Grease the Groove — The Russian Military Secret to Strength Endurance
This training program is very different than what you’re used to.
There are thousands of weight training programs, but almost all of them rely on the same shared techniques.
First, they almost all focus on lifting heavy weights. In a typical weightlifting plan, it’s rare that you will ever work with a weight that you can lift more than 20 times.
Second, these plans generally have you train a given movement or muscle group once or twice a week. Sometimes you’ll train that muscle group three times a week, but nobody ever asks you to train that group more than once in a single day.
Most of all, the thousands of workout plans share a common goal of making you tired. To get in shape, you have to push yourself. You need to sweat. Get fatigued. No pain, no gain.
The Grease the Groove program is completely different. This style of training breaks all of these rules. You lift light weights, you always stop before you get tired, and you train multiple times a day. Often you train more than 10 times a day.
Sound crazy? Sure. But it works. This style of training is popular with some of the world’s most elite trainers and military special operators.
The Origins of Grease the Groove Training
The phrase “Grease the Groove” was first coined by strength coach and former Soviet Spetsnaz (Special Forces) instructor Pavel Tsatsouline in his 1999 book Power to the People! : Russian Strength Training Secrets for Every American. Pavel is most well known for introducing kettlebell training to the West, but before that he built his career by training the Spetsnaz to not only be stronger, but also exert that strength for longer (an idea known as strength endurance). Grease the Groove is based on techniques he developed during the Cold War.
In fact, this style of training has since been adopted by many Western military and law enforcement organizations, including the United States Marine Corps, Navy SEALs, and Secret Service. It’s also widely used by individual members of all branches of the armed forces, as it happens to be an ideal method of training for many military physical fitness tests.
Pavel believes that these techniques optimally “grease” (metaphorically speaking) the neurological “groove” of a given exercise. They work by producing maximal neurological adaptations to the movement you’re doing. As you’ll see in a bit, the evidence does seem to support this.
This approach has also begun to catch on somewhat with bodybuilders and athletes as a way of building strength endurance with minimal fatigue and weight gain. It’s particularly useful for athletes in sports that have weight classes, such as boxing and wrestling — an issue to which I’ll return toward the end of this article.
How to Grease the Groove
Grease the Groove (GtG) training follows five principles:
- It’s specific to a single movement. For example, you might do a grease-the-groove program focused on pull-ups.
- The weights are light. Usually, you’re working with a resistance that’s light enough for you to do as many as 50 repetitions (although in this training you’ll stop short of that, because the point is not to train to the point of failure).
- The total training volume is very high, often on the order of 5 to 20 sets per day, every day.
- The sets are spread out across your day. You do one at a time and rest at least 15 to 30 minutes between sets. You don’t do several in quick succession, as you would in a normal workout.
- Sets stop well short of the point of fatigue. Typically, for each set you’d do only 30 to 60 percent of the maximum number of repetitions you could do. So if you were doing a weight that you could lift 50 times, you might only do 15 repetitions in your set.
How It Works in Practice
Suppose you want to maximize the number of pushups you can do.
You start by doing one set to failure and find out that you can currently do 15. This step is a test that lets you set your volume and approach for Grease the Groove–style training.
Given that you max out at 15 pushups, your Grease the Groove sets will have much lower repetitions. You might start at 5 pushups in each set, which is 33 percent of your max.
Some people might be tempted to do assisted pushups instead, such as pushups done on your knees. But a lot of GtG training is neurological, so it’s better to stay as close to your target movement as possible.
Now what you’ll do is one set of five pushups multiple times a day. You’ll always leave yourself at least 15 minutes of rest between sets. Most people will work these sets in between other things they’re doing that day, which means it will be very common to have as much as two hours between sets.
You should perform every single rep with perfect form and stop every set at the point at which either your form starts to break down or you start to feel “the burn,” which is caused by lactic acid buildup in your muscles.
Both of these are signs of fatigue, and the aim here is to avoid generating any significant fatigue. The target of five reps is to set your expectations, but you should absolutely stop short of that goal if you feel any sign of fatigue. It would be completely fine to stop at three pushups.
