How to do more push-ups. Or pull-ups, or curl-ups, or squats.

A lot of the work I do over at my passion project at 4th Echelon Fitness has to do with increasing PR maximums: raising the number of reps that I and my readers can do for a given body weight exercise. Use any examples you want but the point of the 4th Echelon Fitness blog is to reach the standards of fitness that would be necessary to pass the initial Navy SeAL physical examination given to prospectives at the beginning of the training process known as BUD/s. So, when I'm talking about raising repetitions, I'm usually talking about pull-ups, push-ups and abdominal curl-ups with strict military form.

The numbers that prospective operatives need to achieve to even be considered minimally prepared for the Navy SeAL training process exist on that plane that can only be referred to as "rarefied", and the numbers to be considered competitive/optimal reflect a standard of general fitness that most people most likely have not encountered let alone possessed. 

The challenge, then, is to work consistently and with intensity towards a formidable standard: or, more accurately, developing across several points of a continuum simultaneously, developing at one and the same time multiple personal records, all of which in their own right are considered to be amongst the upper echelon of fitness targets.

So the question should be apparent: how do we create priority towards the improvement of a certain standard without it affecting the rest of our exercise programme? 

I'm sure you're thinking that it would be a nice if there was a way that you could continue with your current exercise plan while developing your maximum in another field or specific goal. I'm sure you're thinking it would be even nicer if you could do both of these without one affecting your performance during the other. What's even nicer is if we could make busting your plateaus and achieving significant progression not just manageable but in fact easy.

Enter the Grease the Groove protocol.

Greasing the groove is that rare creature in the fitness community: it's easy to understand, easy to put into practice, it won't affect the other areas of your development and it actually works. Not only does it work, but it works consistently and across a spectrum of practices. In a moment we'll get to a few different ways of putting the protocol into practice, but first let's develop a little bit of understanding as to how it came to be and what it involves.

Greasing the groove, or synaptic facillitation training as it is sometimes called., was developed by ex-Soviet Special Forces training instructor Pavel Tsatsouline and made popular through his amazing fitness book "Power to the People". It's based on the "all-or-none" law that muscle fibres follow. For those who are newly acquainted with health and fitness anatomy, what this means is that muscle contractions occur in a digital fashion: they either contract or they don't. This works by the brain firing a synaptic impulse which travels through the information network commonly referred to as the central nervous system. Imagine an impulse from the brain as some sort of vehicle, and the energy transfer protocols of the nervous system as a groove that it has to travel down. What Pavel states is that if we repeatedly practice, with perfection, a certain movement, both the mind-muscle connection and the contraction of the motor units and muscles themselves become so much more practised that the body can execute said movements with ease. How do you practice with perfection? Basically, by 

Here it is explained by the man himself:

Muscle failure is more than unnecessary - it is counterproductive! Neuroscientists have known for half a century that if you stimulate a neural pathway, say the bench press groove, and the outcome is positive, future benching will be easier, thanks to the so-called Hebbian rule. The groove has been ‘greased’. Next time the same amount of mental effort will result in a heavier bench. This is training to success! The opposite is also true. If your body fails to perform your brain’s command, the groove will get ‘rusty’. You are pushing as hard as usual, but the muscles contract weaker then before! To paraphrase powerlifting champ Dr. Terry Todd, if you are training to failure, you are training to fail.

There you have it. Let's examine the basic key points of practicing Greasing the Groove:

  1. When you're greasing the groove, you're practicing strength as a skill. This means that you're sticking with one exercise for the duration of the programme.
  2. Practice doesn't make perfect. Perfect practice makes perfect. This means absolutely perfect form on every rep.
  3. Greasing the groove is a sub-maximal training protocol. This means no going to failure, ever. Or anywhere near failure.
  4. The program is designed for the express purpose of progression. You're improving a skill here, not maintaining it. We still want to see you getting one more rep, one more rep, etc.
  5. For whatever intensity/PR percentage you've engaged, the end result of a day of this training is to achieve well over the usual total volume. For example, you may usually do 20 push ups until failure. It's not enough to do 10 push ups in the morning and 10 in the afternoon. That's not greasing the groove, that's just taking a long time to do 20 push ups. A proper grease the groove day would be more like, "I usually do 20 push ups and fail. I've hit a plateau where my reps until failure are no longer increasing. I'll grease the groove by doing 10 reps an hour, every hour, for 10 hours". In this way, you will always be fresh, never be exhausted, never train to failure, yet quintuple your normal volume of push ups for the day. 

So what are the benefits of greasing the groove?

  • It's relatively moderate-to-low intensity.
    • You're not going to be incapable of living the rest of your life for hours after knocking out a 50%-max-rep set of push ups. It's just not going to happen.
  • You could basically train like this forever and never over-train. 
    • Obviously, I occasionally expect you to practice some common sense. I don't expect you to do 20 sets a day every day for 10 years at 85% maximum and never suffer any negative effects: for one thing, even that much action on your joints might, on its own, be a significant negative effect. But as long as you're not being absolutely ridiculous with skipping rest days and over-emphasizing the amount of sets you're doing, you're so far below your maximal level of intensity that the central nervous system just is not going to burn out on you.
  • You never have next-day stiffness.
    • This is actually a more important one than you might realise, particularly depending upon your line of work. Let's say your line of work is armed response, whether military, law enforcement, private security or other. Think about what that line of work entails. You're on your toes, reacting to every incoming threat. That stiffness from the set of heavy bench presses yesterday could be the difference between dashing behind cover in time or... Well, I'll let you finish that scenario in your own mind.
  • It works.
    • I've seen this work many times, with myself and with others. I've never seen it not work. Also, consider the information about who invented the procedure. You don't go around making the Russian Special Forces promises you can't back up and walking away from it without any negative consequences. 

As you can tell, I'm a huge fan of this approach. Not just for the fact that it works or for how well it works, but also for the psychological aspects: everyone who hits a plateau can not only use greasing the groove to progress but it seems easy!

So, now that we have a little bit of background, and a little bit of why it's so phenomenal, I'll give you some time to digest the information and come back soon with a Part 2, in which we'll examine some programs designed along this protocol and talk about how we could use greasing the groove to be able to create our own programs.

In the meantime, feel free to look at any of my other stuff:

4th Echelon Fitness Blog
My Hypnotherapy Page
My Weight Loss Specialty Page
My Facebook
My Twitter

Here's to hoping this finds you in good health and happy days,


Published by Daniel Fawcett