Greasing the Groove: Build Strength Without Pain

Man with tribal tattoos is doing a calisthenics incline push-up exercise on a calisthenics park

Greasing the Groove is a method that allows even a beginner at Calisthenics to build strength and endurance, without those dreaded muscle aches the next day. There are many exercises in Calisthenics that many consider hard but would still like to perform adequate repetition sets off. Our mind immediately goes to the Pull-Up and Push-Up, two fundamental Calisthenics exercises. The reality is most average people cannot perform even 1 perfect form Pull-Up. How do you get to that point where you Calisthenics can build muscle through decent overload? Greasing the Groove is one such method that gradually builds up your muscles, without pain and without the effort typically associated with most other routines.

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The meaning of Greasing the Groove

The Groove refers to the difficulty curve of your exercises which is intrinsically linked to your neural pathways (or neural grooves). Building muscle with Calisthenics means gradual muscle overload, and if you plotted this on a graph it would look like a linear progression curve. To see increased gains, you need to continually (or periodically at least) increase the number of repetitions or resistance you experience. This groove is what holds most people back and is the hard part about physical exercise. If you’re doing things you find easy, there won’t be any serious backlash in terms muscle fatigue or pain. But you won’t see any gains either. Your “progression” is flat. The only remedy is to increase the resistance, inducing fatigue and pain but also those gains you’re after.

Greasing the Groove is a method where you make this progression a lot less fatiguing and painful. If done at its slowest pace, you can even eliminate any noteworthy muscle pain while still seeing muscle gains. The technique is like “grease” making your movement along your progression groove a lot smoother. Later on in this article, we’ll examine how this ties into your neural pathways and why, essentially, progression curves and neuromuscular junctions (synapses) are practically synonymous.

With Greasing the Groove, you exercise with light resistance only, you train with very small sets that you can handle easily, and you repeat those sets many times over the course of day. Finally, the intermittence between sets is as long as it takes for your muscles to completely wind down. Summarized, a Grease the Groove program looks a little like this:

  • Small set that you can manage easily without tiring (at all)
  • Long period of rest (1 hour+)
  • Another small set that you manage with ease
  • Repeat

How Greasing the Groove Works

You can grow stronger in 2 ways: 

  1. You train your muscles until they’re fatigued by applying an overload. This will cause micro lacerations in your muscle tissue. These get repaired by filling the gaps in with new muscle tissue with the aim to induce Supercompensation. The result is the previous muscle mass PLUS the new fill-in muscle tissue after repair. Together with plenty of nutrition and rest, this process builds stronger and bigger muscles that are adjusted to this new level of resistance. In Calisthenics we like to call this Hypertrophy, where you continually induce Supercompensation until your body is in a nigh-constant state of adding new muscle mass. 
  1. With weightlifting you train your neuromuscular junctions (synapses) in synthesizing any movement pattern in your muscles[1] In short and easy terms: the more often you do a certain type of movement, the more your body gets used to it. To move, your brain sends a signal through your nerves to your muscles. By repeating the same movement over and over, the nerves around your muscle will finetune the movement and get better at it. This results in improved resistance to fatigue, increasing the amount of used motor units in your body and getting stronger. 

Greasing the Groove focuses on the second method. With normal weight training, you’ll also get neuromuscular junction improvements. Greasing the Groove is different in that it tries to avoid fatigue. When your muscles get tired, they won’t be able to do fluent perfect patterns needed to reinforce those desired neural pathways. This is where Pavel Tsatsouline says training until fatigue is counterproductive. If you train to fatigue too quickly, you’re getting less repetitions in total and less time for your neural pathways to develop. Drawn to its conclusion this would imply that any training past the first hint of fatigue is essentially wasted energy, since the exertion of your muscles in itself means they’re no longer applying the perfect form necessary to construct perfect neural pathways.

A Greasing the Groove workout then consists of very small repetition sets, with long pauses between individual sets. You don’t fatigue your muscles in any significant way and, according to Pavel Tsatsouline, this is the most efficient way of developing your neural pathways. The rest almost comes of its own accord. You repeat the exercise many times, creating a positive feedback loop between your brain and the muscles. With the proliferation of neural pathways and their strengthening, gaining muscle becomes easier and easier.

We should note here that this is not hypertrophy. Greasing the Groove does not induce hypertrophy first and foremost. It mainly builds strength and skill.

Pavel Tsatsouline, Inventor of Greasing the Groove

Pavel Tsatsouline was born in Minsk, Belorussia and became a purported member of the Soviet Union’s elite SPETZNAZ special forces unit as a PT instructor. He brought many of their training techniques to the United States where he instructed the U.S. Marines and U.S. Navy SEALS in them. Many of these techniques involve using kettlebells and he is one of the primary drivers of their popularity in the West. Soon after, he also released these training techniques to the public.

