Slow Weights: Get stronger bones and muscles without going for a workout

By April 30, 2015Exercise

In my recent articles on strength training, I emphasized the importance of developing good muscle function through natural, daily activities. Performing outdoor work that involves lifting, dragging or otherwise moving heavy objects would be considered an ideal human workout, fit for the strictest paleo enthusiast. This kind of physical activity, which strengthens bones, too, is something that most popular weight workouts can’t compete with.

We live in a hectic society that’s flooded with conveniences, and far removed from the natural, physically active life for which our genes are programmed. This distance from nature has given birth to the many workout programs designed to build muscle and strength using free weights, machines or other devices. But instead of mimicking natural movement, most of these approaches are more hype than help, with a high risk for injury or overtraining, including impairment of the fat-burning aerobic body we rely on for endurance, physical support and optimal health. These issues were addressed in parts 1 and 2.

Recently, I received a question that piqued my interest: Is there a way for the average active person to obtain the benefits of a natural outdoor workout at home, and improve muscle and bone strength?

The answer is yes. One way it can be accomplished is with slow weights.

This question also corresponded to some “down” time for me here in Arizona. Picking and packing peaches, and harvesting other food is not enough physical activity, and it’s too early in the year to drag logs to cut by hand into fire wood, and there is no need right now to put up stone walls or fences. The result is that I’m sitting here writing this article while strength training. That’s what I call slow weights.

The idea for this article came while I was lifting some heavy dumbbells, six reps alternating each arm. The amount of weight is about 80 percent of the maximum I could lift one time. After placing the weights back on the floor, I walked into the living room (more a music studio), over to my MacBook, and started writing.

Most active people have specified periods of time during the day or evening for working out, which includes the routine of changing clothes, getting into workout shoes and going to a predetermined location to run, bike, swim or lift weights. I do the same thing, although all my workouts are out the back door. The addition of a strength-training program to an endurance schedule is not always easy, and those who manage it often risk making an already busy day more stressful. This can defeat the purpose of exercise, and in those who compete, the possibility of impairing performance.

Some time later, I wandered over to do some pushups on the floor, followed by extension dips in one of the large stuffed chairs in the living room. I like mixing these two routines in with the free weights.

I’m not a fast writer, so getting this first draft written will take the better part of an afternoon. Plus, I don’t like sitting for very long. Interspersed throughout those few hours, without taking time out for an entire workout—yet getting one completed— literally, while on my way to and from making a smoothie, answering the phone, helping prepare and clean up after another meal—I’m lifting free weights. Gradually, in the course of the afternoon, my strength-training workout gets done—slow weights.

There’s no need to change clothes for slow weights, and no special shoes (I’m always barefoot). You do the weight workout as part of your day, just like you do other chores or activities. Because you’re only taking a few seconds for each set—lifting a weight six times or less—then going about your other business until you can do another set, you won’t sweat, get out of breath or need to sit and rest. How long you wait between sets is not important, as long it’s at least three minutes. But it can be an hour or two, or more.

No, this is not a hyped-up ad for ‘slow weights’ that one might see on late night TV, or in a popular magazine ad. This is very real, practical, simple and inexpensive (the set of free weights I have cost about $100) way to achieve long-term muscle and bone health.

Slow weights just sounded like a nice title for an article that describes how people can perform strength training efficiently and safely, mimicking a natural “paleo” workout, but without chopping wood or moving large stones. It’s a workout that could be performed easily on most days for most people, and within the framework of their existing schedule no matter how busy they may be.

The end result of slow weights is the same as if you went to the gym, but without the time and cost. Slow weights will strengthen your bones and muscles, but won’t build muscle bulk and add weight. And, unlike most weight training, this routine won’t interfere with aerobic function.

I have to admit that slow weights may not be quite as great a workout as the outdoor wood and stone routine, not as natural, and for me, not as much fun. But it’s good enough considering my heavy outdoor work is at a lull, and rather than no strength training, slow weights will carry me through until such time as I’m back outside doing some type of heavy work again.

For many people, slow weights can be their regular strength training routine. For busy people, it can be a real savings in time, stress and money. For competitive athletes, it can be a lifesaver—by not tacking on another workout to an already busy week, it may mean more time for recovery.

