With our archives now 3,500+ articles deep, we’ve decided to republish a classic piece each Sunday to help our newer readers discover some of the best, evergreen gems from the past. This article was originally published in January 2016.
To become a defter tennis player you have to practice tennis. To become a better chef, you have to practice cooking. To become a more masterful piano player, you have to practice piano.
And to become an all-around stronger man, you have to practice strength.
You might not have thought of strength as something to be practiced, but you ought to. According to Pavel Tsatsouline, former Soviet special forces instructor and the father of the kettlebell in the West, “Strength is a skill.” And like any skill, it’s one you’ve got to consistently work at.
One of the ways to build the skill of strength is by what Pavel calls “greasing the groove.” What exactly greasing the groove means, and how you can use this exercise method to build strength is what we’ll explain today.
Practice, Skill, and the Muscle-Neuron Connection
When you lift a heavy weight (be it yourself or a barbell), your muscles contract. That contraction begins when your nervous system sends a signal to your muscle fibers. When a movement is performed over and over again, and the muscle fibers repeatedly receive an identical signal, a more efficient neuromuscular motor pattern develops.
The process by which neurons become more efficient is called myelination. Through regular practice of a movement, a fatty white substance forms a sheath around the axons of nerve cells that allows the nerve impulse to move more quickly.
The faster your nerve cells can fire, the faster your muscles can contract, the more ingrained a motor pattern gets in your neurobiology, and the easier and more natural a movement becomes. You don’t have to think about walking because you’ve been practicing it daily for years and years. If you started playing the piano at age 30, at first it would feel very awkward, but it would become more and more instinctive with years of practice.
Efficient neuromuscular motor patterns not only make movements easier to perform, but also lend the movement more potential force. The faster the muscles contract when a signal hits them, the greater the number of muscle fibers that actually contract. Combine faster muscle contraction with more fibers contracting and you’re able to exert more force. Thus, neuromuscular efficiency makes you stronger. Yay science!
Thus, one way to get stronger is by practicing the skill of strength, and you do that by greasing the groove.
How to Practice the Skill of Strength: Greasing the Groove
There are two primary ways to get strong. With the first, you lift progressively heavier weights, which causes micro trauma (tiny tears) in the muscle fiber itself. The muscle fibers recover and then adapt to the load, so that they rebuild stronger than before.
The other way to get stronger is by regularly doing strength exercises with lighter reps and weight, but doing them more often than you would a heavy workout. This teaches your muscles to fire more efficiently, or in other words, “greases the groove.”
“Greasing the groove” (GtG) is a phrase Pavel coined to describe what you’re doing when you consistently practice a specific strength skill. The more you practice, the more of a pathway forms between your muscles and your nervous system. Or in other words, the more you practice, the more you “grease the neurological groove.” By regularly doing strength movements, we help the myelination process along, and increase the efficiency of the neuromuscular connections involved in those exercises. The more efficiently you can perform an exercise, the more reps you can do, and the more reps you can do, the stronger you become.
By regularly doing proper pull-ups, for example, you’re “greasing” the neurological groove that allows you to fire the muscles that are involved with performing pull-ups efficiently and effectively. Likewise, continually greasing the groove will make doing perfect push-ups feel more and more natural and easier, allowing you to gradually do more reps and building your strength in that exercise.
If you want to implement the GtG tool into your strength-building arsenal, here are the basics:
Pick an exercise in