements were seen in people who were starting from a strength-training base of zero and gradually increasing intensity and duration would be necessary to maintain and improve. Even so, it’s a starting point that will come as welcome relief to those who have skirted resistance training in the past.

Fitness experts suggest that adults should do strengthening activities that work all the major muscle groups – legs, hips, back, abdomen, chest shoulders and arms – on two or more days a week. That doesn’t necessarily mean swinging a kettlebell at the gym – lifting your own body weight with push-ups and squats, even doing repeated chair sit to stand moves or digging the garden, would count. Though these exercises may sound simple, meeting basic fitness standards can be challenging. The 2019 Healthy Ireland report found that less than half of the adult population failed to meet physical activity guidelines.

For his next study, Nosaka will be looking at an ultra-brief all-round strength workout. “We haven’t investigated muscles other than the biceps yet, but if we find the three-second rule also applies to other muscles then you might be able to do a whole-body exercise routine in less than 30 seconds,” he says. “When the message is ‘do at least one three-second eccentric contraction per muscle group every day’ there really is no excuse not to do it.”

If you have neither the time or inclination to linger in the weights room, here’s how to build your strength:

If a workout is brief, do the weights need to be heavier?

Not necessarily. Nosaka says that for a strength exercise lasting just three seconds you ideally need to put in maximum effort with as heavy a weight as you can lift without straining.

“But if you can’t manage a maximal eccentric contraction, then submaximal eccentric contractions – such as lowering a medium-heavy dumbbell slowly several times - can still achieve results,” he says.

An alternative for the time-crunched is to focus on compound moves that work multiple large muscles at the same time.

The best group strength training class

Body Pump, a fast-paced, barbell-based group workout to music that was launched in 1990, remains one of the most popular classes on the timetable at many gyms around the country. Others to try include F45, the rapidly-expanding Australian franchise that already has gyms in Dublin (Bray, Sandyford, Townsend Street) with lots more locations to come, which includes functional (hence the F) exercises that involve lifting, pushing, pulling and squatting in each 45 minute class.

Do some digging

Digging vigorously in the garden once a week was hailed as one of the best ways to boost strength and also a remedy for warding off chronic muscle, joint and back pain among the over-50s by researchers at Portsmouth University reporting in the Journal Plos One last month. Dr Nils Niedestrasser, senior lecturer in psychology and a lead author, says that any activity helps to lower the chances of suffering pain but, over time, only high levels of physical activity – including digging - at least once a week appear to lower the risk of someone developing musculoskeletal pain.

“Activity needs to not only be vigorous, it needs to be done at least once a week,” Niedestrasser says.

His findings coincided with the publication of a study from Japan which showed that half an hour of heavy gardening each week could help reduce the risk of dying from any cause by as much as 20%.

Add daily stair climbing

Any activity that requires moving your body against a little more load and with a little more force than on previous occasions will elicit strength gains. Climbing stairs entails strength work but stair descending is also beneficial because it involves the kind of eccentric muscle contractions that Nosaka advocates for strength gains. As you get fitter, you’ll need to add some extra resistance which you can do by carrying a heavy bag or by stair climbing two at a time. And then increase the number of flights you climb on a daily basis.

Try the slo-mo chair-sit

If you do nothing else, then sit down in slow motion every time you lower yourself onto a chair or sofa. “We have been investigating the effects of sitting to a chair slowly – an eccentric exercise - on walking ability, balance, and other factors in older adults, and found it to be very effective,” Nosaka says.

Typically, says Nosaka, we sit down about 10 times a day. “If we sit very slowly every time we do it, we perform at least 10 submaximal eccentric contractions of the knee extensor muscles every day. It provides the perfect opportunity for us to perform eccentric exercise and simulate our leg muscles effectively on a daily basis.” When you’re in position, perform some glute squeezes.

Squeeze your glutes for 15 minutes a day

If gains with minimal movement are your thing, the results of a study in PeerJ may also appeal. Exercise scientists at Wichita State University asked participants to perform either gluteal squeezes - squeezing their buttock muscles as hard as they could for five seconds before relaxing and repeating - or repeated glute bridges for 15 minutes a day. Results showed that the gluteal squeezers increased their glute strength by 16% over eight weeks compared to an 11% improvement in those who did the glute bridges. Researchers suspected one of the reasons they proved effective in boosting butt strength is that the squeezes are straightforward to perform and recruit only the gluteal muscles whereas a bridge requires other muscles such as the hamstrings to come into play.

If you do one exercise...

Make it the squat. “The perfect strength exercise is a squat in which you start with dumbbells at your shoulders, then you push up from the bent-knee squat, simultaneously press the weights up towards the ceiling — it works all parts of the body,” says sport scientist David Sadkin.

Faster squats will improve endurance as well as strength, while slower squats — in which you count to six as you descend, pause at the bottom and jump up — will boost muscle power and strength. “Do them with weights as you get stronger and start with three sets of ten repetitions and build up,” Sadkin says. “If you do nothing else, do these two to three times a week.”

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