But when performing slow weights, like all other healthy workouts, don’t forget to bring your brain along: mindset is important. For example, don’t finish a stressful business phone call, then go to your weights and try to get your frustrations out. Instead, when you get to your weights, stop, close your eyes and take a deep breath, relax, be in the moment—focus on what you’re about to do, then do it.

For some people, performing slow weights during daytime hours might be difficult. Work schedules, carting the kids around, or combinations of important chores may not allow it. I don’t think some employers would welcome you bringing in a set of free weights to the job site. Although in many other cases, two small dumbbells on the floor in a nearby corner is a possibility.

The bottom line is that, for most people, perhaps two, three or more times during the seven-day week, slow weights can successfully be incorporated into the day or evening schedule, whether it’s at home or work. As little as two exercises of up to six reps and three sets, for example, would provide a significant workout.

Evening time is often a good option, when many people have two to three hours to incorporate slow weights. You can even start before dinner with something easy. I’m going to do some overhead lifts right now.

The fact is, most people have short periods of idle time when they’re sitting and staring, dabbling on the internet, watching TV or doing other activities where one can accommodate 10 seconds of lifting a weight. Or do them on the way to or from the bathroom, or when waiting for that email, text or phone call. Perform slow weights in the course of two, three or more hours in a day or throughout the evening and you have accomplished a powerful workout. Don’t be fooled by the apparent simplicity, or that fact that you won’t be sore.

Now I’ve just completed another dumbbell lift using my deltoids, performing five reps. It took about 30 seconds in all, including walking over to the weights, and back to write more of this article.

I’m not lifting slow—about one rep every second or two—but taking my time between reps, which may be five or ten minutes, or a half hour or more. Occasionally, I’ll go two or more hours between sets depending on the day’s schedule.

My typical slow weight weekly workout includes lifting three or four days (although sometime it’s five or six); each lift is about 80 percent of the maximum weight I can lift one time for that exercise; three to four sets each day (sometimes more); up to five or six repetitions per set; resting between sets is three minutes to an hour or two (or more).

If you’re new to strength training, be conservative in all aspects of slow weights, just like other exercise routines. Once you ramp up with regular workouts of three days a week or more, and get stronger, you can perform slow weights everyday if you want. Properly done, it won’t produce much, if any, soreness because you’re recovering so well after each set throughout the workout. And because of this, and you’re not lifting to fatigue or exhaustion, you don’t build bulk but strengthen both bones and muscles. As strength increases, add more weight rather than more reps or sets.

I would not recommend slow weights first thing in the morning. It’s best that you warm up your body first. This could be an easy aerobic workout such as a walk, run, bike or other activity. Or, if you’re physically active naturally, give your body a chance to warm up from these movements before going to the weights. Avoid doing slow weights right after an anaerobic workout since you’ll need that time and energy for recovery.

Below are some important points about slow weights. These are from the previous articles I wrote on strength training. Please read both these articles and the Forum discussion before starting this approach.

The important part of slow weights is to keep it simple and safe. At the least, you really only need to perform a couple of different lifting routines to sufficiently build muscle and bone strength throughout the body, but you can do more if you want. The two easiest and most effective ones include the dead lift and squat (front, overhead and or back). Here are some examples (and there are photos on the website):

  • Reps: 1-6 reps in each set.
  • Sets: 4 (more if time and energy permit).
  • Lifting should be done relatively fast.
  • Recovery between sets should be three minutes (timed), more if desired.
  • All movements should be smooth and natural.
  • As you get stronger, slowly increase the amount of weight, not the repetitions.
  • Three times per week or more.

The most important requirement for performing these workouts is that you are relatively fit and healthy. If you’re injured, have frequent colds, flu, asthma and allergies, or other indications of diminished health wait until you’ve resolved or improved these issues. In addition, if you don’t have a good aerobic system, developing this is the priority—perform easy aerobic training for three months or more before implementing a strength program. Also, if you’re on any medication—seek advice from a health professional.

When starting a strength program, even if you’re familiar with it, begin with less weight and less reps—be very conservative. Take several weeks to build up. There’s no rush. In many cases, use a barbell without added weight so you get used to the movements, then slowly add small amounts of weight every couple of weeks.

