How long do you need to exercise, whether in the gym or at home, for it to be really worth the trouble? 15 minutes? An hour? It might be shorter than you think, as according to one study, muscle growth can occur if you contract your muscles for just three seconds every day. Is there any truth to this, and is it practical?
Some people practice HIIT workouts, often using burpees, kettlebell swings or more of the best exercises for weight loss, workouts that can be done in as little as 15 minutes or so. Tabata exercises, using HIIT principles to get you sweating for 20 seconds, resting for 10 seconds, and alternating in that way, getting a full workout in just eight minutes.
The study, published in the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Science in Sport (opens in new tab), looked at the effects of daily three-second maximum isometric, concentric and eccentric contractions on elbow flexor strength. In fitness terms, an "isometric" move is a static contraction held for a certain length of time, like a plank or a wall sit.
A concentric contraction is the phase of a move like a bicep curl, where the weight is curled upwards, while the eccentric contraction occurs during the lowering phase of the move, as the total length of the muscle increases while still being under tension. If you've ever slowly lowered a dumbbell rather than just let it drop, that's an eccentric contraction.
The end result found that a small amount of muscle was built over the course of just three seconds a day in all three forms of contraction. However, if you're looking to build muscle for your health, or even to look better, don't expect big results, as the study highlighted the relatively small percentage of growth.
This is very much a study performed in "a vacuum", and doesn't mean you can build functional muscle in a realistic timeframe by exercising for just three seconds a day.
However, it is important to note two things. Firstly, the muscle was built faster in the group that performed eccentric contraction, indicating that you need to think about how you lower your weights as well as how you lift them. Performing the eccentric phase slowly under control is likely to supercharge your muscle-building.
To get started, next time you perform a push-up or squat, lower yourself down slowly before coming back up with explosive strength. Check out our guide on how to do a push-up for more.
The second point of interest to note is that little and often works, even in small ways. Can't do a long, intense workout? Try a 20-minute run, or even a 20-minute walk, to get yourself moving and obtain a small cardiovascular benefit. No time for an hour's gym session this morning? Do a quick 10-minute HIIT circuit in your front room before showering. Find ways to incorporate exercise into your day, and you'll be rewarded with lifelong health and well-being.
Matt Evans is an experienced health and fitness journalist and News Editor at Fit&Well, covering all things exercise and nutrition on the Fit&Well website. Matt originally discovered exercise through martial arts: he holds a black belt in Karate and remains a keen runner, gym-goer, and infrequent yogi. His top fitness tip? Stretch.
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