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.
Still, Westcott, a former track coach and regular runner, says SuperSlow is no magic bullet. The workout, he says, is just too hard.
"I wasn't surprised because I had done this myself for nine months before we did the study so I knew it was very effective," says Westcott. "But I didn't like it; it didn't fit my personality. And I could tell throughout the study that (the subjects) absolutely hated it as well."
In both studies, he says, only one out of 75 participants actually stuck with the program after the study was over.
Is It Enough?
Slow-motion programs are "tough mentally because they don't feel very good," says exercise physiologist Dan Agresti, owner of ProActive Health and Fitness, based in Denver. "It's difficult to sustain that for any period of time. The dropout rate is quite high."
And consistency is all-important in an exercise program, he says. "It's not magic," he says. "All it is, is a consistent change in lifestyle.
Very slow weight workouts also carry a risk of injury, he says.
For one thing, he says, beginning exercisers may be likely to hold their breath when working that hard. That can be dangerous, particularly for someone with high blood pressure.
Further, "the soreness factor is going to be very high," Agresti says. "When you're dealing with large eccentric contractions, the results are a lot of soreness."
Not only that, Westcott says, strength training by itself leaves out a very important part of overall fitness -- aerobic exercise.
"There no research of any kind that says one strength training workout a week will increase cardiovascular strength," says Westcott. And since heart disease is a leading cause of death and disability in this country, he says, "it behooves all Americans to have cardiovascular strength."
Zickerman, who was a swimmer and baseball player in college, insists he's not anti-cardio. His premise is that many people overtrain with cardio exercise. When that happens, he says, the body goes into energy conservation mode -- storing fat and calories and breaking down muscle.
"Your body doesn't understand exercise to be exercise, it understands it to be a threat to its survival," Zickerman says. "With a small dose like Power of 10, the reaction is to build up.
"Sometimes (the Power of 10) sounds too good to be true because people think of exercise as a way of burning calories," he says. "They shouldn't look at exercise as a way of burning calories because with cardio, when it's over, that's when the calorie burning stops."
But strength training builds muscles, and muscle burns more calories all the time, says Zickerman: "You're raising your metabolism, so the muscles burn the calories for you."
Zickerman is quick to point out that the slow weight-lifting technique is only one pillar of his total program. The other two are proper nutrition, and rest and recovery.
Other experts say that it's true that muscle burns more calories than fat, but that's not the whole picture.
"I always go back to the equation: calories in, calories out," says Agresti. People doing only the once-weekly workout would "never burn a sufficient number of calories to put them in a deficit fully.''
'The Most Efficient Workout'
Don't tell that to Amy Birnbaum, a mother of two from Long Island, N.Y., who says Zickerman's program has taken years off her looks.
"It's the most efficient workout you're ever going to do," says Birnbaum, who adds that she's never had a serious problem with soreness.
Birnbaum has always been into fitness. She's tried it all, from yoga and Pilates to running and aerobics. Her husband turned her on to the Power of 10 workout when she was looking for something new.
"I'm 44 and things are starting to hang a little," she says. "I wanted to tone up and not bulk up. This, muscularly, puts everything back where it was. "
Birnbaum, who has been working with Zickerman for a year, is happy not only with the way her body looks, but with how she feels after her sessions.
"I feel so relaxed afterwards," she says. "I've burnt off all that nervous energy. When you work hard, you expel that anxiety."
Perhaps that's why she's willing to drive the 50 minutes into Manhattan once a week for her lesson.
"For this program to be effective, I almost think you need to have a personal trainer to do it with," says Westcott. "It's just too difficult to work that hard on your own."
Published Jan. 4, 2005.
SOURCES: Adam Zickerman, ACSM, fitness consultant; author, Power of 10: The Once-a-Week Slow Motion Fitness Revolution; owner, InForm Fitness. Gail Markels, New York. Wayne L. Westcott, PhD, fitness research director, South Shore YMCA, Quincy, Mass. Dan Agresti, exercise physiologist; owner, ProActive Health and Fitness, Denver. Amy Birnbaum, Long Island, N.Y.
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