The Benefits of Slow Motion Training

The Benefits of Slow Motion Training

When it comes to gaining muscle strength, some say lifting weights slowly is more effective

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Sylvia Lesic sits down at the Nautilus Mid-Row Machine, her face steely with resolve. She extends her arms, grasps the handles and begins to pull them back toward her, inch by inch, as trainer Michelle Whitmore slowly counts to 10.

“Good,” Whitmore says when Lesic’s arms are fully bent. “Now, really slow again on the way down.”

Lesic, 58, who lives in Friendship Heights, lowers the handles just as slowly as she lifted them until the weight plates nearly touch. “Good control,” says Whitmore, a Silver Spring resident. Lesic takes a deep breath and begins to lift again. “Really nice.”

The room is void of any posters or billboards on its white walls, and free of all sound, except for Whitmore’s words of encouragement and Lesic’s increasingly labored breathing. There are no televisions—Whitmore says the workout area is meant to be a “clinically-controlled environment with no distractions.” By Lesic’s 10th repetition, which is just as slow as the first, she is exhaling like she’s blowing out candles on a cake, her face reddening from the exertion. She performs seven to 10 slow repetitions of several other exercises—including hamstring curls and quad extensions—and a little more than 20 minutes after she started, she’s done.

Sylvia Lesic (left) with trainer Michelle Whitmore, does two 20-minute slow-motion strength training sessions a week. “You don’t need to be there for an hour to get the benefits,” Lesic says.

This is the tempo of every session at The Perfect Workout, a fitness studio specializing in slow-motion strength training that opened on River Road in Bethesda last August. The idea behind slow-motion strength training, often called “super-slow exercise,” is that you’ll see rapid gains in muscle strength if you take 10 seconds to lift a weight and 10 seconds to lower it. Trainers carefully select weights that are heavy enough to induce muscle failure within one or two minutes, meaning that the person exercising is so tired that he or she can’t physically eke out any more repetitions.

“We like to call it ‘muscle fatigue,’ or ‘muscle success,’ ” says Whitmore, who’s also the facility manager of the Bethesda studio, where most of the 70-plus members range in age from 40 to 85.

Unlike traditional strength training, where you might do three sets on the same machine—and faster repetitions—slow-motion workouts include one set of each exercise. Trainers recommend doing the 20-minute workouts just once or twice a week, depending on age and other factors. There’s no cardio involved.

Some sports medicine experts question whether slow-motion strength training offers benefits above and beyond regular weightlifting. But for enthusiasts such as Lesic, who says she’s lost 3 inches off her waist and staved off back surgery since beginning the workouts in September, the results speak for themselves.

“My back pain has been significantly reduced, and I think I’ve gotten a lot stronger,” Lesic says. “The fact that I also look a little better in my clothes is an added bonus.”

* * *

Richard Lembo went into his first session at The Perfect Workout last fall with a sense of healthy skepticism. The Friendship Heights resident, once a college baseball player, wondered whether he could really get in a good workout in such a short amount of time. “I thought that if they seemed like they were full of crap, I wouldn’t go back,” says Lembo, 66, who recently retired from the health insurance industry. “But I literally felt the effects after my first workout.”

He has gotten stronger, dropped two pants sizes and convinced his wife, Gloria, to start working out there, too. “You think, ‘How could I see this much of a benefit after just 20 minutes?’ ” says Gloria, 66, a management consultant. “But when you leave, your arms are shaking and your legs are shaking.”

Richard Lembo (below) was skeptical when he started going to The Perfect Workout last fall. He’s since dropped two pants sizes and convinced his wife, Gloria, to work out there, too. Photo by Skip Brown

Headquartered in California, The Perfect Workout was the first slow-motion strength training studio to open in Montgomery County. A second location opened in Rockville in January, and there are also studios in Falls Church and Fairfax, Virginia. It’s not the only company in the D.C. region that’s focused on super-slow exercise: InForm Fitness, SuperSlow Zone and Clinical Exercise also have area locations.

While recent media coverage and celebrity endorsements have led to a boost in popularity—best-selling author Gretchen Rubin is an InForm Fitness fanatic—slow-motion strength training is hardly new. Florida researcher Ken Hutchins trademarked the term “super-slow exercise” more than 30 years ago after studying its effect on bone health in women with osteoporosis. His 1982 study showed that a super-slow lifting protocol led to gains in bone health—a finding that encouraged health care professionals to recommend resistance training for women looking to slow or stop bone loss, says Dr. Pamela Peeke of Bethesda, a national spokesperson for the American College of Sports Medicine.

