High Intensity / Super Slow

Some months ago, a friend told me about a newer book called Body by Science by Doug Mc Guff, an emergency room physician. McGuff claims that we can make sustained, significant improvements in both strength and overall health in just 12 minutes a week. Twelve minutes? If I hadn’t heard positive comments about this protocol from someone I respect, I would have dismissed it out of hand. (McGuff blogs here)

I’ve always shied away from gyms because, frankly, I’m not interested in budgeting hours each week pumping iron. But a thirty minutes each week? I can commit to that. And that includes driving from my office to the gym and back (!)

I’ve never been on a weight lifting routine in my life, so I wasn’t certain what to expect. I’ve now been active on McGuff’s protocol since April 2010 and am happy to report that it WORKS. Moreover, McGuff’s book is an excellent lay resource on the latest science in muscle physiology. Truly a fascinating read on how muscles develop, and how to maximize the growth response.

Turns out that long hours of modest weight lifting is terribly inefficient. We now know that the physiology of muscle growth favors short, high intensity activity. In order to grow, muscles must be stressed into sustained failure — the metabolic point at which a muscle group drops in strength potential by roughly 40% and simply cannot support its original starting load. This failure is recognized by a hot, burning sensation and a psychological response that says “I can’t do this any longer!” The most important muscle improvements occur during this intensive period of increasing failure (I’m reminded of the poet Rilke, who said the purpose of life is to be defeated by ever greater things).

And just as importantly, after a muscle reaches failure, it must be given ample time to recover and grow. This healing time varies between genotypes but is, on average, about one week. I’m becoming more familiar with my own optimal healing period, and I think it may be closer to ten days. According to McGuff, any additional weight work during the healing period is effectively wasted, offering little additional benefit.

The point of all this is to achieve a deep inroad into the targeted muscle groups. Only by “inroading” will muscles grow. The technique McGuff uses to achieve inroading is called Super Slow / High Intensity training.  It’s very simple:  do each strength training exercise very slowly, perhaps 10 seconds up and 10 seconds down, and continue without stopping. Even when the muscle becomes “spent” we keep pushing as hard as possible for another 30 second or so, even though we can no longer move the weights. We keep track of both the actual weight lifted and the time under load (TUL).

I have changed nothing else in my lifestyle since beginning this once-a-week, 15 minute gym protocol seven months ago. In those seven months, I have spent a total of roughly four hours actual weight lifting. My average “super slow” weight lifting strength has increased on average over 30%.

When I started on this protocol in April, I acquired an Omron Body Composition Scale to track my progress. I’m most happy about the increase in skeletal muscle, and the decrease in body fat. Allow me to share my progress.

APRIL 2010 OCTOBER 2010

Upper Arm  14″

Thigh 23″

Gut 41″

Body Fat 21.6% 17.5%

Visceral Fat  7  5-6

Skeletal Muscle 34.9%  38.0%

As is normal, my first 12-14 weeks saw the greatest strength improvements. Since then, positive change has come slower, but progress continues. As McGuff notes, genetics plays a primary role in determining our response to muscle inroading. Everyone responds differently, but I’m convinced that everyone will benefit.

This is a program I can stick with for the rest of my life.

Here’s a good example of a typical Super Slow / High Intensity weekly workout. A grand total of ten minutes. Note how quickly he moves from one exercise to the next: this is essential to achieve maximum metabolic inroading. His TUL on first set is 1:54.


2 thoughts on “High Intensity / Super Slow

  1. Congratulations on your progress so far! High intensity training in general and the Body by Science program in particular provide the greatest return on investment possible with exercise. Even more importantly it will not wreck your joints over the long run or increase your risk of cancer with massive amounts of oxidative stress like some other activities. It really IS a program you can stick with the rest of your life – it will be as safe and productive for you in your 80s as it is now.

    If you haven’t already read it, Dr. McGuff and John Little have also written a BBS question and answer book addressing many questions people have asked on their web site since the book came out.

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