Increased involvement of neural pathways contribute to strength gains.
One area that is often overlooked, generally by newcomers to CrossFit is the importance of establishing strong neural pathways from your brain to your muscle fibres by using a method such as “Grease the Groove for Strength”. Increasing strength and developing new skills when we train is not simply about lifting heavy, checking our macros and recovery.
In fact, it is incredibly difficult to gain strength without first establishing those neural pathways. Muscle fibres are grouped into motor units. Each of these is a cluster of muscle fibres triggered by a motor nerve cell. When you are first learning a new movement, your brain responds to training by recruiting more motor units each time the muscles contract. This means that over time and as the pathways are established and strengthened, you will have more muscle fibres working to move a weight, which in turn, increases the force you can generate.
Even though you haven’t increased the size of your muscle yet, the movement may feel “easier” or more natural due to the amount of motor units your brain is activating to allow you to generate more force. This is known as neuromuscular adaptation.
Pavel’s Grease the Groove for Strength:
Pavel Tsatouline is the creator of the term “Greasing the Groove“. In his book Power to the People he talks of the importance of the neurological groove to fire in a certain sequence and intensity. This style of strength training is not about breaking down the muscle fibres to promote adaptation and growth, but developing the neural pathways to do so:
“Neuroscientists have known for half a century that if you stimulate a neural pathway, say the bench press groove, and the outcome is positive, future benching will be easier. The groove has been ‘greased’. Next time the same amount of mental effort will result in a heavier bench. The opposite is also true, if your body fails to perform your brain’s command, the groove will get rusty.” (1)
The most important message we can take from this is that we don’t always have to train to muscle failure, we do not learn new skills by performing an exercise over and over again till we no longer can. This means we train the movements we are developing with greater frequency and at submaximal loads or efforts, making sure that we execute the movement perfectly each time.
How to include Grease the Groove for Strength in your training:
One of the advantages of Grease The Groove is that you do not have to take out too much of your time each day to achieve results.
Lets say you want to improve your Push-up ability, several times throughout the day complete a set of Push-ups at a sub-maximal rep range. This part is very important, as mentioned earlier, we do not want to train the muscle fibre to absolute fatigue. If you currently can complete a maximum of 10 Push-ups unbroken, start with sets of 3-4. As you complete multiple sets throughout the day you are further increasing your neural pathways and muscle memory for this movement. As your strength increases over the weeks, you can increase your rep range, but make sure you are still staying around the 40-50% mark.
Setting a reminder in your phone is a great way to keep on top of your sets and keep you motivated.
The same method can be used for training Pull-ups. If you are at an early stage where you are yet to be able to complete a Pull-up you can make use of Ring Rows or Isometric holds. To complete an Isometric Hold, jump up to the Pull-up bar and lower yourself down as slow as possible until your arms are fully outstretched. Training this eccentric phase of the Pull-up is one of the best ways to achieve a Pull-up. This can be carried out multiple times throughout the day, (Or multiple times when you are waiting for a CrossFit class to start or have time to do so after a class), and as strength increases, the amount of time taken in the eccentric phased should be increased.
The Grease the Groove for Strength method can be applied to any movement that we carry out in CrossFit, I challenge you to try it for four weeks and see the results it brings, but just be ready for some odd looks around the office!
- Tsatsouline, Pavel. 2000. Power to the People!: Russian Strength Training Secrets for Every American. Dragon Door Publications.