Want More Strength? Slow It Down

A super-slow weight-training program can dramatically improve strength, users say, and the workout is intense.

Medically Reviewed by Michael W. Smith, MD
5 min read

The SuperSlow program began when its developer, Ken Hutchins of Orlando, Fla., led a program investigating the effects of resistance training on older women with osteoporosis. "These women were so weak we were afraid for their safety," Hutchins recalls.

Even before then, Hutchins had toyed with the idea of slow exercise before, only to lose interest. But low weight combined with slow movements seemed like the perfect program for these women: Following it, the women made dramatic gains in strength.

Wayne L. Westcott, PhD, fitness research director at the South Shore YMCA in Quincy, Mass., heard of the program and staged two informal studies in 1993 and 1999. In each, about 75 people trained with the SuperSlow program -- for 8 and 10 weeks, respectively. Those doing SuperSlow in both groups experienced a greater than 50% gain in strength. In fact, the results were so difficult to believe that Westcott had them verified at Virginia Tech.

According to Hutchins, the key to SuperSlow is to never let the muscle rest -- to remove the element of momentum from each exercise, making the muscles do the work instead of capitalizing on the tendency of a weight in motion to stay in motion. Muscles are worked beyond the shaky phase to the point of failure, when the person is physically unable to perform one more repetition.

The people in Westcott's study did 12-13 exercises. The comparison group did 10 repetitions of each exercise, pulling the weight up and lowering it over a period of the usual 2 seconds in each direction. The other half did five repetitions, but lifted slowly, 10 seconds on the upstroke and 4 seconds on the way back down. (Hutchins and others recommend 10 seconds each way.) That's 20 seconds of muscle contraction for each repetition instead of 4 seconds. Multiply that by five repetitions and 12 exercises, and you have a killer workout, Westcott says. Despite the fact that the technique started with elderly ladies, it is intensive and tough, Westcott says. (It also requires machinery in good working condition to minimize friction, which "unloads" the muscle.)

Not one person in Westcott's groups had an injury. "SuperSlow is a neat trick," says M. Doug McGuff, MD, an emergency-room physician in Seneca, S.C., and SuperSlow studio owner. "With other exercises, to make them more challenging, you usually have to increase the force required -- the weight level, whatever -- which brings on aches and pains. This makes them more dangerous. With SuperSlow, you can make exercise much more challenging without increasing force."

At his studio, with people who are completely untrained and have never worked out, McGuff says he can bring about a 30% increase in strength in six to eight weeks and almost guarantee a 100% increase in eight months to a year.

Sure, you're thinking, these fanatics go to the gym six times a week. No! This is the best part. You only do SuperSlow once, and at most twice, a week, to get results. In fact, the developers don't want you to do it more often. When pushed to the point of failure, muscles need time to recover. "A workout is like filling a hole," McGuff says. "It needs time to fill up. If you start digging again before it's full, the hole will never fill. You need to get out of your own way."

Some experts do not agree with the notion that one day of slow resistance exercise is enough. Charles J. Ruotolo, MD, director of sports medicine at Nassau University Medical Center in East Meadow, N.Y., says he has heard of holding resistance exercises longer but does not think a one-day workout each week suffices. "It depends on your goals," he says. "For cardiovascular health, you need three to four workouts a week. For muscle strengthening, I advocate exercising each muscles group about every fifth day. So, say you do chest and arms (even super slowly), the next day you would do your back, then the next, shoulders, then maybe a rest day, then start over.

"Exercising more than one day a week," notes Ruotolo, "is more realistic and helps you get into a routine. Three or four days are a routine, not one."

McGuff and Westcott both say it's OK to do other forms of exercise during the week. "I make a distinction between exercise and recreation," McGuff says. "Distilled, pure exercise like SuperSlow does not provide much stress relief and socialization."

Hutchins, however, is pretty down on so-called "aerobics" and has written several books on the subject, including Aerobics Is Dead. (He also disdains the term "cardio.") He relies on biochemistry to explain the cardiovascular benefits of SuperSlow. "People who push so-called aerobics," he scoffs, "think you can cut the heart out and put it on a treadmill. The heart is an involuntary muscle: It will pump harder when there is more blood to pump, and some informal studies have shown that SuperSlow returns more blood to the heart."

Another benefit, according to Hutchins, involves cholesterol. "When you stop to think about it -- what tissue has the most cells, blood, nerves, and chemistry? Skeletal muscles." When you stress the muscle to the point of failure, it brings on a growth mechanism to build more muscle, he says. But that isn't all. He claims that a doctor in Texas is finding that the metabolics of muscle failure are raising HDL, the "good" cholesterol, and may lower the bad stuff, LDL, somewhat. Another researcher, Hutchins says, finds that SuperSlow increases bone density 1% a month: No other exercise is known to come close to this result.

"None of this is really tested," concedes Hutchins. Many people find SuperSlow too challenging. Others say it's not only difficult, but boring. "It's boring? It's boring?" exclaims Hutchins. "That's like saying you don't want to brush and floss because it's not fun."

"It's intense, but not horrible," McGuff says. "Some eat it up. Others I think could go further, but they shut down." In Westcott's trials, only one of his 150 participants stuck with it. He himself quit, saying he was not motivated. "I talked to some Army drill sergeants about it last week," Westcott says. "Maybe they would be able to take it. You need to be pretty tough."