At that rate, you’ll be doing at least half a dozen sets a day. In some GtG training, you might find yourself doing more than a dozen sets. But in this scenario, in which you’ve maxed out at 15 pushups, you’d definitely find that more than a dozen sets would create enormous fatigue (which you’re trying to avoid).
If you do this every day, it will amount to around 100 sets of a single exercise per week — far more volume than you’d achieve in a typical training program, even taking into account that each set is being cut shorter than normal.
Craig Marker, one of the senior instructors at Pavel Tsatsouline’s company, StrongFirst, recommends varying your daily training load—for instance, doing 8 sets two days a week, 15 sets three days a week, and 20 sets two days a week. In this scheme, the low-volume days constitute a form of active recovery.
On days when you have a normal workout planned that will train the same muscle group used in your GtG sets, you should refrain from doing Grease the Groove sets for about two hours before and after your gym session. For example, don’t do GtG pushups close to your bench press. You could try to make up the missed sets later in the day, but you don’t necessarily need to. If you do, do the extra sets after your workout, not before.
Finally, once a week you’ll want to do a single set to failure (that is, a set of as many reps as you can do) of the exercise you’re “greasing the groove” for.
In the pushup example, that would be one set of pushups to failure every week. The example started with a max of 15 the first week, and the expectation is that you’d increase that max each following week.
As with gym workouts, refrain from doing your Grease the Groove sets for at least a couple hours on either side of this single set to failure. To aid recovery from this set, you may want to eat a high-protein (30–50 grams of protein) meal during the two hours afterward.
This max set is how you gauge your progress. The whole goal of Grease the Groove training is to maximize the number of reps you can do in this set. In the pushup example, if you were able to do 15 reps of pushups to start, you might very well get to 50 reps in one or two months.
What Makes Muscles Improve
In order to understand how Grease the Groove training will affect you, you’ll need to understand what actually makes muscles grow bigger, stronger, and more resistant to fatigue.
There’s a common belief that weightlifting programs should fall into three ranges: heavy weights at 1 to 6 reps per set to maximize strength, moderate weights at around 8 to 12 reps per set to maximize hypertrophy (growth in size), and light weights at 15 to 30 reps to build endurance.
Believe it or not, science has only recently begun to really get a clear picture of what makes muscles actually grow. For a long time this was the subject of heavy debate, with the following theories being proposed at one time or another:
- Lifting heavy weights makes muscles grow.
- No, lifting as many sets as possible makes muscles grow.
- No, actually, it’s total work (sets times reps times weight).
- No, it’s fatigue—the more you fatigue yourself, the more you grow.
- Not quite, it’s muscle damage, which loosely correlates with subjective fatigue.
- Actually, it’s lifting frequently.
- Wait, maybe it’s a combination of mechanical tension, muscle damage, and metabolic stress.
While bloggers and personal trainers still debate these theories, researchers have actually begun to form a consensus. Well, more than one, because this issue can actually be broken down into three questions: what makes muscles grow bigger, what makes them stronger, and what builds endurance.
Strength: How to Lift Heavier Weights
How do you get stronger and therefore able to lift heavier weights? Unsurprisingly, you do it by lifting heavy weights.
In fact, the importance of lifting heavy only goes up as you get stronger.
Novice trainees can gain strength by lifting weights of 60 percent of their one-rep max. That translates to around 15 to 20 reps per set. However, advanced trainees often find they need sets in which they can only manage 4 to 6 reps.
The optimal training volume for maximal strength depends on which study you look at. This study found the optimal volume to be 8 sets per muscle group per week for novices and 16 for advanced trainees. Another study found the optimal volume to be around 2,500 reps in a 10-week cycle, or around 20 sets per week, for trainees with over three years of experience.
Endurance: How to Keep Exercising Longer
While strength is the ability to lift heavy, endurance is the ability to lift for a high number of reps at a given weight. If strength is built by lifting heavy, you would expect endurance to be maximized by training with lighter weights. And you’d be right, partly.
