By Brad Wieners -
For a stretch, it appeared
as though slow-motion strength trainingbetter known simply as Super
Slowwould take its place alongside the fleeting exercise fads of
yesteryear (OK, it was only two years agobut it seems like forever). The
claims sounded outrageous: Spend just 20 to 30 minutes, twice a week, doing
traditional lifts at the speed of continental drift, and you'll build strength
50 percent faster than you would with conventional resistance training, kick
your metabolism into high gear, reduce body fat, and raise your levels of HDL
(the good cholesterol). When the hype over Super Slow quickly died down to a
murmurfor reasons to be explainedpeople soon glommed on to the Next
Big Thing (wobble boards, anyone?).
But it turns out that a handful of
curious athletes and researchers stuck with Super Slow's program and, facing
incredulity from their peers, now swear by its effectiveness.
My own cynicism remained intact until I
began trying to crash into shape for an upcoming kayak expedition that, if I
hadn't been ready for it, could have become a lesson in boat-bound misery.
Fortunately, I ran into Renjit Varghese, 32, a largely self-taught exercise
trainer and owner of Time Labs, a new five-story downtown Manhattan facility
devoted to slow lifting. Born in Kerala, India, and raised outside Cincinnati,
Varghese has been slow-training former pro athletes and business professionals
for six years. Varghese contends that slow training is superior to
multiple-set, clean-and-jerk approaches because (1) it eliminates the ballistic
movements that cause many weight-room injuries; (2) strength improvements come
faster; (3) you spend far less time in the gym, leaving more time for your
sport; and (4) it's more preciseyou keep a record not of the number of reps,
but of the exact amount of time your muscles are stressed, known as "time under
load," or TUL.
After following Varghese's program for six months, I
realized that at least some of Super Slow's claims are legit: I shed ten pounds
and toned up my legs, chest, and arms. During my ten-day kayak trip above the
Arctic Circle in Norway, I found I could pull through the chop for hours at a
stretch. My body recovered faster between paddling days, and I even had better
control of my breathinga welcome asset when I came close to panicking in rough,
The idea for Super Slow came in 1982, when Ken Hutchins,
a 50-year-old entrepreneur from Conroe, Texas, pioneered the technique after
conducting a study at the University of Florida Medical School. Armed with $3.5
million from the Nautilus Corporation, Hutchins sought to devise a
weight-training regimen that increased the bone density of retirement-age women
who had osteoporosis by building their muscles and improving their circulation
without harming their joints. On a hunch, Hutchins had the women lift
relatively heavy weights very slowly over extended periods. It worked. Some of
the women in the study actually dispensed with their walkers and took up
ballroom dancing again.
Convinced he'd hit on a breakthrough program
suitable for all ages, Hutchins published a 1989 how-to manual, Super Slow:
The Ultimate Exercise Protocol, and began building his own custom exercise
The word spread, and by the dawn of the 21st century
athletes of all types (and fitness trend-watchers) had embraced the idea. At
the elite level, 20-year-old professional trials biker Jeremy VanSchoonhoven
took up slow training during last year's off-season. After three months of
slo-mo lifting, VanSchoonhoven had put on seven pounds of lean muscle. "This
sounds ridiculous, but my whole workout is only about 15 minutes long, once a
week," he says. "But now I can compete longer at a top level, and I make fewer
mistakes late in competitions." His increased strength helped him place 16ththe
highest finish ever for an Americanat this year's UCI World Championships.
Last summer, Jason Watson, 30, a Washington State Patrol SWAT team
member, took home seven swimming medals from the Can-Am Police-Fire Games after
slow training, sometimes only once a week, under Greg Anderson of Seattle's
Ideal Exercise. While such results are tempting, beginners should take note:
This efficiency involves a sadistic level of intensity. At first, Watson had to
pop a Tums before each workout just to keep from puking.
Super Slow is
not without its critics. "I don't like it," says fitness consultant and
six-time Ironman champ Dave Scott. "Especially if you're an endurance athlete.
