It’s a dilemma faced by many health-conscious people and new research from Edith Cowan University (ECU) answers the question.
This latest research indicates that a bit of daily activity may well be the most beneficial approach, at least for muscle strength.
And luckily, it also suggests that you don’t have to do a mountain of work every day.
In collaboration with Niigata University and Nishi Kyushu University in Japan, the four-week training study included three groups of participants performing arm resistance exercise and changes in muscle strength and muscle thickness were measured and compared.
The exercise consisted of “maximum voluntary eccentric biceps contractions” performed on a machine that measures muscle strength in each muscle contraction that you would do in the gym.
An eccentric contraction occurs when the muscle lengthens; in this case, like lowering a heavy barbell into a bicep curl.
Two groups performed 30 contractions a week, with one group doing six contractions a day for five days a week (6×5 group), while the other crammed all 30 into a single day, once a week (30×1 group).
Another group performed only six contractions one day a week.
After four weeks, the group performing 30 contractions in a single day showed no increase in muscle strength, although muscle thickness (an indicator of increased muscle size) increased by 5.8%. .
The group doing six contractions once a week showed no change in muscle strength and muscle thickness.
However, the 6×5 group saw a significant increase in muscle strength – over 10% – with a similar increase in muscle thickness as the 30×1 group.
Frequency, not volume
Importantly, the increase in muscle strength of the 6×5 group was similar to that of the group in a previous study that performed only one three-second maximum eccentric contraction per day for five days per week for four weeks.
Ken Nosaka, professor of exercise and sports science at ECU, said these studies continue to suggest that very manageable amounts of exercise done on a regular basis can have a real effect on people’s strength.
“People think they have to do a long resistance workout in the gym, but that’s not the case,” he said.
“Just slowly lower a heavy dumbbell once or six times a day.”
Professor Nosaka said that while the study required participants to exert maximum effort, early findings from current and ongoing research indicated that similar results could be achieved without having to push as hard as possible.
“We only used the biceps curl exercise in this study, but we think it would also be the case for other muscles, at least to some extent,” he said.
“Muscle strength is important for our health. This could help prevent a decline in muscle mass and strength with aging.
“A decrease in muscle mass is the cause of many chronic diseases such as cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, certain cancers, dementia, as well as musculoskeletal problems such as osteoporosis.”
It is not yet known precisely why the body responds better to resistance exercises with eccentric contractions in small doses rather than larger loads less frequently.
Professor Nosaka said it could be linked to how often the brain is told to operate a muscle in a particular way.
However, he stressed that it was also important to include rest in an exercise regimen.
“In this study, the 6×5 group had two days off per week,” he said.
“Muscular adaptations happen when we rest; if someone were able to train around the clock, there would actually be no improvement.
“Muscles need rest to improve strength and muscle mass, but muscles seem to like being stimulated more frequently.”
He also pointed out that if someone was unable to exercise for a period, there was no value in trying to “catch up” with a longer session later.
“If someone is sick and can’t exercise for a week, that’s fine, but it’s best to go back to a regular exercise routine when you feel better,” he said.
Current Australian government guidelines already state that adults should aim to be active every day and perform 2.5 to 5 hours of moderate physical activity per week.
Professor Nosaka said there needs to be more emphasis on the importance of making exercise a daily activity, rather than hitting a weekly minutes target.
“If you only go to the gym once a week, it’s not as effective as doing a bit of exercise every day at home,” he said.
“This research, along with our previous study, suggests the importance of accumulating a small amount of exercise per week, rather than spending hours exercising once a week.
“We need to know that every muscle contraction matters, and it’s how often you perform them that matters.”
“Greater effects performing a small number of eccentric contractions daily than a larger number once a week” was published in the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Science in Sports.