Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Two Max. Isometric Contractions Reduce Muscle Damage and Promote Regeneration Before You Even Hit the Gym! Plus: How to Add 0.5 Inch to Your Biceps in 6 Minutes!

Image 1: Believe it or not, Arnold is just "pre-regenerating" ;-)
If you have not taken a mental health day for your gray matter the past two days and skipped your obligatory daily visit at the SuppVersity, you will probably have noticed that the last posts on the overtraining induced shift in the ratio of pro- to anti-inflammatory signals (cf. "Overtraining, Inflammation, Insufficient Repair") and yesterday's hot bath "pre-regeneration" post (cf. "Speed Up Your Regeneration and Propel Your Gains by Taking a HOT Bath Bath 2-Days Before Arduous Workouts"), share a common motif: He who recovers the fastest spends the least time on repairing and the most time on building muscle! Today you are going to learn about yet another pre-regeneration technique...

Muscle preconditioning by maximal isometric contractions

Similar to the hot bath, of which I know that it's probably not for everyone, a recently published paper by Hsin-Lian Chen and his colleagues from the National Chiayi University in Taiwan, the Edith Cowan and the Deakin University in Australia (Chen. 2012), the execution of only no more than 2 isometric maximal contractions (duration 3s, 45s rest between contractions) at an elbow-flexor angle of 20° (where 0° would indicate a straight arm / stretch position) on something a bodybuilder would probably call a "preacher bench" can have statistically significant effects your curl performance and muscle damage during an eccentric biceps workout 48h later.
Figure 1: Relative peak maximal torque and change in biceps circumference 0-10 days after an eccentric exercise bout with and without 2 or 10 maximum isokinetic contractions 48h before (data adapted from Chen. 2012)
The decrease in peak torque (cf. figure 1), the increase in peak torque angle (indicating that you cannot apply full force right from the beginning of the movement; not shown) and the change in the range of motion (not shown) were profoundly attenuated in the 26 of the 39 young previously untrained men who had undergone the isometric preconditioning protocol. As the data in figure 1 shows, the same was true for the so change in muscle circumference - and no this does not mean that preconditioning will diminish your gains, but rather that it will reduce the muscle damage, the (micro-)trauma and subsequent edema!
Figure 2: Creatine kinase and muscle soreness 0-10 days after an eccentric exercise bout with and without 2 or 10 maximum isokinetic contractions 48h before (data adapted from Chen. 2012)
The decreased creatine kinase, muscle soreness, and plasma myoglobin concentration in the pre-conditioned vs. the control subjects confirms (figure 2). We are dealing with less damage and thus less swelling, and not with decreased "growth".

Practical implications & suggestions

You don't add 0.5 inch of muscle in 6 minutes. In a way it's a pitty, wouldn't it be great to be able to add 0.5inch to your biceps within 14 minutes of which you actually trained for 6 minutes, only? It certainly would, but let's be realistic, if that worked, you would soon have to stop training because Popeye would look like a shrimp next to you and Jay Cutler would ask himself, why on earth nobody had told him about that before the last Mr. Olympia ;-)
Image 2: A slightly more bend arm and a cable pulley - otherwise that's your position for the isometric contractions. Hold them for 3s, squeeze to make your bis explode, rest 10s repeat & go home!
How can I mimic the protocol and what's the use? Go to the gym, grab a preacher bench / scott bench, put it in front of a low cable pulley, attach a grip to the pulley, perform 2-10 isokinetic contractions at an elbow angle of 20°, go home. Come back 2 days later, use the same equipment, crank out 5 sets of six maximal eccentric contractions at an angular velocity of 90°/s from a half-flexed position (elbow angle 90°) to a fully extended position. Rest 10s between reps (use your other hand to get back to the starting position), repeat. After 65 sets you drop everything, go home and wait. If you did the preconditioning you will be sore for 3-4 days, if you didn't for the rest of the week and your creatine kinase (indicator of "leaky" = damaged muscle) wont be back to normal before day 10!
But seriously, unless you like to suffer from muscle soreness or are in dire need of the bragging rights, the 0.5 inch of edema under your skin have to offer, pre-recovery strategies like hot water baths (see yesterday's news) and isometric maximal contractions could actually be a valuable tool to decrease excessive muscle damage, increase regeneration and improve your gains!

Guess what: Arnold knew it all along!

Image 3: Austrian Wisdom ;-)
With posing being not much different from "maximal isokinetic contractions", I do - once again - have to credit the one and only Arnold Schwarzenegger for his intuitive knowledge of what would help you build slaps of muscle. And despite the fact Arnold's rationale for holding his poses for "hours and hours" (if possible), in order to "make the muscle harder and more defined" was somewhat different, the absence of edema (and water retention as a result of inflammation) and an improved growth of real muscle tissue in the workouts which followed sessions like that could in fact have produced those exact results harder a harder and more defined look, many pros call "muscle maturity" also because it takes time to build real muscle that will not just pop, when it's full of water.

Further evidence and alternatives

If neither posing, nor bathing, nor going to the gym to perform no more than 2-10 isometric contractions is something you could imagine to do, you may be happy to hear that this is not the first study by Chen et al. In their previous work the researchers that
  • "low-intensity eccentric contractions (ECC) of the elbow flexors with a dumbbell set at 10% of maximal isometric strength (10%-ECC) either 2 days, 7 days (1 week), 14 days (2 weeks) or 21 days (3 weeks) before 30 maximal eccentric contractions (Max-ECC)" (Chen. 2011) elicited similar protective effects, and that
  • "repeating submaximal eccentric exercise confers the same magnitude of protective effect as one bout of maximal eccentric exercise against the subsequent maximal eccentric exercise" (Chen. 2010)
In other words, no matter what you do - as long as it does not already hurt the muscle, it will elicit protective effects in a subsequent workout; effects, which can last for up to 3 week (I don't think that this will be the case in trained athletes) and are present after only two days. Don't you agree that "light days" (light must be defined against your current conditioning, the "light" day of a pro-athlete would probably already overtax the non-trained subjects in the study at hand) - as long as you got the willpower to actually keep them light - could have their merits, just as posing intensely on a rest day has? No? Well, then go ahead "Mr. +0.5 inch edema arms" ;-)

  1. Chen HL, Nosaka K, Pearce AJ, Chen TC. Two maximal isometric contractions attenuate the magnitude of eccentric exercise-induced muscle damage. Appl Physiol Nutr Metab. 2012 May 11. [Epub ahead of print] 
  2. Chen HL, Nosaka K, Chen TC. Muscle damage protection by low-intensity eccentric contractions remains for 2 weeks but not 3 weeks. Eur J Appl Physiol. 2012 Feb;112(2):555-65. Epub 2011 May 25.
  3. Chen TC, Chen HL, Lin MJ, Wu CJ, Nosaka K. Potent protective effect conferred by four bouts of low-intensity eccentric exercise. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2010 May;42(5):1004-12.