I discussed in the past how you can boost your endurance and improve metabolic health with only a few minutes of training a week. Now it’s time for the second chapter of the minimalistic series: I’ll give you some scientific background on how you can become stronger and bulkier with a few reps a week.
First, how is a muscle stimulated to grow and to become stronger? I won’t annoy you too much. It needs to produce tension at high levels. This happens with a high threshold of neural activation which produces the action of the contractile machinery in your muscles. When the load is high, the mechanical stress on the muscle fibres produces some damage, which drives muscle repair and enlargement.
At the same time, neural activation is improved. This shows how the body adapts to the external stresses in order to withstand them, in this case muscles adjust to the mechanical stimuli they themselves produce. This mechanism is what makes the human being trainable, in a ‘adapt or die’ fashion.
Muscle growth needs tension. How to get max tension in minimum time?
By increasing training intensity! This the keyword for minimal training. Few reps at a % close to your 1 repetition maximum work well and are time efficient against lower loads for more reps. But we can do much quicker!
You might have heard of eccentric movements, aka negatives, for example lowering the bar in the bench press. That also feels much easier then pushing the bar, doesn’t it? Yes, although muscles are resisting the same weight as in the concentric (the positive) push. Due to muscle architecture, muscles generate more tension during muscle lengthening (eccentric) than shortening (concentric) and such contractions require also less neural activation to generate the same absolute tension. Therefore in eccentric movements (muscle lengthens) we can generate the same amount of force with a smaller effort, but also a higher max tension.
This is the plan: train with eccentric movements using 100-120+% of your concentric max. So if you can bench 100 in the pushing action, load the bar with 100+ or above and perform a few eccentrics. This allows you to overload the muscle much quicker than in traditional concentric reps.
This means that fewer reps are required to get the training stimulus.
Some more scientific proof? A recent meta-analysis compared traditional resistance training with eccentric protocols. Out of 20 studies taken in consideration, eccentric training was found to produce the larger gains in size and strength, accounted for the higher level of tension involved.
Warning: Take it easy. At the beginning muscles are not accustomed to this mechanical stress and you’ll get soreness and strength loss for a few days. Later on with practice, your body will learn how to deal with it. So start easy for just a few reps and increase as you feel confident with your capacity.
As an example of an exercise that gives extreme eccentric overload, take the one-arm negative chin ups. These are usually performed in the progression to learn full one-arm chin ups (super hard), as lowering your entire bodyweight with one single arm off the bar will teach you how to deal with enormous mechanical stress. It was very hard at the beginning and you might need to hold something with your free hand to assist the movement. I experienced huge soreness, especially on the bicep myotendinous junction, the region where muscles bind to tendons, which is more fragile due to its anatomy. This extent of muscle damage is probably not required to promote growth but was a collateral damage of the learning period. As said earlier, you’ll became better at sustaining the ‘fall’ by producing more tension and your muscles will learn to deal with eccentric stress, resulting in less soreness in the days after the workout.
Bottom line, by learning how to increase the intensity of muscle work, i.e. tension produced, you can dramatically reduce the duration of your workout to a few super intense reps. Due to the degree of muscle damage that one can produce in one session, I think two but perhaps only one micro-workout a week could stimulate a stronger and bigger muscle, although there’s a need of a scientific trial that uses super-minimal (once a week) volume to be sure of this.
I suggest you make your own experimentation in the meantime.
Br J Sports Med 2009;43:556–568. doi:10.1136/bjsm.2008.051417