Last week I put together an article on High Intensity Super Slow Training. This is a type of strength training popularised by Doug McGuff in his book Body By Science, it involves 15-20minutes of training a week, total. And – if done properly (more on this later) - the results are profound. Increased muscle mass, decreased fat levels, improved health markers and cardio fitness, not to mention significant strength gains.
At least these are the claims made by HIT strength training proponents. But how does it work in the real world? Especially with someone (myself) who has tried all sorts of training techniques over the years and responds well to higher volume training protocols.
Is 15 minutes of training a week enough to achieve beneficial performance and aesthetic results? Is it even a practical way to train?
I wanted to find out, so 9 months ago (November 2015) I decided to begin an experiment. 9 months later I reveal my results.
(note – if you have no idea what HIT or Super Slow training is – please read this article first - Super Slow High Intensity Training: Is 15 minutes of Strength Training A Week Enough? Also, HIT – High Intensity Training – is different to HIIT – High Intensity INTERVAL Training).
Also, if you are looking for me to build you a body by science HIT program head to THIS page.
Firstly, before I share my results, I need to explain my ‘starting point’. I am a 28 year old male who has been strength training for 8 years now. During that time, I have squatted 245kg, broken powerlifting records, won bodybuilding competitions, tipped the scales at 105kg at ~12% body fat and have spent far too many hours inside a gym!
I have done all types of training, 5/3/1, various bodybuilding programs, starting strength, 5x5, metcon type workouts, full body, split routines etc etc etc.
Let’s just say I have a solid starting point when it comes to strength training!
But all of this training has been at a moderate to high volume – 2 or 3 sessions a week, up to 6 or 7 sessions a week. Some sessions lasting up to 3 hours in my powerlifting day. I responded pretty well to higher volume (despite the negative health effects). So I was rather apprehensive as to how I would go on 15minutes of training a week…
Personally, I expected to waste away to nothing in a matter of weeks!
Unfortunately, I didn’t take a body fat reading with my Skulpt at the start date, but I have a picture taken around that time.mI was sitting at around 95kgs, and I’d say I was 12% body fat +/- a few points.
Pre Experiment - Me around 95kgs after years of high volume 'conventional' strength training
My routine was based around Doug McGuffs Body By Science Program.
This involved performing the ‘big 5’ routine once a week for the first few months.
The big 5 includes 5 key lifts:
Yes these are a bit different to your usual big 5 lifts (squats, rows, deadlifts, presses, chins etc), but this is all explained in this article.
That same article also explains tempo, timing and all the other intricacies. So I recommend reading that if you haven’t already OR checking out this video:
The idea behind each workout is to take the targeted muscle to absolute failure by moving in a slow (6-10 second) manner, without locking out/taking the load off the muscle. You then record the weight and the time under load (TUL). Next time you train you aim to use this same weight and exceed the TUL. Once the TUL exceeded 3 minutes then it’s time to increase the weight.
1 set to failure. No rest between exercises. No warmup needed. Super slow tempo (The first inch should take 3 seconds). Job done in 15 minutes.
After a few months I then switched to a 3 workout split, so I now had an A and B workout,
Workout A was:
Workout B was:
Yes, this now meant the whole workout was completed in 10 minutes. And yes, you do 1 session a week. So week 1 you perform A, 7 days later you do B, 7 days after that A… This is what I did for 9 months. 3 months using the big 5, 3 months A/B split, then 3 months Big 5.
Along with this, I performed a short interval sprint session every fortnight (5x 6 seconds sprint with 1-minute rest). Oh, and even though you’re meant to do 1 HIT session a week, some weeks I went up to 14 days between sessions, other times I did them only 5 days apart.
It has now been 9 months and I have been following this protocol religiously. To answer the billion-dollar question – does it work? The answer is yes, but there are a few ‘catches’. All of which I’m going to explain below.
Here were my key results:
I lost about 4kgs of mass in this 9-month period.
Now I need to point out that I am always playing around with my diet, and I wasn’t even trying to keep a steady diet during this period. In fact, during this 9 month experiment I starting doing a lot of fasting, including a few 24 – 72 hour fasts.
I also did 2 super strict elimination/reintroduction diets in this 9 month period. Both which took 45 days to complete and invovled extremely restrictive diets. And finally, in the last few weeks I started doing a strict nutritional ketosis diet.
My point here is simple – my food intake was all over the place, I wasn’t eating to maintain mass or put on mass. I didn’t really care how I looked and my diet was driven by health reasons not aesthetic or performance reasons. I personally think if I was eating to excess (or even my normal diet) during this 9 month period that I would have maintained and maybe even put on size.
9 months after HIT training - plus a lot of diet changes as well. Still plenty of mass!
Remember, I used to train on average 4-5x a week, each session lasting 45-90minutes. Now I had all this extra time in the week. It was great, I focused on writing articles, building my business, fixing health issues etc.
Again, this is heavily influenced by diet. But at the end of the 9 month period I was just over 90kgs and sitting at 10% body fat. I stayed lean the whole time I was on this program.
