You may have guessed that slow fibers take slow movements to train them. To appreciate the challenge of super slow consider the “Golden God” dance by the famous Soviet Chechen dancer Mahmoud Esambayev.
The Story of Mahmoud Esambayev
Born in a highlands village where every man and woman knew how to dance, Mahmoud started dancing at the age of seven and in his teens became a professional traveling with a troupe.
During World War II, Esambayev was wounded in the leg. The surgeon told him, “I have saved your leg but you will never be able to dance again.” This did not stop the young man from becoming one of the most accomplished and beloved dancers in the Soviet Union. Many of his dances could not be repeated by any other professional. Esambayev became especially famous for his series “Dances of the Peoples of the World” in which he was able to outperform the natives. The Indian dance “Golden God” is relevant for this article.
The dance started in a position known in ballet as a “full plié”— a rock bottom squat with the knees fully turned out, like a frog. The dancer took a minute and a half to rise up, symbolizing the sunrise. The dance demanded an extremely smooth ascent; little bells were attached to the dancer’s clothes and they were not supposed to ring. Six minutes of dance followed and then the performer went back down to a full plié squat in a minute in a half — the sunset. Indian consultants assured the Chechen that this dance demanded at least eight years of study. Esambayev mastered it in less than three weeks! (Behold the power of having one’s foundation of basics down.)
Slow Fiber Building Protocols
Fortunately for you, slow fiber hypertrophy training is less painful than that, a set should take only thirty to sixty seconds. Today I will outline one of slow fiber building protocols by Prof. Victor Selouyanov. As mentioned earlier, his methods have been used with great success by top Russian athletes from a variety of sports, from bicycle racing to judo; from soccer to full contact karate.
- Style of performance: super slow, no acceleration.
- Range of motion: partial that does not allow rest at any point.
- Set duration: 30-60 seconds to failure (both heavy and light days).
- Rest between sets of a given exercise: 5-10 minutes, active (walk, “fast and loose”). Other exercises may be done during that window.
- Resistance: 30-70% 1RM for the lower body and 10-40% 1RM for the upper body. No difference in resistance from heavy to light day.
- Weekly schedule: bodybuilding style split training; a heavy day and a light day per muscle group.
- Volume: 4-9 sets on heavy day; 1-3 sets on light day.
The resistance is chosen to hit failure within the specified time frame. The difference in percntage 1RM between the lower and upper body exercises is explained by a higher concentration of slow twitch (ST) fibers in the legs.
The purpose of going to failure is dual. One, to create a particular metabolic environment. Two, to cause psychological stress that promotes release of anabolic hormones. Unlike with heavier lifting, it is okay to go to failure. Since the exercise feels so different from a heavy lift, neural adaptations — learning failure — are not a problem. Safety is not much of an issue either as the weights are very light.
Besides, with the exception of the back squat, Prof. Selouyanov favors isolation bodybuilding exercises for ST hypertrophy. Among those he recommends to elite wrestlers are preacher curls and skull crushers! (See Easy Strength for explanations why these “sissy” moves are beneficial to experienced athletes, but not beginners.)
Selouyanov is a big fan of super slow partial back hypers. Reportedly, they were one of the key training secrets of Vasily Alexeev. The weightlifting great had back problems and was unable to do heavy clean pulls (deadlifts). So he would kick everyone out of the gym, lock the doors, and do slow partial back extensions over a pommel horse with a barbell weighing only 40-60kg. The rest, as they say, is history.
Bodyweight and partner exercises are also frequently used by elite Russian wrestlers coached in Selouyanov’s method. His protocol is only for training the muscle, not the movement, and it does not matter what type of resistance you are using, as long as you burn out your guns in the specified manner.
Contrary to what you might have read on the Internet, no one knows the exact mechanisms of turning on the muscle building machinery. Prof. Selouyanov developed the above protocol based on his own theory. In a nutshell, four conditions must be met for muscle hypertrophy:
- Presence of amino acids in the cell.
- An increased concentration of anabolic hormones in the blood as a result of psychological strain.
- An increased concentration of free creatine in the muscle fibers.
- An increased concentration of hydrogen ions (H+) in the muscle fibers.
The first condition is obvious. The second supports training to failure and making the muscles burn miserably. The third and fourth take some explanation.
Both free creatine and hydrogen ions unlock the muscle doors to anabolic hormones. The latter go in and turn on the genetic machinery responsible for protein synthesis. The thirty to sixty second window is defined by the goal of increasing these substances’ concentration. Free creatine is formed when muscle uses creatine phosphate as fuel and CP is usually used up in half a minute of hard work. Hydrogen ions are a byproduct of muscular contraction. Their concentration is maxed out at sixty seconds and at thirty seconds it reaches 65%. Now the set timing makes sense.
A super slow non-lockout style of exercise performance is dictated by the slow fibers’ ability to use oxygen and to rapidly recover. The blood vessels’ occlusion produced by this traditional bodybuilding technique cancels this ability.
How Selouyanov Differs From the Bodybuilders
You might ask, how does the Russian professor’s methodology differ from what bodybuilders have been doing for decades? Sure, he has precisely defined the loading parameters, but that is refinement, not innovation.
It is the radical five- to ten-minute rest period that gives Selouyanov’s method its unique edge. Bodybuilders, when doing constant tension, peak contraction, and super slow reps, always rush the rest periods, chasing max pump (pump is a manifestation of H+ accumulation, by the way). Selouyanov’s research has demonstrated that while hydrogen ions are needed for a short period of time to unlock the muscle cell to anabolic hormones, they destroy the muscle if allowed to stick around too long. If you remember your chemistry, you will realize that an ion is a charged particle, ready to reach and damage. Hence the extreme five- to ten-minute rest that makes all the difference.
Professor states that active rest — walking around, “fast and loose” drills — is far superior to passively sitting around. Movement allows H+ to circulate and get cleared more rapidly by multiple muscle groups.
But scientific theories are dime a dozen if they are not backed by practice. Whether Selouyanov’s is correct or not, his protocols have been used with extraordinary success by many elite Russian athletes from a variety of sports, and that is all that matters.