Three seconds to stronger muscles? It’s not as crazy as it sounds

Are you one of those people who thinks they have no time to exercise?

I know I am. Every day I have a seemingly endless stream of work or chores or errands that need to be done. And by the time I’ve finished it all, I have a scant hour or two to prepare and eat my meals and catch up with my husband.

But that excuse is starting to wear thin. Study after study has come out extolling the benefits of short bursts of exercise lasting 10 minutes, 4 minutes, 3 minutes or even 2 minutes.

Still, seem like too much time? Well, how about a routine that only takes a few seconds a day?

Get stronger muscles in three seconds

A recent study discovered that doing a particular weightlifting routine for as little as three seconds can improve muscle strength.

Researchers in Australia and Japan had healthy university students perform one bicep curl at maximum effort for three seconds per day, five days a week over four weeks. Each participant who exercised performed one of three types of bicep curls: isometric, concentric or eccentric.

While the participants performed the bicep curl, researchers measured the muscles’ maximum voluntary contraction strength before and after the four-week period.

Another group of students performed no exercise over the same period and were measured before and after the four weeks.

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Results showed an increase in muscle strength for all the participants in the exercise group. The group that didn’t exercise exhibited no increase in strength.

“The study results suggest that a very small amount of exercise stimulus — even 60 seconds in four weeks — can increase muscle strength,” says lead researcher Professor Ken Nosaka from Edith Cowan University.

“Many people think you have to spend a lot of time exercising, but it’s not the case,” Nosaka adds. “Short, good quality exercise can still be good for your body and every muscle contraction counts.”

To perform a bicep curl, you hold a dumbbell with one arm by your side, then lift the weight upwards toward the chest and lower it down via the elbow.

The names of the bicep curls relate to what the muscle is doing when activated.

When you lift the weight, your bicep is in concentric contraction, meaning the muscle is getting shorter. Lowering the weight causes eccentric contraction, which is when the muscle is lengthening. Holding the weight parallel to the ground causes an isometric contraction that keeps the muscle stationary under the weight load.

So… which type of bicep curl is best?

Eccentric wins the strength contest

Although all three lifting methods benefited muscle strength to some degree, those who did eccentric bicep curls showed an 11.5 percent increase in overall muscle strength at the end of the four weeks.

Researchers also measured each group’s concentric, isometric and eccentric strength. The concentric bicep curl group experienced a 6.3 percent rise in isometric strength but no improvement elsewhere. The isometric group had a 7.2 percent increase in eccentric strength.

The participants doing the eccentric bicep curls were the only ones who recorded improvements across all three measurements. Their eccentric strength rose 12.2 percent, concentric strength 12.8 percent and isometric 10.2 percent.

“Although the mechanisms underpinning eccentric contraction’s potent effects are not clear yet, the fact only a three-second maximal eccentric contraction a day improves muscle strength in a relatively short period is important for health and fitness,” Nosaka says.

He adds the findings are exciting for promoting physical fitness and health to address problems like sarcopenia, a decrease in muscle mass and strength that occurs with aging.

“We haven’t investigated other muscles 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 in less than 30 seconds,” Nosaka says. “Also, performing only one maximal contraction per day means you don’t get sore afterwards.”

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How to do an eccentric bicep curl

We’ve written before about the benefits of eccentric exercise. One study showed doing eccentric bicep curls with one arm can actually benefit muscle strength and tone in both arms, not just the arm that engaged in the exercise.

Eccentric tricep pushups are one exercise recommended for toning the back of the upper arm. And a specific type of eccentric arm exercise can help relieve almost 80 percent of the pain from tennis elbow.

When doing an eccentric bicep curl, it’s important to use a dumbbell that weighs enough to make you work for it, but not so much that you injure yourself.

First, curl the weight toward your chest by flexing your bicep, and keep lifting until the underside of your forearm presses right up against your biceps. Then, squeeze your bicep forcefully at the top of the rep. Finally, take 3 to 5 seconds to lower the weight slowly until your elbow is fully extended.

If you want to work both arms at the same time, you can use a barbell instead of a dumbbell.

As the study demonstrated, just doing this once a day for five days out of the week is enough to gain some benefit. But if you really want to build up your muscle strength, you can try doing 3 to 5 sets of 6 to 8 reps each session. Just keep in mind you’ll only want to do that extended routine 2 to 3 times a week so that you can give your muscles time to rest between sessions.

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No time to exercise? What about three seconds a day? — Edith Cowan University

Effect of daily 3-s maximum voluntary isometric, concentric or eccentric contraction on elbow flexor strength — Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports

Eccentric bicep curl tutorial and exercise variations — Critical Body

Carolyn Gretton

By Carolyn Gretton

Carolyn Gretton is a freelance writer based in New Haven, CT who specializes in all aspects of health and wellness and is passionate about discovering the latest health breakthroughs and sharing them with others. She has worked with a wide range of companies in the alternative health space and has written for online and print publications like Dow Jones Newswires and the Philadelphia Inquirer.