Pavel Tsatsouline and Greasing the Groove
“Grease the groove” is a style of training that was developed by legendary Spetsnaz trainer Pavel Tsatsouline. It has been practiced for decades by Russian—and formerly Soviet—soldiers, and more recently has become popular among members of the American military as a way of practicing push-ups and pull-ups in preparation for physical fitness testing.
Consider Pavel Tsatsouline’s approach with the initial image: To become a better pitcher, you have to pitch a lot of baseballs. To become a better archer, you have to fire a lot of arrows. All of these motor patterns are skills, and skills need to be practiced.
Ergo, to become a better weightlifter, you have to practice strength.
Among training methodologies, grease the groove stands out for its low intensity. In point of fact, it produces no significant amount of fatigue—and yet it has been shown, time and again, to be one of the best training methods in existence for adding reps.
How to Grease the Groove
Here’s the short description of grease the groove: use a really light weight, stop well short of failure, and take very long rests between sets.
To be more specific, use a weight that’s 40–70 percent of your one-rep max. That typically equates to a weight you can lift for 10 to 30 reps. In many cases, this will simply mean you’re lifting your bodyweight only.
You should end each set as soon as you start to accumulate fatigue, or when you start to “feel the burn” as lactic acid accumulates. This usually means doing about half as many reps as you could do with the weight you’re using.
Rests between sets should be at least 15 minutes, and often as long as an hour. However, the total number of sets should be as high as possible while still following this guideline. You can potentially end up doing 20–30 sets and several hundred reps per day, every day.
Yes, this means grease the groove training isn’t typically done in “workouts.” Instead, you’ll want to spread those sets out throughout the day, which typically means working out at home or at the office. As such, it’s most commonly used as a strategy to do more pull-ups or chin-ups, since those can be done almost anywhere with a portable chin-up bar.
Why Grease the Groove Works
In short, strength is a skill, and skills have to be practiced. More precisely, each individual movement—the chin-up, the push-up, the squat—is its own skill.
This style of training is so named because it greases the neurological groove to help your nervous system rapidly become competent at performing a particular movement. Because it produces no significant amount of fatigue, it allows you to do more total reps per day and week than any other training method, maximizing the amount of practice you get.
That makes it great for maximizing neural adaptations. It can also be a great way to practice your form, provided the weight you use isn’t so light that it becomes, in essence, a completely different exercise.
Limitations and Practical Guidelines to Grease the Groove Training
Since grease the groove training works primarily via neurological adaptations and form practice, the benefits are mostly specific to the movement being performed. Doing GTG-style push-ups will make you better at push-ups, but have little carryover to the bench press, for instance.
Because it employs very light weights and also goes nowhere near failure, this style of training barely engages fast-twitch muscle fibers at all. And because it only trains the slow-twitch fibers while also producing minimal lactic acid buildup, grease the groove doesn’t produce very much hypertrophy in and of itself.
This style of training is very time consuming, so you should only be applying it to one or two movements within any given macrocycle. And since it all but requires you to be doing sets outside the gym, it’s most often used with bodyweight movements like chin-ups, push-ups, and squats.
That said, since it builds some strength and a lot of strength-endurance, grease the groove can be productively combined with near-maximal weightlifting. You could, for instance, train the bench press at 90 percent of your single-rep maximum two days a week, and train it grease the groove–style on every other day. The one style adds weight to the bar, while the other adds reps at a given weight.
In this case, you’d either need to have a bench at home, or only mix in three to six grease the groove bench press sets with each workout that doesn’t normally include the bench press. While not ideal, the addition of one or two dozen lightweight sets per week is certainly not insignificant.
Grease the groove is more easily applied to squats and pull-ups, since your bodyweight counts towards your total weight lifted. For example, if you weigh 200 pounds and squat 465 pounds, your bodyweight alone puts you at 30 percent of your single-rep maximum. All you’d need is a couple of 40+ pound dumbbells to put your total weight within the range required by grease the groove training, allowing you to perform grease the groove–style squats at home.
It can also be used without added weight to add reps to exercises for which you have no desire to ever add weight. For instance, it’s a good tool for increasing the number of burpees you can do.
The Bottom Line on Grease the Groove
There are two distinct ways you can employ Pavel Tsatsouline grease the groove training:
1. Increasing Max Reps
First, it is perhaps the best tool available for adding more reps to a given exercise performed at relatively low intensities. That’s what this style of training was invented for, and the reason why it’s favored by soldiers, firefighters, and other people who have to pass physical fitness evaluations that are judged on number of reps performed. This is also the most applicable to Spartan races because the obstacles tend to test strength-endurance at relatively low intensities, that is, doing tens of reps of an exercise. Burpees in particular.
2. Makes a Potent Addition to Build Lean Muscle Mass
Second, you can use it as an auxiliary exercise in a strength or mass-building program. In and of itself, the Pavel Tsatsouline grease the groove approach is not the best way to gain maximal strength, and doesn’t do much to build mass. However, because it produces no significant amount of fatigue and won’t impair recovery from heavier workouts, grease the groove training can be combined with high-intensity training to build strength-endurance in conjunction with pure strength. And when you add weight to the bar while maintaining reps, you’ll get bigger—period.
An extra–The Pavel Tsatsouline workout: