Everyone knows they should exercise. However, some people legitimately don’t have the time for long training routines or they find the gym and all the people doing seemingly complicated exercises rather intimidating and daunting. However, researchers in Japan and Australia found that even performing a few reps of biceps curls a day can lead to significant improvements in both strength and muscle mass. Interestingly, the study found that doing small, but consistent training volumes each day makes you stronger than doing the same total amount of reps once a week.
The researchers from Edith Cowan University (ECU) in Australia, along with colleagues from Niigata University and Nishi Kyushu University in Japan enrolled three groups of volunteers in a four-week training program consisting of a single arm resistance exercise. The workout, which consisted of eccentric bicep contractions (a lengthening of the arm’s bicep), was performed using a special machine that measures muscle contractions in fine detail. However, this is equivalent to performing a simple bicep curl with a dumbbell or any weight for that matter. No fancy gym equipment is really needed to do this at home.
One group performed just six bicep curls in a single short training session once a week, the second group performed six bicep curls a day for five days a week, and the third group crammed all 30 reps in a single day. The participants had to exert maximum effort, which means the load on the bicep could be higher or lower from person to person depending on their starting strength. Four weeks later, the researchers measured the participants’ muscle mass and strength.
The participants who did only six reps for a single day of the week virtually saw no improvement. However, those who did 30 reps a single day of the week increased the thickness of their bicep by 5.8%, although their muscle strength remained unchanged.
Somewhat surprisingly, those who did 6 reps a day for five days a week experienced an increase in muscle thickness similar to the 30-rep group. But there was one major difference between the two groups: the 6×5 group improved their muscle strength by 10% compared to the 30 x 1 group.
These outcomes were similar to those observed in a 2019 study conducted by the same authors, which remarkably found that as little as three seconds a day of lifting weights can have a positive impact on muscle strength.
“People think they have to do a lengthy session of resistance training in the gym, but that’s not the case,” ECU Exercise and Sports Science Professor Ken Nosaka said in a statement.
“Just lowering a heavy dumbbell slowly once or six times a day is enough.”
The study focused on bicep curls for no particular reason, aside from the fact that it is easy to perform by anyone. The researchers believe similar enhancements in strength and size can be achieved for other muscles as well. For instance, performing just six squats for five days a week could significantly improve your leg muscles and glutes.
“Muscle strength is important to our health. This could help prevent a decrease in muscle mass and strength with aging,” Nosaka said.“A decrease in muscle mass is a cause of many chronic diseases such as cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, some cancers, dementia, plus musculoskeletal problems such as osteoporosis.”
This study offers quite a few important lessons. First and foremost, it shows that consistency is key. It’s fine if you only do a bit of exercising — even a minute or two — as long as you do it almost every day. If you exercise at low volume once in a blue moon, it’s almost a waste of time. Secondly, rest can be just as important as the training regiment itself. The participants who did just a couple of bicep curls five days a week had two off days.
“Muscle adaptations occur when we are resting; if someone was able to somehow train 24 hours a day, there would actually be no improvement at all,” Nosaka stressed. “Muscles need rest to improve their strength and their muscle mass, but muscles appear to like to be stimulated more frequently.”
It’s not immediately obvious why the participants in the daily group showed greater strength than those from the high-volume weekly group, despite their loads being equivalent. The researchers suspect that more frequent daily doses of exercises prime the central nervous system, which becomes more efficient at recruiting existing muscle fibers to perform physical work.
Most health guidelines stress that adults should clock at least a couple of hours of moderate physical activity per week. While this is not bad advice at all, these findings highlight the importance of consistency in daily activity. It’s better to do a bit of exercising every day than cram it all up on the weekend.
“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 said.