If you’re new to lifting weights, I recommend getting some one-on-one guidance from a trained professional who can help you with technique. This is very important.

Well, this is the end of the article, and I think it’s time for some healthy ice cream. But first, I’ve got just one moment to do another set on my way into the kitchen.

18 Comments

  • Aaron says:

    I’ve often wondered about this approach. With work and family it is difficult to carve out larger blocks of dedicated strength time ( where time exists I put it to 1-2 hr steep MAF hiking) and have naturally gravitated towards cutting firewood, digging soil, pushing wheelbarrows, dropping in the kitchen and doing pushups or a plank, squats and presses with 2×25# dumbells in the living room between stories to kids, plyometric jumps in the park etc. I’ve never been sure whether there is the same/similar/reduced/no training effect of distributing strength workouts across a whole day or even week. I’m glad you support this but do you have any further comment or reading on the efficacy of this? Makes sense to be but…

    • Aaron:

      I haven’t found a lot of literature on this except for the following:

      http://jap.physiology.org/content/98/1/93.short

      The study suggests that for strength-based exercises, it’s better to train twice a day every other day, than to train every day. (Not exactly what you were asking, but related). However, while I can’t quote you any studies, when you’re talking about neuromotor skill development (catching a ball, swinging a bat) it’s better to dramatically increase the frequency of practices while keeping the duration of each practice minimal: e.g. 15 5-minute practices per day.

      A lot of the skills you mention have a very high neuromotor threshold for competence—learning how to do push-ups (or digging) very well, is much more important for being able to do these skills at a high level, than is being “strong”. While you’ll certainly get strong doing them, these are overwhelmingly skill-based exercises (compared, for example, to deadlifting or squatting). While it’s important to have a very good skill foundation to excel in the latter exercises, improvement beyond that is contingent on more muscle power, rather than more skill. The opposite holds true for digging, chopping, etc.

  • Claire says:

    Ivan,

    I just wanted to make sure I understood what you are saying correctly…essentially strength training should always be done with weights because body weight exercises are skill based and improvements seen are due to neuromuscular adaptation, not actual strength gains? I am curious only because I have started doing this concept at work on bathroom breaks and such, but am limited to body weight exercises.
    Thanks for all the work on the site,
    Claire

    • Claire:

      Bodyweight exercises actually do make your muscles themselves stronger. But it doesn’t really do a lot for us exercise enthusiasts to want to strengthen a particular muscle. Rather, we want to increase our body’s capability to move.

      What I’m trying to say is that real, actual strength gains always happen through neuromuscular adaptation. In essence, this is a problem with how we define “strength.” When all of the muscles of the body moved together in perfect synchronization in order to produce an athletic movement (a product of neuromuscular adaptation), this can be very powerful—say, an olympic power clean.

      What we typically miss is that it really doesn’t matter how strong the muscle is. While stronger muscles can obviously create more powerful movements, what really matters is the power of the entire system—in other words, how well those muscles can interact with each other in order to produce a movement. If you have a powerful muscle that doesn’t interact well with the surrounding muscles, it may as well be a weak muscle: it can’t transform that power into something useful.

      Because of this, strictly speaking “muscle strength” isn’t really about the muscle: it’s about the brain. You can think of “muscle strength” as the amount of power (the amount of “voltage”, if you will) that the brain chooses to send down the nerve into a particular muscle in order to contract it. When the brain realizes that a joint isn’t working well—because of an injury, say—it’ll dramatically reduce the amount of power that it sends to those muscles, weakening them. If this continues on for too long, the muscles will re-adapt to the lower amount of power that the brain has been sending them: the muscle fibers will become smaller, and they’ll be able to accommodate less power.

      This isn’t always an issue: for example, when people have an injury in one leg, muscles in the other leg sometimes overdevelop (and become far stronger) because the brain has been using them to support the body entirely during the injury period. That leg, despite the fact that it’s become “stronger” than before, is less capable of moving the body (and moving with the body) than before. Don’t get me wrong—since it’s stronger, it’s more capable of supporting the weight of the body, but sacrificing its ability to actually move that weight usefully. So, while these individual muscles may be stronger, the overall system—the body—is weaker.

