You have probably seen people in gyms thrusting weights up and down, spending long hours doing multiple sets several days a week. But moving weights quickly is an inefficient way of stimulating muscle growth and can also make people more prone to injury, wreaking havoc on their joints and tendons and making it more likely for them to have a set-back from their workout routines. There is a more efficient approach to gain muscle that will make your workouts take a fraction of the time you would otherwise spend at the gym, while producing better results in a safer way.
In this post, I will explain the “why” and “how” of the Super Slow method. I will explain why performing your reps slowly generates better results, while also being safer and more time efficient. I will also explain how you can apply this method to your own routines by implementing five principles that can help you achieve optimum results.
Why so slow?
The main purpose of exercise is to strengthen the body. Strengthening your body with exercise helps keep your muscles taught and lean, promoting a healthier physique and overall well-being. To strengthen your body, however, you must weaken it first.
If you heave weights up and down quickly (approximately 1-3 seconds on the lifting and lowering of the weight), you’re using the powerful leverage of momentum. Using momentum in this way burdens the joints and ligaments as they work to thrust the weights into action, thereby circumventing muscle fatigue.
Constant, steady-state activity, such as running for many hours, can also cause wear and tear on the joints, lead to muscle loss and do little for larger muscle groups that are difficult to target. Steady-state activities can also increase appetite and potentially lead to weight-gain over time.
In contrast, slow movement keeps the muscles engaged throughout the stroke and is much safer because it minimizes the stress placed on the joints and ligaments, allowing you to move progressively heavier weights while sparing your sensitive bodily structures.
Move slowly to stimulate fast twitch muscle fibers
There is a broad array of muscle fiber types that are recruited during physical activity, but for the sake of simplicity, we can focus on two sides of the spectrum: slow twitch and fast twitch.
As explained in the book Body by Science, by Dr. Doug McGuff and John Little, it is relatively easy to activate slow twitch muscle fibers. These fibers fatigue at a slow rate, allowing you to do endurance activities such as jogging or walking for long periods. These are the same muscle fibers that are recruited in the first several repetitions of a set. Ordinary movements target these muscles.
Your fast twitch muscle fiber group tire very quickly as they expend a lot of energy in powerful, short bursts. These muscle fibers are biologically expensive and use a tremendous amount of resources from your body. Fast twitch fibers are reserved for fight-or-flight-situations (think running away from a bear). Fast twitch fibers are also physically larger in diameter than their slow twitch counterparts. Tapping into these muscle fibers can lead to bigger muscles and will give you the greatest overall effect on your entire body, but they are not easy to target as they burn out very fast.
Generally speaking, fast twitch muscle fibers do not require oxygen for energy; they depend on glycolysis or anaerobic respiration. Slow twitch muscle fibers require oxygen for energy; they depend on aerobic respiration.
Your fiber type distribution is determined at birth, but the strength of each of your muscle fibers depends on the demands you place on your body. An endurance athlete who regularly runs for a long time will develop strong slow twitch muscle fibers to meet those demands. A body builder who pushes herself to move heavy weights in short bursts will develop strong fast twitch muscle fibers.
Inroad for best results
To target your fast twitch muscle fibers efficiently, you should move weights slowly, with meaningful resistance, until you fatigue or weaken as deeply as possible. Many people at the gym stop as soon as they tire, thus missing out on the largest, most important muscles responsible for developing a stellar physique. Moving slowly enough with adequate resistance to the point of muscular failure can trigger this hard-to-target group of muscle fibers.
Inroading your muscles should be your immediate objective when exercising. Inroading is the momentary weakening of a muscle you’re working. This weakening process is different from experiencing tiredness, muscle burn and discomfort. Inroading pushes your body beyond its comfort zone and, when done meaningfully enough, can bring your body to muscular failure—a state in which movement becomes very difficult or impossible. And that’s where the fountain of strength lies.
