Fitness: ‘Greasing the Groove’ Training Principles
- Greasing the Groove (GtG) training principles are based on improving muscle memory and facilitating more efficient muscle contraction, leading to greater strength. The principles include exercising at lower repetitions and intensity with greater volume and frequency
- Your objective with GtG is to train multiple times each day at lower repetitions and weight to keep you fresh for the next set. It is crucial to rest at least 15 minutes between each set and stop well before you experience muscle fatigue or failure
- The strategy was developed during the Cold War by strength coach and past Soviet Special Forces instructor Pavel Tsatsouline and has since been adopted by the U.S. Marine Corps, Secret Service and Navy SEALS
- While there is value to GtG, Tsatsouline incorporates it into a program also involving heavier weights. Kaatsu, or blood flow restriction training, offers some of the same benefits of heavy lifting using light weights and high repetitions
You may have once thought strength or resistance training was useful only if you were an athlete — and then maybe just for football players. But, if you’ve been reading my newsletter, you’ll know I believe strength training is one of the foundational core strategies to getting and staying healthy.
It offers multiple benefits, including stopping or reversing age related muscle loss1 that may begin as early as 30.2 It helps with weight loss and maintenance by increasing your resting metabolic rate,3 making it easier to do everyday activities and helping you reduce anxiety.
One of the general principles of weight training has been to space each workout that uses the same muscle groups by at least 48 hours to allow the muscles to fully recover.4
This is especially true when you’re working the muscle to fatigue, since the fibers need a rest period to recover and rebuild. However, when you are integrating Grease the Groove (GtG) techniques into your strength building strategies, waiting days between sets is not necessary.
Are You Building Mass, Strength or Endurance?
Different resistance training strategies result in building either mass, strength or endurance. When your objective is to get stronger it may happen more easily by lifting heavier weights. The optimal amount of weight, repetitions and sets differs depending on your current level of fitness.5
In the beginning, you may have to lift less weight, with more repetitions per set, than when you reach an advanced level where you can lift heavier weights with a lower number of repetitions per set.
Using a variety of lifting strategies, you may get larger muscles with greater strength. Muscle hypertrophy (large muscle) does not equal strength as it is a growth in the structure of the muscle fiber rather than a measurement of performance. Ultimately, to build bigger muscles you’ll need to use greater volume in the number of sets you perform each week.
With muscle endurance, you are able to perform a higher number of repetitions. If you were doing cardio work, endurance would mean you could run farther or bicycle longer. Not surprisingly, you build greater endurance by lifting lighter weights and doing more repetitions. It doesn’t appear to matter whether you push the muscle to failure or not,6 only that you do more lifting.
This is one of the concepts on which GtG training is based. The technique was developed by Pavel Tsatsouline, who is a strength coach and past Soviet Special Forces instructor credited with introducing kettlebell training to the West. The GtG principles were developed during the Cold War and have since been adopted by the U.S. Marine Corps, Secret Service and Navy SEALS.7
Greasing the Groove Improves Neurological Adaptation
The basic principle of using GtG is to perform repetitive movements throughout the day using submaximal effort, stopping well before the muscle is fatigued. Your muscles are essentially practicing the movement using optimal form, multiple times each day. As Tsatsouline describes:8
“People don’t understand how Grease the Groove can possibly work. But there are some very big words, like synaptic facilitation and myelination.
But, in a nutshell what happens is your nerves become superconductors, so that same signal — that same amount of nerve force — reaches your muscles with more intensity. You’re trying with the same effort as you ever have, but you are suddenly stronger. It’s beautiful. And it’s a very enjoyable way to train.”
The GtG program seeks to build neuromuscular memory.9 This is also called muscle memory, which is built through repetitive motions using optimal form so the muscles get more efficient at contracting, and thus you get stronger.10 Modern imaging has proven what Tsatsouline postulated decades ago, that with consistent, repetitive use, nuclei are built in the muscle cells contributing to muscle memory.
These nuclei are specialized structures regulating and controlling cellular activity.11 The nuclei are involved in muscle memory, also known as neuromuscular facilitation,12 which is how athletes are able to recreate a movement without thinking about it.
For example, muscle memory is involved when basketball players nearly “automatically” shoot the ball with good form without thinking. It is also the reason a pianist may practice one piece so many times he may play without really thinking about finger placement.
Recent research has found this muscle memory is not lost when you stop practicing.13 Instead, even after you’ve stopped your activity, the muscle maintains memory.14 You may have experienced this if you learned to ride a bike when you were young and were able to get back on 20 years later and ride without a problem.
GtG Training Principles Build Athletic Performance
Repetition is just one of five principles on which the GtG training strategy is built. However, Tsatsouline has also written that the key to making gains using GtG is to gradually build volume and intensity while steering clear of fatigue.15,16
•Specificity — The GtG training strategy is an excellent technique for building endurance and strength within a specific motion or exercise. It may be one of the best ways to achieve success in performing more repetitions at any given weight.
