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Super Slow Resistance Training

Jeff Nelson, M.Ed. and Len Kravitz, Ph.D.

There are many different methods of resistance training. One form of resistance
exercise that has drawn attention is superslow resistance training. Evidence of
increasing interest is becoming more apparent with the rise of internet referenc
es and the availability of superslow certifications. This form of training has b
een presented as a safe and effective means of building strength in both beginni
ng and advanced weight training (Westcott, 1999). Superslow training, originated
in 1982 by Ken Hutchins, was developed in an osteoporosis study with older wome
n because of the need to utilize a safer speed for subjects to perform the resis
tance exercises. The result was the beginning of a new resistance training techn
ique, which became known as superslow strength training.
In a standard Nautilus training protocol, 8-12 repetitions are performed (Westco
tt, 1999). Each repetition represents a two-second concentric action, a one-seco
nd pause, followed by a four-second eccentric action. The total time for the set
requires approximately 55-85 seconds for completion. The superslow protocol rep
resents 4-6 repetitions consisting of a 10-second concentric phase followed by a
four-second eccentric phase. This protocol also requires about 55-85 seconds fo
r completion. One possible advantage of superslow training is that it involves l
ess momentum, resulting in a more evenly applied muscle force throughout the ran
ge of motion. A potential disadvantage of this training is that it is characteri
zed as tedious and tough.
Physiology of Superslow Training
An objective of superslow resistance training is to create more tension in a mus
cle for a given workload. This is accomplished by decreasing the speed of moveme
nt. The amount of force or tension a muscle can develop during a muscle action i
s substantially affected by the rate of muscle shortening (concentric phase) or
lengthening (eccentric phase) (Smith, Weiss, and Lehmkuhl, 1995). The amount of
tension generated in a muscle is related to the number of contracting fibers. Ea
ch muscle fiber (or muscle cell) contains up to several hundred to several thous
and myofibrils, which are composed of myosin (thick) and actin (thin) protein fi
laments (Guyton and Hall, 1996). The repeating units of thick and thin filaments
within each myofibril comprise the basic contractile unit, the sarcomere. In a
muscle fiber, the slower the rate at which the actin and myosin filaments slide
past each other, the greater the number of links or cross-bridges that can be fo
rmed between the filaments (Smith, Weiss, and Lehmkuhl, 1995). The more cross-br
idges there are per unit of time, the more tension created. Thus at slow muscle
action speeds, a higher number of cross-bridges can be formed, which leads to a
maximum amount of tension for a given workload.
The tension in a muscle is related to the number of motor units firing and to th
e frequency with which impulses are conveyed to the motor neurons (Berger, 1982)
. Physiologically, using a slower speed protocol requires the activation of more
muscle fibers and an increase in the frequency of firing in order to maintain a
force necessary to lift a given workload (Smith, Weiss, and Lehmkuhl, 1995). Th
is provides stimulation for muscle strength development. The initial strength de
velopment involves neurological adaptations (stimulation of muscle fibers throug
h increased firing and recruitment) followed by muscle hypertrophy (Enoka, 1986)
. In muscle hypertrophy, an increase in protein synthesis results in a multiplic
ation of myofibrils within muscle fibers leading to an enlargement of the cross-
sectional area of the muscle (Berger, 1982). There is also a corresponding incre
ase in the number of actin and myosin filaments, which subsequently increases th
e capacity for cross-bridge formation (Guyton and Hall, 1996).
Superslow Resistance Training Research
Although superslow resistance training has been around for a while, only two pee
r-reviewed manuscripts have been written. The first manuscript describes two stu
dies by Westcott et al. (2001). The first Wescott et al. study was conducted in
1993 and consisted of 74 previously sedentary men and women with an average age
of 56 years. The subjects were placed in groups of six and closely supervised fo
r eight weeks. All of the subjects performed one set of 13 exercises (Nautilus e
quipment) three days per week. These exercises consisted of the leg extension, l
eg curl, leg press, neck flexion, neck extension, pullover, chest press, chest c
ross, lateral raise, bicep curl, triceps extension, abdominal crunch, and low ba
ck. Of the 74 subjects, 39 (10 males and 29 females) trained at a regular speed
and 35 (13 males and 22 females) trained at the slow speed. Although both groups
differed in the time spent in concentric phase, both groups had a 4-second ecce
ntric phase. Each of the subjects was tested using either a 10-RM weight load (r
egular speed group) or a 5-RM weight load (slow speed group) at weeks 2 and 8 in
the study for the determination of pre- and post-test strength assessments. The
results indicated that the slow speed group attained superior strength gains, g
aining an average of 26 lbs in strength for the 13 exercises combined, compared
to an average of 18 lbs for the regular speed group.
