It’s always nice to come across books that deliver a key aspect of training in a way that the lay person can easily digest. A couple years ago, I decided to look into some of Pavel Tsatsouline’s work, having heard Gray Cook (of FMS) routinely quote him with a great deal of respect . For those who are unfamiliar with Pavel, we have him to thank for the popularity of kettlebell training here in the West, and for some of our best resources for kettlebell technique (including the highly-regarded Russian Kettlebell Certification, or RKC).
In his popular book The Naked Warrior, Pavel describes a system of supplemental strength training that he calls “Grease the Groove” (GTG). The idea is that, in addition to your normal training regimen, you select one or two movements in which you want to increase your strength, and practice them periodically throughout the day. (Some conditions apply, but we’ll get to that.) What this system, and the book in general, delivers to the reader is the concept that strength training is a skill to be learned and practiced, like any other, and idea that is unfortunately lacking in much of the general fitness community.
Before we talk about the specifics of GTG and how you can integrate it into your practice, it would help for you to understand how we acquire skills in the first place, so we’ll start with a little primer on motor learning.
How Practice Works
We all know, of course, that quality practice is a key ingredient for enhancing awesomeness. It’s a simple process of fine-tuning the wiring in your nervous system by constantly reinforcing the desired pattern of activation. Every time you execute a skill, that motor pathway (the wires that coordinate and deliver the movement instructions to your muscles) becomes a little more efficient, and before you know it your clunky, haphazard keystrokes become a beautiful sonata. It’s easy to think of practice in terms of learning the piano, perfecting your golf swing, juggling chainsaws, and stuff like that, but what most of us don’t realize is that this process rules basically everything we learn to do, and that includes strength training.
So, in comes Pavel’s “Grease the Groove” (GTG) system. Strange name, right? It refers to the same motor learning principle I mentioned above. Consider each pattern a “groove” in your nervous system. You know how when you’re learning a new skill it’s very easy to stray outside of that pattern? (For example, hitting a bunch of wrong notes when learning a piano melody.) Every time you execute an accurate repetition of that skill, this metaphorical groove gets a little bit deeper and smoother, so its easier to execute the skill properly with much less thought and effort. In terms of what’s actually happening in your nervous system, your brain is trimming off unnecessary connections between nerve cells that might lead the pattern astray (deepening the “groove”) and insulating (“greasing”) the wires so that signals travel faster and more efficiently.
The best analogy I’ve ever heard for this principle of refining motor patterns (and I wish I could remember where I came across it) is sliding down a snowy hill. (This is something with which most Canadians have plenty of experience.) Every time your sled travels down the hill in the same place, it deepens the path that was created by the last trip and packs the snow a little tighter. This makes it very easy to stay on course, since your sled can’t really stray outside of the path without great effort, and you travel faster because the snow is so packed and polished.
Why Sloppy Practice is Terrible
The sled analogy also illustrates an important side effect of reinforcing a motor pattern; each time you deepen the groove, it becomes a little more difficult to stray to the side. This has huge implications to the effects of the quality of your practice in the long term. If you perform a ton of sloppy repetitions, you are just deepening the groove for the sloppy pattern, and when you finally decide to buckle down and do things correctly it is much more difficult to create that quality pattern. This is because the two paths are very close and similar in your brain, and each time you try to go down that new, quality path (which is not very deep or greasy), you will tend to stray into that old pattern (which is not unlike a canyon lined with Vaseline). In the end, you will have to carefully and painstakingly groove a new pattern that is much deeper than the old one, and take great care to stop reinforcing the old pattern so it can begin to degrade.
Retraining an old, lousy motor pattern is a huge pain in the ass, so make sure you start reaching for quality right from the beginning. This doesn’t mean that your initial efforts won’t suck (because they probably will), it just means that you shouldn’t be complacent with the suckage. Keep trying to do better! Get some quality instruction and kick your learning speed into high-gear. Refining a skill isn’t just about practice, but about perfect practice that is constantly scaled to your level to deliver the best learning experience possible.
