Lifting weights with just one arm can improve the fitness of the other with no extra effort, a new Australian study has revealed.
Strength can be improved and muscle loss decreased in one arm without even moving it, simply by exercising with the other, the research from Edith Cowan University (ECU) found.
The findings add weight to previous research which shows that “eccentric” exercises, are more effective at growing muscle than “concentric” exercises.
Eccentric exercises describe when the contracting muscle is lengthening, such as when lowering a dumbbell in bicep curls, sitting on a chair slowly or walking downstairs.
By contrast, concentric exercises describe when muscles are shortening, such as when lifting a dumbbell or walking up stairs.
The findings could help to address the muscle wastage and loss of strength often experienced in an immobilised arm, such as after injury, by using eccentric exercise on the opposing arm.
The study involved 30 participants who had one arm immobilised for a minimum of eight hours a day for four weeks.
The group was then split into three, with some performing no exercise, some performing a mix of eccentric and concentric exercise and the rest performing eccentric exercise only.
Professor Ken Nosaka of ECU’s School of Medical and Health Sciences was part of the study and said the group who used a heavy dumbbell to perform only eccentric exercise on their active arm showed an increase in strength and a decrease in muscle atrophy, or wastage, in their immobilised arm.
“Participants who did eccentric exercise had the biggest increase in strength in both arms, so it has a very powerful cross-transfer effect,” Professor Nosaka said.
“This group also had just two per cent muscle wastage in their immobilised arm, compared with those who did no exercise who had a 28 per cent loss of muscle.
“This means that for those people who do no exercise, they have to regain all that muscle and strength again.”
Gamechanger for post-injury and stroke patients
The findings challenge conventional rehabilitation methods and could improve outcomes for post-injury and stroke patients.
“I think this could change the way we approach rehabilitation for people who have temporarily lost the use of one arm or one leg,” Professor Nosaka said.
“By starting rehab and exercise in the uninjured limb right away, we can prevent muscle damage induced by exercise in the other limb and also build strength without moving it at all.”
Professor Nosaka said he plans on expanding the research further into other arm muscles and movements.
“In this study we focused on the elbow flexors as this muscle is often used as a model to examine the effects of immobilisation on strength and size, and of course it is an important muscle for arm movement,” he said.
“In the future, we hope to look at how eccentric exercise can help improve motor function, movement and fine muscle control, which is particularly important for stroke and rehabilitation patients.”
Professor Nosaka also said this type of training is useful for athletes who can begin post-injury recovery sooner.