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Are Shorter Workouts More Effective? Here's What Science Says

A new study explores if shorter workouts are more productive for muscle strengthening.

Fitness-forward individuals usually have certain goals in mind for their exercise "end game." Whether the focus is to burn fat or build muscle in a certain area, it's easy to jump right in and start performing an aggressive workout schedule. Hey—the more you work out, the faster you'll see results, right? Think again. Are shorter workouts more effective? Yes! When it comes to exercise, it's all about quality, not quantity, according to recent research. Don't hate the messenger, because science says so! Keep reading to learn more.

It's more productive to exercise for short periods each day rather than performing longer workouts scattered throughout the week.

woman demonstrating side plank crunches to reduce fat in your midsection

Are shorter workouts more effective? Well, according to a new study performed by Edith Cowan University in partnership with Niigata University and Nishi Kyushu University in Japan (via ScienceDaily), it's much more productive to exercise for short periods of time each day rather than performing long workouts scattered throughout your weekly schedule. This is especially true when it comes to muscle strengthening. Now, let's delve into the research.

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Scientists measured changes in muscle thickness and strength of participants who performed an arm resistance movement.

close-up woman performing bicep curl

During the four-week-long study, scientists observed, measured, and compared changes in muscle thickness and strength in three groups of participants who completed an arm resistance movement. Specifically, they did "maximal voluntary eccentric bicep contractions" using a machine. An eccentric contraction is similar to the lowering part of a bicep curl with a heavy dumbbell. The machine recorded the muscle strength of every single muscle contraction. Participants in the research were required to perform at their highest level for the one exercise. Now, let's go over the specific workouts.

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The group that performed six contractions for five days a week experienced an increase in both muscle strength and thickness.

mature man lifting dumbbells at home demonstrating the question, are shorter workouts more effective

Group #1 performed 30 contractions each week; six per day for five days a week. The results after four weeks' time? This group revealed over a 10% increase in muscle strength, along with around a 5.8% increase in muscle thickness.

Group #2 performed 30 contractions per week, completing all prescribed contractions in one day per week. After the four-week time period was up, this group did not experience a rise in muscle strength. However, their muscle thickness increased by 5.8%.

Group #3 performed six contractions, completing all prescribed contractions in one day per week. After four weeks, there was no change for these participants in either muscle thickness or strength.

Based on the research, Ken Nosaka, ECU Exercise and Sports Science Professor, explains exercise performed on a routine basis with an easily maintainable schedule can have a positive impact on one's strength. He notes, "People think they have to do a lengthy session of resistance training in the gym, but that's not the case. Just lowering a heavy dumbbell slowly once or six times a day is enough," adding, "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. Muscle strength is important to our health. This could help prevent a decrease in muscle mass and strength with [aging]."

If you're unable to get to the gym for a certain amount of time, it's basically a moot point to try to "make up" for lost time.

mature man working out on a rowing machine

It's still not understood why the body reacts more positively to eccentric contractions resistance workouts in smaller bouts over bigger workouts not as often. Professor Nosaka explains it may have something to do with how frequently the brain has to make a muscle act in a certain way. He stresses the importance of taking breaks in any exercise routine. "Muscles need rest to improve their strength and their muscle mass, but muscles appear to like to be stimulated more frequently."

Professor Nosaka also points out that if someone was not able to work out for a certain amount of time, it's basically a moot point to try to "make up" for that lost time by working out harder after the fact. "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." he advises.

It's important to make working out part of your daily routine rather than fulfilling a certain amount of time each week. "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," he says, adding, "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."

Alexa Mellardo
Alexa is the Mind + Body Deputy Editor of Eat This, Not That!, overseeing the M+B channel and delivering compelling fitness, wellness, and self-care topics to readers. Read more about Alexa
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