Practicing Being Strong
What many people don’t realize is that your nervous system plays a huge role in your ability to generate force. Practicing your strength movements will make you more efficient at executing that skill, which makes sense; but practicing creating tension in your strength movements also makes you strong. Many improvements take place in your neuromuscular system as you practice generating strength: your brain is able to send stronger signals to your muscles, you coordinate contraction between bundles of muscle more efficiently, and you are able to generate high levels of force more rapidly (and these aren’t the only changes that occur). In short, you slowly unlock the potential for strength that already exists in your muscles, while at the same time laying down new muscle tissue and enhancing the capacity of your body to withstand that force during the course of your training program.
Greasing the Groove
The basic idea behind the GTG system is that you select one or two movements that you want to strengthen and practice them in small amounts throughout the day. Consistently expose your nervous system to the movement, and practice expressing strength through that pattern. For example, if I wanted to improve my strength in the handstand, I might periodically do short bursts of wall-facing handstand holds throughout the day.
There are a few important points you want to keep in mind when beginning GTG:
- Choose an Appropriate Skill for Your Level: I might want to improve my push-up, but if I can’t even execute a single rep without it being sloppy I would probably get better results from instead using something like a plank or an eccentric push-up for my GTG exercise (for these are the building blocks of the push-up).
- Make it Look Good: Sloppy practice is worse than useless. Every bad rep you do is one step in the opposite direction from awesomeness. Make sure every GTG rep you perform is at peak quality! (Remember, however, that perfection is a pipe dream; just work to the best of your ability, and follow Rule #1!)
- Don’t Work Too Hard: If you take yourself too close to failure for several sets a day, it’s going to catch up with you. The idea behind GTG is to add lots of extra practice without dramatically increasing your need for recovery or compromising the rest of your training. Pavel recommends doing about half of what you’d consider a truly challenging set. (Err on the side of conservatism when you first try to implement GTG.)
Follow those basic rules, and improvement should come easily. You might notice that in the amount of reps you’re able to do while still considering it “easy work”. Another, more structured, way that you might gauge your progress is to see how many consecutive reps you can do before beginning GTG, and then test yourself again after a few weeks. (If you choose to use this test/retest strategy, make sure you’re well-recovered from all training on those days, and try to perform each test under similar conditions, like the same time of day!)
GTG and Loaded Movement
If you want to use GTG for more demanding exercises, like a deadlift for example, you’ll probably want to keep in pretty low-key. Loaded exercises can put big load on the whole system, and that can take its toll if you aren’t recovering sufficiently. I would recommend that you work your way up to the load you want to lift (keeping the volume low through those warm-up sets), and make sure you keep the reps low once you reach your desired load (for example, you might work up to a double or single at your 5RM load). Since you will be experiencing a little more volume because of the necessity of a few warm-up sets, you’ll probably want to cut the frequency of your GTG practice back to once per day. Even then, err on the side of doing too little as you gauge how it is affecting you. Monitor your training and how you’re feeling, and be ready to modify (or take a break from) your GTG work as necessary.
Regardless of your chosen skill, remember that your ability to tolerate training is dependant on your experience, age, and lifestyle. If you’ve been training seriously and with quality for years, you’re probably going to be able to handle more work. Regardless, your recovery habits (nutrition, sleep, mobility, etc.) play a huge role in your training in general, so make sure you give them a boost as you add a bunch of GTG to your daily grind.
So, if there is a movement you have been struggling to improve, why not give Grease the Groove a shot? It can sound like a pain, but every little burst of effort you put in only costs you a minute or so. But make sure you play by the rules! Pick a movement that is appropriate for you, perform it with quality, and don’t work so hard that you beat yourself up.
Obviously I took this post as an opportunity to deliver a classic ear-beating (eye-beating?) about the importance of quality practice, but hopefully I put the fear of sleds in you. Breaking old habits is damn hard! Those who experience the most success in skillful pursuits are the ones who figure out good practice sooner than later. That said, if you’re late to the party and realize you’ve been pretty lax with your practice habits, now is the next best time to start! It will take focus and effort, but you can definitely turn things around.
Whether you’re a trainer, coach, athlete, or just someone who wants to get fit, I totally recommend you pick up a copy of The Naked Warrior, or really any of Pavel’s books in general. (The Naked Warrior focuses mainly on progressions for the single arm push-up and the pistol squat, so you’ll want to look to his other publications for kettlebell info!)