Three sets of 10. Why? I don't remember when I learned it or why I'd never questioned it. But as I look it up now, I'm seeing it dates back to the late 1940s and some Army doctors.
I've never yelled "Hooah!" in my life. This is not the workout for me.
At least that's what I quickly realized years ago after moving over to a high-intensity workout, more often referred to as "SuperSlow." According to Dr. Doug McGuff — SuperSlow's face for more than a decade — an exercise theorist named Ken Hutchins developed the method to help people with osteoporosis safely exercise and avoid fractures. In essence, it takes the acceleration out of the "force is mass times acceleration" law, in favor of very gradual movement.
In doing SuperSlow, I now use a metronome, going 10 seconds up and 10 seconds down in each repetition of five exercises: a row, chest press, pull-down, overhead press and leg press. I do one set of each, lasting till complete burnout, then move to the next. Each recruits several large-muscle groups, in an exhilaratingly exhausting, slow-motion circuit that only takes around 15 minutes. And that's only once a week, with a full week's rest or more encouraged.
As explained by my friend and trainer, Lois Pratt, "We reach and fatigue all muscle fibers: slow, intermediate and fast. This routine is governed by time and not repetitions. A weight is selected that can be moved with good form for at least 30 seconds but not more than a minute and half. Strength gains can be tracked very easily and come quickly."
Pratt speaks from three decades of industry experience as well as personal experience, having left behind a long-distance running habit and many years of vegetarianism to adopt SuperSlow and a Paleo-style diet. She's also a nutritional therapist, working as a health coach for Dr. Douglas Swanson locally and operating her own business, Healthy Determination.
She cites many of SuperSlow's benefits as key to overall health, not just nailing a hot bod and show muscles.
"With diabetes so prevalent today," she says, "SuperSlow is powerful in affecting the metabolism and helping regulate blood sugar."
The workout directly targets fast-twitch muscle fibers, which store high quantities of glucose. McGuff — who, despite the bad porn name, is a full-time emergency-room physician with credentials from the University of Texas Medical School at San Antonio — says that when we recruit these, we create the stimulus to grow more muscle while enlarging its "glucose storage reservoir." That enhances insulin sensitivity — a good thing, since insulin resistance is the bad thing that precedes diabetes.
It's all about how your body handles blood sugar, which is "aggressively" emptied out of muscle cells in a high-intensity workout.
McGuff says people who adopt SuperSlow often see an improvement in adrenal function, too. More occasional workouts encourage the release of helpful human growth hormones — which we naturally lose as we age, but can defend via high-intensity exercise — instead of overtaxing the adrenal gland and having it release too much cortisol.
Meanwhile, McGuff says SuperSlow beats aerobic activities like long-distance running because "long, slow, distance-type exercise can actually cause your intermediate and fast-twitch fibers to begin to atrophy."
"What the steady-state activity does is, it trains the plasticity out of your physiologic system," he reports. "That ability to handle widely varying levels of exertion within a short span of time gets trained away. You actually make yourself less plastic and less adaptable to physical stress in general."
Though McGuff hosts a bevy of supporting SuperSlow information at drmcguff.com, and other health-industry names (like supplement slinger Dr. Joseph Mercola) also endorse high-intensity training, not everyone in the medical community finds it the be-all and end-all workout. Dr. Edward Laskowski, on the Mayo Clinic's website, says that "research hasn't shown SuperSlow training to be superior to other forms of strength training," though he does concede that it's a "reasonable tool" to vary routines and "help prevent boredom."
That said, I've found it to be superior to any strength training I've done. Though I hit full fatigue, with a thumping heartbeat and rubbery limbs post-effort, I'm never sore the next day, like I was consistently in the three-sets-of-10 world. And I've made significant personal gains in both strength and musculature. (Insert cat-call here.) Plus, I've gained many valuable hours back in my week not driving to a gym for much-longer sessions.
Hoo... ah, I don't think so.
McGuff would say I'm "utilizing my body as it was designed to be used." Pratt can point to my strength gains and physique. But for me, it's just an unquestionable feeling within my body from week to week. SuperSlow's the right fit for keeping me fit.