Pavel Tsatsouline Copyright 1999 Advanced Fitness Solutions, Inc.
This article was first published in MILO: A Journal for Serious Strength Athletes under the heading “Chain Yourself to the Squat Rack and Call Me in a Year.” Back issues and subscriptions are available from www.ironmind.com.
Grease the Groove for Strength
by Pavel Tsatsouline, Master of Sports
Our communist enemies, who are trying to bury us, have exercise breaks instead of coffee breaks.
-Bob Hoffman, York Barbell Club
Your grandmother used to tell you: to get good at something, you must do it often, do it a lot, and do it to the exclusion of other things. Yet you never listened, why you little..! If you did, how would you ever get the bright idea of deadlifting once every two weeks and doing ten assistance exercises for the bench press?
Specificity + frequent practice = success. It is so obvious, most people don’t get it. Once I came across a question posted on a popular powerlifting website by a young Marine: how should he train to be able to do more chin-ups? I was amused when I read the arcane and non-specific advice the trooper had received: straight-arm pull-downs, reverse curls, avoiding the negative part of the chin-up every third workout… I had a radical thought: if you want to get good at chin-ups, why not try to do… a lot of chin-ups? Just a couple of months earlier I had put my father-in-law Roger Antonson, incidentally an ex-Marine, on a program which required him to do an easy five chins every time he went down to his basement. Each day he would total between twenty-five and a hundred chin-ups hardly breaking a sweat. Every month or so Roger would take a few days off and then test himself. Before you knew it, the old leatherneck could knock off twenty consecutive chins, more than he could do forty years ago during his service with the few good men!
A few months later Roger sold his house and moved to an apartment. A paranoid Stalinist that I am, I suspected that he plotted to work around the ‘chin every time you go to the basement’ clause. By the degree of the Politbureau Comrade Antonson was issued one of those ‘Door Gym’ pull-up bars. Roger wisely conceded to the will of the Party and carried on with his ‘grease the chin-up groove’ program. Roger Ivanovich’s next objective is a one-arm chin. He just does not know it yet.
My father, a Soviet Army officer, had me follow an identical routine in my early testosterone years. My parents’ apartment had a built in storage space above the kitchen door (it is a Russian design, you wouldn’t understand). Every time I left the kitchen I would hang on to the ledge and crank out as many fingertip pull-ups as I could without struggle. Consequently, high school pull-up tests were a breeze.
Both Roger and I got stronger through the process of synaptic facilitation. Neurogeeks never got around to telling iron heads that repetitive and reasonably intense stimulation of a motoneuron increases the strength of its synaptic connections and may even form new synapses. Translated in English it means that multiple repetitions of a bench press will ‘grease up’ this powerlift’s groove. More ‘juice’ will reach the muscle when you are benching your max. The muscle will contract harder and you will have a new PR to brag about. Four times powerlifting world record holder Dr. Judd Biasiotto set up a bench in his kitchen, got in the habit of hitting it every time he was in the area and put up a 319BP @ 132!
Obviously, you do not have to be a Commie weightlifter with Rocky IV pharmacy to benefit from high volume heavy training. Here is how you can to set up a ‘grease the groove’ program for one rep max strength or for strength endurance in your dungeon:
The science of motor learning explains that an extreme, all out movement is operated by a program different from that used for the identical task performed at a moderate intensity. As far as your nervous system is concerned, throwing a football for maximum distance is a totally different ball game than passing it ten yards, no pun intended. According to Russian scientist Matveyev (yeah, the chap who invented periodization), you must train with at least 80% 1RM weights if you intend to make a noticeable impact on your max. According to Prof. Verkhoshansky, another mad scientist from the Empire of Evil, for elite athletes this minimal load is even higher -85% 1RM. Yet many comrades will be very successful greasing the groove with 60-80% weights as long they emphasize the competitive technique -high tension, Power Breathing, etc.
Naturally, if you are training for strength endurance rather than absolute strength, you should train with lighter loads. To meet the Soviet Special Forces pull-up standard of eighteen consecutive dead hang reps stick to your bodyweight plus heavy regulation boots.
It is critical for the program’s success that you avoid muscle failure as aerobic classes and rice cakes. Do not come even close to failure, whether you train for max or repetitions! A triple with a five-rep max or ten pull-ups if twenty is your PR will do the trick. The secret to this workout is performing a lot of work with reasonably heavy weights. Pushing to exhaustion will burn out your neuromuscular system and force you to cut back on the weights or tonnage.
