The Soleus Pushup
Diabetes is on the rise. The Center for Disease Control has stated that in America:
- 37 million people have diabetes
- This means 1 out of every 10 people has the deadly disease
- 1 in 5 are unaware they have diabetes
- 96 million adults – more than 1 in 3 – have prediabetes
- More than 8 in 10 adults are unaware that they have prediabetes
- The grim tally of the cost of medical care and lost work for diabetics is a whopping 327 billion annually
- The chance of premature death for adults with diabetes is 60% higher than for non-diabetics
- People with diabetes incur twice the medical costs than folks without the crippling affliction
- Severe health issues occur far more often in diabetics: kidney failure, heart attack, blindness, stroke, and amputation of toes, feet, and legs.
Hopefully, the point is well-taken: diabetes is a severe, life-threatening disease. It can be controlled with insulin injections, but it is better to ward off the disease before it strikes.
To date, the best diabetes prevention methods are exercise, weight loss, and intermittent fasting. But there might be another weapon to add to the diabetes-fighting arsenal…
A small muscle in the calf
The calf comprises two main muscles: the gastrocnemius and the soleus. The gastrocnemius is the outer muscle and is the larger of the two. The soleus is the inner calf muscle. So what’s the big deal? Simply this: the small, often-overlooked soleus muscle can significantly boost metabolic health in the entire body. Here’s how.
A recent study conducted by Marc Hamilton, a professor of Health and Human Performance at the University of Houston, has found a novel, unique way of activating the soleus by the “soleus pushup” (SPU) that can regulate blood glucose even better than the earlier-mentioned methods.
The method he uncovered raises oxidative metabolism, which is the process oxygen uses to burn metabolites such as blood glucose or fats instead of glycogen that fuels other muscles. This process depends on the energy needs of the muscle when it is stimulated.
“We never dreamed that this muscle has this type of capacity. It’s been inside our bodies all along, but no one ever investigated how to use it to optimize our health until now,” said Hamilton. “When activated correctly, the soleus muscle can raise local oxidative metabolism to high levels for hours, not just minutes, and does so by using a different fuel mixture.”
The study consisted of 25 subjects of different genders, ages, Body Mass Indexes (BMIs), and current physical conditions. The experiments used a random, cross-over design. The experiment was simple: perform the soleus pushup. The subjects were wired, masked, and given blood samples before, during, and after performing SPUs for several hours.
How to perform the soleus pushup
The soleus pushup is a simple movement. Sit with your feet flat on the floor, your muscles relaxed, and your knees bent close to a 90-degree angle. Raise your heel and keep the ball of your foot on the floor. When the heel gets to the top of its range of motion, drop it back to the starting position, and repeat. That’s it.
The goal is to simultaneously shorten the calf muscle while the soleus is activated by its motor neurons. The beauty of the movement is that it can be done almost anywhere at any time. Watching your favorite television show, sitting at your desk at work, or anywhere else. Since the movement is casual, it is not noticeable.
Bodybuilders will recognize the SPU as identical to a seated calf raise with weight.
The results of the study
The volunteers had a 52% improvement in blood glucose and a 60% drop in insulin over the 3 hours following the ingestion of a glucose drink. The SPU lowered very low-density lipoproteins (VLDL) and triglycerides while raising fat and carbohydrate oxidation due to the stimulation of the soleus.
If everyone, from fitness fanatics to couch potatoes, would remember to do this simple, easy movement, the number of kidney failures, amputations, heart attacks, diabetes, dementia, and so many other adverse conditions directly attributed to sitting passively on the recliner would drop steeply.
Why the SPU can boost metabolism
Here is the key: muscle biopsies discovered there was negligible glycogen involved in fueling the soleus. Rather than glycogen, the soleus can use other fuels such as blood glucose and fats. Glycogen is usually the main type of carbohydrate that fuels muscular exercise.
“The soleus’ lower-than-normal reliance on glycogen helps it work for hours effortlessly without fatiguing during this type of muscle activity because there is a definite limit to muscular endurance caused by glycogen depletion,” said Hamilton. “As far as we know, this is the first concerted effort to develop a specialized type of contractile activity centered around optimizing human metabolic processes.”
The new approach of stimulating soleus muscle metabolism is also effective at increasing the usual rate of fat metabolism in the fasting period between meals, which lowers fat levels in the blood (VLDL triglyceride).
The SPU movement resembles walking, but it is not. Walking primarily relies on the larger gastrocnemius muscle, which conserves energy. Hamilton’s method reverses that and forces the soleus to step up and work harder for longer. “The soleus pushup looks simple from the outside, but sometimes what we see with our naked eye isn’t the whole story. It’s a very specific movement that right now requires wearable technology and experience to optimize the health benefits,” said Hamilton.
Bodybuilders know that they need to develop both calf muscles. However, some feel that their approach has been backward. The calf muscles are notoriously challenging to grow. Traditional advice is to begin a calf workout with standing calf raises to work both the gastrocnemius and the soleus, primarily the gastrocnemius. Then finish with seated calf raises to isolate the soleus.
At first, this seems logical. However, most bodybuilders have skinny calves, and some have resorted to reversing the order, with reportedly good results. This further illustrates the difference between walking, where the soleus is not active, to stimulating the soleus when the knees are bent.
Hamilton believes this is the “most important study” ever undertaken at his Metabolic Innovations lab at UH and said the findings could answer a broad range of health problems related to sitting, low metabolism, and inactivity. The average American sits about 10 hours a day. No matter what shape a person is in, excess sitting is devastating to good health.
A low metabolic rate while seated is particularly problematic for folks at high risk for age-associated metabolic afflictions like metabolic syndrome and type 2 diabetes.
Hamilton said inactive muscles require less energy than most people think, saying it’s “one of the most fundamental, yet overlooked issues” guiding the way toward discovering metabolic solutions to prevent some age-associated chronic diseases.
“All of the 600 muscles combined normally contribute only about 15% of the whole-body oxidative metabolism in the three hours after ingesting carbohydrates. Despite the fact that the soleus is only 1% of the body weight, it can raise its metabolic rate during SPU contractions to easily double, even sometimes triple, the whole-body carbohydrate oxidation. We are unaware of any existing or promising pharmaceuticals that come close to raising and sustaining whole-body oxidative metabolism at this magnitude.”
However, there are a few downsides to SPUs.
During the research, the subjects spent a total of 4.5 hours performing the exercise. If this is the required time for SPUs to deliver these benefits, that would be a game-changer since most people don’t have that much free time.
Also, Hamilton said that the SUP is a very specific movement “that right now requires wearable technology and experience to optimize the health benefits.” He added that additional publications are being created to teach people how to do the SPU without the complex, expensive lab equipment used in the study.
The answer to the first issue is similar to exercise. Just because you don’t have the time to spend several hours a day in the gym does not mean you should not get moving. A small amount is better than nothing, and the same applies here. A few minutes of SPUs and seated calf raises at the gym a few times a week are better than nothing.
As far as the second issue, the movement is simple and basic. You don’t have to watch videos on how to raise your heels when you are sitting...just do it!
The SPU might be able to make the sayings “sitting is the new smoking” and “sitting too much is worse than exercising too little” distant memories!
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