      In other words, “actual” strength gains mean very little. When the body is being stronger and more capable, does it matter that a few muscles are becoming “weaker” in a strict sense of the word? Not really. Furthermore, when you compare my muscles to the muscles of an elite distance runner, you may find that their muscles are barely more powerful than mine—and a whole lot less powerful than those of an olympic middle distance runner. Does that matter? Again, not really. What matters is that their body’s neuromuscular adaptation—their use of their entire musculature as a functional unit—means that they can move a lot better, a lot faster than I can.

      Does this make sense?

      • Claire says:

        Yes, absolutely. Thanks!

        • Laron Thomas says:

          There are very precise prescriptions of sets and reps strength and power development. They are different but related to neuromuscular development. I recommend reading Jay Dichary’s book Anatomy for Runners. He spends a chapter discussing this topic and I’m sure he has some great sources.

  • Gil says:

    The third bullet point reads: “Lifting should be done relatively fast”.

    Isn’t that contradictory to slow weight training? Don’t you want slow repetitions?

    Also, are you saying that, for example, a person can do the same exercises on Monday and Tuesday, then again on Thursday and Friday?

    • We can say that lifting should be done fast relatively to typical slow weight training. (Call it semi-slow weight training).

    • Laron Thomas says:

      I’m pretty sure Maffetone is referring to fast reps, slow sets. What I mean is that when the reps in a set are performed, they should be done powerfully and quickly (while maintaining great form). For example, 5 squats may take 15 seconds. However, the sets are slow in the sense that one set of 5 reps, or 15 seconds, is interspersed with a long rest, say 1 hour, before the onset of the next set.

  • Nicole says:

    Have you got a link to the photos of the exercises?

  • Don Nicol says:

    The article above includes the following “The two easiest and most effective ones include the dead lift and squat (front, overhead and or back). Here are some examples (and there are photos on the website)”. I was not able to find the photos. Would you be kind enough to post a link to them please?

  • Bob Gilmore says:

    You mention squats and deadlifts in the article – I wanted to clarify if you are advocating performing these exercises with 80% of your max interspersed throughout the day. Not sure that’s a very safe idea but not clear after reading the article.

  • Steph says:

    I am finding this site really, really interesting. Back in May 2015 I signed up for the Zero to Hero Programme (to run a marathon) in the UK. I am 62-years of age, reasonably fit (never been a runner) and decided to take on the challenge. Within weeks I developed Achilles tendonitis, which took 2-months to heal. I slowly got back into running and within 4-months ran my first half-marathon, which I really enjoyed. As my training increased I was becoming increasingly tired and exhausted, it wasn’t long before I was injured again. This time hamstring tendonapthy, with a pulled glute muscle. It was agony! My doctor suggested an MRI on my pelvis, which came back as normal. But, I was told that I had to rest for 2/3 months. This meant me pulling out from running in the marathon in May 2016. I’ve learned a lot since then, and continually learn what is good for my body, and what is not. I am back on the Zero to Hero Programme, with a plan to run in May 2017. I came across your site by accident, but love it – it makes so much sense. I am planning on my next run to use the heart rate monitor and track my progress, and to put into practice the weight lifting.

  • Most importantly… What is the recipe for the healthy ice cream he mentions at the end?!?

    • Howard Henricksen says:

      I second Chris’ question on healthy ice cream ? Please can you post a recipe!
      P.S. Thanks for all the great information here, I’ve been following MAF principles for nearly a year now and seen a steady improvement to my body composition thanks to improved fat burning and reduced carbohydrate intake – it really has been a revelation after many years of improving my fitness but being unable to reduce body fat. Keep up the good work!

  • Jakob says:

    Great article. Do you have any recommendations on how many reps to do of bodyweight exercises such as push-ups or bodyweight squats – or how much time to do a plank, for example?

    • Jakob:

      That is very individualized, and changes dramatically as someone gets fitter. The best bet is to start by defaults for hypertrophy training: 3 sets of 12 reps each with 1 minute rest in between. Planks are stability training exercises, not strength training exercises, and as such their utility begins to drop dramatically after more than 30 second holds.

  • Han-Lin says:

    My upper body and core are very skinny but my legs are bulky. If I train at the Maffetone heart rate, would my upper body and core catch up so that I don’t need hypertrophy training?

Leave a Reply