According to former world weight lifting champion Prof. Arkady Vorobyev, one to six reps are optimal for training of high caliber weightlifters and increasing this number hinders strength development. Or, as Luke Iams put it, “Anything over six reps is bodybuilding.”
Do more reps, and your body will think that you are practicing a totally different lift. Dr. Biasiotto who once squatted an unreal 605 @ 130 has switched to bodybuilding and knocks off 325×25 these days. His legs are no longer ‘a pair of pliers in shorts’ as they used to be in his days of heavy triples and world records, but he would be the first one to tell you that there is no way he could put up a massive single training this way.
Of course, for bodyweight pull-ups, push-ups, and other commando feats of staying power you will need to bump up the reps to satisfy the law of specificity. Roger Antonson worked up to training sets of nine by the time he set a personal record of twenty chin-ups.
Vitaly Regulyan, one of the top Russian benchers, does fifty to seventy heavy sets per lift! What are YOU waiting for? A permission from Mike Mentzer? Up the volume!
‘High volume’ does NOT mean a lot of reps with Barbie weights. Such training is good or nothing but a muscle pumper’s virtual muscle. Do I sound like Anthony Dittillo? -Good, the man is right, give him a cigar! ‘High volume’ on the synaptic facilitation power plan means maximizing your weekly tonnage with heavy weights.
‘Tonnage’ -or ‘poundage’ if you are not up on the metric system -refers to the total weight lifted in a given period of time, for example a day, a week, a mesocycle. Say your best deadlift is 500×1 and last week you did the following pulls: 400×5/20, 450×2/50. Here is how to calculate your weekly deadlift poundage: (400x5x20) + (450x2x50) = 85,000. As this number grows, so will your strength, at least up to a point.
Make sure that volume does not come at the expense of intensity. Average intensity is calculated by dividing the poundage by the total number of lifts: 85,000 : 200 = 425 pounds. Intensity can be expressed in pounds or % 1RM. In the above example 425 pounds is 82,5% of 500 pounds one rep max; the intensity is on the money.
The strong man must make an effort to gradually build up both the volume and the intensity while making sure his body can handle the load and does not overtrain. Trite as it sounds, listen to your body.
Prof. Vladimir Zatsiorsky, a Soviet strength expert who jump shipped from the Dark Side of the Force to America, summed up effective strength building as training as often as possible while being as fresh as possible. An eighties study by Gillam found that increasing training frequency up to five days a week improved the results in the bench press, something big Jim Williams knew a decade earlier when he benched in the neighbourhood of 700. Ditto for Dr. Judd. Before Biasiotto took up benching in the midst of his kitchen appliances, he had worked out in his training partner’s spider web insulated and rat infested garage where he benched five times a week for fifteen heavy sets within an hour. That brutally efficient routine boosted skinny Judd’s bench from 140 to 295 pounds in nine months!
Russian strength researchers discovered that fragmentation of the training volume into smaller units is very effective for promoting strength adaptation, especially in the nervous system. In other words, one set of five every day is better than five sets of five every five days.
It is even better if you chop up your daily workload into multiple sessions. Motor learning comrades know that while the total number of trials is important, the frequency of practice is even more critical than the total volume. Paul Anderson had it all figured out when he supersetted heavy triples in the squat with gallons of milk throughout the day. If you can swing it -all the power to you, people!
5. Exercise selection
Concentrate your gains on the snatch and the C&J, SQ-BP-DL, or any other few select lifts and forget assistance work! The synaptic facilitation approach is very powerful because it greases the specific groove of your pet feat. Additional exercises will just distract you from your purpose. I plan to expand on the cloudy issue of specificity of strength in a future article. For now, be a good Communist and show some blind faith!
The synaptic facilitation power plan can be summed up as lifting heavy weights as often as possible while staying ‘fresh as a cucumber’ (Russkies have a thing against daisies, you wouldn’t understand). Contrary to what some snobby pantywaists believe, this heavy, high volume approach is not an iron fossil but one of the most scientific approaches to strength training there is. “Chain yourself to the squat rack and call me in a year.” Words to live by.
