The Secret Key To Getting The Most Out Of Your Workouts

Sure, lifting is important. But there's probably a part you're forgetting, and it's crucial for building strength.

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A man doing bicep curls with dumbbells at a gym.
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As luck would have it, the optimal routine for maintaining your bulk is a natural fit in the busy schedules of new parents. When it comes to building muscle, a growing body of evidence suggests that in many aspects, slow and steady wins the race. A new study backs up this approach, finding that working out a little bit almost every day is better than going all in on a long, intense workout every once in a while.

The study, published in July 2022, looked at the effects of small, frequent strength workouts compared to those of more traditional workout schedules. For the 36 university-aged young adults in the study, performing one set of six bicep curls five days a week for a month led to a more significant increase in muscle mass than performing five sets of curls one day a week for the same period of time.

While those looking to build serious muscle probably won’t be satisfied with the results of such a minute routine, it’s pretty strong evidence for the importance of everyday movement for baseline muscle maintenance.

Still, it matters how you engage in that weightlifting movement. This is the most important caveat to the findings, says Ken Kazunori Nosaka, Ph.D., the director of exercise and sports science at Edith Cowan University in Australia, who worked on the study.

Any repetitive motion you make involves two key types of muscle contractions. The first is called a concentric contraction, and is characterized by the shortening of your muscle fibers as you move — think movements such as a crunch or bicep curl. An eccentric contraction, the second type, is the opposite. In an eccentric contraction, your muscle fibers lengthen, sometimes against resistance from gravity or a weight; this would be the portion of a bicep curl where your arm straightens back out or your core straightens out doing sit-ups.

In his research, Nosaka has found that the most important element of any movement when building muscle is the eccentric contraction. “The important message here is that when you’re lifting weight, you have to lower your weight slowly,” he says.

In an earlier study, published in Feb. 2022, the same research team compared daily workouts that were all just three seconds long, but focused on different types of contractions. The group doing the eccentric contraction part of the bicep curl, releasing a standard, moderate amount of weight very slowly back down, showed markedly larger improvements in the strength of the involved muscles than those who focused their efforts more on the actual curling part of the bicep curl.

“Eccentric contractions are the best way to look at the question of minimum exercise,” says Nosaka. But make sure to keep it regular — in the new study, even lifting eccentrically, the participants doing all of their curls at once one day a week showed no difference at all in muscle strength at the end of the trial. It was those who did just six contractions a day, five days a week who saw a difference.

There are plenty of ways to incorporate eccentric contractions into your daily routine that don’t even involve free weights. Of his own workout routine, Nosaka says that aside from his regular high-intensity interval training, “I sit in the chair very slowly every time I sit down.” His team’s research, he says, is great proof that you can get a fitness boost from even the most everyday movements. And that’s crucial for busy parents who might not have enough time to work out as they’d like.

One particularly great tool you might already have on hand? An infant or small toddler. Lowering your small child into their crib very, very slowly can officially count as your workout for the day — and Nosaka fully endorses using your baby to get buff.

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