He is known for his dark and self-deprecating humor in both his books and online video courses, where he plays the “evil Russian” by exaggerating his Russian accent and using dungeon decorum. He is, though, very much a Westerner by now who has contributed to the training methods of the armed forces of the Free World and has allowed us to benefit from such great techniques as Greasing the Groove.

Some of Pavel Tsatsouline books are,

  • Power to the People! Russian Strength Training Secrets for Every American (2000)
  • Enter The Kettlebell! Strength Secret of the Soviet Supermen (2018)
  • Kettlebell Simple & Sinister: Revised and Updated (2019)

“Power to the People!” also discusses the Greasing the Groove method at length and is the inspiration for this article. If you’d like a more in-depth explanation from the very source, we recommend you add this book to your collection of Calisthenics Books.

Why Greasing the Groove is Effective

Unconsciously, Greasing the Groove has been the mainstay of virtually all Martial Arts since the dawn of mankind. To learn a technique perfectly, many Martial Arts uphold the same adage of repeating simple movements over and over without overexertion. This is perhaps best illustrated in Win Chun and Karate where the “rule” is to repeat the same technique 10.000 times with perfect form every time before you can consider that technique learned. The strike or kick then comes as second nature, as effortless as breathing in and out.

Greasing the Groove mimics this same neural pathway function in grinding motions into your nerves, creating a “groove” if you will. Since you never really tire, you maintain perfect form, until the execution of say Pull-Ups or Push-Ups comes as easy to you as scratching your head or walking. If the technique itself has become easy to you and the muscles involved strengthened and hardened, doing 20 Pull-Ups is the same as doing 1 Pull-Up. 

Aside from the purely biomechanical reason why Greasing the Groove is effective, there are other more logistical reasons:

  • It combines better with an active day job where you’re expected to perform physically
  • It combines better with some schedules where you can’t spend hours in the gym
  • It helps maintain your muscles if you’re temporarily away from home (vacation/travel)
  • It is cheap

How to Start a Greasing the Groove Workout

Starting a Grease the Groove workout is simple, if you keep a few factors in mind. We’ll go over how you can implement it into your daily routine. The key takeaway is that you perform your exercises every day, with minimal effort and spread over the entire day. Here are 4 key parameters you should keep in mind when you start exercising using Greasing the Groove.

Choose Simple Movements You Know

Choose a simple technique you already know or can learn relatively easily. Greasing the Groove works best with gross motor skills, not technically elaborate moves. This puts a limit on the number of techniques which are both effective at building strength while also being prime targets for neural pathway enhancements. The most common techniques in Calisthenics where you can grease the groove are:

  • Push-Ups
  • Pull-Ups
  • Dips
  • Squats
  • Lunges

You’ll notice that these target large muscle groups and the larger muscles in your body. We advise against doing difficult variations of these techniques until you are a more advanced practitioner. The setup of Greasing the Groove most likely attracts the beginner Calisthenics practitioner, and it is important you first learn perfect form.

Determine an Easy Repetition Set

You’ll want to determine an easy set that you can repeat without tiring your muscles. Optimally, you’ll feel ‘just on the edge of beginning to feel tired’ at the end of the day, so after you’ve done all your sets. This takes a little tweaking on your part and may take you a few trial days. Once you’ve settled into a Greasing the Groove routine, you can simply build up your repetitions from there. A good starting point, as a rule of thumb, is 50% of your usual set. If you normally do 10 repetitions, bring this down to 5 and see how you fair for a day. Bring it down more if you feel any hint of actual fatigue and muscle ache the day after.

Avoid Doing Too Many Sets

Since you perform low repetition sets and take long breaks between sets, it is tempting to pack many sets into a single day. We advise against this, and instead recommend you focus on setting an easy number of repetitions per set and limiting the number of sets per day to 5, with upwards of 1 hour rest between sets. This rest period may extend to multiple hours in between if you need to, or you can decrease the number of reps per set. Your goal is then to increase the number of reps per set on a given day. Here is an example:

9AM11AM1PM3PM5PM
3 reps3 reps3 reps3 reps3 reps

After doing this for a week, you may try to add 1 rep per set. If that is too hard, you can add 1 rep to only 1 or 2 sets a day;

9AM11AM1PM3PM5PM
3 reps3 reps3 reps3 reps3 reps
4 reps4 reps3 reps3 reps3 reps
4 reps4 reps4 reps4 reps3 reps
4 reps4 reps4 reps4 reps4 reps

You increase the number of reps like this gradually, always being careful that the new level of resistance does not tire your muscles for any given set. Optimally, when you are done with your final set of the day you feel like your muscles are “just tipping against” feeling fatigued. Do this right and you’ll have gotten maximum efficiency from the energy you’ve invested in neural pathway development.

