I cannot stand quick-fix marketing that too often infiltrates fitness culture. You can’t lose 10 pounds in 10 days without gaining it back (and then some) a few months later; no magic supplement will make you ripped without endangering your overall health. As a serious athlete that works a day-job in health care, perhaps nothing bothers me more than this crap. I hate it. I hate it. I hate it.
Against that backdrop, I was rather shocked when I found myself genuinely intrigued by a “no sweat” approach to getting stronger. It’s called “Grease the Groove,” and was made popular by the heralded Russian strength coach Pavel Tsatsouline.
Strength results from two dominant factors: (i) hypertrophy, or how big your muscles are, and (ii) efficiency, or how well you use those muscles. Most prevailing strength programs focus on the former, aiming to increase muscle size through a periodic cycle of tear-and-repair. Work the muscle to exhaustion (i.e., tear) then let it recover, building additional muscle fibers (i.e., repair). Training for hypertrophy is hard. It requires a lot of sweat and pain.
Grease the Groove, on the other hand, improves neuromuscular efficiency, and requires neither sweat nor pain. What Grease the Groove does demand is perfect practice, and a lot of it.
In his book, Power to the People: Russian Strength Training Secrets for Every American, Tsatsouline explains that by consistently (think: five sets a day, four-to-six days a week) performing the same movement with textbook form, we enhance neuromuscular pathways and improve efficiency, resulting in increased strength. In order to stay so consistent, while maintaining perfect form, Tsatsouline’s program says we need to “practice” at an effort that is in the neighborhood of just 40 to 50 percent of our max, and allow for full recovery between sets.
It is important to note that if you want to gain mass, Grease the Groove probably won’t help, since it specifically targets efficiency as opposed to hypertrophy. But, if your only concern is getting stronger, in theory, Grease the Groove holds promise as a “no sweat” approach that actually works.
This excited me.
You see, I currently compete in endurance sports but grew up playing football at a pretty high level. In other words, I need to stay light, especially in my upper-body, but I hate not being strong. In addition, I have a pretty demanding work schedule, so even if I wanted to lift weights HARD using a traditional program, I wouldn’t have the time to do so, certainly not on top of my daily endurance training. Could Grease the Groove be the answer to all my problems?
About a month ago I did a max pushup test. 49. Not bad. Over the next 4-weeks, I got down and did 24 pushups, 5-times a day, 6-days a week – aiming for a set about every 2-hours.
After an “off-day” I re-tested my max pushups.
Before I get to the results, I’d be remiss if I didn’t share one major insight from my experience Greasing the Groove. It really is pretty easy! I didn’t sweat once (which is highly beneficial given that I completed 80% of my pushups at the office in slacks and a button-down), and my body rarely felt fatigued during a set. Plus, Grease the Groove forced me to knock out 24 perfect pushups a few times a day, which interrupted the deadly cycle of sitting all day.
Yesterday, after a month of seemingly endless pushups, a few odd looks from coworkers, and absolutely zero sweat, I did 59 pushups, a 20 percent increase in strength!
Note: If you are considering Grease the Groove training, it is important to select a muscle group that you are not going to train otherwise. If you attempt to Grease the Groove on top of traditional training in the same muscle group, (i) you won’t recover from the HARD work, and (ii) lingering fatigue is likely to disrupt the perfect form required for effectively Greasing the Groove.
You’ll also want to think through equipment needs. Could you Grease the Groove with dumbbell curls? Absolutely. You’d just need access to 35 pound dumbbells throughout the day, every day. Movements like pushups (chest), pullups (back) and grippers (forearms) make great candidates.
Brad Stulberg works in population health and writes about the art and science of health and performance. You can follow him on Twitter @Bstulberg.