In the 80s a workout system called SuperSlow™ was introduced to the mainstream fitness community by Ken Hutchins. The core of the program was to perform each rep of every exercise in about 20 seconds, lifting the weight in 10 seconds and lowering it in 10 seconds. Proponents claimed that such slow tempo training was not only safer than conventional training but superior for increasing strength and muscle mass. Let’s look at the history of this type of training so you can decide.
The benefits of performing an exercise with a slow tempo was discussed in Strength and Health magazine in 1962 in an article written by its publisher Bob Hoffman. The article was called, “MC-MM…Muscle Contraction with Measured Movement.” Hoffman said slow tempo movements had been used by the weightlifters of the York Barbell Club, a weightlifting team that had many of its athletes win international competitions and break world records. Hoffman also said Jim Councilman, a world-class swimming coach, endorsed this type of training for swimmers.
In the 70s, Nautilus founder Arthur Jones began promoting the benefits of slow tempo training in his many writings, and went so far as to say that if someone tells you to move fast during the performance of an exercise you should “…smile and walk away because you are talking to a fool.” In his early articles and books Jones would recommend a lifting speed that would translate into two seconds lifting and four seconds lowering. Here is how Jones addressed the tempo of an exercise in his book, Nautilus Bulletin #2:
"The first three or four repetitions in each set of every exercise should be performed at a speed well below the maximum speed that would be possible at that point -- but starting with the fourth or fifth repetition, the speed of movement should be as fast as possible without jerking or body swing; the remainder of the repetitions in each set should be performed at maximum-possible speed -- but the "actual speed" will be quite slow if the weight is as heavy as it should be, and the speed during the last one or two repetitions in each set will be extremely slow."
In this book, and especially in future publications, Jones stressed that the eccentric portion was the most important part of training for developing strength and muscle mass. In one style of training which he called “negative accentuated” that primarily required the use of exercise machines, Jones would have you lower the resistance in 8 seconds with a weight heavier than you could lift by concentric contraction alone. For someone who could lift 200 pounds for 10 reps on a bench press machine, he would have you perform a negative accentuated set using 140 pounds (70 percent). Said Jones:
“Lift the weight in a normal fashion, but a bit more slowly than is probably done now... using both arms during the lifting (positive) part of the exercise. Then lower it slowly back down while using only one arm. Do not remove the nonworking hand from its grip, leave it in place but do not use it... permit one arm to do all the negative work by itself. Lower it slowly, taking approximately 8 seconds for the negative part of the exercise. Then lift it back to the top position with both arms again, using both arms equally for the lifting part of the movement. The lifting movement should be done considerably faster than the lower part... it should only take about two seconds for the lifting part.”
Hutchins was a follower of Jones’ training methods, and in fact at one time was employed by Nautilus and involved in their seminars on exercise. In the 80s Hutchins supervised a slow-training exercise program used in a Nautilus-sponsored Osteoporosis study performed at the University of Florida Medical School. Encouraged by the results, Hutchins authored many articles on the subject and wrote SuperSlow: the Ultimate Exercise Protocol, which was the textbook used in the SuperSlow Zone personal training franchise. Other authors have written books on the subject of slow tempo training under the titles of “Slow Burn” and “Power of 10.”
Wayne Westcott, a sports scientist who worked for the YMCA, conducted two well-known studies on slow tempo training on untrained individuals involving a total of 65 men and 82 women. The studies lasted 10 weeks and were divided into two training groups. The traditional training group used a 2-second concentric contraction and a 4-second eccentric contraction, and the slow tempo group used a 4-second eccentric and a 10-second concentric contraction. Westcott reported that the slow tempo group had a 50 percent greater increase in strength than the traditional training group. Later studies by other researchers, however, had difference results.
In a 10-week study published in 2001 in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, subjects used either a traditional tempo prescription or a slow tempo one using a 10-second concentric contraction and a 5-second eccentric contraction. The traditional training group increased their average strength by 39 percent and the slow tempo group by only 15 percent. The researchers concluded that the resistance used to perform the slow tempo training was too light to stress the muscle significantly. That said, a study published in the Journal of Applied Physiology in 2006 that looked at three different tempo prescriptions concluded that slow tempo training could be an effective workout protocol for beginners. They also said that because slow tempo training did not generate large forces, it could be valuable in the rehabilitation from orthopedic injuries.
The bottom line is that slow tempo training which prolongs the concentric phase of the exercise, such as SuperSlow, has value, especially for beginners and those with certain orthopedic issues. It may also simply serve as a nice break from conventional training. In any case, slow tempo training methods may be a potentially important tool in your exercise toolbox.