Still lifting weights? Lowering them does more work to make you stronger

Ken Nosaka wished that 43 years ago, he knew what he knows now.

At the time, a 20-year-old athlete, he was told that lactic acid caused him to feel sore after training. It's also a popular wisdom about exercise including “no pain, no gain,” “lifting weights to build muscle,” and “more is more.”

Today, our understanding of sports has changed dramatically.

Over the past decade, researchers have found that short HIIT bursts are as good or better than long periods of slow training. They found that a frequent exercise snack as short as three seconds (in this case, squeezing your muscles as hard as possible) can enhance strength and fitness. They've proven that while some soreness is okay, the “no pain, no gain” mantra is a myth. Working smarter, not harder is the buzzword these days.

read more:
* Why it doesn't matter how much you lift
* Why older women can lift more than they think
* Lifting weights leads to a bigger brain

Nosaka's research underscores this point.

When he delved into exercise science, he discovered that lactic acid was not the cause of pain at all. It has sparked a career in researching the real culprit: eccentric exercise, or the part of our exercise that lowers ourselves or our weight. These include slowly sitting on a chair or sofa, walking downstairs, the lowering phase of a push-up, kettlebell deadlift or bicep curl.

His latest research on eccentric exercise found that you can get the same results with half the reps if you lower rather than lift.

Nosaka and his team divided 53 participants into four groups, one of which served as a control group. Twice a week for five weeks, the other groups performed concentric-eccentric (lifting and lowering), concentric (lifting only), or eccentric (lowering only) resistance exercises.

Ken Nosaka has studied eccentric exercise.


Ken Nosaka has studied eccentric exercise.

Although the eccentric-only group performed half as many repetitions as the weight-lifting and lowering groups, their strength gains were similar to the weight-lifting and lowering groups. There was also a greater improvement in muscle thickness in the eccentric-only group: 7.2 percent versus 5.4 percent in the concentric eccentric group.

“Many people focus on the lift phase — concentric contractions,” Nosaka says, “which is not bad. But many people are wasting their chance to get stronger and healthier by eliminating the eccentric phase.”

“Lifting weights is important, but not as important as losing weight. Our research shows that weightlifting does not contribute much to muscle growth and strength gains.”

For those who want to try it themselves, that means either using a resistance machine set up for lowering, or focusing on the lowering part when lifting or squatting.

Professor Tim Olds from the University of South Australia's School of Health Sciences said the study was “very interesting” on multiple levels.

First, eccentric exercises are very effective. “We can drop a lot more weight than we can lift, and it takes less energy to drop the same weight than to lift it. It’s easier to go down stairs than to go up,” explains Oz.

Second, because muscles and tendons are stretched during the eccentric phase, we store elastic energy in them, which generates energy during the upward phase: “Think of your bounce as you walk. This increases overall efficiency – we can use less energy to do more.”

Third, eccentric contractions hurt muscles more because they are stretched under tension. “Eccentric exercise tends to cause micro-tears in the muscles, which can lead to muscle soreness (not good), but also rapid muscle regeneration and overgrowth (good).”

Some soreness can indicate that our muscles are well stimulated, Nosaka says, but as our muscles adapt to the same movement, the soreness goes away. And, he adds, occasional soreness is very different from experiencing pain: “We don't need to seek pain in order to get it.”

When he was a student and aspiring sprinter, he didn't know this and said he didn't focus on eccentrics. Now, athletes use them to improve their performance and prevent injuries. These effects extend to all of us.

In fact, even low-intensity eccentric contractions can increase muscle strength and muscle mass.

That means sitting on the couch might be better than you think—as long as you do it regularly. “It's a good exercise to sit on the couch slowly,” Nosaka said. “Then if you need more of a challenge, you can sit on one leg.”

If we do this every 30 to 60 minutes, whenever we go to the toilet or sit in a chair, we will break the constant sedentary that wreaks havoc on our health and build our muscles.

Not that the current recommendation of 150 minutes of moderate exercise and two strength training sessions per week is wrong. “But 80 percent don't,” Nosaka said. “It was shocking.

“So my idea is to show that it's a minimal exercise and you still get some benefit. Then you can develop more exercises from there.”

Starting with slow sitting, we may add 3 seconds of muscle compression per day, which previous research by Nosaka found can increase strength by as much as 12%. We might rush upstairs or run to a bus stop for 20 seconds to get our heart rate up. We may try to move more to increase our step count and improve our overall health.

We now know that every step, every sitting counts, so people who are sedentary and struggle to meet guidelines can still have a meaningful impact on their health, like us “active couch potatoes” and exercise but The people who get stuck are at our desks most of the time.

Nosaka likens the accumulation of every little bit of exercise we do throughout the day to collecting coins.

“If we only accumulate 5 cents a day, we end up with a lot of money in a year. Doing a little exercise every day also accumulates and can transform your body.”

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