The second study of the first manuscript was conducted in 1999 and consisted of
73 previously sedentary men and women with an average age of 53 years. This stud
y was similar to the 1993 study except that it was a 10-week study and the pre-
and post-test strength assessments were based on 10-RM weight load (regular spee
d group) and a 5-RM weight load (slow speed group) of the chest press only at we
eks 2 and 10 in the study. Of the 73 subjects, 43 (13 males and 30 females) trai
ned at a regular speed and 30 (10 males and 20 females) trained at the slow spee
d. This study supported the 1993 study conclusions in that the slow speed group
achieved higher results that the regular speed group, gaining an average of 24 l
bs in strength for the chest press, compared to an average of 16 lbs for the reg
ular speed group.
The other recent peer-reviewed manuscript describes a study by Keeler et al. (20
01). This study consisted of 14 sedentary women with an average age of 32.8 8.9
years. The subjects were randomly assigned to either a superslow group (6 subjec
ts) or a traditional training group (8 subjects). Strength was assessed for both
pre- and post-test using a 1-RM on 8 strength exercises: leg extension, leg cur
l, leg press, bench press, compound row, biceps curl, triceps extension, and tor
so arm (anterior lateral pull-down). The subjects trained three times per week f
or 10 weeks. For this study, the superslow protocol was defined as a 10-second c
oncentric muscle action, followed by a 5-second eccentric muscle action. The tra
ditional protocol consisted of a 2-second concentric phase, followed by a 4-seco
nd eccentric phase. Both groups performed one set of each of the eight exercises
reaching momentary muscular fatigue between 8-12 repetitions. The traditional a
nd the superslow groups began the exercises using 80% and 50% of the 1RM, respec
tively, until muscular fatigue was reached. The weight was then increased in inc
rements of 5% when the maximum repetitions could be completed in good form. Incr
ements of 2.5% were used for the leg press exercise only. The results indicated
that both groups had a significant training effect for the 8 exercises. Further,
the traditional group improved significantly more than the superslow group in t
otal weight lifted for the leg press, leg curl, leg extension, torso arm, and th
e chest press. The results for the chest press indicated that the traditional gr
oup improved by an average of 26 lbs compared to the superslow group improving b
y an average of 9 lbs. It was concluded that traditional training is superior to
that of superslow strength training for improving strength as assessed with the
1-RM for the initial phase of strength training in sedentary women.
The Westcott et al. (2001) manuscript describes two studies (1993 and 1999 studi
es) that report the superslow resistance training resulting in superior strength
gains than a traditional strength training method. In contrast, the Keeler et a
l. (2001) study indicates that the traditional strength training group improved
better than the superslow group for 5 of the 8 exercises. The different outcomes
between studies may be due to different subject populations, training methodolo
gies, and testing procedures. Westcott et al. recruited sedentary men and women
with an average age in both studies of 54.5 yrs., where as the Keeler et al. stu
dy had sedentary women whose average age was 32.8 yrs. Very little is documented
how various age populations may be differentially affected by the training regi
men (superslow versus traditional speed), although this factor certainly needs f
urther elucidation.
The Keeler et al. (2001) study trained the traditional resistance exercise group
using 80% of 1RM while the superslow group trained at 50% of 1RM. Both groups p
erformed 8 to 12 repetitions to muscular fatigue. The authors said it was recomm
ended that the superslow training group weight load be reduced 30% from what is
normally used (however, the source for this recommendation was not cited in the
study). Contrariwise, in the Westcott et al. (2001) studies, the traditional tra
ining group performed 8 to 12 repetitions to fatigue where as the superslow trai
ning group performed 4 to 6 repetitions to fatigue. Given that resistance load i
ntensity has a direct association with muscle force production, this is a major
difference noted in training methodologies of these investigations, and certainl
y warrants further investigation.
Finally, in the Keeler et al. (2001) study, strength measurements were quantifie
d with 1-RM assessments of strength for the superslow and the traditional streng
th training groups. Conversely, in the Westcott et al. (2001) investigations the
traditional strength training group was assessed with a 10-RM while the supersl
ow was measured with a 5-RM. Certainly, the differences across the board in stre
ngth assessments may also be contributing factors to the varying results observe
d in these investigations.
Although a final conclusion of the efficacy of superslow training versus traditi
onal strength training warrants further research, some strong applications can b
e ascertained. Both training methods demonstrated significant increases in stren
gth from pre- to post-testing. Since variety of resistance training stimulus is
an important aspect of training design, perhaps incorporating both of these meth
ods is a viable option for many clients. While some clients may find the supersl
ow method somewhat tedious and challenging, other clients may relish in this typ
e of challenge. Therefore, the personal trainer is reminded of the importance of
individualizing the workout scheme to keep the client motivated, as well as cha
llenged. Future randomized studies are needed to establish whether a true differ
ence does exist between superslow and traditional protocols in developing streng
th in men and women (of all ages).
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