ORLANDO, Fla. -- Exercise has slowly - very slowly - changed Jan Love's life.
After breaking her neck and arm in an automobile accident, the 80-year-old Orlando woman was determined to recover. Though she underwent physical therapy, the exercises she learned failed to help restore much neck mobility.
Frustrated, Love decided to try SuperSlow training, which she had seen advertised in a local newspaper. Less than a year later, she can move her head and neck freely. "I have a few kinks here and there," she says, "but this keeps me going."
At the SuperSlow Zone Research Center in Altamonte Springs, Fla., clients such as Love work out with a trainer in sessions of 30 minutes or less using four to six machines, each of which targets a group of muscles. Though the workouts might look a lot like a traditional weight-training session, speed makes the difference in SuperSlow. Repetitions are done at a crawl, with weights raised and lowered in 10-second phases until the targeted muscles reach "momentary muscular failure." Then exercisers push on for an extra 10 seconds, which serves to build lean muscle.
In contrast, traditional lifting usually is executed at a speed of about two seconds up and four seconds down, says Dr. John Dobson, who teaches exercise physiology at the University of Florida in Gainesville.
The SuperSlow training regimen was developed by Ken Hutchins and his wife, Brenda, based on their observations during a 1982 osteoporosis study at the University of Florida. Though the study was unfinished, they observed that slow, less-numerous repetitions could build lean muscle without the risk of injury associated with traditional and high-velocity weight-training methods. Since developing the program, they have trained clients of all ages, including those with Parkinson's disease, multiple sclerosis and diabetes.
The brief workouts, performed on specially designed Nautilus equipment under supervision of a trainer, can be done once or twice a week to achieve results, Hutchins says.
That's plenty, says Love, who has slowly increased her strength, stamina, range of motion and stability under Hutchins' coaching.
Love has been training with Hutchins for more than a year, and from the looks of it, the workout's reputation for being intense is well-deserved. She reclines slightly, knees bent, on a leg-press machine, the soles of her feet flat against the vertical platform in front of her. Then Hutchins fastens and tightens a web belt around her upper thighs.
"Moderate pressure," he instructs. Love presses against the belt with her thighs as if determined to break through it. Then Hutchins kicks it up a notch. "Almost as hard as you dare," he urges Love, who begins to perspire and breathe hard from the exertion. A few seconds later, he asks for even more. "As hard as you dare," he orders crisply. Love responds by pressing against the belt so hard that it leaves grooves in her skin when Hutchins removes it.
After the isometric exercises, Love slowly presses back with her legs, making the seat of the machine glide backward. At the count of 10, she arrives at the top of her range, then takes 10 more seconds to slide back. After completing a handful of repetitions, she climbs off the machine and moves to the next. Less than 20 minutes and four machines later, she's finished. "My knees are buckling," she says with a laugh.
Research into the advantages of such training is scant and not standardized, with studies often yielding contradicting findings. "We do know that slow motion can enhance your strength," UF's Dobson says. "We just don't know if it's better than traditional lifting. Unfortunately, it's very difficult to get a consensus out of the [limited] studies. ... There's still a lot we don't know."
Slow training, however, might not be for everyone. "You really have to train in a way that is comparable to the desired outcome," Dobson says. For instance, an Olympic weightlifter would train with speed. "You won't be able to lift the weight if you don't do it quickly." On the other hand, because slow lifting enhances stability, the elderly especially stand to reap its benefits.
The bottom line: "I would say the most important thing to do is to be physically active. If getting into SuperSlow is fun and you're active, if you find it's your particular preference to get involved in and exercise, then you should do whatever it takes."
For Love, there's no question that slow is the way to go. "It'll never be perfect," she says of her neck, "but every day is gravy."
Lisa Roberts writes for the Orlando (Fla.) Sentinel.