Endurance is, unsurprisingly, best built by lifting light weights. Most studies have trainees train either to the point of momentary muscular failure, or close to it. It doesn’t seem to matter if you go to failure, as you can get the same results by stopping short of failure and just doing an extra set per workout. Of course, Grease the Groove training takes this concept even further.
Hypertrophy: How to Make Muscles Bigger
While the three typically get mentioned together, muscular hypertrophy is actually fundamentally different from strength and endurance, in that it’s a morphological characteristic rather than a performance measurement.
Training intensity—that is, how heavy of a weight you lift—seems to have a minor but still significant effect on muscle growth. In one study, a strength-focused program with sets of 3 to 5 reps built just as much mass as an ostensibly bodybuilding-oriented program with sets of 8 to 12 reps.
The reverse is also true. Very low-weight, high-rep programs of around 20 to 30 reps per set can build muscle just as effectively as traditional bodybuilding programs, provided the sets are taken to failure.
So training intensity isn’t a primary driver of muscle growth, although there is a trend of heavier weights being more effective than lighter weights. A meta-analysis found that lifting weights of over 65 percent of your one-rep max (the weight you can lift for only one rep) generally builds more muscle than lifting lighter weights. This corresponds to about 15 or fewer reps per set.
Another consideration is that the studies in which lighter weights sufficed to maximize muscle growth all required training to failure, which is both very difficult and very fatiguing—lifting heavier without going to failure is easier than lifting light without going to failure. Note that in studies in which people didn’t train to failure, they still generally trained to within one to three repetitions of failure—so they pushed themselves harder than they would in Grease the Groove–style training.
So what’s the main driving factor behind muscular hypertrophy? Total volume, plain and simple, as measured in number of sets per muscle group per week. While there is such a thing as too much volume, the point of diminishing returns is higher than most people think. Various studies have found that trainees keep making good progress up to at least 32 and potentially even 45 sets per muscle group per week.
What This Means for Grease the Groove Training
Based on the above, the Grease the Groove method is obviously not ideal for building maximal strength. It uses much lighter weights and much higher set volumes than a strength program ever should.
Based on the research, it seems to be a good but not perfect fit for maximizing endurance. It needs to be noted, however, that this style of training hasn’t really been studied by academics. Studies on muscular endurance generally have trainees go to within three reps of failure, whereas GtG goes nowhere near failure. So it doesn’t seem like the current academic literature applies to GtG.
The research does support the notion that you can stop your sets further from failure and make up for it by doing more sets; Grease the Groove simply takes this idea to its logical extreme. Although this specific method hasn’t been studied by academics, anecdotally, it does work very well for building endurance.
Since they use very high volumes of reps, you might expect Grease the Groove programs to build a lot of muscle mass. They don’t. Hypertrophy requires taking your sets to within a few reps of failure. This is due to a phenomenon called orderly muscle fiber recruitment, which I’ll explain in the next section.
Based on the research, this style of training can be expected to build a lot of muscular endurance, but very little maximal strength or mass. But that’s not quite the end of the story.
Why Grease the Groove Works
In addition to what was covered in the last section, there are also a few additional considerations that are specific to the Grease the Groove method.
The first is muscle fiber recruitment. Every muscle consists of a mix of fiber types. These can broadly be divided into type I and type II fibers.
Type I, or slow-twitch, fibers aren’t very strong, but they have tremendous endurance. Not only can they be used for long periods of time, but they don’t need much rest between uses. Type II, or fast-twitch, fibers are very strong, but they also fatigue very quickly and need a lot of rest between uses. Type II fibers also have far more growth potential than type I fibers.
Recruitment is the process by which muscle fibers are activated and engaged to move your body. When you use your muscles in a single movement, only a fraction of your muscle fibers are recruited. Because they use more energy and fatigue so much more easily, the body tries to avoid using type II fibers. So they only get recruited if you either (a) lift a heavy enough weight that you need them or (b) lift a lighter weight but keep the set going until you’re very close to failure and the type I fibers get fatigued, forcing the type II fibers to activate to assist.
