Do you even lift? Lowering weights may be faster route to muscle growth

Narrowing in on a solid workout can be a challenge for time-strapped fitness enthusiasts, but lately we’ve been seeing sports scientists really dig into the most efficient workouts. A team at Australia’s Edith Cowan University (ECU) has provided new insight in this area, through a study that shows that focusing on weight loss instead of lifting can be a more efficient way to increase muscle mass.

During this year, Edith Cowan University (ECU) researchers have made some interesting findings about weight training and how short, sharp workouts can still be beneficial. In February, the team showed that three seconds of dumbbell training a day can provide significant benefits, and then in August showed that lowering the dumbbells six times a day can provide similar benefits.

These studies explore the types of muscle gains offered by different phases of weight training. The lifting phase shortens the muscle and is known as a concentric contraction, as occurs when a dumbbell is raised to the shoulders in a bicep curl. The eccentric contraction is the opposite phase, lowering the weight back to the hips, which lengthens the muscle.

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Many forms of exercise, such as running and jumping, involve both eccentric and concentric contractions, with the two playing complementary roles in a healthy body. Concentric contractions can feel like harder work and require more energy at the time, but the muscle recovers faster. Eccentric contractions, meanwhile, use less energy during exercise but are believed to cause muscle fiber damage and greater strength once they are rebuilt.

Previous findings from the ECU team fit this school of thought by showing how eccentric contractions produce the greatest force, and the new study continues this theme. The scientists enrolled 53 subjects who were put into one of three training groups that were made to do dumbbell curls twice a week for five weeks, and the inactive group served as a control.

But only one group performed both concentric and eccentric contractions, as they do during a typical biceps curl. Another group performed concentric contractions, and another group only performed eccentric contractions. Scientists observed an improvement in concentric strength in all groups, but the most interesting insight into the results of the experiment is the superior results seen in the eccentric-only group.

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Despite only lowering the weight and performing half the repetitions of the eccentric-concentric group, the subjects benefited from similar strength gains. Even more interesting is that this group showed an increase in muscle thickness, 7.2% compared to 5.4% seen in the concentric-eccentric group. Study author Professor Ken Nosaka told New Atlas that people who want to put on size in the gym may be better off emphasizing weight, rather than lifting.

“We can reduce concentric contractions and we should focus on eccentric contractions in our resistance training,” he explained. “In general, people focus on concentric contractions rather than eccentric contractions, but this should be reconsidered.”

Nosaka offers some examples of what it can look like at home using body weight for resistance. You can sit slowly in a chair from a half-squat position, or slowly lower your body into a lunge. When it comes to using weights for resistance, this asks the question of how to get them up there in the first place. For this, Nosaka also has some suggestions.

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“To perform an eccentric contraction, we must perform a concentric contraction (in order to reduce the weight, we must first lift the weight),” says New Atlas. “It is important to note that concentric contractions cause greater neuromuscular fatigue than eccentric contractions. Thus, it is important to reduce the effort for concentric contractions by using two arms to lift the weight, and lowering it with one arm to emphasize eccentric contractions.

One limitation of the study was that it focused exclusively on training the elbow flexors over bicep curls in untrained adults. While Nosaka believes that eccentric contractions are similar to muscle groups elsewhere in the body, further studies are needed to confirm this, and explore whether these effects apply to a wider population and trained individuals.

This research was published in European Journal of Applied Physiology.

Source: Edith Cowan University


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