Lift Slow to Get Fit Fast?

Can you get results in 20 minutes a week? Here's what the experts say.

By Barbara Russi Sarnataro
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Feature

Reviewed By Charlotte Grayson, MD

How about this for an exercise resolution: "I promise to lift weights once a week for 20 minutes."

Sound like a pledge you could keep?

According to Adam Zickerman, author of Power of 10: The Once-a-Week Slow Motion Fitness Revolution, 20 minutes of very slow weight training weekly is all the exercise you need to burn calories, build bone density, and stay fit.

Twenty minutes a week is a much less intimidating commitment than the standard recommendation of at least three days of cardiovascular exercise and two days of strength training. But does it work?

Many in the fitness industry are skeptical, saying that the short weight workouts are so intense that people have a hard time sticking with them, and are likely to cause soreness. They also take exception with the idea that exercising once a week is enough and that aerobic exercise isn't necessary to stay fit.

But some who have used the Power of 10 workout are convinced it works for them.

Last November, 50-year-old Gail Markels of New York was diagnosed with osteopenia (thinning of the bones). She was working out with weights, but she didn't think she was challenging herself enough to get good results. In September, she started doing the Power of 10 fitness program with a trainer.

"In three months, I built up 4% bone mass in my hip and 2% in my wrist," Markels says. "I think the difference was this program. It's the only thing that really made a difference."

Unfortunately, she also lost 2% bone density in her spine. She's now concentrating on exercises to strengthen her back and believes she will reverse that.

The workout, she says, is very challenging but not impossible. Having a trainer helps her to stick to it.

"It's exhausting, and you're thinking, 'How am I going to get through it?' But I've got a kid in college and I want to be around to see my grandchildren. You do what you've got to do to stay fit and healthy."

How It Works

The program is simple, says Zickerman, ACSM, owner of InForm Fitness, a center that specializes in slow-cadence strength training.

"It is lifting weights very slowly to maximize muscle fatigue, the goal being muscle failure. As we quip, 'Failure is success.' Muscle failure is the key to stimulating muscle growth."

Power of 10 is based on the premise that eliminating momentum from an exercise forces the muscle to do all the work. Because the muscle is never able to rest, fatigue comes faster. When muscles are brought to failure during strength training, tiny tears occur, creating blood flow to the site, which helps build the muscle.

The protocol is to lift the weight with a 10-second cadence -- 10 seconds up and 10 seconds down -- "until you hit that wall," says Zickerman. At this slow pace, muscles will "fail" somewhere between five and eight repetitions. When you cannot complete another repetition with perfect form, you're finished.

A Power of 10 workout lasts 20-25 minutes; includes five to seven exercises hitting all the major muscle groups; and can be done using free weights or machines.

Zickerman says you can do the program as much as twice a week, but only once a week is needed for results. For a time-starved society, this sounds like a fitness solution like no other.

A New Twist on an Old Idea

Power of 10 has been getting some press, with celebrity clients like newswomen Lesley Stahl and Barbara Walters, but the slow-weight-training concept is not new.

Orlando, Fla., trainer Ken Hutchins developed a method he called "SuperSlow" in 1982. He was leading a study with a group of elderly women with osteoporosis. When using his standard weightlifting protocol (two seconds up and four seconds down), Hutchins became concerned about the women's erratic form. He decided to change things, and eventually came up with the premise of SuperSlow. Using light weights, and slow, steady movements, the women made dramatic gains in strength.

Wayne L. Westcott, PhD, fitness research director at the South Shore YMCA in Quincy, Mass., was intrigued. He studied two of Hutchins' groups. In each, 75 people tackled the SuperSlow program for eight weeks (in 1993) and 10 weeks (in 1999). Westcott compared the SuperSlow group with a group that did traditional weight training, lifting for two seconds and lowering for two. The SuperSlow group did only five repetitions, while the comparison group did 10. In both studies, the SuperSlow groups saw strength gains at least 50% greater than the group doing traditional weight training.

"There no research...that says one strength training workout a week will increase cardiovascular strength."