Grease the Groove training doesn’t meet either of these criteria; the weights used are very light, and sets are stopped short of the point at which fatigue begins to accumulate. That’s why this style of training does almost nothing to build mass, even though the total training volume is very high. GtG just isn’t forcing your type II fibers to come into play (and those are the ones that are most prone to hypertrophy).
The next factor is neurological adaptation. When you practice a given movement, you train your nervous system to activate your muscle fibers in the specific manner needed for that movement. Over time, this trains the activated muscle fibers to activate more effectively to perform that specific movement. This builds strength and endurance for that specific movement but does not directly contribute to muscular hypertrophy. Since GtG training allows for high volumes but stops short of activating the fast-twitch fibers, it stimulates a lot of neurological adaptation in the type I fibers, but none in the type II fibers.
Related to but distinct from neurological adaptation is skill training, the conscious training of the specific movement being practiced. In other words, the more chin-ups you do, the better you get at doing them with good form. The amount of skill training you get is a function of the number of reps you perform, plain and simple. Since it allows you to do a huge number of reps, Grease the Groove provides a lot of skill training.
The combination of skill training and neurological adaptations also means that a GtG program will actually build a little bit of maximal strength, despite not really being designed for that purpose.
Finally, there’s the principle of training specificity. Strength and endurance are partly dependent on neurological adaptations and skill and partly on muscle mass. Skill and neurological adaptations are very specific to a given movement or activity, to the point that there’s limited carryover even to other movements that follow the same general movement pattern—from pushups to bench presses, for instance. The same is not true of hypertrophy—having bigger pecs and triceps will contribute just as much to the bench press as it does to pushups.
Since Grease the Groove training builds endurance without mass, the benefits are extremely specific to the exercise you practice, even more so than in more traditional strength training programs.
What Grease the Groove Is and Is Not Good For
With everything you’ve learned above, what is Grease the Groove training good for?
First off, it’s excellent for building strength endurance with a specific exercise. By that I mean it’s probably the single best way to train yourself to perform more repetitions at a given weight. If you want to be able to lift heavier weights, it helps a little but isn’t a very efficient use of your time.
It’s not particularly useful for building mass. That does mean, however, that it’s potentially very useful for athletes who don’t want to gain weight—a point I’ll talk more about in the next section.
It’s also not the most useful strategy for building maximal strength. It does contribute somewhat to strength, but not enough to justify the large amount of time that it takes compared to traditional strength training, at least for non-athletes.
Grease the Groove training is very time-consuming. As such, you can really only do it for one or two exercises at a time. And if you do it for two exercises, they need to use totally different body parts—think chin-ups and squats, not pushups and military presses.
Finally, because you have to be able to work out for most of the day every day, GtG is most suitable for bodyweight exercises, and exercises that use a piece of equipment that can easily be kept in the home. It’s most commonly used for pushups and chin-ups.
It is possible to use GtG for a gym exercise, although your total volume will be lower. I’ll explain how to do this in a bit.
When you put all of this together, Grease the Groove has two really good uses. First, you can use it to build tremendous endurance with a single movement that you need to perform a lot, like a key movement in a sport that you play.
Second, you can use it to pass physical performance tests. This is what GtG is most famous for—helping members of the armed forces and law enforcement do more pushups and chin-ups so they can ace their physical fitness reviews.
Sample Grease the Groove Training Routines
Now we’ll dive into the nuts and bolts. Grease the Groove is simple enough in concept, but the specifics of your training schedule will depend on when and where you’re able to train.
Fundamentally, there are three types of exercises: those you can do anywhere, those you can do at the gym or at home, and those you can only do at the gym.
Pushups, or Other Bodyweight Exercises You Can Do Anywhere
If you’re training a bodyweight exercise, it’s easy to spread your sets out evenly throughout the day, every day. Do a set every half hour to an hour, assuming you can do it anywhere.
