How to build bigger biceps: A little exercise each day boosts muscles more than one big weekly workout

JOONDALUP, Australia — Could the answer to getting builder muscles be quantity over quality? A new study finds just a little bit of exercise each day is better for the body than one intense workout session.

Researchers from Australia and Japan have found that just doing a handful of bicep curls each day, five days a week actually improves muscle strength more than continuously doing dozens of curls in a longer exercise routine once a week. Moreover, they found people don’t even have to work out at full intensity to achieve these results.

During their study, the team had two groups of volunteers perform “maximal voluntary eccentric bicep contractions” for four weeks while they measured each person’s muscle strength and muscle thickness. An eccentric contraction is when the muscle lengthens. In the case of a bicep curl, a person lengthens the muscle by lowering a heavy dumbbell.

One group did this six times a day for five days a week (6×5). The other group completed all 30 contractions in a single day once a week (30×1). Researchers also had a third group do six contractions once a week as a control.

Results show the 30×1 group did not see any increase in their muscle strength over the four weeks. However, they did see their muscle thickness (an indicator of muscle size) grow by 5.8 percent. The control group doing six contractions a week did not see any change in muscle strength or muscle thickness.

The 6×5 group, on the other hand, saw their muscle strength increase by more than 10 percent, as well as experiencing similar growth in muscle thickness as the 30×1 group.

3 seconds of exercise is still enough for bigger muscles

Interestingly, the team found that the 6×5 group saw similar results to a previous study where participants increased their muscle strength through a single three-second bicep curl each day.

Edith Cowan University’s Professor Ken Nosaka says these studies show that it only takes a very manageable amount of exercise on a regular basis to produce noticeable improvements in strength. “People think they have to do a lengthy session of resistance training in the gym, but that’s not the case,” Nosaka says in a university release. “Just lowering a heavy dumbbell slowly once or six times a day is enough.”

Additionally, Nosaka reports that the latest study finds it doesn’t take people working out at maximum effort to achieve these results.

“We only used the bicep curl exercise in this study, but we believe this would be the case for other muscles also, at least to some extent,” the researcher adds. “Muscle strength is important to our health. This could help prevent a decrease in muscle mass and strength with aging. A decrease in muscle mass is a cause of many chronic disease such as cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, some cancers, dementia, plus musculoskeletal problems such as osteoporosis.”

Days off are still good

Although the new study finds exercising on a regular basis is a good thing, study authors say taking breaks is just as important to building muscle.

“In this study, the 6×5 group had two days off per week,” Prof. Nosaka explains. “Muscle adaptions occur when we are resting; if someone was able to somehow train 24 hours a day, there would actually be no improvement at all. Muscles need rest to improve their strength and their muscle mass, but muscles appear to like to be stimulated more frequently.”

The team also found that people should not try to “catch up” on their exercise if they’ve been away from the gym for a bit. Longer sessions won’t achieve the results people are looking for. “If someone’s sick and can’t exercise for a week, that’s fine, but it is better to just return to regular exercise routine when you’re feeling better,” Nosaka recommends.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that adults get 150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity each week. However, Nosaka’s team contends that it’s more important to prioritize daily physical activity rather than targeting a specific minute mark.

“If you’re just going to the gym once a week, it’s not as effective as doing a bit of exercise every day at home,” Nosaka concludes. “This research, together with our previous study, suggests the importance of accumulating a small amount of exercise a week, than just spending hours exercising once a week. We need to know that every muscle contraction counts, and it’s how regularly you perform them that counts.”

The findings are published in the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Science in Sports.

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