The terms “failure” and “weakness” often have a negative connotation, but in the gym, these words are associated with success. In the context of exercise, weakness and the inability to move your muscles because they have effectively failed you is a good thing! In fact, it is this momentary weakness that sends a powerful signal to your body to grow, to adapt and to strengthen. Growing muscle is a biological reaction that serves us well; it essentially means that you were exposed to a threat, survived it and now you need to be that much stronger in case you face that situation again. You can think of a good workout as simulating a threat to the body.
How to perform slowly
Now that we know why it is important to slow down your rep pace, we can focus on how you can implement an exercise protocol to optimize your workouts. Here are five principles that Ken Hutchins details in his book The Renaissance of Exercise: A Vitruvian Adventure.
1. Slow down! Approximately 10-up, 10-down
To train slowly, count roughly 10 seconds on the commencement of the rep (the positive phase) and 10 seconds on the descend (the negative phase). Take a standard push-up, for example. If you measure how many seconds it takes you to perform the positive pushing phase you might barely count one second. Now try slowing that pace down to about 10 seconds on the way up and another 10 seconds on the way down. You can see how using almost no momentum can get you fatigued in a hurry.
An added bonus of training slowly to failure is that it reduces the amount of weight you need to move, the number of repetitions in your set and the frequency at which you visit the gym. You can do 4-7 exercises, aim for approximately 4-10 reps in each and target all the major muscle groups adequately. Sessions should last no more than 30 minutes. The harder you train, the shorter the session.
2. Breathe properly
Proper breathing is crucial when it comes to any kind of movement. Many people tend to hold their breath during exertion (i.e., valsalva). Breath-holding can be dangerous as it may raise blood pressure and cause other dangers to the body. Breathe openly through your airways especially as the reps become more difficult. Your muscles require a surplus of oxygen to help you complete that set.
3. Keep your cool and focus
Your environment (i.e., gym) should be cool and dry to help you avoid heat exhaustion. Heat can slow you down before you have effectively targeted your muscles, thus short-circuiting your entire workout. Your workout environment should also be free from distractions so you can stay focused and avoid injury. The right atmosphere can make all the difference.
4. Use the right tools to help keep your form in alignment
For best results, try to access customizable equipment that you can properly adjust around your specific body type rather than using free weights. Modifiable equipment is ideal for this slow method of training because it promotes movement that is in accordance with muscle and joint function. This means that the body is encouraged to move the way it is naturally meant to, not in a contorted, ballistic way. Free weights are more difficult to control slowly and can deviate from the natural movement of joints and muscles. Good exercise equipment minimizes friction, accommodates your natural joint and muscle function and varies the residence throughout the stroke of the rep to be consistent with the mechanics of the body. Using the right machines can help you master your form and isolate targeted muscles for a more secure, effective and safe workout.
5. Rest and recover
Depending on how deeply you are willing and able to weaken your muscles, you need sufficient recovery time to allow the adaptation to take place without interruption. Recovery is the other half of the muscle-building equation. With the type of training I’ve described, seven days of recovery is recommended, give or take a few days depending on factors such as sleep, nutrition, age, physical state and level of intensity. The body needs time to compensate for resources taken away from it as it pools its supplies together to form compensatory tissue (i.e., muscle). Muscle is biologically expensive tissue; it takes a lot of resources to build it, so you want to give it the time it needs to grow.
Getting in great shape doesn’t have to take a lot of time, cost you your joints or consume unnecessary resources from your body. By slowing down your repetitions, you can target the major, larger muscle groups that will grant you better results, cut your workout time to a minimum and keep your joints and tissues free from strain. Opting for personalized equipment and choosing a workout environment that is conducive to form and safety can help you stay motivated, able-bodied and focused. This concentrated bout of exercise can allow you to achieve fantastic results while enabling you to spend less time in the gym and more time doing other things that are important to you. Making your workouts ritualistic by providing a consistent atmosphere and regimen that is dedicated to working out will help you achieve dependable results, week after week.
Wishing you all strength and good health!