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Super-Slow Weight Training: The Safest, Most Effective Form of Exercise?

Super-Slow Weight Training: The Safest, Most Effective Form of Exercise?

Story at-a-glance -

  • Four common mistakes that lead to injury are skipping your warm-up, using poor form, putting too much stress on your shoulders, and neglecting opposing muscle groups
  • A proper warm-up should raise your body temperature by one to two degrees Celsius, or just below three degrees Fahrenheit. While most opt to use aerobic activity for their warm-up, muscle-contracting exercises are far more effective, as it only takes 10-15 seconds of muscular contractions to raise your body temperature by 1ºC. Included are 16 quick warm-up exercises that can speed up and improve your warm-up routine
  • Super-slow weight training is a form of high-intensity exercise that is not only more effective than conventional strength training, but also much safer, as it actively prevents you from accidentally harming your joints or suffering repetitive use injury. This makes it an ideal form of exercise for virtually everyone, regardless of age or fitness level
  • Proper recovery is also important, as exercising too vigorously too frequently can stress your body and lead to injury
  • Women have reportedly started weight-training in record numbers, and weight-training related injuries among women have subsequently increased by 63 percent

By Dr. Mercola

Strength training is an integral part of a well-rounded exercise program, and is recommended for both sexes of all ages, including kids and seniors.

Women have reportedly started weight-training in record numbers -- and one result is that weight-training related injuries among women have increased by 63 percent.

MSNBC has assembled a list of four of the most common mistakes leading to injury, and how to avoid them.

Skipping your warm-up:

Working cold, stiff muscles can lead to sprains and tears. A dynamic warm-up can decrease your risk for injury.

Using sloppy form:

Proper form is the single most important factor in injury prevention. Stand straight, look forward, keep your abs tight, and keep your knees over your second toe.

Stressing your shoulders:

Doing too many exercises in which your elbows are pulled behind your body can overstretch the connective tissue in the front of the joints.

Don't allow your elbows to extend more than two inches behind your body.

Neglecting opposing muscle groups:

Strength imbalances can make you more prone to injury. For every exercise that works the front of your body, be sure to do an exercise that targets the rear.

For more tips and information about these common mistakes, see the original MSNBC article. Here, I will address a couple of strategies that can not only make your weight training workouts safer, so that you're less likely to sustain injury, but can also help simplify and speed up your routine.

Proper Warm-Up

The warm-up is a key component of your exercise program and can help you avoid injury. According to John Catanzaro, a Certified Kinesiologist and Certified Exercise Physiologist who operates a private gym in Richmond Hill, Ontario, one of the most common mistakes people do with their warm-up is to do aerobics prior to weight training.

A proper warm-up should raise your body temperature by one to two degrees Celsius (1.4-2.8 degrees Fahrenheit), and, it only takes 10-15 seconds of muscular contractions to raise your body temperature by 1ºC. So, instead of aerobics, which is non-specific in its target and takes much longer to perform, Catanzaro recommends the following warm-up routine before every workout.

  1. Squat
  1. Arms Horizontal
  1. Split Squat
  1. PNF Pattern
  1. Toe Touches
  1. Arm Circles
  1. Waiter's Bow
  1. Wrist Flexion/Extension
  1. Side Bends
  1. Wrist Circles
  1. Trunk Twists
  1. Shoulder Shrugs
  1. Arms Vertical
  1. Head Tilt
  1. Arms Vertical Alternating
  1. Head Rotation

Start slow and shallow and gradually increase speed and range with each repetition. All you need is 5-10 reps per movement. Doing too many repetitions during your warm-up will only increase lactate levels and decrease your strength and performance. Following this recommendation, you could be done with your warm-up in about four minutes.

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The Case for Super-Slow Weight Training

I recently posted an excellent interview with Dr. Doug McGuff, M.D., an emergency room physician and an expert in high-intensity interval training. While I've been recommending high-intensity anaerobic training (Peak Fitness) using an elliptical machine or a recumbent bike, Dr. McGuff is a proponent of high-intensity interval training using weights. By performing each movement in super-slow-motion, with minimal rest between exercises, you're effectively getting a very high-intensity exercise.

Download Interview Transcript

Interestingly, while they appear to be very different on the surface, both types of training achieve many of the same results, from working your cardiovascular system to improving strength and endurance, to promoting the production of human growth hormone (HGH).

While being more effective than conventional strength training, this type of super-slow weight training is also much safer, as it actively prevents you from accidentally harming your joints or suffering repetitive use injury. This makes it an ideal form of exercise for virtually everyone, regardless of age or fitness level. As Dr. McGuff explains:

"Force is mass times acceleration. If you deprive yourself of the acceleration, you're delivering almost no punishment to your joints. There's no repetitive use injury. The forces are extremely low, and as you become more fatigued, you're becoming much weaker. So you're actually delivering a smaller and smaller force to your body as you fatigue."

Weight Training IS Cardiovascular Training…

Research over the past several years has really revolutionized the way we look at exercise. Not only have researchers found that traditional aerobic exercise is one of the least effective forms of exercise, it's also one of the most time consuming, and could even be counterproductive. You're really getting the least amount of bang for your buck when you spend extended amounts of time running on a treadmill.

