A few years ago, haunted by vague memories of being a weak middle-schooler, Brett McKay decided he wanted to be able to do more pull-ups. McKay, who runs the website and podcast The Art of Manliness, had in the past tried doing a traditional, twice-weekly regimen, gradually building up his reps. But this time, he turned to a training technique from Pavel Tsatsouline, a former Soviet trainer who is credited with getting Americans into kettlebells, the rounded weights with handles for swinging or lifting.
After reading a book by Tsatsouline, McKay decided he needed a radical approach to his fitness routine. He needed to grease the groove.
Greasing the groove, as Tsatsouline explains it, means not working your muscles to the point of failure. A common idea in weightlifting is that you should lift until you can’t do another rep, purposely damaging muscle tissues so they grow back bigger. But muscle failure, Tsatsouline writes in his 1999 book, Power to the People! Russian Strength Training Secrets for Every American, “is more than unnecessary—it is counterproductive!”
Instead, Tsatsouline advocates lifting weights for no more than five repetitions, resting for a bit between sets and reps, and not doing too many sets. For a runner, this would be like going for a four-mile jog, but taking a break to drink water and stretch every mile. Tsatsouline’s book suggests spending 20 minutes at the gym, tops, five days a week. In this way, he claims, you grease the neurological “groove,” or pathway, between your brain and the exercises your body performs. It’s not exactly the brutal routine you’d expect from someone billed as a Soviet weight lifter. But Tsatsouline contends this is the most effective way to build strength.