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From The Desk Of Clarence Bass

Lift Slow or Say No?

We thought we were done discussing slow motion lifting, but no such luck. The flurry of hits on our Lift Slow or Lift Fast article (# 34), which we believe was generated by the "Going Super Slow" piece in Newsweek (Feb. 5, 2001) and a segment on NBCís "Today" show, and some emails taking us to task for not coming down four-square in favor of slow reps have persuaded us that more comment is warranted. People are clearly excited about slow reps. Ken Hutchins, the Florida-based trainer who founded the Super Slow movement more than a decade ago and trademarked the name, has started something that has legs.

Itís time for another effort to cut through the hype and try to understand what slow-rep lifting will do and, perhaps more importantly, what it wonít do. Letís start with two recent studies, one suggesting the promise of slow reps, and the other raising some doubts about the scope of the benefits. Maybe we can help people decide whether to "go slow" Ė or just say no.

Slow Group Gained 50 Percent More Strength

The first study was done in 1993 and repeated in 1999 by Wayne Westcott, fitness research director at the South Shore YMCA in Quincy, Massachusetts. The study was described in Newsweek and will soon be published in the Journal of Sports Medicine & Physical Fitness. The study was also presented in March, 2000, by Richard Winett, Ph.D., one of the authors of the report, at the annual meeting of the Society for Behavioral Medicine in Nashville, Tennessee.

In both studies, Westcott assigned untrained volunteers (men and women, mean age 54) to one of two regimens. Both groups trained 2 or 3 times per week for eight to ten weeks. They performed one set of 13 exercises on a standard Nautilus circuit. The key difference between the two groups was rep speed. One group did 10 to 12 regular-speed reps (7 seconds: 2 seconds lifting, 1 second pause, 4 second lowering). The other used a Super Slow training protocol calling for 4 to 6 reps of 14 seconds each (10 seconds lifting, 4 seconds lowering). All participants were tested at the beginning and the end of the study. Significantly, the slow lifters gained more strength than the regular-speed lifters -- by 50 percent!

Super Slow advocates would say the impressive difference was because going slow takes the momentum out of lifting and exhausts more muscle fibers. While the total time under load was essentially the same for both groups (84 seconds), the more stressful lifting phase was more than twice as long for the slow-rep group (60 seconds versus 24).

Most accounts of the Westcott study stop at this point. Remember, the report of the study is still in press; it has not been published. The finer details of the study are not widely known. One important detail is that the slow lifters were tested using the slow 14-second cadence, and the regular-speed group was tested using the regular 7-second cadence. There was no comparison using a common cadence. For example, the two groups could have been tested using an intermediate 4 or 5 second lifting phase, but that was not done. Each group was tested using only the reps and rep speed they used in training.

The authors of the report acknowledge that the absence of a common testing protocol was a possible flaw; it may cast doubt on the validity of their findings. In effect, they compared apples and oranges. One canít help but wonder what the result would have been had they tested for 8-rep maximum, allowing the participants to use whenever rep speed they chose. In other words, what would the result have been in a real-world strength comparison. Keep in mind that the winner in a powerlifting or Olympic lifting contest is determined on the basis of who lifts the most weight. Lifting speed is not restricted.

Speed of Lifting Improves Performance at Similar Speeds

Our second study, performed by D. K. Liow and W. G. Hopkins (1998) and reported in the journal Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, shows why using an apples-to-apples measure of performance is so important. Thirty-nine experienced male and female kayakers were matched by sex and sprint time and randomly assigned to a slow weight training, explosive weight training, or control (normal training, without weights) group. They trained twice a week for six weeks using unspecified sports-specific weight training exercises. The kayakers were tested before and after for time in the 15 meter sprint.

At the very start of the sprint, when rowing movements are of necessity slow, the slow-training group improved most (6.9 %), the fast group next (3.2%), and the control group least (1.4%). Over the last 3.75 meters, when rowing is fast, the fast training group improved most (3.0%), the slow group next (2.1%), and the control least (minus 0.8%).

The researchers described the implications: "Slow weight training exercises train one to respond best when moving slow. Fast weight training exercises train athletes to respond best when moving fast. However, both forms of training improved performance better than no weight-training."

That says it all, doesnít it? Lifts slow if you want to improve your performance at doing things slowly, and lift fast if you want to get better and stronger at moving fast. Kayakers training for sprints would probably be best advised to do both.

The kayaking study probably produced the results that most exercise physiologists would have predicted. After all, the most time-honored principle in sports science is the specificity principle: specific adaptation to imposed demand (SAID). Dr. Pat OíShea, who made the case for lifting rapidly in our Lift Slow or Lift Fast article, highlights the importance of specificity in the second edition of his book Quantum Strength. He calls the SAID principle the "guiding force" of strength training. "It explains that physiological, neurological, and psychological adaptation will occur in direct response to the imposed training demands. If, however, these demands are not specific to the performance demands of your sport, no functional adaptation will take place."

The Only Exercise Youíll Ever Need?

As reported in Newsweek, some Super Slow proponents claim that slow lifting is the whole key to fitness. They say itís the only exercise youíll ever need: It builds strength, larger muscles and even aerobics fitness. This group actually discourages aerobic exercise, saying it compromises muscle and strengthen gains, and isnít necessary for health and total fitness. Thatís the extreme view. Only "true believers" such as Ken Hutchins Ė a small but vocal minority -- go that far.

Slow reps improve proficiency at lifting slowly, but agreement stops there. Thereís even some question about the ability of slow lifting to produce increases in muscle mass (hypertrophy). A very smart friend of mine, who has been doing slow reps exclusively for several years, tells me that he has gotten substantially stronger at moving weights slowly, but that he lost muscle mass. Itís only conjecture at this point, of course, but he believes that slow lifting may in some way retard muscle growth, perhaps by restricting the flow of blood and oxygen to the working muscles. He speculates that there may be something about "the fatigue mechanism with slow reps that doesnít quite provide the right signal for hypertrophy." That remains to be seen, of course, but itís something to watch as more people experiment with slow reps.

On the issue of aerobic conditioning, Dr. Steven Keteyian, a clinical exercise physiologists at the Henry Ford Heart and Vascular Institute in Detroit, in his online health column for the Detroit News, recommends a well-rounded program that combines both resistance and aerobic training. "Thereís no research supporting the use of [Super Slow lifting] to improve cardiorespiratory or aerobics fitness," Dr.Keteyian writes. I believe thatís the current consensus of informed opinion.

The Washington Post health section reported just last week (2-20-01) that sports medicine experts say, "Thereís little evidence that slow lifting beats standard weight training for building endurance or strength Ė and absolutely none that it eliminates the need for aerobic exercise."

The Post also reported a little-known aftermath of Wayne Westcottís slow lift studies. "The bad news," Westcott told The Post, "is that when I finished both studies, only one of the 147 people involved... wanted to continue the training. We feel itís a little too tedious, too tough for the average person."

Now, itís up to you to decide whatís best -- for you.

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