My Skulpt Aim had me at just under 10% Body Fat post experiment
This was the biggest surprise. In may 2016 (7 months of HIT training) I attended PaleoFx in Texas. They had a 3 day Fittest Man of Paleo Fx competition. I had heard about this but given the fact that I hadn’t any true strength training (I hadn’t performed 1 deadlift or squat all year!), and my fitness base would be non-existent (at least I thought) I decided I would skip this competition and enjoy the occasion instead.
Well not only did I end up entering, I ended up WINNING the whole event!! Beating some pretty serious athletes. There were a lot of CrossFit and obstacle racing athletes (including the uber fit Ben Greenfield), and somehow I came out on top.
The events that made up this competition included Deadlifts for reps, 40 yard dash sprints, leg and chest strength tests, rowing intervals, agility exercises, vertical leap, chin ups and a medicine ball throw.
Remember, for the 6 months prior I had only been using machines for 15minutes a week. I hadn’t done any ‘compound’ lefts, let alone the 60 odd 95kg deadlifts in 2 minutes!
You can read more about this event and my story in this article - Less Is More - How Slowing Down Improved Health & Performance
Winning this event made me realise that there really was something to this HIT training!
So those were the results, and I’m sure you would agree that they were rather significant. But before you ditch your 5x5 routine and free up 3 hours of training a week, it’s important to realise that there are a few crucial factors when it comes to HIT training. I’ve listed these below.
The goal is to keep tension on the muscle for 90sec-3minutes. If you go over this, the weight was too light - next time increase it, if you don't last 90seconds, next time decrease it.
In regards to keeping track of progress, either you or your PT or training partner need to record the TIME and the WEIGHT used for each exercise. It may be 100kg (or Pin #16) on the stack, for 120seconds. You need to record this somewhere (paper or notepad etc)
Next time you train aim to INCREASE the time while keeping the weight the same. So you would aim for 130seconds at 100kg etc. Once you hit 180seconds, then increase the weight next session.
It’s important to use a well-designed machine. The reason why machines trump free weights with this type of training is due to the targeted load on the muscle.
However, not all machines are designed well. Ideally you would use a machine that keeps a consistent force on the muscle, avoiding any ‘sticking points’ or ‘easy spots’. If you are doing a leg press and it’s very challenging at the start, but then very easy at the end of the lift, then you’re not getting the best result. Sure it’s still useable, but you’ll find you’ll want to hurry through the tough part and spend more time in the easy phase of the lift.
Likewise with machines that have sticking points, perhaps half way through the chest press it gets very hard. You find you fail here every time, but if you do get through this sticking point then you feel like you have more reps in you. Again, there is nothing you can do about this, but in an ideal world you would use a machine that has been designed to have an even force load.
Nautilus and Med X machines are the best for this. However, there are some newer machines hitting the market that do an even better job.
While attending PaleoFx I was fortunate enough to meet the developers of the ARX machine. I learnt all about this revolutionary piece of equipment. The next day I spent a few extremely intense seconds on an ARX.
The ARX allows you to set the tempo – no matter how hard you push the tempo is fixed. The magic of the ARX is that it pushes back against you with an perfectly matched force.
This from ARX:
There is no need to set the resistance while using ARX; the machine only applies perfect resistance to what the user is giving at each moment in time. The machine moves the handles or foot pads at the selected speed during the positive and negative regardless of how hard a user exerts. The difficulty is determined entirely by the user which is measured and displayed by the software in real-time.
The great thing about this is that the muscle is taken to 100% at all angles. And even better, you can apply even more force in the eccentric phase (as you are stronger in the eccentric phase of a lift). So no longer are you limited to how much you can lift in the concentric, the ARX will take you to 100% effort at every stage of your lift.
The best analogy is this – imagine a chest press machine that is designed in a way so the weight is changing in real time – every millimetre you press the weight forward, it adjusts based on your strength at the new position. Then, on the way back down (eccentric) it loads up even more weight and now you have to resist this weight in a controlled manner.
Let’s just say that these machines are brutally tough and amazingly effective for HIT training! There is even a video of someone using the ARX with a big 5 workout routine that you can see here.
Technically you could do a HIT session using bodyweight only. I did a few of these when travelling or when I wanted to train outdoors in the sun. But for the same reasons that compound lifts aren’t the best for HIT Training, bodyweight exercises fall short as well.
There is a great video by James Steele showing how a HIT session can be done soley using bodyweight:
Again, it’s better than nothing, but compared to a machine HIT session you will feel like you were short changed.
A HIT session needs to be seen as one giant ‘set’. It starts with the first exercise and only ends once you have finished the last exercise. There is no talking between sets, no watching tv or getting distracted. It’s critical that you move immediately to the next exercise and begin that. As I mentioned above, a total session should only take 10-20minutes.
HIT sessions are brutally tough. Not only do they take the muscle to failure, they create a large amount of stress on the central nervous system – again assuming you have done it properly. You cannot expect to do these sessions multiple times a week. You can try, but your numbers will plateau and go backwards.
