Slow & Steady Wins the Strength Race

Keeping clients engaged and focused on pushing forward is often one of the biggest challenges facing personal trainers. Individuals set goals, share them with their trainers, and often expect to see measurable results immediately. The science behind hypertrophy and hyperplasia simply does not allow for such a “quick fix”, and often clients will tend to fall off the motivational track if results are not achieved in a timely manner.

Fortunately, by varying many aspects of a resistance-training program, fitness professionals can individualize their clients’ workouts. Incorporating traditional as well as newer techniques will challenge the muscles as well as the mind, while keeping clients’ motivation piqued.

The timing and pace of a strength-training program is one of the easiest ways to inject a healthy dose of variety into a workout that may be feeling stale or is no longer yielding the expected results. In 1982, Ken Hutchins developed a unique method of resistance training that has come to be commonly known as super-slow weightlifting. Working at the University of Florida, Hutchins was involved in a study in which fragile, elderly women were being challenged to lift weights as part of a research initiative on osteoporosis. Concerned for the participants’ safety while engaging in a traditional training pace – lifting weights for a 2-second count followed by a 4-second eccentric lowering – Hutchins began to consider the benefits of progressing more slowly through each repetition.

At that point in time, most fitness professionals held to the claim that slow lifting was only applicable to rotary movements, and was contraindicated when executing compound movements such as leg presses or lat pull-downs. Hutchins’ solution to this conundrum was ground-breaking: instead of having the participants in the study cease their movement just as it was becoming easy, he simply changed direction of the movement slowly and encouraged the women to continue. From this one experiment, such positive results were achieved by these delicate, elderly females that the phenomenon of super-slow training was born. Hutchins now holds four patents in the United States on exercise equipment designs.

The premise behind super-slow training is to bring the muscles to exhaustion by maintaining a constant load upon them throughout the entire movement. “The basis of our belief is the in-road theory,” Hutchins explains. Training in such a loaded fashion allows the muscle to go from the fresh strength that is experienced upon starting to the point where, after several repetitions, it is reduced to failure. When properly executed, such failure usually occurs within two or three minutes.

Hutchins further explains that “…somewhere on the in-roading process, the muscle gets progressively more fatigued and we cross a … threshold, which turns on a signal to the body to produce greater strength and to grow muscle.”

In order to achieve maximum muscle hypertrophy, the body requires overload, and stimulation of the greatest number of muscle fibers. The Henneman’s Principle of muscle fiber recruitment governs all forms of muscular contraction: it states that the lower the demand (light resistance at a higher velocity), the fewer number of fibers will be recruited. The demand of heavy resistance being moved more slowly, by contrast, involves a greater recruitment of fibers as well as a greater amount of tension being generated. This method will ultimately improve overall strength.

The tension in a muscle is related to the number of motor units firing, and to the frequency with which impulses are conveyed to the motor neurons. Employing a slower speed involves the activation of more muscle fibers as well as an increase in the frequency of firing, both of which are required in order to maintain a force necessary to lift a designated amount of weight. Therein lays the stimulation required for the development of muscular strength. The initial strength development involves neurological adaptations, which are then quickly followed by muscle hypertrophy.

In muscle hypertrophy, an increase in protein synthesis results in the multiplication of myofibrils within muscle fibers, leading to an enlargement of the cross-sectional area of the muscle. There is also a corresponding increase in actin and myosin, the smallest filaments in the muscle tissue, which dynamically facilitates the capacity for cross-bridge formation. These cross-bridges are the fibers sliding along each other to shorten or lengthen a muscle. The more cross-bridges per unit of time, the greater is the tension being created.

Hutchins’ super-slow weightlifting method targets the body’s major muscles, called skeletal muscles. These are the body’s “muscular engines”: they produce more heat, consume more calories, and receive more blood flow than any other muscles in the human body. A typical super-slow training protocol recommends 4-6 repetitions of an exercise, consisting of a 10-second concentric phase followed by a four-to -ten-second eccentric phase.

One possible advantage of super-slow training is that by invoking less momentum, a more evenly distributed muscular force is felt throughout the exercise’s range of motion. While this may be perceived by some clients as a tedious fashion in which to work out, others may welcome the opportunity to rise to a new level of challenging training. When executed with proper form, super-slow weightlifting has the potential to build 50% more muscle over a 10-week period than a more traditional lifting scheme.

The question often arises as to whether this method of training is best accomplished through the use of free weights or machines. The key is always to select a weight that is light enough to allow the execution of at least 8 repetitions, but heavy enough so that performing more than 12 repetitions will result in failure. The only benefit to the use of quality machines over free weights is that by keeping the body in correct alignment, the client can concentrate more on the process than expending mental energy worrying about balancing dumbbells. Indeed, concentration on form is of vital importance with super-slow weightlifting.

When training a client who is new to this format, it is best to begin with a set consisting of 5 or 6 exercises. An example of such a protocol could be the following:

  1. leg press, squat or calf raise
  2. chin-up or lat pull-down
  3. chest press or push-up
  4. compound row (a pulling motion executed in the horizontal plane)
  5. overhead press

Hutchins reminds us that compound movements will work a larger amount of muscle mass in a single effort, and to avoid any movement that is sudden or jerky. According to Dr. Gary Hunter, Ph.D., C.S.C.S., “There is greater potential for growth during the lowering phase, and when you lower with control, there’s less chance of injury.” Since super-slow weightlifting by nature invokes the use of heavier loads, it is important to bear in mind that forces which exceed the structural integrity of joint tendons and ligaments may serve to increase the probability of injury.

Certainly, super-slow weight training is not ideal for every client. Those who come to us for sports-specific training, for example, may benefit from a protocol geared more toward shorts bursts of energy, such as sprinters. For those whose chosen sport involves speed and agility, a more traditional approach may well be warranted. However, for the client who is bored, losing motivation, or is simply a thrill-seeker in terms of a strength challenge, Hutchins’ super-slow protocol might be exactly the tool for which you have been searching.

References

1. http://www.unm.edu/~lkravitz/Article%20folder/superslow.html

2. http://fitness.mercola.com/sites/fitness/archive/2012/05/11/benefits-of-super-slow-workouts.aspx

3. http://breakingmuscle.com/strength-conditioning/resistance-training-velocity-is-faster-better-or-is-slower-stronger

4. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22158146

5. http://www.menshealth.com/mhlists/muscle_myths_debunked/Slow_Lifting_Builds_Huge_Muscles.php

7. http://www.webmd.com/fitness-exercise/features/lift-slow-to-get-fit-fast

8. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24304680

 About the Author

Cathleen Kronemer is an AFAA-Certified Group Exercise Instructor, NSCA-Certified Personal Trainer, competitive bodybuilder and freelance writer. She is employed at the Jewish Community Center in St. Louis, MO. Cathleen has been involved in the fitness industry for 22 years. Look for her on www.WorldPhysique.com.

She welcomes your feedback and your comments!

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