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Slow-burn exercises promote fitness by making the most of brief workouts

By Vicky Hallett
Thursday, December 17, 2009

Santa manages to wiggle up and down millions of chimneys in a single night, but somehow throughout the holiday season we avoid visiting the gym even once. It's not that we mean to be naughty, but between the stocking-stuffing, candle-lighting and party-hopping, we forget that it's not just the tree that could use some trimming. Besides, there's simply not enough time, right?

Good luck trying that excuse at Exercise Defined, a gym in the District's Palisades neighborhood with an unusual fitness philosophy: Slow down to work out fast. Clients are advised to come in no more than twice a week for sessions that max out at 30 minutes, which is how long it takes to complete five or six exercises.

"It's referred to as 'slow burn' or 'super slow.' Twenty seconds would be an ideal repetition. And hopefully, you're not on any one machine for more than three minutes," explains trainer Courtney Manuel, who boasts that she works out only once a week to maintain her toned, size-0 bod. (She, by the way, hasn't seen a drop-off in appointments over the holidays and is booked solid for Christmas Eve.)

The catch -- and you knew there had to be a catch -- is that although the pace is leisurely, the feeling is anything but. "Nobody that works out here tells you it's fun," she warns before we enter the gym, which looks like a torture chamber from a '70s-era sci-fi flick, thanks to loads of unfamiliar equipment in a white and tan color scheme.

So I'm pleased our first stop is what seems to be a run-of-the-mill lat-pulldown machine. That is, until Manuel sits me down, places a strip of foam across my lap and whips out a seat belt to buckle me in tight. She directs me to put my hands into straps with hooks so that I won't be able to grip the bar, and delivers one last round of instructions: "I want to see continuous movement. As the weight stack goes down, what we want is a slight tap and then a direction change."

On that first rep, I'm focused on pacing and keeping my breathing regular. But by No. 2, it's hard to think about anything other than the burning, which is the idea. By six reps, I'm at muscle failure, so it's time to move on. Next stop is the leg press, where I manage 10 reps before my butt gives up. "Too light!" Manuel declares. And so it goes for a few more machines until my entire body is wiped out.

The next morning, I ring Pete McCall, an exercise physiologist for the American Council on Exercise, to see what he thinks of super slow as a super-fast exercise strategy. "If you're fit and incredibly busy -- like a K Street attorney, and you know for the next month you're going to be slammed -- it would work," he says. But for most folks, he'd shy away from recommending the program, which can't really be done on your own and isn't "functional," the kind of exercise that prepares you for daily life. (He invokes the saying, "Train slow, be slow.")

However, McCall says anyone crunched for time should pay attention to the intensity of an Exercise Defined workout, since so many people spend hours at the gym without accomplishing much. "You want to have a plan and know exactly what you're doing today. Write it out," he says. Compound exercises (ones such as wood chops that activate the upper and lower body ) and circuit training (which raises the heart rate) are his standard suggestions for making the most of a quickie workout. McCall also supports that get-off-the-Metro-a-stop-early trick to walk more.

Another exercise physiologist giving thought to the time issue is Sean Foy, who once counseled clients that there was no point to working out if you couldn't devote an hour to it. "I used to be a 'no pain, no gain' guy. I can't believe I used to say that. We just need to move," says Foy, who's written "The 10-Minute Total Body Breakthrough" (Workman Publishing, 2009) to explain his 4-3-2-1 approach to exercise.

It's four minutes of high-energy aerobic training (HEAT), three minutes of resistance training, two minutes of core work and one minute of deep breathing and stretching. That may not sound like much, but for someone new to exercise, it's all Foy would recommend as a start.

HEAT is based on the principles of interval training -- think alternating every 30 seconds between marching and jumping jacks, or jogging in place and squat thrusts -- which boosts your metabolism more effectively than longer bouts of lower-intensity exercise. It's exhausting, but because it's over so fast, it's not too intimidating. "Feeling confident you can do it is huge," Foy adds.

You go straight from there into the resistance work with your heart rate still elevated, so you get even more out of the strength moves, such as wall squats and push-ups. Then the core segment devotes one minute to your abs and one to your back. "It's the quickest way to change your appearance, because it improves posture," Foy says.

When all you have is 10 minutes, setting aside one for something that doesn't burn calories might sound silly, but Foy says the breathing and stretching portion is key to recovery and relaxation -- things we could use a lot more of during the holidays. Plus, it's a way to get a quick rest before starting the circuit again if you can manage a second round. And, oh yeah, for advanced exercisers, he'd like to see you going for four.

"People ask me, 'Sean, are you tricking them to do 10 minutes so they'll do more?' Of course I'd love them to do more. But 10 minutes of movement is more activity than most Americans get," Foy says.

And you don't need to wait until you've nursed your New Year's hangover to get started.

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