"Slower." Trainer Blair Wilson repeats this word at least 100 times a day -- he is cool, calm and collected as he coaches clients through their workouts. But my arms are shaking under the weight, I'm forgetting to breathe and my face has gone red -- all because Wilson is making me extend my triceps as slowly as possible, while holding up an almost-unmanageable weight load.
"The concept is to do a movement as slowly as possible while sustaining the heaviest possible weight," explains Wilson, owner of MedX Precision Fitness, a downtown Toronto gym built around the philosophy of once-a-week training. The MedX training program uses a low number of reps and heavy weights with the goal of recruiting and stimulating as many muscle fibres as possible with every repetition. So although my arms are already burning on the first rep, at least I know I'll only have to extend about three times to maximize my workout -- and I'll be in and out of the gym in 20 minutes.
The benefits of maintaining and building muscle mass with this type of resistance training are numerous, says Rebecca MacPherson, PhD Candidate at the Centre for Muscle Metabolism and Biophysics at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ontario. Benefits include strengthening connective tissues such as tendons, preserving and enhancing metabolic rate, improving bone density, improving glucose tolerance and insulin sensitivity, lowering risk of injury, improving balance and enhancing strength, endurance, speed, power and agility.
The Pros Of Slow-Mo
MacPherson says the MedX training program offers two important benefits. "First, by using a heavier load, you recruit more motor units," she says. "Second, and most important, is that lower rep sets are shorter and more time efficient."
The sessions are pricey -- $85 each, or $400 for five, but I have the gym to myself and Wilson coaches me through each agonizing rep. He also tracks my progress and determines the weights I should be lifting, removing the guesswork. And I'm not the only satisfied client -- he boasts an 80 per cent retention rate, an unheard-of figure for most standard gym memberships.
"The low force, slow or motionless protocol stimulates all three muscle fibre types -- slow, immediate and fast-twitch," says Wilson. "The exercise is intense enough to involve all of the available fibres and therefore must be brief." MedX uses a "time under load" method of recording how long it takes muscles to fatigue during a set, allowing for better tracking of muscular strength and endurance. He says the body needs anywhere from six to 14 days to recover, making it a perfect choice for those already struggling to find time to hit the gym.
A Growing Trend
Going harder and faster at the gym in a short amount of time to get better results is a growing trend. Along with the recent success of HIIT (high-intensity interval training), the MedX training proves that sometimes you really can get more done in less time. A recent study published in the American Journal of Human Biology reveals that high-intensity exercise is actually more beneficial than traditional endurance training when it comes to cardiovascular disease prevention.
"To maximally stimulate muscle growth you need to create as much fatigue and damage to a muscle as possible," says MacPherson. "Taking a set to the point of muscle failure ensures that this set was as productive as it can be. This would ensure that the muscle fibres have been recruited and fatigued."
However, she stresses that all bodies respond differently and that it is important to discuss your fitness goals with a physician before starting any new exercise program. "There are different types of people, ones who respond to volume, ones who respond to intensity, and ones who respond to training variety," she says. "The fact is that both low and high volume training have their own pros and cons and can be used effectively given the right circumstances."
Although I was skeptical at first, there was nothing slow about seeing results. I noticed a difference after only the third session, when I stood up with my hands on my quads and felt a hard muscle respond, a noticeable difference to what had felt rather squishy just weeks before. My arms not only look more sculpted but have increased in strength, which improved dramatically over two months of sessions. Lucky for me, and anyone else pressed for time, this actually works. And I'll take once-a-week agony over repetitive gym sessions any day.