Imagine you're this lean runner strained under this huge, unnecessary load. You
come to the gym, you're already fatigued, and now you have to drop your weights
20 pounds to do just one rep: How do you stay motivated? It can be
Wary of the opinions expressed by road
warriors like Scott, I nevertheless signed up to be trained by Varghese,
following Ken Hutchins's original protocols. According to Hutchins, each
exercise should be 10/5 per repthat is, ten seconds on the positive
contraction, or push, and five on the return, or negative contraction. (By
contrast, a typical rep might be 1/1, 2/4, or 4/4.)
During my workouts,
I do exactly one set of as many reps as I can until my muscles fail completely.
At the end of each rep, Varghese tells me to make the transition from easing
the load down to pushing it back up imperceptibly. Any faster and I'm using
momentum to cheat. All along, Varghese reminds me to take controlled, quick
breaths: "Pant like a sprinter." Holding my breath, he tells me, will just make
me dizzy. At the end of the set, my muscles feel torched by a fresh, white-hot
rush of lactic acid.
Because of slow lifting's difficultyone Super
Slow chest press can be harder than ten quick onesthe program suffers a high
rate of attritionanother reason it's no longer the fitness flavor of the
moment. Wayne Westcott, fitness research director at the South Shore YMCA in
Quincy, Massachusetts, has conducted two studies on slow lifting. The results,
published in the June 2001 Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical
Fitness, indicated that, yes, single-set slow lifters realized a 50 percent
greater increase in strength over eight to ten weeks than did those lifting
weights at a faster pace. However, only two of Westcott's 147 test subjects
opted to continue the slow-lifting regimen.
"The psychological aspect
is just as important for a successful fitness program, and this was just too
tough," says Westcott, who adds that slow lifting is perhaps best applied as a
plateau buster. "Do it for six weeks. But then return to what you're more
comfortable with week in and week out."
Positive testimonials and my
success with slow lifting aside, Westcott and Scott do have a point. The happy
medium may be to see it not as strength training's silver bullet, but rather as
a valuable addition to your arsenal of fitness techniques. Periodically fold it
into your existing routine (see "The Slow-Motion Workout," below) and you'll
soon reap the performance rewards. "There's this kind of undercurrent in Super
Slow circles that almost makes us sound antisports," says Ideal Exercise's
Anderson. "But the point of its high intensity is to give you more time to
play, and better results when you do."
Use this six week slow-training program to
bust out of a midseason plateau, or as a ten-minute preseason strategy for
building strength and stamina. To get started, grab a stopwatch, find a gym
with strength training machines for the exercises listed below (free weights
are too dangerous), and enlist a partner to clock you. For each exercise,
record the amount of weight used and your time under load (TUL)the elapsed time
from when you start the exercise to when you can no longer continue. When
choosing a weight for each exercise for the first time, select an amount that
allows you to reach muscle failure in no less than two minutes.
by breathing deeply and engaging the weight so it barely starts to move. Now
complete the positive phase of the movement over five to ten seconds, until
your joints nearly lock out. Pause momentarily at the upper turnaround and then
reverse direction, taking five to ten seconds to lower the weight. At the lower
turnaround, slow down further, so that the weight hardly touches the stack, and
then start the next repetition. Focus on moving gracefully, not forcefully,
continuing until it becomes impossible to move the load. When, after time, TUL
reaches two minutes, increase the load by 10 percent.
Give yourself a
minimum of 48 hours' rest between workouts. And it's a good idea to lay off
slow strength training a week or two prior to a major competition. At the same
time, wait 48 hours after an all-day ride or backcountry ski, and up to seven
days after a triathlon, before resuming Super Slow training.
Be sure to
breathe continuously throughout the set with controlled breaths. "Every one of
our clients has said that learning to breathe throughout the exercises has
helped them remain calm and strong under pressure," says Varghese.
TUL goal: 2 minutes per exercise Frequency: 2 times/week
(Weeks Three to Six)
TUL goal: 2 minutes per exercise
off-season: 3 times/week
Alternate A and B routines on
B. Leg curl
(for more workouts see