The Biggest Secret to Improve Your Pullups and Pushups
And other bodyweight exercises
When the quarantine started, gyms shut down everywhere and as a fitness enthusiast that loved lifting weights, this was a highly unwelcome situation for me.
After a few days of whining and complaining, I realized that I had two choices — continue whining or make the most of the situation by working out at home.
I chose the latter and with barely any equipment at my disposal, bodyweight exercises were my best bet — pushups, pullups, nordic hamstring curls, Bulgarian split squats, etc.
With pullups off a ledge wreaking havoc on my fingers and Bulgarian split squats feeling too easy, pushups were what I focused on and fell in love with.
Despite progressing with weighted pushups, my bodyweight pushups weren’t going up. When I swapped out weighted pushups with high volume bodyweight pushups, the numbers started going up.
I built up my pushups endurance greatly. I went from being able to do around 200 pushups in 40 minutes to more than 810 pushups in an hour.
Even then, my bodyweight pushups only went from 20 to around 30. It was decent progress but nothing unreal.
It was after this that I happened to discover a technique that drastically improved my pushup numbers in a short time. I went from 30 to 45 pushups in less than two weeks while it had taken months to go from 20 to 30.
When I got a pullup bar, I used the same technique on chin-ups and I went from being able to do around 10–12 chin-ups in a row to 15–17 in a row.
If you are wondering what this too good to be true technique is, then I won’t keep you in suspense any longer — it’s Greasing the Groove.
Greasing the Groove (GTG)
Greasing the groove is a fancy term for plain “practice” concocted by Russian strength and conditioning coach Pavel Tsatsouline.
At its heart, it’s pretty simple — it involves performing very low-intensity sets of an exercise multiple times a day or in other words, “practicing” an exercise.
The key here is that these sets are supposed to be easy, not tire you out and not affect your normal workout routine in any way.
So for pushups, if you can do say 20 pushups in a set, you would perform multiple sets of say 5 to 7 pushups throughout the day.
What I did
In my case, in addition to my normal workouts, randomly throughout the day, I would drop onto the floor and bang out a few pushups. After a few weeks, I happened to buy and set up a doorway pullup bar and every time I passed the doorway of my room, I would bang out a few chin-ups.
I would maybe do 10–15 such sets in a day so I was getting in around 20 to 30 pullups and 50 to 70 pushups every day in addition to my normal workouts.
Why Does It Work so Well?
Now you might be wondering how a couple of easy sets can achieve such a drastic improvement. To understand how and why we need to take a short dive into neuroscience.
To perform a certain task, various parts of the brain are activated. The brain is made up of neurons and it’s through the firing of these neurons that we are able to perform activities.
Every activity has a certain pattern of neuron firing associated with it and how “easily” or how “fast” these neurons fire determines the speed or ease with which we perform that activity.
In other words, myelin turns the electrical signal into the brain version of Nightcrawler, the teleporting X-Man. Instead of traveling in a straight line down the axon, the charge is BAMF-ing down at much faster speeds.
This is exactly why the adage, “Practise makes perfect” is true. This is also why GTG works so well.
With GTG, we repeatedly and frequently perform an exercise that makes our brain fire up the neural circuit for that exercise faster which makes the exercise “easier” to perform.
How to Use GTG?
Now that we know what Greasing The Groove is and why and how it works so well, applying it is easy:
Pick at most 2 exercises to use GTG on. This is because 3 or more exercises would mean far too many sets per day.
If you can do x reps in a row, aim to do 20–50% of x in your GTG sets. This is so that the sets are of low enough intensity to not hamper your main workouts or recovery.
Aim to perform anywhere between 15 to 20 sets per exercise per day. This is just a ballpark number and one that has worked for me. Start low and slowly ramp up. When you find that you are getting sore or your main workouts are getting affected, then reduce.
Keep at it for at least two weeks before maxing out. Frequently maxing out can make you sore and hamper your progress so give it at least two weeks before you test your new maxes.
Once you max out, recalibrate. After maxing out, if you find that you can now do 30 pushups as opposed to 20 before, change your GTG set reps also. So if you were doing 5 reps per set, do 6 or 7 now.
Rinse and repeat. Keep at it as long as you — don’t feel your body getting beat up, your progress doesn’t stall or your desired number isn’t reached.