I frequently hear people talk about how the people with the strongest grip are people like dairy farmers, or plumbers, or people who use their hands frequently throughout the day. And then you hear them say things like “I could never have a grip like that. I don’t have that kind of job.” As if that kind of frequent movement isn’t something you can do anywhere.
I also see and hear people who talk about how their daily life isn’t conducive to frequent movement. They’re desk-bound – accountants or computer programmers or help desk reps or things like that. And they let that be an excuse for why they aren’t in better shape.
And yes, if we decide that we’re going to let our jobs define who we are, that’s true. But if we decide that we’re going to define ourselves any way we want to, we can achieve great things through frequent movement and a process known as “greasing the groove.”
“Greasing the groove” is a term created by fitness instructor Pavel Tsatsouline, who is probably most famous in the US for popularizing the use of kettlebells for training. But he’s also a former trainer for the Soviet special forces Spetsnaz units, and has revolutionized the use of lots of training techniques that seem counter-intuitive to those raised on the work-to-failure mindset. It’s been adopted by people like Ben Greenfield, Tim Ferriss, the folks at Breaking Muscle, and millions more.
With “greasing the groove,” you’re doing movements and exercises frequently and regularly, but not to the point of failure. You don’t want to work so hard that you can’t do the exercise later the same day without difficulty. If you start to sweat while doing a set, you’re probably doing too many reps. The idea is to train your body to use your muscles more efficiently and expertly. As soon as your technique begins to suffer, it’s time to stop that set.
One of the things Tsatsouline teaches is that “Strength is a skill.” When you’re exercising, and contracting/releasing muscle fibers, you’re also training your nerves that are signaling to those fibers to contract and release. As your nerves do that signaling more often, they develop a fatty sheath around them that helps to create a sped-up, more efficient signal to those fibers and allow you to contract/release more fibers when you do them. This process is called myelination. So by doing these movements frequently, you get better at them – not just stronger.
But they’re not breaking down muscle and forcing it to repair itself, as the “work to failure” camp does. This may make muscles bigger, but it won’t increase muscle fiber efficiency.
Think of those dairy farmers, plumbers, etc. that I mentioned before. They don’t work like crazy to the point where they can’t move their hands any more when milking cows, or turning wrenches, or whatever, they do it at low levels throughout the day. Yet those folks have some of the strongest grips you’ll ever come across. That’s because the frequent movement they get on the job translates to more efficient movement with better muscle-fiber firing. When they shake your hand, you’re gonna feel it.
And let’s use the example of our hunter-gatherer ancestors, or other modern-day hunter-gatherers, as I love to do. They do a lot of movements frequently – and repeat the same movements throughout the day. They jump over streams, climb trees and rocks, throw spears, lift baskets and bags, and more. And these folks are in great shape and can regularly do feats of strength that make us think they are supermen and women.
Using “greasing the groove” every day
Here’s how I’ve implemented the “greasing the groove” concept into my life: I recently joined up with a group on Facebook who is doing a burpees challenge. The first week of February, we did 30 burpees a day with Sunday as a rest day. The second week, we did 60 per day. This week we’re doing 90 per day, and next week we’ll do 120 per day. Then on the last day of the month, we will do 200.
I am structuring my burpees so that I do them in 6 sets throughout the day. So that means I did 5 per set the first week, 10 last week, 15 this week, and barring working to my form suffering I will do up to 20 next week. What this is doing is training me to do burpees really well. If and when I am running a Spartan Race, then, and I miss an obstacle (god forbid), I will be well prepared to do burpees efficiently and quickly, with as little exhaustion as possible.
And I’ve started doing the same thing with a stress ball I have in the office – working on my grip strength. Once an hour, I squeeze that dude twenty or so times with each hand.
This technique would be great with any of the major movements you might do – air squats, pull-ups, obviously burpees, and things like that. Any movement that you want to repeat regularly with good form and efficiency is a great candidate for this work. So for example, if you can do a maximum of ten pull-ups, you could do sets of three or four throughout the day. Some techniques people use is the “every hour on the hour” technique. Some people will set up a pull-up bar in their house and do a set every time they pass through that doorway. Some will do them in accordance with some other task – for instance, every time you stand up from your desk you do a set of push-ups or kettlebell swings.
And if you use this sort of routine with big-muscle/full-body movements like burpees, then you’re also benefiting from the frequent movement from various angles and directions that we’ve talked about before.
So try out a “greasing the groove” regimen for a month. Test yourself with something like push-ups – do a test to see what your one-set maximum is. Then do 40% of that max several times a day for a month or so, and then go back and test it again. You’ll see just how effective this technique can be!
Have you tried this technique? Do you have any tips for others who want to give it a shot? Share below in the comments!