If you want to do some kind of daily undulating periodization—that is, having low-, medium-, and high-volume days—it makes the most sense to make your low-volume days the days when you work those same muscles in the gym (i.e., on the bench press, if you’re doing pushups), your medium-volume days the days you do a different gym workout, and your high-volume days the days you don’t hit the gym at all.
In this case, you would shoot for about 5 to 10 sets on low-volume days, 10 to 15 on medium-volume days, and 15 to 20 on high-volume days.
If there are large blocks of time when you can’t do your pushups—if you can’t do them at work because it would look weird or be unsafe, for instance—your training schedule will be more like that of the chin-up program.
Chin-ups, or Other At-Home Exercises
Chin-ups are easy to train at home using a portable chin-up bar. You may also be able to take this bar to work or have a second one installed at work—if so, your training schedule can resemble the one I just described for pushups.
Otherwise, you’ll need to periodize your training based on equipment availability. Assuming you can only do chin-ups at home, I would go with high- and low-volume days and probably not bother with medium-volume days unless you also have gym workouts to work around. Your high-volume days would be the weekends, or whatever days you don’t work, and your sets would be spread evenly throughout the day on those days. Doing a set every half-hour to an hour throughout the day would give you
Your low-volume days would be the days you work—on those days, your sets would have to be done before and after work, with relatively little time in between them. If you’re out of the home for work from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. and sleep from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., that means you have two hours to train in the morning and four hours in the evening. Doing a set every half-hour to an hour would give you 6 to 14 sets a day.
All of this assumes you’re mostly home on the weekends. If not, you might have to treat every day like a low-volume day, with sets packed together in the morning and evening, and make up for it by taking less time between sets.
Squats, or Exercises You Do at the Gym
Greasing the Groove can be done in a more limited manner with exercises that require going to a gym. Your volume will be much lower, but you can still get in one to three-dozen sets a week—that’s still significant.
What you would do is sprinkle these sets in during your workouts. As an example, suppose you wanted to do this with squats. What you would do is do a set of GtG squats at the beginning of each of your workouts, except for any workout in which you’re already doing squats or a similar movement.
After that, you would take a break from your usual routine every 15 to 20 minutes to do another set of squats and do one last set at the very end of the workout. If your workouts are normally an hour long, that means you can do four, maybe five sets of GtG squats per workout.
Obviously this works best if you spend a lot of time in the gym—the longer and more frequent your workouts are, the more sets you can squeeze in. This is also much easier to do if you pick an exercise you don’t have to wait in line for. It probably won’t work too well with the bench press or barbell squats; dumbbell shoulder presses, goblet squats, or kettlebell swings, on the other hand, are perfect for it.
Finally, here’s something I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone else talk about: Grease the Groove isn’t just for resistance training. You can use it to build endurance with athletic movements too.
What do I mean by athletic movements? Throwing a baseball. Throwing a punch. Kicking a soccer ball. Dribbling basketballs.
The method is just the same as it would be with any other exercise—do a bunch of “sets” of the target movement spread throughout the day and stop each set at the point at which you start to notice any sign of fatigue.
Your training schedule will once again depend on where and when you can do the movement in question. You can probably practice punching everywhere, like pushups. You can dribble a basketball at home in your yard or on the sidewalk or driveway, so that’s effectively like chin-ups. Throwing a baseball requires either a backstop or a partner, meaning you’ll have to follow a similar schedule to the one I described for squats.
How to Start Greasing the Groove
If you want to start doing this style of training, here are the steps to take next.
First, pick the exercise you want to get good at.
Second, figure out when and where you’ll be able to train. Identify which type of training schedule you’ll need—is your exercise something you can do anywhere, at home, or only in a gym? Make sure you have the necessary equipment, if needed.
Third, figure out what your actual schedule will be. How many sets will you do? When will you do them? Will you do the same number every day or have high- and low-volume days?
Fourth, figure out a system to keep to that schedule. Unlike regular workouts, this requires building the habit of doing something many times a day, every day. That means it strongly tests your discipline and organization, as well as your ability to form new habits. You may wish to work with a weight training habit coach.