"Super slow," super efficient? Some say
pumping iron at a snail's pace -- and forgetting the treadmill forever -- can
lead to extraordinary results!
Going Super Slow ......Lifting weights at a snail’s pace can work wonders.
Is it the whole key to fitness?
For 10 years Dr. Philip Alexander ran 60 miles a week—and on days when he
didn’t run he would put in time on his bike. Then, five years ago, he
really got serious about physical fitness. The 56-year-old internist now
spends just 20 minutes a week exercising, and he rarely soaks his shirt.
“When I was running, the next day I would feel I was run over by a truck.”
— DR. PHILIP ALEXANDER
USING WEIGHT MACHINES, he works through a half dozen muscle groups,
diligently exhausting each one. Then he gets on with his life. “When I was
running,” he recalls, “the next day I would feel I was run over by a
truck.” The new routine never leaves him feeling bonked, but that’s not
the best part. Alexander has shed some 20 unwanted pounds since switching
regimens, and his waist has shrunk by four inches.
Could fitness be this simple? For three decades we’ve heard endlessly
about the virtues of aerobic exercise. Medical authorities have touted
running and jumping as the key to good health, and millions of Americans
have taken to the treadmill (however sporadically) to reap the rewards.
But the story is changing. Everyone from the American Heart Association to
the Surgeon General’s office has recently embraced strength training as a
complement to aerobics. And as weight lifting has gone mainstream, so has
the once-obscure practice known as “Super Slow” training. Enthusiasts
claim that by pumping iron at a snail’s pace—making each “rep” last 14
seconds instead of the usual seven—you can safely place extraordinary
demands on your muscles, and elicit an extraordinary response. Slow
lifting may not be the only exercise you need, as some proponents believe,
but the benefits are often dramatic.
Almost anyone can handle this routine. The only requirements are Zen-like
focus and a tolerance for deep muscular burn. For each exercise—leg press,
bench press, shoulder press and so on—you set the machine to provide only
moderate resistance. But as you draw out each rep, depriving yourself of
momentum, the weight soon feels unbearable. Defying the impulse to stop,
you keep going until you can’t complete a rep. Then you sustain your
futile effort for 10 more seconds while the weight sinks gradually toward
its cradle. Intense? Uncomfortable? Totally. But once you embrace muscle
failure as the goal of the workout, it can become almost pleasurable.
“When you do this right,” says Dr. M. Doug McGuff, an emergency-room
physician who runs an exercise studio in Seneca, S.C., “a brief workout is
all you can stand.”
BURNING ALL THE TIME
The goal is not to burn calories while you’re exercising but to make your
body burn them all the time. Running a few miles may make you sweat, but
it expends only 100 calories per mile (roughly two Oreo cookies), and it
doesn’t stimulate much bone or muscle development. Strength training
doesn’t burn many calories, either.
But when you push a muscle to failure, you set off a cascade of
physiological changes. As the muscle recovers over several days, it will
thicken—and the new muscle tissue will demand sustenance. By the time you
add three pounds of muscle, your body requires an extra 9,000 calories a
month just to break even. Hold your diet steady and, presto, you’re
vaporizing body fat.
When Rona Ostrow took up slow-motion training 14 months ago, she had
battled breast cancer for nearly five years. The treatments had damaged
her thyroid and sent her abruptly into menopause, leaving her weak,
overweight and discouraged about restoring her body. The 52-year-old
librarian couldn’t face the gym scene, so she signed on with Adam
Zickerman, founder of an individual-training studio called InForm Fitness,
for a brief weekly dose of slow lifting. She has since lost four inches
from her chest, waist and hips and regained some faith in her body. On a
recent icy morning, she slipped and fell on the sidewalk. “I just jumped
back up like a hockey player,” she marvels.
Ostrow might have benefited from any strength-training program. But
proponents insist the slow technique is safer and more effective than
traditional methods. And preliminary studies suggest they have a case. In
1993 and again in 1999, Wayne Westcott, fitness research director at the
South Shore YMCA in Quincy, Mass., assigned untrained, middle-aged
volunteers to one of two regimens. Both groups performed the same round of
exercises. But while one group did 10-rep sets, spending seven seconds on
each repetition of the exercise, the other group did five-rep sets,
extending each rep for 14 seconds. Both groups put in the same amount of
time, but over periods of eight to 10 weeks, the slow lifters gained 50
percent more strength than the controls.
Slow lifting isn’t just for the infirm or the soft-of-stomach. A number of
professional sports teams have adopted the drill, and body-builders are
discovering that they too can gain by slowing down. The question is
whether this is all the exercise a person needs to stay healthy. Ken
Hutchins, the Florida-based trainer who founded the Super Slow movement
(and patented the name), claims adamantly that it is. In screeds with
titles like “Why NOT Aerobics?” and “Aerobics is Dead,” he dismisses
anything beyond purely recreational running, jumping or dancing as
joint-killing lunacy. “By performing [aerobic] activities on your off
days,” he says, “you compromise the progress you could be making.” Few
experts go that far. Any form of exercise is harmful in excess, they say,
but aerobic activity has known cardiovascular benefits. It may turn out
that 20 minutes of slow torture is the ultimate prescription for fitness.
But until all the evidence is in, moderation is surely the best policy.
Push those weights until your limbs quiver. Then strap on your helmet and
ride home on your bike.