However, since it is time consuming it is necessary to choose only one or two exercises at a time using totally different body parts. For instance, you may use the strategy to improve your strength and endurance at pullups and squats but you should not attempt both pullups and pushups because they both use upper body muscle and you won’t be able to stay “fresh” all day.
•Intensity — As Tsatsouline describes in this video, the secret to the strategy lies in both intensity and volume. It’s crucial to avoid muscle failure as this burns out your neuromuscular system and does not achieve the goal. Whether you are using weights or your own body weight, the resistance must be light enough to do many repetitions throughout the day without reaching muscle failure or fatigue.
•Volume — Volume is the total amount of work you do throughout the day. Your objective is to complete multiple sets each day, aiming for no more than 10 sets spaced with at least 15 minutes of rest in-between. You can imagine doing five pullups wouldn’t take more than 45 seconds. Spacing this out 10 times during the day, your “workout” doesn’t go over 10 minutes.
•Repetition — The number of repetitions will be dependent on how much you are able to do initially. The aim is to train every day, and train multiple times each day, which should take up a minimal amount of time. Your goal is to do 50% of your maximum weight or your best effort as described below. For instance, if your maximum is 10 pull-ups, then your goal is to complete five repetitions with each set during the day.
•Frequency — The sets should be spread out throughout the entire day, with rest periods of at least 15 to 30 minutes between sets. If you’re able to do your chosen exercise throughout the day, then it’s better to use a more extended rest period.
But you may have chosen an exercise that needs a small piece of equipment or which you are not comfortable doing at work. If you leave for work at 8 a.m. and get home at 6 p.m., sleep between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m., during days you work you’ll still have the potential to perform your exercise at least 10 times in the six hours you are home.
You begin the program by determining the maximum number of repetitions you can do until your muscle is fatigued and you “feel the burn.” This allows you to set the correct number of repetitions, which should be close to 50% of your maximum.
This is the number of repetitions you’ll perform multiple times each day with at least 15 minutes of rest between sets. The point is to perform using perfect form each time and stop if you find your form starts to break or you begin to feel fatigued.
By doing this every day, you could achieve 100 sets of a single exercise each week, which is a much higher volume than you would normally do in a typical program. Once a week, you will then take a day to do a single set to the point of failure in order to track your improvement and adjust your repetitions.
There Is Value in GtG and BFR
While Tsatsouline is a strong supporter of using Grease the Groove, he also writes about the importance of lifting heavy weights.17 Kaatsu training, or blood flow restriction training (BFR), offers some of the same benefits of heavy lifting while using light weights and a high number of repetitions. This helps minimize the risk of injury while still stimulating muscle growth and strength in half the time, using just one-third of the weight.
The principle is to reduce venous flow, forcing blood to remain inside your muscle longer than normal. This increases the rate at which you experience muscle fatigue and failure, which then triggers repair and regeneration.
Kaatsu is still new in the West but has been practiced in Japan for nearly five decades. It has been successfully used to rehabilitate elderly individuals who were suffering from age-related muscle loss.
Proponents of this training list both a local effect to the muscle as well as a systemic central nervous system effect that is out of proportion to the actual work being done. For an in-depth discussion, see my past article, “Build Muscle Faster, Safer and Easier With Blood Flow Restriction Training.”
It’s Never Too Late to Start Exercising
Although many begin experiencing age-related muscle loss in their 30s, a recent study18 demonstrated that even untrained seniors were able to build muscle in the same capacity as lifelong athletes of the same age. This proves it’s never too late to start exercising, which is foundational to your optimal health.
My mother began strength training when she was 74 years old. In three short years she had gained significant improvements in strength, range of motion, balance, bone density and mental clarity.
You might question your ability to start a fitness routine, unsure of where to start. You may suffer challenges such as being severely obese, frail or having significant balance issues. You’ll find resources to address these and other concerns in my past article, “Study Reveals It’s Never Too Late To Start Exercising.”\
- 1 Annual Review of Gerontology and Geriatrics, 2016;36(1):205
- 2 WebMD, Sarcopenia with Aging
- 3 Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 2001;33(4):532
- 4 Nerd Fitness 101, July 10, 2019
- 5, 16 Medium, March 19, 2019
- 6 International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance, 2008;3(3):279
- 7 StrongFirst, Pavel Tsatsouline
- 8 YouTube, How Does Grease the Groove Work?
- 9 Journal of Experimental Biology, 2016;219:235
- 10 The Pull-Up Solution Blog, March 23, 2016
- 11 Encyclopedia Britannica, Nucleus
- 12 Bridge Athletic, July 24, 2017
- 13 Frontiers in Physiology, 2019; doi.org/10.3389/fphys.2018.01887
- 14 Science Daily, January 25, 2019
- 15 100 Pushups, Greasing The Groove: The Training Principle Behind The 100 Pushups Program
- 17 Strong First, September 8, 2019
- 18 Frontiers in Physiology 2019; doi.org/10.3389/fphys.2019.01084