Want to get better at push-ups? Pull-ups? Deadlifts? Need to increase your grip strength in a hurry?
This is how you do it.
Your muscles are already capable of lifting a car. They just do not know it yet.
– Pavel Tsatsouline
I Was Really, Really Bad at Pull-ups
When I was in my early twenties I was always hearing how important it was to do pull-ups. A lot of smart, strong people preached their benefits, but I didn’t have a place to do them. So I didn’t.
I was strong and did a number of row and pull-down varieties. I assumed pull-ups were just another assistance exercise I could do without. I was sure I could bang out ten reps no problem if I had to.
Then one day I had the opportunity to prove myself right.
After years of training in my pull-up bar-less home gym and “weight room” at the office, my wife and I purchased a family pass to the local YMCA. My first workout there, I walked straight up to one of the several pull-up bars to show everyone what I could do. I just hoped my lats wouldn’t tear through my t-shirt as I banged out dozens of reps.
Good news. My shirt didn’t rip.
Although it was close. It almost got stuck on the rack as I struggled to kip myself up for one and a half reps.
I was shocked. Embarrassed. Disgusted. Frustrated.
I assumed being strong in the big three (squat, bench press, and deadlift) meant I was strong at everything.
After the pull-up incident, I proceeded to hammer out a big bench workout. My ego needed it. But on the way home, I picked up a cheap door frame pull-up bar. I was determined to conquer this obvious weakness.
Do More Pull-ups. Fast.
World-renowned strength coach Pavel Tsatsouline introduced the “Grease the Groove” (GTG) training method in an article published in 2000 in MILO: Journal for Serious Strength Athletes. His article, titled “Chain Yourself to the Squat Rack and Call Me in a Year” provided a number of examples of people improving a variety of lifts and movements, quickly, using Grease the Groove.
GTG is a method of training that incorporates a few sets per day, using perfect form, sub-maximal reps, and maximal tension (squeezing everything as hard as you can).
Let’s say you wanted to increase your max push-ups, for example. If your current max is 12, you would do 3-5 sets of 8-10 push-ups throughout the day, 5-7 days per week. These sets would not be done one after the other, but would instead be spaced out throughout the day. One set before each meal, for example.
The idea is not to go to muscle failure. The idea is to practice perfect technique, with maximal tension. You want to “Grease the Groove” of the movement.
In his book “Power to the People!“, Pavel states why this works. He advises that stimulating a neural pathway with a positive outcome, makes future stimulations of the same pathway easier.
In layman’s terms: each successful set of push-ups makes future sets of push-ups easier. (The word successful is key here. Pavel devotes an entire chapter to why going to failure is a bad idea).
This doesn’t happen because your muscles get bigger or necessarily stronger. It happens because your body learns how to properly execute the movement and better activate the muscles.
This shouldn’t come as a surprise. We’ve known for years that neural adaptation is a major part of strength training.
Strength performance depends not only on the quantity and quality of the involved muscles, but also upon the ability of the nervous system to appropriately activate the muscles.
– D.G. Sale, “Neural adaptation to resistance training”
An average person can only contract an estimated 20-30% of their muscles. An advanced lifter, on the other hand, can contract around 50%. By “Greasing the Groove”, you are learning how to get more out of your muscles. Just like an advanced lifter.
Greasing the Pull-up Groove
I had heard of Pavel’s method from a couple of sources and decided I would give it a shot on my journey to the pull-up promised land.
I couldn’t even do two decent pull-ups at this point. I needed to start small.
Instead of maxing out each set, I focussed on negatives. I’d grab the bar, jump up, and let myself down as slowly as possible. I completed five reps like this a few times a day until I was at the point where I could do three good pull-ups. This took about a week.
I continued to grease the groove but switched my five negatives to one full-fledged pull-up, completing one good solid rep 3-5 times per day. I stuck with this, doing three to five pull-ups per day, one rep at a time, for a couple weeks.
When I tested myself again I was repping out 6 solid pull-ups. Going from a max of one rep to six in under a month.
I was happy with the results I’d gotten and wanted to keep going. After taking a week off of daily pull-ups, I started back up again, doing 3-5 sets of three reps at a time.
Using GTG off and on (2-4 weeks on, 1-2 weeks off) for a year, I was able to increase my max to 20 solid dead hang pull-ups.
Incorporating GTG into Your Training
Grease the Groove works great for several exercises. Bodyweight movements (using sub-maximal reps) and power/olympic lifts (using 60% – 85% max loads) can all be trained this way.
Let’s say you wanted to bring up your deadlift. You could leave a bar loaded with 75-80% of your 1 rep max in your home gym and bang out a couple of reps a few times per day.
Want to increase your pull-ups? Grab a doorframe pull-up bar and do what I did.
More worried about grip strength? Use that same pull-up bar and just hang for a while a few times each day. Squeezing the heck out of the bar the entire time.
Another great option would be to keep a tennis ball in your office. Take it out and squeeze it as hard as you can a few times throughout the day.
Or maybe you’ve always wanted to be able to do ten handstand push-ups. This is even easier as no equipment is required. For the next month, do ½ – ¾ your max number of reps, 3-5 times per day.
Never go to failure, always stop a few reps shy. As Pavel says, “Muscle failure is more than unnecessary – it is counterproductive!”.
This Stuff Works
While it may sound like it, Greasing the Groove is not a shortcut. It’s a way to get a ton of good quality reps in without overtraining.
Where a lot of people go wrong with it, though, is by trying to “grease too many grooves” at once. This is a guaranteed recipe for failure.
Choose one area you want to work on, pick an exercise to address it, and put the work in.
I’m confident you’ll find, like I did, that this is the best way to conquer your weaknesses.
Once you admit that you have a weakness and begin to face your fears then they no longer control you.
– Mark Bell