The Military Secret To Strength-Endurance
Grease the Groove training flies in the face of conventional wisdom– but it delivers results
In the 1980’s, the Spetsnaz– Russian special forces– developed a revolutionary new resistance training method that flew in the face of decades of strength training dogma.
Yes, I know “Russian special forces” doesn’t exactly carry the gravitas that it did two years ago. Just bear with me.
There are various styles of weight lifting, but most center around the idea that you should lift very heavy weights and/or continue lifting until muscle failure– the point at which your muscles give out.
“Grease the groove” training, as it came to be called by former Spetznaz trainer Pavel Tsatsouline, stands out for its low intensity. In fact, it produces negligible amounts of fatigue- and it has become the go-to strength-endurance training method within the the U.S. Army Special Forces, SEALS, and Marine Corps.
Tsatsouline, who is also known for introducing kettlebell training to the West, has popularized this style of training first in the military, and more recently with the broader functional training community.
How to Grease the Groove
In short: use a fairly light weight, stop far short of muscle failure, and take extremely long rests between sets.
To be more specific, use a weight that’s around 40-70% of your one-rep max. That typically equates to a weight you can lift for ten to thirty reps.
In many cases, this will simply mean you’re lifting your bodyweight only. In fact, this style of training is most commonly used with bodyweight exercises such as pushups and pull-ups.
Each set should be terminated as soon as, or shortly after, you start to notice fatigue and “feel the burn” as lactic acid accumulates within your muscles. In practice 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 fifteen minutes, and potentially as long as an hour. However, the total number of sets should be as high as possible while still following this guideline. Following this method, 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 and/or at the office.
You can see an obvious limitation here– unless you work at a gym or have one in or near your home or office, this style of training will be limited to exercises that require little or no equipment. The following exercises are ideal for grease the groove style training:
Several of these options are unilateral or iso-lateral, which allows them to take advantage of bilateral deficit. Unilateral exercises in general or good options for grease the groove training, since they can take advantage of the long rest times involved.
Why Grease the Groove Works
There are several rationales behind this style of training. First, strength is a skill, and skills have to be practiced. In fact each individual movement- the chin-up, the push-up, the squat- is its own sub-skill.
This is the origin of the name– you are “greasing the neurological groove” that your nervous system uses to perform that particular movement.
Maximizing the number of reps you perform in total allows you to maximize both neurological adaptations and practice proper form more. This requires minimizing fatigue, which grease the groove does in two different ways.
First, you have ample time to recover from central nervous system fatigue. CNS fatigue takes anywhere from 20-60 minutes to fully recover from after a bout of heavy exercise, but the low intensity of grease the groove training means you’ll likely be fully recovered after 15-20 minutes.
Grease the groove also minimizes metabolic fatigue by terminating the set shortly after you reach the lactic acid threshold. This typically occurs somewhere around 20-60 seconds into a set.
Lactic acid per se is probably not the main cause of muscular fatigue– in fact your muscles can recycle it for more energy. However, it is clear that lasting muscle fatigue starts to accumulate after reaching the lactic acid threshold, which is why terminating an exercise around this time maximizes the ratio of productive training volume to accumulated fatigue.
The final reason for training this why is that by minimizing fatigue, you spare your energy for other activities. Grease the groove was developed for and initially practiced by soldiers, and has since become popular with athletes. It is designed to minimize fatigue in part because it’s meant for people who need to save their energy for other physical activities.
Limitations and Practical Guidelines to Grease the Groove Training
Since it works primarily via neurological adaptations and form practice, the benefits are mostly specific to the movement being performed. Doing GTG style pushups will make you better at pushups, 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% of your 1RM 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 3-6 GTG 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, since your bodyweight counts towards your squat weight. For example, if you weigh 200 pounds and squat 465 pounds, your bodyweight alone puts you at 30% of your 1RM. All you’d need is a couple of 40+ pound dumbbells, or one 80+ pound dumbbell, to put your total weight within the range required by grease the groove training, allowing you to perform GTG-style squats at home.
The main limitation of this style of training is the time required. One informal study conducted by a private training company found that while grease the groove was more effective than traditional training for building strength-endurance, the number of sets required did lead to a higher drop-out rate.
How To Incorporate Grease the Groove Into Your Training
How you use this depends on what you want to accomplish.
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.
If your goal is to maximize the number of reps you perform on a given exercise, simply make grease the groove the mainstay of your training, and perform sets every 15-60 minutes. Nothing beats it for that purpose.
Second, if you’re an athlete who wants to build functional strength-endurance without interfering with your sports training, you can incorporate grease the groove sets into your daily routine. In this case you’ll want to perform sets less frequently, perhaps once an hour or two, to keep the focus on your sport training.
Finally, if you want to use it as an adjunct to traditional strength- or mass-focused weightlifting, as a way to add some extra functional endurance, you can perform grease the groove sets only on the days you don’t work that particular muscle group in the gym. If you want your grease the groove sets to contribute to muscle growth, you can take the final set of an exercise on each day close to muscle failure.