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I Tried Lifting Weights as Slowly as Possible and Wanted to Barf

Is it possible to stay fit with just one (very deliberate) workout a week?

Illustration by Pablo Lobato
Illustration: Pablo Lobato

I work out for 45 to 60 minutes four(ish) days a week. It keeps me relatively fit, but it also takes a lot of time — not just exercise time, but time getting ready and making myself look less like a sweaty mess afterward, and time thinking about how I should be exercising on the days I’m not. Which is why I’ve long been curious about slow workouts: strength-training sessions that involve one set of super-deliberate reps of about six exercises. It’s not exactly a new trend, but it’s one that seems downright dreamy now that I’m juggling two kids. The whole thing takes only 20 minutes, and experts say once or twice a week is all you need, no supplemental cardio or yoga required. I’m skeptical of my ability to lift heavy weights — I’ve never even done a bench press — but I could really use the extra time to catch up on Killing Eve.

When I enter the lobby of CityWide SuperSlow, a slow workout studio in Lincoln Park, it’s filled with women my mother’s age. This is encouraging, because my mother is 66. In fact, according to co-owner Denise Morton, 60 percent of the clientele is over 50, because the exercise is low impact and thus reduces the risk of injury. No repetitive pounding on a treadmill wearing on your knees, no quick bicep curls doing a number on your shoulders. If folks a generation my senior can make it through these 20 minutes, surely I can too.

The training space is spare, with giant weight machines typical of a physical therapist’s office. Every session is one-on-one with a trainer (from $64) and lasts 30 minutes. I start with glute abductions. Any cockiness I felt about my relative youth is gone the instant I try to push against the 90-pound pads. All I need to do is slowly open and close my legs for two to three minutes, until I hit what Denise calls “muscle failure.” After two minutes and 20 seconds, I can’t open my legs. It’s not that I don’t want to. I can’t.

The next 20 minutes — also known as the longest 20 minutes of my life — pass similarly. On two machines, both for chest and shoulder exercises, I last the full three minutes. On one, a pull-down, I can’t even make it to two. I leg-press 340 pounds. By the end, my arms are shaking. I have to stand up slowly so my legs don’t give out. While I lift, I do that grunting thing that I thought was strictly for gym bros. The workout is pretty horrible in terms of, like, fun. But after six machines, it’s over. For the next hour, I feel seriously nauseous — a hazard of pushing your muscles with unprecedented intensity. Then I realize that if this were my go-to workout, I could relax, guilt-free, for a full six days. Is that tradeoff worth it? For me, I don’t think so. But I’m considering sending my mom.

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