Avoid Overlap with Existing Routines

You should limit your Greasing the Groove Routine to a single exercise technique and then eliminate the same technique from any regular Calisthenics Program you might be following. Having the technique in your regular program would defeat the purpose of Greasing the Groove. This can be more complicated than meets the eye. If you’re Greasing the Groove for Push-Ups, then you also can’t do any dips or Push-Up variations in your regular exercise program since these (partially) target the same muscles. You want to prevent muscle fatigue, after all. 

Grease the Groove Pull-Ups and Push-Ups Program

Here are two programs for the most popular exercises where Greasing the Groove is often implemented. These would of course be to grease the groove for Pull-Ups and for Push-Ups. You will start with 1 or 2 preparation days, where you will determine your “easy set”. You can do this set and repeat it 5 times a day and the last set of the day just about hints at getting tiresome without really straining you.

Preparation Day 1

  • Perform 1 maximum set (RMa) of your chosen exercise and note the number
  • Take a 2+ hour rest
  • Perform 1 maximum set (RMb) again and note the number
  • Take a 2+ hour rest
  • Perform 1 maximum set (RMc) again and note the number

Add your test results together and divide them by three. This will be your mean RM (Repeated Maximum):

(RMa + RMb + RMc) / 3 = RM (rounded)

Example: you managed 10, 9 and 6 for each test. The resulting mean RM would be 10 + 9 + 6 (=25), divided by 3 = 8.3. Your mean RM is 8.

Preparation Day 2

You find your easy set (eRM) by dividing your mean RM by 2 and adjusting from there. During this day, you will perform 5 sets like a regular Greasing the Groove day starting with this hypothetical eRM. 

Hypothetical eRM = RM / 2 (rounded up)

You perform 5 sets divided over the day using your hypothetical eRM as a basis. If you ever fail a set to your eRM, remove the remainder of that failed set from all sets (as far as evenly possible) over the day and test again. 

Example: In our previous example your RM was 8, divided by 2 your eRM would be 4. We now do 5 sets of 4 repetitions a day:

9AM11AM1PM3PM5PM
44444

Let’s say we fail the last set of the day with only 1 rep. We take the remainder of that set, 3 reps, and subtract it evenly from the previous sets. In this case, you could subtract 1 from each set before you failed and that last set itself:

9AM11AM1PM3PM5PM
44333

This is now your new eRM to start Greasing the Groove. It may need some more slight adjustments, either up or down, but this is a good method to get a ballpark estimate quickly.

Grease the Groove Pull-Ups Program

To grease the groove for Pull-Ups is possibly the most popular application of this method in Calisthenics. If you’re trying to do 20 Pull-Ups, then this is one of the easiest methods to get there without burning yourself out. Coincidentally, it is often also one of the fastest ways to get there. Here’s how you start:

Determine your eRM using the method described above. Progress this eRM week by week at first. Once you get more experienced, you can try progressing it day by day. A week-by-week progression may look like this (each new line is a day in a new week):

9AM11AM1PM3PM5PM
44333
44443
44444
5544
55554
55555
66555
66665
Et cetera    

If you ever fail a set now, revert one or more sets back to that of the previous week and build those sets up to your new eRM first. For beginners, we recommend a sturdy, affordable standard-sized Pull-Up Bar, either a Free-Standing Pull-Up Bar or a Doorway Pull-Up Bar.

Grease the Groove Push-Ups Program

Another popular application of this method is to grease the groove for Push-Ups. You can follow the exact same routine as described above for Pull-Ups. For most people, Push-Ups are easier than Pull-Ups so you might see a much higher number of RM and eRM to begin with and see them rise quicker over the weeks. However, Push-Ups are more injury-prone than Pull-Ups so for the beginner, we recommend the use of either Push-Up Bars or low Parallettes. These reduce the risk of wrist strain, especially now that you’re doing this exercise every single day.

Personal Experience with Greasing the Groove 

Like everyone in our always busy Western world, our personal lives and jobs take a chunk out of our time to do Calisthenics. Between that and maintaining this blog, precious little time remains to maintain our physiques, let alone improve them. When you factor in things like travelling as well, it becomes hard enough to find a consistent 60 to 90 minutes timeframe multiple times a week. Adding an additional workout load for improvement just isn’t always feasible.