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Read about Clarence ‘Ripped’ Bass’ experiment with the above method on http://cbass.com/Synaptic.htm. Learn more cutting edge strength building techniques in Pavel’s books Power to the People!, The Russian Kettlebell Challenge, and Bullet-Proof Abs.
“Specificity + frequent practice = success” – Pavel Tsatsouline
A Small Experiment in Synaptic Facilitation
My friend Pavel Tsatsouline, the Russian trained Master of Sports who invented the Ab Pavelizer (see article No. 47), says the way to do more chin-ups is to “grease the groove” by doing lots of chins every day. According to Pavel, repetitive and reasonably intense stimulation strengthens the nerve impulse to the muscles involved, making them stronger and more enduring. The technical term, says Tsatsouline, is synaptic facilitation.
Constant Repetition Works
Being a low-volume, high-intensity guy, I would normally dismiss such advice as mindless overkill. But I know for a fact that the Eastern Europeans, who have dominated Olympic lifting for many years, train heavy two or three (or more) times a day. For example, Galabin Boevski, the 152-pound Bulgarian lifter who snatched a record 358 and clean & jerked 432 in winning the 1999 world championship, does three workouts a day, using maximum poundages and a limited number of exercises. In the morning, he works up to maximum singles in the snatch, clean and jerk and the front squat. In the afternoon, he does it again, sometimes lifting more than in the morning session. He finishes with an evening session, where he repeats snatches and front squats, again lifting maximum poundages. The next day he does it again! (For further details, see the March 2000 issue of Milo, www.ironmind.com)
Bulgarian lifter Galabin Boevski on the way to a world record Clean & Jerk
with a massive 432 pounds. (Reproduced with permission from Milo)
I’m convinced this is true, because among other things, I have a copy of Milo publisher Randall Strossen’s 1998 Bulgarian-training-hall video, which shows Boevski in several back-to-back training sessions; in one session, he repeatedly attempts to snatch 353; he kept trying the weight until his coach, Ivan Abadjiev, made him stop. This is a huge weight for a man weighing only 152 pounds. As noted above, his snatch the next year with 358 was a new world record. The next morning, he was back in the training hall doing a clean and jerk with 419. Later in the day, he was shown doing a front squat with over 200 kilos or 441 pounds. So, yes, it’s true; these guys lift huge weights, several times a day, day after day.
Unappealing as such training may be to people who have a life outside the gym, it obviously works – at least for elite athletes such as Boevski, who are willing and able to spend the years necessary to develop the capacity to survive and benefit from this level of training.
Plus, Pavel persuaded his 60-year-old father-in-law, Roger Antonson, to do chins every time he went down into his basement; each day he would do between 25 and 100 chin-ups. After a few months of such training (and a few days of rest), Roger knocked off 20 chins, more than he had been able to do 40 years earlier in the Marine Corps. That did it. I decided to test Pavel’s formula: Specificity + frequent practice = success.
I limited the experiment to chin-ups, because I didn’t want to disrupt my normal training routine – which is both productive and enjoyable (see Challenge Yourself) – and I didn’t want to overshoot my recovery capacity. Pavel says the key to synaptic facilitation training is to gradually buildup both volume and intensity, but avoid overtraining. He recommends “training as often as possible while being as fresh as possible.”
Pavel says each set should be terminated well short of failure, because “pushing to exhaustion will burn out your neuromuscular system and force you to cut back” on volume. He recommends doing multiple sets of as many chins as you can without struggling, spaced out over the course of the day. That makes sense, of course, if the objective is to up the volume as much as possible without causing burnout.
As regular readers know, my heavy training days are Saturday and Sunday; I generally walk Monday through Friday. After a few weeks of adjustment where I tried doing chin-ups Monday through Thursday, I settled down to chins on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. I chose this schedule because it allowed me to rest the day before and the day after my main workouts. It worked surprisingly well. Frankly, I enjoyed the extra effort during the week; it was challenging, but not enough to wear me out. Except for a few aches and pains in my shoulders at first, it felt good.
I usually did three sets of chins each day (morning, noon and late afternoon) and occasionally an additional set in the evening. I start out doing sets of 10 reps, and over the course of four weeks worked up to 12 chins per set. At the end of the fourth week, I rested on Friday, as usual, and tested myself during my regular Saturday workout: I did 16 chins. “No problem,” I wrote in my trading dairy.
