Lifting: Taking it slow but not easy

Exercise: Slow-motion weightlifting may be effective, but not even fans describe it as fun.

January 20, 2002|By Jean Thompson | Jean Thompson,Sun Staff

Meg Harrington took the tortoise approach to fitness when she decided to shed pounds after her third child was born: She started slow, lifting weights, but not the traditional way.

She is using a slow-motion training technique that she and others say is difficult, but effective at building muscle, promoting weight loss and developing strength. Her SuperSlow workout has produced results: She's 7 pounds lighter and 4 inches trimmer.

"It takes every ounce of strength that I have," says Harrington, 39, a homemaker and business consultant in Sterling, Va. "After about six or eight weeks, I got to the point where I hated it, and it felt like labor, but you know, when my 18 minutes were up, I was really proud of myself."

Wait: 18 minutes? That's all it takes, once a week. Slow-motion lifters prefer this brief, high-intensity regimen, which was designed in the early 1980s to help osteoporosis patients build strength. Today, slow-motion training has a place in many gyms and personal training routines. This month's Sports Illustrated for Women named the trademarked SuperSlow workout one of the hottest training methods of the year.

Slow-motion lifters believe that exhausting the muscles -- not just working them -- stimulates the muscle fibers to grow. Muscles are calorie burners, so if you watch what you eat and lift slowly, you will lose weight. Carefully done, slow-motion weight training also can be easy on the joints.

The technique requires lifting on a long, controlled count of 6 to 12 seconds, pausing, and then lowering the weight to an equally deliberate cadence. Using enough weight and proper technique, each repetition becomes more difficult. Before long, you are panting. Your lower lip shudders, your eyes water, your arms quake, your brain screams "stop!" and your muscles feel like Jell-O.

The intensity and tediousness of SuperSlow and similar routines can be major turn-offs, and in some circles the technique is controversial.

"There's a level of fatigue and muscular discomfort that you can get with this that you don't get with other exercise: The muscles burn. ... You have to be able to dig down and push and push and work through it," says John Thomas, Penn State football team's head strength coach. Thomas, 40, instructs players to use slow-motion lifting when coming back from injuries.

He and Josh Stolz, 23, strength trainer for Goucher College's basketball, lacrosse, soccer and track programs, advise players to go slow in the weight room to build muscle, and to shake up workouts that have become too familiar.

"I told them to slow down, and soon they came back to me saying, 'Wow, we are so much more sore than we thought we would be,' " Stolz says. That means they are using the muscles instead of relying on momentum to swing the weights, he says.

Yet it seems that for every personal trainer recommending slow-motion lifting, there is another who shuns it.

"It takes incredible mental concentration, the kind most people don't have," says Stephen Holt, a trainer and education director at the Maryland Athletic Club & Wellness Center in Timonium. "And it doesn't necessarily prepare you for function: There's nothing you do in life that is slow motion, so why modulate your speed when you are working out?"

SuperSlow's founder, Ken Hutchins, believes he has packaged all the exercise a body needs into the 20-minute-or-less workout, once or twice a week for beginners, and less often as the muscles become fine-tuned. His techniques evolved from studies begun in 1982 at the University of Florida to develop a workout using Nautilus exercise equipment for frail and older women.

His company has a growing network of private trainers, physical therapists and fitness centers. They target busy professionals, baby boomers staving off the effects of age, and active retirees.

"SuperSlow is decidedly not fun," acknowledges Tim Rankin, 34, who lost more than 25 pounds after a year of using the lifting regimen. He is Meg Harrington's trainer, and plans this month to open a SuperSlow gym near his Sterling, Va., home. The father of three was attracted to the convenience of the workout: "I guard my time jealously. I can do just about anything if it's only for 20 minutes, once a week."

Founder Hutchins, 50, is training new trainers and customizing fitness equipment for slow workouts. He's also developing a training program for physical therapists, who might use SuperSlow to help rehabilitate their patients.

He discourages SuperSlow lifters from doing other exercise, including aerobic exercise, because he says that interrupts the muscles' rest time between workouts. His early assertions that SuperSlow can supplant cardiovascular exercise, such as aerobics, have made the workout controversial.

The American College of Sports Medicine, to which many personal trainers look for approval, has not taken a position, in part because SuperSlow has not been thoroughly studied by scientists.

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