I had a brief conversation with one of my athletes earlier this week, who was dismayed at their current inability to do large sets of strict pull ups. Rather than waste valuable hand energy by typing a long list of assistance exercises on the nautilus machines, I told her to do one thing: Grease the groove.
Like all great fitness regimens, greasing the groove originates in Russia, specifically from a Russian named Pavel Tsatsouline. Pavel was a former trainer for the Soviet Special Forces, and came up with a simple equation:
Specificity + Frequent Practice = Success.
I would make a note that frequent practice of correct technique is necessary for success, you can practice an incorrect movement frequently and strengthen the wrong neural pathways. This simple equation means one thing: to get better at a specific exercise you have practice it over and over and over again. The key with greasing the groove is to not train to failure. Let’s use pullups as an example. If you can do a max set of 10 pullups, then don’t do sets of 10 pullups. Instead, do sets of 5-8 pullups, 4-5 times a day. You can do this with any bodyweight exercise throughout the day. For instance: when your computer is booting up, when the shower water is heating, or when you are cooking a dozen eggs.
Below is the manifesto for Greasing the Groove, written by Pavel himself.
The science of motor learning explains that an extreme, all out movement is operated by a program different from that used for the identical task performed at a moderate intensity. As far as your nervous system is concerned, throwing a football for maximum distance is a totally different ball game than passing it ten yards, no pun intended. According to Russian scientist Matveyev (yeah, the chap who invented periodization), you must train with at least 80% 1RM weights if you intend to make a noticeable impact on your max. According to Prof. Verkhoshansky, another mad scientist from the Empire of Evil, for elite athletes this minimal load is even higher–85% 1RM. Yet many comrades will be very successful greasing the groove with 60-80% weights as long they emphasize the competitive technique–high tension, Power Breathing, etc. Naturally, if you are training for strength endurance rather than absolute strength, you should train with lighter loads. To meet the Soviet Special Forces pull-up standard of eighteen consecutive dead hang reps stick to your bodyweight plus heavy regulation boots. It is critical for the program’s success that you avoid muscle failure as aerobic classes and rice cakes. Do not come even close to failure, whether you train for max or repetitions! A triple with a five-rep max or ten pull-ups if twenty is your PR will do the trick. The secret to this workout is performing a lot of work with reasonably heavy weights. Pushing to exhaustion will burn out your neuromuscular system and force you to cut back on the weights or tonnage.
According to former world weight lifting champion Prof. Arkady Vorobyev, one to six reps are optimal for training of high caliber weightlifters and increasing this number hinders strength development. Or, as Luke Iams put it, “Anything over six reps is bodybuilding.” Do more reps, and your body will think that you are practicing a totally different lift. Dr. Biasiotto who once squatted an unreal 605 @ 130 has switched to bodybuilding and knocks off 325×25 these days. His legs are no longer ‘a pair of pliers in shorts’ as they used to be in his days of heavy triples and world records, but he would be the first one to tell you that there is no way he could put up a massive single training this way. Of course, for bodyweight pull-ups, push-ups, and other commando feats of staying power you will need to bump up the reps to satisfy the law of specificity. Roger Antonson worked up to training sets of nine by the time he set a personal record of twenty chin-ups.
Vitaly Regulyan, one of the top Russian benchers, does fifty to seventy heavy sets per lift! What are YOU waiting for? A permission from Mike Mentzer? Up the volume! ‘High volume’ does NOT mean a lot of reps with Barbie weights. Such training is good or nothing but a muscle pumper’s virtual muscle. Do I sound like Anthony Dittillo? -Good, the man is right, give him a cigar! ‘High volume’ on the synaptic facilitation power plan means maximizing your weekly tonnage with heavy weights. ‘Tonnage’ -or ‘poundage’ if you are not up on the metric system–refers to the total weight lifted in a given period of time, for example a day, a week, a mesocycle. Say your best deadlift is 500×1 and last week you did the following pulls: 400×5/20, 450×2/50. Here is how to calculate your weekly deadlift poundage: (400x5x20) + (450x2x50) = 85,000. As this number grows, so will your strength, at least up to a point. Make sure that volume does not come at the expense of intensity. Average intensity is calculated by dividing the poundage by the total number of lifts: 85,000 : 200 = 425 pounds. Intensity can be expressed in pounds or % 1RM. In the above example 425 pounds is 82,5% of 500 pounds one rep max; the intensity is on the money. The strong man must make an effort to gradually build up both the volume and the intensity while making sure his body can handle the load and does not overtrain. Trite as it sounds, listen to your body.
Prof. Vladimir Zatsiorsky, a Soviet strength expert who jump shipped from the Dark Side of the Force to America, summed up effective strength building as training as often as possible while being as fresh as possible. An eighties study by Gillam found that increasing training frequency up to five days a week improved the results in the bench press, something big Jim Williams knew a decade earlier when he benched in the neighbourhood of 700. Ditto for Dr. Judd. Before Biasiotto took up benching in the midst of his kitchen appliances, he had worked out in his training partner’s spider web insulated and rat infested garage where he benched five times a week for fifteen heavy sets within an hour. That brutally efficient routine boosted skinny Judd’s bench from 140 to 295 pounds in nine months! Russian strength researchers discovered that fragmentation of the training volume into smaller units is very effective for promoting strength adaptation, especially in the nervous system. In other words, one set of five every day is better than five sets of five every five days. It is even better if you chop up your daily workload into multiple sessions. Motor learning comrades know that while the total number of trials is important, the frequency of practice is even more critical than the total volume. Paul Anderson had it all figured out when he supersetted heavy triples in the squat with gallons of milk throughout the day. If you can swing it -all the power to you, people!
5. Exercise selection
Concentrate your gains on the snatch and the C&J, SQ-BP-DL, or any other few select lifts and forget assistance work! The synaptic facilitation approach is very powerful because it greases the specific groove of your pet feat. Additional exercises will just distract you from your purpose. I plan to expand on the cloudy issue of specificity of strength in a future article. For now, be a good Communist and show some blind faith!
The synaptic facilitation power plan can be summed up as lifting heavy weights as often as possible while staying ‘fresh as a cucumber’ (Russkies have a thing against daisies, you wouldn’t understand). Contrary to what some snobby pantywaists believe, this heavy, high volume approach is not an iron fossil but one of the most scientific approaches to strength training there is. “Chain yourself to the squat rack and call me in a year.” Words to live by.
Excerpts in this article were first published in MILO: A Journal for Serious Strength Athletes under the heading “Chain Yourself to the Squat Rack and Call Me in a Year.” Grease the Groove for Strength by Pavel Tsatsouline, Master of Sports