Even attempting to do 2 sets in the same session is unwise. I hear of stories where individuals started lifting a weight that was far to heavy for them. After 45seconds they have hit failure. They then decide to redo it at a lighter weight, again they fail within seconds. This isn’t because they had the wrong weight, instead it was simply due to the fact that they had burnt through all their matches. You literally get one shot at each lift. Remember this.
I am a big fan of tracking recovery, I use the readiness score on my Oura Ring (read my review HERE) combined with my HRV score. If these are off I know I haven’t recovered. I found that it usually took me 4-5 days for my body to be back to 100%. Adding on an extra day or two made sure that I was truly ‘recovered’.
Tracking my recovery and readiness score with my OURA Ring
If you’re doing HIT training, then do it properly. Do once session a week, and skip all other weight training sessions. Remember, if your TUL numbers aren’t improving then you haven’t recovered from your previous session.
If you were thinking ‘this all sounds too good to be true, what’s the catch’, then this is it: HIT training hurts. Big time.
To reap all the benefits, you need to do these sessions properly, and that means taking the muscle to absolute failure, which in turn means pain. Lots of it.
It’s very easy to cheat during a HIT set – you can briefly lock out on a row and take the load off the muscle, you can use momentum to get through the hard part of the lift, you can wriggle your positioning in a seat to bring in some other muscle tissue etc. etc. But all you are doing is cheating yourself.
When you go into a HIT set you need to think ‘what is the muscle I am trying to work’, and then make that muscle hurt. It’s really as simple as that.Your previous TUL times will keep you honest, if you did 2minutes at 90kg last week, that means you are aiming to exceed that time this week. If you only get to 1minute 30seconds, then you know you either weren’t recovered enough or you didn’t push hard enough.
I believe I have a ton of willpower and self-discipline. However, there were sessions when even I caved too soon, finding an excuse to stop early for example.
I noticed that when I trained my coaching clients with HIT sessions they often reached a point of ‘I can’t do it any more’, only for me to encourage them on for another 10 or 20 seconds. Having someone present when doing these lifts helps. Big time.
Hopefully now you have a better understanding of HIT / Super slow training and you’re probably thinking ‘this is cool, I want to try it’ or ‘what a lock of crock’.
Fair enough, I was initially in the latter camp and then swung to the curious state of mind. Eventually I decided to jump in and give it a go, and the rest as they say is history. Now that I have a bit of experience with HIT training (both with myself and with my clients) I think that everyone could benefit from this type of training, but it may not be ideal for everyone.
What do I mean?
Well, it’s a handy training tool to have – if you’re ever travelling and only want to do one full body session in a week, then this is it.
If you want to maintain strength and minimise time (whether you are training for other sports or simply busy with life) this is it.
However, if you’re training for something specific like Olympic Weightlifting, or powerlifting, then HIT wouldn’t be the best tool. Simply because those sports require specific movements that need to be trained and developed. Obviously I found that there was a ton of carry over between my HIT training and deadlifting, but would I be able to go and break a personal best using this training? I don’t know.
As for hypertrophy – could you put on muscle training this way? I don’t see why not? In fact, some of my corporate coaching clients have put on muscle while using this protocol. The training creates a stress on the muscle, it creates lactic acid build-up and fatigues the muscle fibres. All things required for growing muscle. Would it be the best way to build muscle though? I’m not sure.
Whenever I’m busy in life and just need a quick gym session to maintain strength, HIT will be my go to training session. Likewise, if I’m travelling or on holiday.
However, I personally enjoy lifting big weights and following my Size & Strength Program. There is something about lifting heavy that I love. Sure you can lift lots of weight using the HIT approach, but it’s not the same as picking up 250kg of bar bending iron plates from the floor!
I would question whether I could continue doing HIT for a long period – the pain levels are extreme, and some sessions I went into the gym in a state of anxiety (though this was true with some rowing sessions, powerlifting sessions and bodybuilding sessions), and it may get rather monotonous over time. Though I survived 9 months and only stopped because I thought up a new experiment…
Finally, I think specificity is a big factor in successful training. I have recently decided to get back into competitive sports (can you guess which one?). For this reason, I have stopped HIT training to focus on my new sport’s training (and another big experiment which I will write all about in 6-9 month’s time!)
But I am extremely glad I did this 9-month experiment. It allowed me to maintain my strength & muscle mass in a time where I was extremely time poor. Also, I now have another tool in my training bag, which is always a good thing – especially if you’re a coach!
If you have any questions about HIT training or my experiment please post them below. If you're looking for a body by science training program head to THIS page.
Otherwise if you want to learn more about High Intensity Training - whether you are a personal trainer, a coach or simply someone who wants to benefit from this type of training, then I recommend the content over at HITUni.com
Click HERE to learn more.
This blog post was written by Alex Fergus. Alex is an ISSN Sports Nutrition Specialist, Fitness Professional and certified Superhuman Coach who continues to expand his knowledge base and help people across the world with their health and wellness. Alex is recognized as the National Record Holder in Powerlifting and Indoor Rowing and has earned the title of the Australian National Natural Bodybuilding Champion. Having worked as a health coach and personal trainer for over a decade, Alex now researches all things health and wellness and shares his findings on this blog. Learn more about Alex's Credentials HERE.
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