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Greasing the groove: small sets for big progress

A member of HMCS Whitehorse does weight training while sailing in preparation to respond to Operation LASER or Operation LENTUS tasks on April 23, 2020.

Greasing the groove: small sets for big progress

By Gage Smith,
Fitness and Sports Instructor, CFB Halifax

If your objective was to learn to play the violin, perfect your tennis serve, or improve your free throw percentage, how would you go about improving your skill? Would you practice once or twice a week at an extreme intensity, or would you take a more deliberate and conservative approach and practice often, with bouts both short and long? Clearly the second strategy would yield better progress on these skills, but how does this relate to exercise and physical development? Believe it or not, some movements respond well to this unorthodox approach that has become known as “greasing the groove”. This approach relies on very frequent, very submaximal sets of a given movement or movements that you are trying to improve. Let’s take a closer look at how and when to apply this strategy, as well as when it might be best to take another approach.

Greasing the groove works best with low stress, minimal equipment bodyweight movements. My best advice is to only use this approach with either the pushup OR the pullup, and to account for the additional volume appropriate in your main training sessions. While some have had success using this approach with other movements such as pistol squats or kettlebell presses, these movements present too many variables for me to advise using the grease the groove approach in good conscience. Using this approach with bodyweight movements, however, allows to maximize frequency and deliberate, specific practice without overreaching. This can be a fantastic strategy for those needing to improve these movements for an occupational PT test, or anyone trying to keep from going stir crazy in lockdown. I would definitely avoid this approach with any barbell movements, though something very skill intensive with a low demand on recovery, like a handstand hold, would be a great fit.

An effective greasing the groove approach can take many different forms. Someone with a very high max set of pull ups or pushups may be able to make great progress with one or two near max sets per day ( morning and evening would suit most people’s scheduling just fine), while someone struggling to perform 2 or 3 pull ups would be much better served to do a single rep as frequently as possible. The rules here are simple, albeit a little vague, and they do require some customization.

Perform the movement often. Perform an amount of reps that feels like work, but is nowhere near difficult or intense enough to impede recovery. If in doubt, do less reps. The frequency is the key here. You would be shocked by how much weekly volume you can accumulate by setting small challenges for yourself. You could perform 5 or 10 pushups every waking hour, or perform a small set of pullups (30-50% of your max) every time you pass by your doorway pullup bar. These small, low stress sets are just a drop in the bucket. But the bucket fills up over time, and before you know it, you’ve made considerable changes to both your physique and your performance.