The Slow Burn


QUINCY, Mass. — Early last month, Newsweek magazine ran a one-page article describing the benefits of Super Slow strength training — that is, training that emphasizes lighter weights, short sets and snail-paced reps.

What? Strength training without heavy loads, multiple sets and high reps? Blasphemy.

Well, maybe not. Wanting to find out more about this form of strength exercise, Club Industry turned to Dr. Wayne Westcott, whose Super Slow studies were cited by Newsweek.

First off, Super Slow is not some new hot trend. It's been around since the ’80s, according to Dr. Westcott, the fitness research director at the South Shore YMCA in Quincy.

Dr. Westcott first studied Super Slow in 1992 and published his findings in ’93. During the 10-week study, 75 volunteers were split into two groups. One group did normal strength training, performing each exercise for 10 seven-second reps. The other group did Super Slow training: four to six reps per set, with each rep taking 14 seconds (10 seconds for lifting, four seconds for lowering).

“We found [Super Slow] was very effective, about 50 percent more effective than our standard training,” Dr. Westcott said.

About five years later, Time, USA Today and other publications called Dr. Westcott to ask about his Super Slow findings. This encouraged him to repeat the study in 1998. His research yielded the same results: The Super Slow group showed a 50 percent greater strength gain.

What makes Super Slow so effective? Dr. Westcott has a few explanations.

First off, the lifting phase, or concentric motion, is the most difficult part of a strength exercise. In a standard strength set of 10 reps, each rep takes seven seconds — two of which are spent on concentric motion. Super slow, on the other hand, has 10 seconds of concentric motion for each rep, or 50 seconds of concentric motion in a five-rep set.

Super Slow also allows the exerciser to concentrate fully on a specific muscle. For instance, after loading up a barbell for a standard curl, a lifter will often use momentum to swing the weight. Therefore, the curl won't rely solely on the biceps; it will work the hips and back.

When doing a Super Slow curl, an exerciser will need a lighter weight (perhaps 20 to 30 percent less than his normal load) in order to work at the 14-second pace. At this rate, only the biceps will be used.

“It's going to more beneficial to the target muscle,” Dr. Westcott explained.

Naturally, this begs the question: If Super Slow is so beneficial, why aren't more people slowing down? To get the answer, try doing a 14-second rep. The slower speed affects more muscle fibers. It's a tedious, intense way to train.

Even people who have experienced the benefits of Super Slow firsthand don't always stick with the workout. After conducting his 1992 Super Slow study, Dr. Westcott invited the participants to stick with their Super Slow routine. “[O]nly one of the 75 said they wanted to continue,” he recalled with a laugh.

Now, the study's participants were new to exercise, and Dr. Westcott acknowledges that Super Slow can be tough on untrained members. That's why his facility uses Super Slow to help motivated members bust through their strength plateaus.

Still, even motivated members — especially guys who like to work with heavier weights — may feel a little ridiculous lifting a light load in slow motion. Such motivated members should consider this: Super Slow prevents cheating and takes stress off of the joints. Furthermore, Dr. Westcott reported that nearly a dozen NFL teams, including the Ravens and Giants, use Super Slow as part of their strength routines. (Judging from the Giants' Super Bowl performance, they also believe in using Super Slow techniques out on the gridiron.)

While some proponents favor a Super Slow routine of six exercises once a week, Dr. Westcott recommends a 10-exercise session twice a week (i.e., Monday and Friday). Dr. Westcott also disagrees with fitness professionals who believe that Super Slow is the only form of exercise that anyone needs.

“This is where I part company with the Super Slow guild,” he said. “They are totally against aerobic exercise, period.”

Rather than use Super Slow to replace all traditional exercise, Dr. Westcott sees it as another tool in a box that contains cardio and other forms of strength training. He believes that Super Slow can improve retention by providing excellent results for new members and helping advanced members take their routines to a new level.

“If a person is motivated and they give it a chance, they'll find that it certainly works,” Dr. Westcott said.

Don't Hold Your Breath

It's common knowledge: When strength training, exhale on the lifting phase and inhale on the lowering phase. But what do you do during a Super Slow session? You'd need the lungs of Superman to exhale for a full 10 seconds.

“Never hold your breath,” Dr. Wayne Westcott responded. “Breathe as you have to breathe.”

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