A study co-authored by exercise physiologist Wayne Westcott that was published in 2001 found that slow-motion strength training produces 50 percent more improvement in muscle strength than regular weight training. But Peeke says athletes looking to improve speed and stamina, and those with strength-training experience, may be disappointed by the method.

Westcott’s study involved older participants without strength-training experience.

“Clearly, slow training is better than no training at all,” Peeke says. “And there’s nothing harmful about it at all. But there’s a paucity of information out there showing that it burns fat better or builds muscle more effectively than plain-old strength training.”

Rather than doing shorter, less frequent sessions, Peeke believes exercisers would be better off strength training three times per week for a minimum of 30 minutes per session. But for certain people, the super-slow method could offer benefits, she says. “For people who are older and who feel like the slower speed is safer and helps them pay attention to their form, I think it’s fantastic,” Peeke says. “It’s all about the goal. Do they want to get a bit stronger than they would without weight training? They’re going to. Do they want to drop some weight? They’re going to.”

For her own bone health, and to keep her nagging back pain at bay, Lesic knew she should incorporate resistance training into her weekly walking and jogging regimen. But she needed a workout that would fit into her long days as executive director of imaging services at MedStar Georgetown University Hospital. She puts in 20 minutes before work on Tuesdays, and does a second workout on Saturdays. She leaves feeling energized and fresh, not sweaty and tired. “You don’t need to be there for an hour to get the benefits,” she says.

* * *

Conventional exercise wisdom holds that if a workout routine isn’t fun, it won’t last. So, do slow-motion strength training devotees enjoy the workouts while they’re happening, or only once they’re done? Gloria Lembo pauses before answering.

“It’s a love-hate relationship,” she says, laughing.

Other participants echo that sentiment: The workouts themselves aren’t necessarily fun, but the results—and that one-on-one time with a trainer—keep them coming back. The individualized attention comes at a price. Monthly fees at The Perfect Workout range from $255 to $495, based on how often you go and the length of your contract.

Gaye Passes, 73, of Chevy Chase, initially balked at the price tag, but now she says it’s worth every penny. “Frankly, it sounded really expensive—and it is, compared to signing up for a traditional gym,” says Passes, who joined The Perfect Workout last fall and immediately felt a difference. “But the trainers are so wonderful and so attentive. I’ve worked with personal trainers before, but they’ve never been this encouraging and this aware of your individual needs.”

After hearing so many glowing endorsements, I decide I need to try a session myself. When I show up at The Perfect Workout in Bethesda at 10:30 a.m. on a Friday in January, I’m the only one in the studio, aside from the trainers. Whitmore, holding a clipboard and a stopwatch, inquires about my workout experience. “Have you lifted weights before?” she asks.

I tell her that I have. But I don’t tell her that I’ve been lifting fairly heavy weights since my days as a competitive high-school swimmer nearly two decades ago, and I resist the urge to tell her how much I can squat. In my mind, I am cocky. How hard can this be?

First up: the leg-press machine. Whitmore counts slowly to 10 as I lift the weights. By the time I’ve completed a few reps, I feel like I’ve been there for an hour.

“This seems pretty easy for you,” Whitmore says. I nod.

“I can see how this could get intense, though,” I say.

On the next machine, the mid-row, it does. The first few reps are fine, but then I notice my deltoids burning. A couple reps later, every muscle in my upper back is shaking. “We’ll do one more, and we’ll hold at the top,” Whitmore says.

When I reach the top, Whitmore counts to three. This is the slowest three seconds of my life, I think. When I lower the weights one last time, I feel instantly sore—and humbled.  

I work my abductors, abdominals and biceps at other Nautilus machines, all under Whitmore’s watchful eye. The bicep curls feel similar to the mid-rows, at once boring and excruciatingly difficult. And then, 20 minutes later, it is done. I’m not particularly tired, but my arms are noticeably sore when I walk out to my car. The next day, my biceps and back muscles are sore to the touch.  

“Yay!” Whitmore says when I talk to her a few days later. “We’ve done our job.”

Amy Reinink is a frequent contributor to the magazine who also writes for Men's Health and other publications.

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