High intensity interval training on the other hand, has consistently risen to the top as the most effective and efficient form of exercise.

While the fitness industry divides exercise into categories such as anaerobic-, aerobic- and cardiovascular training, fitness experts like Dr. McGuff and Phil Campbell point out that in order to actually access your cardiovascular system, you have to perform mechanical work with your muscle—and can do that on an elliptical machine, on weight training equipment, or using free-weights. So truly, weight training isn't just strength training, it's a cardiovascular workout.

To better understand this, you need to know that your heart has two different metabolic processes:

  1. The aerobic, which require oxygen for fuel, and
  2. The anaerobic, which do not require any oxygen

Traditional strength training and cardio exercises work primarily the aerobic process. High-intensity interval training, such as Peak Fitness, on the other hand, work your aerobic AND your anaerobic processes, which is what you need for optimal cardiovascular benefit. You're actually getting MORE benefits from high-intensity training than you do from aerobic/cardio, in a fraction of the time—all because you're utilizing your body as it was designed to be used. You can literally be done in about 20 minutes, compared to spending an hour running on the treadmill.

Even more astounding, according to Dr. McGuff you only need 12 minutes of Super-Slow type strength training once a week to achieve the same growth hormone production as you would with Peak Fitness!

So truly, if you've struggled finding time for an effective exercise routine, this could be the solution you've been looking for. The key to make it work is intensity. The intensity needs to be high enough that you reach muscle fatigue. If you've selected the appropriate weight for your strength and fitness level, that would be somewhere in the neighborhood of just seven or eight repetitions.

Furthermore, when the intensity is high, you can also decrease the frequency of your exercise. In fact, in order to continue to be productive, the higher your fitness level, the more you can decrease the frequency without losing benefits. This is because, as a weak beginner, you can exercise three times a week and not put much stress on your system. But once your strength and endurance improves, each exercise session is placing an increasingly greater amount of stress on your body (as long as you keep pushing yourself to the max). At that point, you'll want to reduce the frequency of your sessions to give your body enough time to recover in between.

The Importance of Recovery

The importance of recovery is something I've just recently started to fully appreciate. I have known the importance of "Listening to Your Body," and always advocate this when it comes to selecting foods. But this also applies to exercise and recovery. The epiphany I had with Dr. McGuff was that I wasn't applying the 'listen to your body' principle with respect to my exercise program. According to Dr. McGuff, you know you're recovered from your exercise when you start getting a build-up of restless energy and spontaneously feel the urge to engage in some form of physical activity again.

That had not happened to me for some time, and I believe I was pushing myself too hard during my thrice weekly, "all-out" Peak Fitness exercise sessions. Granted, lack of recovery is probably not a problem for most people, as many aren't pushing themselves hard enough, but when you go to extremes like in Peak Fitness, this is a concern you do need to pay careful attention to.

As a result of his feedback, I'm now in a new experimentation phase, and I'm having fun playing around with my exercise program.

I will report on my results as I refine my program so you can learn from it. The lesson for me, over the past several years, is that life is an exciting journey. So just learn as much as you can from your mistakes and continue to seek new information from different mentors, and learn to listen to your body so it can guide you into a path that will provide you with the most efficient and effective benefits.

However, please realize I have been exercising for 40 years and am in the advanced fine tuning stage. If you are just starting, I would strongly recommend two to three times a week for Peak Fitness at full intensity. Once you become fit you can start to experiment with your program and fine tune it. But you will likely reap the most benefits by using Peak Fitness three times a week.

How to Perform Super-Slow Weight Lifting

Essentially, by aggressively working your muscle to fatigue, you're stimulating the muscular adaptation that will improve the metabolic capability of the muscle and cause it to grow. McGuff recommends using four or five basic compound movements for your exercise set. These exercises can be done using either free weights or machines. The benefit of using a quality machine is that it will allow you to focus your mind on the effort, as opposed on the movement.

Dr. McGuff recommends the following five movements:

  1. Pull-down (or alternatively chin-up)
  2. Chest press
  3. Compound row (A pulling motion in the horizontal plane)
  4. Overhead press
  5. Leg press

Here's a summary of how to perform each exercise:

  1. Begin by lifting the weight as slowly and gradually as you can. The first inch should take about two seconds. Since you're depriving yourself of all the momentum of snatching the weight upward, it will be very difficult to complete the full movement in less than 7-10 seconds. (When pushing, stop about 10 to 15 degrees before your limb is fully straightened; smoothly reverse direction)
  2. Slowly lower the weight back down
  3. Repeat until exhaustion
  4. Immediately switch to the next exercise for the next target muscle group and repeat the first three steps

This super-slow movement allows your muscle, at the microscopic level, to access the maximum number of cross-bridges between the protein filaments that produce movement in the muscle.

Once you reach exhaustion, don't try to heave or jerk the weight to get one last repetition in. Instead, just keep trying to produce the movement, even if it's not 'going' anywhere, for another five seconds or so. If you're using the appropriate amount of weight or resistance, you'll be able to perform four to eight repetitions. As mentioned earlier, when done in this fashion, your workout will take no more than 12 or 15 minutes. And you really cannot get any more efficient than that!

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