The safest way to build muscle quickly is to do resistance exercise very slowly. When I say slow, I mean 2 – 3 repetitions per minute. That’s why it’s called Super Slow. This kind of exercise makes Tai Chi look fast.
Which exercises? Really any normal strength move. Let’s say you like to do bicep curls with a dumbbell. First thing to know is that any exercise you select is much harder to do when you go slow. Because of that, you will want to start with about half the weight you are used to lifting.
Why is it harder? Because the way a muscle works uses energy at three stages: First, energy is used to release the bonds between the hundreds of individual muscle fibers. Then, energy is used to shorten those muscles fibers. Next, the fibers have to bond again to one another in a shortened position. This cycle repeats until the movement is completed. When you lift at a normal speed, these energy-intensive bondings, contractions and un-bondings happen just a few times as the muscle contracts through the full range of motion. The slower you contract your muscle, the more times the muscle has to un-bond, contract and re-bond to go through the full range of motion. A single, super-slow bicep curl is much more work that several quicker ones because you get no benefit from momentum or speed. It can be the same effort as ten “normal” repetitions.
Why is this better than just lifting heavier or more repetitions? Because injuries happen when connective tissue is rapidly stretched. It’s hard to hurt yourself when you go slow. Compare a very smooth, slow lift with jerking the dumbbell up using momentum from hip movement to get started. That sudden acceleration can tear tendons and ligaments. The initial acceleration also gets the weight up into the mid range of the bicep contraction where the muscle is strongest. Lifting slowly from a dead hang forces the muscle to work in a disadvantageous position.
Another benefit of slow is that it gives you time to focus on your form. As noted above, going slow encourages you to go through the full range of motion, working on the more difficult parts of your exercise. Another element I try to create in strength training is to add some kind of instability. This trains balance, coordination and almost always recruits the abdominal muscles. In the case of a bicep curl while standing and holding the dumbbell in your right hand, bend and lift your left leg so that your foot is resting on a stability ball. The resulting instability will require you to recruit a lot of other postural muscles.
You can understand now why it’s important to start out with a lighter weight that you usually lift. So what if your preferred exercise is pushups? How do you lift less weight? You can start by doing your pushups against a counter. As you get better, try lifting one foot off the ground to create instability. As your strength improves, you may end up doing pushups in a standard plank position on the floor, but with one foot resting on a soccer ball to create instability. Try doing two of those per minute. Trust me, it’s a challenge.
That brings me to the high intensity part of this type of training. When you are comfortable with the form of your exercise, you want to make it increasingly more difficult until you reach your desired level of fitness. My strategy is to only do any one exercise for a minute. That’s all, one minute. I don’t have a lot of time to devote to exercise, so I want to make the most of the time I have. To get the most out of exercise, I do what’s called “one minute to failure”, meaning that I am giving my maximum effort to the point that I can just barely finish the minute without collapsing.
So there you have it. Super slow, high-intensity strength training. Safe, quick and effective.