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Improving bodyweight movements in minimal time?

Whether you like calisthenics, whether you respect them, whether you rate them, whether you snub them, you cannot deny their significance in the fitness world.

Many classic bodyweight movements are staples of fitness tests for various fields. Be it military, police, fire services or anything else – they nearly always use a variation of a calisthenic movement to sort the men from the boys in their recruitment process. Accordingly, this lights a fire in the bellies of those hoping for a career in any of the aforementioned fields and any other related endeavour.


How the hell do I get better at *insert calisthenic movement of choice*?! 

Fear not, you don’t need a wand or a spell book. It’s actually quite simple, and you’d be amazed how much strength you can gain in some classic bodyweight movements (especially if you aren’t strong to begin with) in seemingly no time. 

Introducing the ‘GTG’ (Grease The Groove) method and it’s disciples! 

Grease the groove is old school. And I like everything old school. Like the name suggests, you attempt to find/grease your own groove on a given movement. How’s that done?

Repetition baby!

And I don’t mean ‘AMRAP’ marathons, burnout sets, drop sets, strip sets and forced reps in order to achieve repetition. I mean repetition of an exercise. So you’re repeating a movement pattern multiple times daily over a given timespan. And what happens when we do that? We accumulate precious amounts of volume. Decent quantities of volume work generates improved work capacity which translates to increased strength over time.

Work capacity in this context would be taking your pull up max rep count from 1 to 5 for example. This is just what the doctor ordered when it comes to training for fitness tests that entail a heavy element of calisthenic movements. Like anything in life, there is a caveat with this approach though…………..

Higher volume + lower intensity = success. Higher volume + high intensity = FAIL.

This is yet another example of the ever prominent laws of inverse relationships coming to the fore once again. In order to rack up valuable volume, we need to keep the intensity low. In calisthenics terms, this means we stay clear of failure. Very clear. Otherwise you’re taxing your central nervous system too much and detracting from the potential of this system. A good approach for those who can already do a decent number of reps at a given movement, would be to divide your personal best rep count in half and do sets of whatever that number is.

For example: 

Someone with an 8 rep bodyweight max in the dip, could use sets of 4 for their GTG cycle. Whatever the rep count you use, it has to be sub-maximal. That’s the golden rule. Grease The Groove works very well in cycles; cycles meaning 4 week blocks of a focus on ONE particular movement. Remember the inverse relationship rule mentioned earlier?

“Jack of all trades, master of none.”

While you can get all obsessive with exactly how many, when to do them and on what days, I prefer to just do them in this case. Bodyweight movements are very volume friendly anyway (assuming adequate technique). It’s like practice, you’re familiarising your brain and muscular system to a motor pattern and it responds in the form of adaptation. This is a basic principle of exercise science.

You can do 2-3 sub-maximal sets every day for 5 days per week and rest at the weekends and still make tremendous progress.

Any actual experience with GTG? 

I sure have! Very recently I used this method to try to add reps to my max rep count of 10 kg weighted, wide grip pull-ups. I took my max reps from 9-10 to 12-13. While that may not sound like an incredible gain, remember I already had reasonable strength levels to begin with. The more you have, the less there is to gain. It’s like this: say you were to run a deadlift specialization program (there are loads out there) and it promises a 100 lb gain over 12-16 weeks, who do you think is more likely to add 100 lbs, the guy with a 275 lb deadlift to start, or the guy doing 500 lbs at the beginning of the program?

It should be obvious. The ‘weakling’. Everything’s relative. EVERYTHING.

However, my own younger sister has used this method very effectively. Since I inspired her to start working out/training, she’s been on a continual quest to improve her strength across the board. And she really SUCKED at push-ups, but was stubbornly determined to change that. Low and behold, I suggested a method mirroring the principles of Grease The Groove and she followed it to a tee.

What happened?

She went from 5 (at a push) to 15 with exquisite form! To further illustrate her technical advancements, she used push-up handles that allow you to lower deeper than normal. They also force a slightly narrower grip and thus, call on the triceps more – a common weak muscle in females I find.

( – less wrist strain and a greater range of motion = winning. 

A three-fold increase over 4 weeks. Good huh? And today she’s doing decline push-ups for reps, can do fingertip push-ups and knuckle push-ups, all for reps too. This just shows you the realms of possibility in seemingly limited time.

A bonus method that works great too –

This is using extended periods of eccentric stress (where you’re always stronger) to in time, build greater concentric strength. Simply start at the top position of a movement of choice and lower as slowly as possible, and for as long as you can. This may be 10 seconds to start. So be it. Work towards 15, then 20 and eventually 30.

By the time you arrive in the territory of 30 seconds, you’ll have acquired the necessary strength to complete the concentric. All alone, unassisted, just you. That’s awesome!

Does Grease The Groove work for the big manly barbell lifts too? 

Great question. While GTG works best for bodyweight movements, believe it or not, I’ve seen and heard many success stories involving movements such as the overhead press and even the deadlift. What’s the catch? That’s right, no failure. Sub-maximal. Loads of less than 80% of the 1RM.

In summary:

  • One movement for a 4 week period
  • Multiple sets of sub-maximal effort daily
  • Take at least one day off from the movement of choice each week – preferably two
  • You can also practice extended eccentric only sets and look to build your capacity with these.

Give it a try! Anecdotal evidence and experience supports this method. It’s time tested because it works. 

(Related reading: Overlooked movements: Push up variations & progressions, Dips, Bodyweight training only?)

JR @ Straight-Talking-Fitness View All

The 'brains' behind StraightTalkingFitness, a site all about discovery that leads to strength in all formats; fitness, mental, emotional and spiritual. Everything starts from within and projects outwards. Master the body, master anything and everything.

3 thoughts on “Improving bodyweight movements in minimal time? Leave a comment

    • Is he strictly bodyweight though? Completely opposed to barbells? I personally think the magic ticket is the hybrid combo of them both. But, some of the bodyweight experts have insanely impressive strength and physiques!

      • I think right now he’s strictly bodyweight since he works out exclusively at home. When he does come to the gym with me, he uses benches for dips and does bodyweight pull ups with the barbell in the squat rack. He also uses the Roman chair for his back, but I don’t recall him lifting using barbells.

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