I backed off a bit in week 5, doing three sets of 10, and 11 sets of 11 for a weekly total of 151 chins. I did the same routine in week 6, and then moved the reps per set back up to 12 in week 7. I tested myself again at the end of week 7: 18 chins this time. Dairy notation: “Good job. The best I’ve done in a long time. Seventeen chins is the best I can remember doing in recent years – and today was easier.” Synaptic facilitation seemed to be working.
In weeks 8, 9 and 10, most of the sets I did were 12 and 13, with a few sets of 14 chins in the third week. Then, I tested myself for the third time: 19 chins. “Good effort,” I recorded. “The best in a long time.”
I took a week off at that point, which didn’t seem to help. As Pavel probably would have predicted, I felt rusty when I started doing chin-ups again the next week. “I believe the week of rest hurt my performance,” I wrote in my dairy.
Blasting the Groove
When I got going again – it didn’t take long; only a few days – I added a new wrinkle to increase intensity: I lowered myself very slowly on the last rep of each set. Pavel says emphasizing the negative “blasts the groove” or, technically speaking, it stimulates “synaptic potentiation.” Pretty fancy, huh? Whatever, there’s no doubt that doing a slow negative on the final chin produces a very intense contraction. Pavel warns against doing more than one negative-emphasis rep; doing more would unnecessarily extend recovery time and reduce the volume that can be done without overtraining. That’s why I kept the reps to 13 and 14 for the most part and only did 15 a few times in the final three weeks of the experiment. I thought doing a slow negative on the final rep of each set would be enough added stimulation to move me up to 20 chins, which would be the most I’ve done since I won the state pentathlon championship in high school.
Success! I did 20 full-range chin-ups,
the best I’ve done in years. (Photo by Carol Bass)
It worked! I replicated the experience of Pavel’s father-in-law. The last couple of reps were hard, but I did 20 good chin-ups. The experiment was successful.
So, what’s to be learned here? What’s the take-away message? Personally, I found my little experiment quite instructive. As explained in Challenge Yourself, both volume and high-intensity training (HIT) work, but for different reasons. Synaptic facilitation is probably one of the mechanisms at work in the volume approach.
Does that mean I plan to pile on the volume in my own training? No way. In my view, training like the Bulgarians would be a big mistake, for me and for most people. It would take the joy out of training. If one could survive the volume (a very big if), you probably wouldn’t have the time or energy to do anything else. But the idea of narrowly-targeted synaptic facilitation training, using carefully selected individual exercises, has definite appeal. The key, it seems to me, is to derive the benefits without overwhelming your recovery capacity and turning your life topsy-turvy.
In addition to chin-ups, parallel-bar dips seem like a good candidate for synaptic facilitation training. Almost any exercise, of course, should work. For example, Paul Anderson years ago applied a form of synaptic facilitation training to the barbell squat – with spectacular results. (See article No. 38, “Paul Anderson, King of the Squat.”)
If you try it, be careful. Don’t bite off more than you can chew.
Boevski update: I hope you saw Galabin Boevski lifting at the Sydney Olympics. It was on CNBC. It was great to actually see him lifting in competition. He’s not as heavily muscled as some of his Bulgarian teammates, but boy can he put up the big weights. He made all six of his attempts, tying his world record in the snatch with 162.5 kilos (358 pounds) and making 195 kilos (430 pounds) in the clean & jerk, for a gold-medal-winning the total of 357.5 kilos. His countrymen Georgi Markov broke Boetski’s world record with a snatch of 165 kilos or 364 pounds and took the silver medal with a total of 352.5 kilos. Remember that these guys only weigh 152 pounds!
You may have also noticed that two Bulgarian lifters, a woman and a man (not Boevski or Markov), tested positive for a banned diuretic and were ordered to return their medals. It was the second time in 12 years that Bulgarian weightlifters had been ejected from the Olympics for using furosemide, a diuretic known for masking steroid use. The last I heard, the entire Bulgarian weightlifting team was in danger of being thrown out of the Olympics and suspended from international competition for 12 months. That’s unfortunate because, drugs or no drugs, they are fantastic athletes. It takes a real lifting aficionado to appreciate just how good they are. The average man or woman on the street simply cannot comprehend the poundages they are able to put overhead.