This is what got us interested in Greasing the Groove in the first place as a method that might better combine with our normal schedule. We decided to grease the groove with Pull-Ups and Push-Ups, divided between the both of us. Here are our results for 2 months: 

Jari (Pull-Ups)

  • RM: 14 Pull-Ups
  • eRM: 7 Pull-Ups
9AM11AM1PM3PM5PM
77754
66666
77666
77776
77777
88776
88887
88888

On day 5 of week 1, I missed my mark twice, missing out on a total of 5 repetitions. These were deducted from week 2 evenly, or 6 repetitions for every set. From there on, my growth was linear and quite steep, and I missed only one mark in week 6 which was caught up on the next week. 

After 2 months, I was doing 40 Pull-Ups a day. Combining sets back again, I can now beat the 20 Pull-Ups challenge with relative ease.

Jelle (Push-Ups)

  • RM: 38
  • eRM: 19
9AM11AM1PM3PM5PM
191918105
1414141413
1414141414
1515151414
1515151515
1616151515
1616161615
1616161616

With Jelle we saw the shortcomings of a ballpark estimate like eRM. For very high RM numbers, you may need to do more adjustment than with low RM numbers, in some cases. Doing a total of 19×5 = 95 Push-Up a day was too much to ask even for formidable Jelle. We took the 24 missing reps and removed them, coming to 14 repetitions per set.

After adjusting, we again see quite a quick, linear progression where we hit a plateau of about 16 repetitions. 

A single RM set after 8 weeks brought Jelle up to 48 Push-Ups. That’s a whole extra set of 10 Push-Ups in a normal Calisthenics Program. For someone starting with a high repetition count already, and factoring in the law of diminishing returns for someone already trained, this is quite a significant gain!

Conclusions About Greasing the Groove

Pavel Tsatsouline, through his comic antics, has managed to revolutionize the way we think about training and building muscle. If you’re after functional strength, which a soldier primarily is interested in, then Greasing the Groove is an effective method of training. We need to remember the setting of this training method. As a soldier, you’re not particularly interested in being absolutely destroyed by a single 60-minute workout and then being useless the rest of the day. No, there’s still more marching to be done. In this light, Greasing the Groove makes perfect sense.  Science backs up this commonsense approach to training. 

What will happen when you Grease the Groove? You’ll get stronger and you’ll produce more repetitions, that’s for sure. It’s a good way to hit those benchmarks if that’s what you’re after. Some of the other advantages but also disadvantages lie in what Greasing the Groove does not do. You will be less fatigued and feel much less to no muscle ache. It requires less of a single time chunk than other routines. However, it won’t induce as much hypertrophy, so gains in terms of muscle size will be less.

The decision lies with you and how you choose to fill in your days and weeks. If you are strapped for time, but you can squeeze in multiple small windows of opportunity to exercise, Greasing the Groove might be exactly what you need. If you’re after increasing your number of repetitions, then this method is also very effective. Finally, if you want to improve in one key area, say Pull-Ups, and you’re already combining this with an existing general purpose Calisthenics Program then Greasing the Groove would integrate into that very well.

For those Calisthenics enthusiasts or beginners looking to build their body this way, the Complete Calisthenics Course from Cali Move comes to mind immediately. This course is probably the most general purpose (and we mean that in a very good way) of all, to which Greasing the Groove could be ideally added and where you simply skip that exercise, that you are greasing the groove with from the regular program.

Cali Move Complete Calisthenics

Get it here:

calimove.com

Frequently Asked Questions About Greasing the Groove

Several questions came up to grease the groove further.

Does greasing the groove actually work?

Yes, Greasing the Groove works and can significantly increase your number of repetitions as well as your physical strength.

Does greasing the groove build muscle?

Greasing the Groove is mainly meant to build functional strength, not muscle mass. It does not introduce significant hypertrophy like regular Calisthenics would. Muscle strength rather than mass is what you get from this method.

Where did greasing the groove come from?

Greasing the Groove was introduced in the West by Pavel Tsatsouline from Belorussia, a former SPETZNAZ trainer who “defected” to the United States.

How many times a day should I grease the groove?
You should aim for 5 sets a day, each set being very easy to manage. Ideally, at the end of the 5th set you should feel just the first hint of becoming tired. The pause between sets can be upward of 2 hours.
What is the best way to grease the groove?

The best way is to find your easy set, which you can perform up to 5 times a day without tiring. You can start with half (50%) of your maximum set and repeat that 5 times with long pauses. Adjusting the set might be necessary. After that, you can gradually increase individual sets of your day, all the while not exceeding any set or sets over the day where you’d feel tired or sore.

Who invented greasing the groove?

Pavel Tsatsouline from Belorussia is a former SPETZNAZ PT instructor and is credited with inventing and bringing the method of Greasing the Groove to the West. He first did this by instructing U.S. Marines and U.S. Navy SEALS in this way.

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