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Slow, slow, fit fit, slow

Is the aerobics cult a con? Yes, says America's new exercise guru. Nick Walker reports
It has been said that exercise is the new religion. If so, then Ken Hutchins, America's new fitness guru, is an altar-defacing heretic, not to mention a media celebrity, because he says (gasp) that aerobic exercise - the be-all and end-all of the global fitness industry - does not work and, moreover, is dangerous. "The notion that the aerobic protocol is good for you is one of the greatest threats to national health."

Hutchins challenges the very notion of exercise as it is understood. "The medical schools and physiologists try to push the idea that aerobics is the basis of exercise. It is not." Then what is? "Why, muscles! The control and movement of muscles."Hutchins, 43, a former employee of the fitness giant Nautilus, claims he knows what he is talking about. He left the company because it embraced the aerobics boom (he says Nautilus inventor Arthur Jones was anti-aerobics, too), a boom which is "an insidious sham, a nonsense, a con". According to Hutchins, current fitness theory is peddled by "Nazis". Aerobics Nazis. And he is not "going to sit back and take it".

So what is he not going to take? Basically, the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) guidelines on aerobic exercise. The college states that aerobic - or with "oxygen" - exercise, if strenuous and sustained enough, requires the muscles to demand nutrients and oxygen from the bloodstream. Your heart and lungs work harder. Twenty or so minutes of such cardiovascular endeavour a day is the road - the only road - to fitness. Hutchins disagrees. There have been too many accidents jogging, too many slips in step class with jolted joints. He is adamant that if all aerobic exercise were to cease tomorrow - all jogging, treadmill walking, all rowing on machines - then "our health would instantly improve". No more strain injuries, impacted ligaments or impaired hearing (only months ago, the US Journal of Sports warned of inner ear damage caused by jumping and jarring). "See what I mean?" gloats Hutchins.

But not to worry, he has a new creed: his very own Florida-based, 150-trainer Super Slow Exercise Guild, viewed by some as a cult with bar bells.

Hit the play button: "If the key to exercise lies in building the muscles to support the body's system, then that is exactly what it should do." Exercise," he says, "needs only to focus on strengthening the muscles in a concentrated manner". The heart, bones and lungs will then, apparently, join in to maintain the effort. "Muscles are the window to the body. Only muscles affect fitness. Only muscles have a direct physical function."

With Super Slow, you take "10 seconds to lift a weight and five seconds to lower it". There is no pausing at the top nor jerking at the bottom. Repetitions are seamless. Fixed weights are preferred to free weights as a fixed weight will provide more control, and you only have to lift the weight you normally lift. Sounds easy, but after 90 seconds or so of controlled, concentrated lifting and continuous muscle resistance, you will be lucky if you can manage a seventh repetition before you "hit the wall" and experience muscle failure.

Without a pause, move on to the next machine. You only use eight machines per session, so a Super Slow workout takes just 20 or 30 minutes. And, big selling point, you only need to visit the gym twice a week. Hogwash, say sceptics, murmuring "research?", "fad" and "remember callanetics?".

Is Super Slow poised to be the Next Big Thing? "I can understand the theory," says Kathy Fulcher, laboratory director and exercise physiologist at the National Sports Medicine Institute. "But it doesn't add just to state that aerobic exercise is bad or, equally, to say aerobic exercise is the only solution. His theory may have some credibility, but it doesn't sound very practical."

Others in the US have simply gone for the jugular. American GQ magazine describes Hutchins as "a raving, eccentric hothead who's obscuring any legitimate points he may have with inflammatory bluster". Hutchins shrugs: "Before others call the Super Slow Exercise Guild a cult, they should first analyse which fitness camp has the greatest numbers performing unison movements en masse with singing and music against special lighting effects. Hitler was not and is not the only Pied Piper."

Strong words. To place Triumph of the Will as a mere precursor to Jane Fonda's Workout Video is somewhat flip (and beside the point), but Hutchins's message - only two visits to the gym per week - is far-reaching. We are talking revolution, a new messiah, not merchandising.

"But there is no miracle solution," says Alison Hall, the UK representative for the ACSM. "Just like weight loss, everybody knows what that answer is common sense. It's just that it can be damn hard work."

Nevertheless, Ken Hutchins believes in miracles. He says we stand at the verge of a new exercise era. He will work(out) wonders. Turning water into wine is somewhat passe. Turning fat into muscle - now, that could really change the world.