When I first started the journey of Olympic-style weightlifting, I was hitting personal records on a monthly basis. I was getting strong fast, and the sport was undeniably fun. Naturally, by the end of my first year of training, the easy gains disappeared, injuries began to crop up, and the image of the sport in my mind had deteriorated. I thought to myself, “maybe this isn’t the sport for me”, or “If I keep this up, I’m going to break my back before I’m 30”, and even “…maybe I should go back to CrossFit.” Thankfully I came to my senses and realized that weightlifting is my favorite pastime on the planet and that the methods, not the sport, had brought me to this destination in life.
I know I am not the first one to experience adversity and consider quitting. Sometimes life makes you question what you love. At the end of the day, it is probably these adversities that strengthen our love for the topic in question. To see where I went wrong and to show you where you can easily improve your training, let’s breakdown my almost daily workout during my time of injury:
2) Clean + Jerk
3) Clean/Snatch Pull
4) Back/Front Squat
I performed these exercises 4-5 times per week. Each training session was about 2 hours long. Sure, I modulated volume and intensity and performed variations of the above lifts, but I pretty much stuck to the above. Don’t get me wrong, this style of training CAN work. I’ve had success with it, especially when paying specific attention to total load (Volume * Intensity = load) and exploiting the progressive overload principle (increasing load over time). My problem is that I did not have a large enough foundation of General Physical Preparedness (GPP) before specifying to the degree that I did above. GPP requires a vast variety of movements to strengthen our bodies. The variety of movements essentially “bullet-proofs” our bodies to injury by preventing muscle imbalances and overuse injuries through the constant cycling of movements.
“Greasing the Groove”, also called “neural grooving”, is a common method employed to improve strength. In any movement, a motor neuron sends an action potential to a muscle to cause a contraction. The more times a motor neuron is activated, the more myelination of the axon will occur, which means more conductivity and stronger action potentials. A stronger signal means a stronger muscle contraction. The push-up provides an excellent example. A typical “grease the groove” program for improving push-ups may be:
Week 1-3: 4×15 push-ups 2x/wk
Week 4-6: 4×20 push-ups 2x/wk
Week 6-9: 4×25 push-ups 2x/wk
It makes perfect sense; if you want to get better at something, then you need to do it over and over and over again. Practice makes perfect!
Increase Action Potentials =
Increased Myelination =
Increased Nerve Conductivity =
Stronger Signal to Muscle =
This is definitely true, but the Law of Accommodation must come into consideration. Accommodation means the body has entirely adapted to the stimuli and will no longer change/improve. Notice how the only variable changing throughout the 9 week cycle is volume. Don’t get me wrong—most people WILL see gains by doing a basic grease-the-groove cycle just as I saw gains by snatching, cleaning, and jerking every day. That’s because volume is a powerful variable and that the myelination of axons does allow for stronger neuromuscular impulses. However, we want to OPTIMIZE our gains! In addition, by repeating the same exercise, we are working the same muscle fibers. This can lead to over-use training and muscle imbalance. So why NOT change something? Why not grease in, out, and around the groove? Instead of doing a classic push-up every week, try something like this:
Week 1-3: 4×15 Standard Push-ups 2x/wk
Week 4-6: 4×15 One-hand elevated Push-ups 2x/wk (switch elevated hand each set)
Week 7-9: 4×15 Decline Push-ups 2x/wk
By doing some really simple modifications to our pushup and organizing it into three week waves, we’ve changed the neural impulses going to our muscle fibers, changed which muscle fibers are activated, and varied the range of motion (changed what range of muscle fiber is activated). Essentially, we’ve thrown a novel task at our nervous system and forced it to react and adapt to the new stimuli. These adaptations = increased pectoral and tricep strength. Because we are changing the stimulus every third week, we are preventing accommodation and thus constantly adapting/improving! THIS is how we can optimize strength gains. The next time you grab dumbbells and start repping out your hammer curls, consider grabbing a barbell and doing some heavy eccentric training instead. Be inventive, be exploratory, and make training fun (and effective) through variety.
I’ll close with a quote from Albert Einstein: “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”. Sure, Coach Tony says “Train insane or stay the same”, but that is in regards to intensity. He is absolutely right in that context. But in the context of doing the same exercise and same weight over and over again and expecting to get stronger—that is insanity. Challenge the nervous system and your body, mind, and soul will reward you.
Marten Baur, CPT
Certified Personal Trainer - ACE
CrossFit Level 1 - CrossFit
Bioforce Certified Conditioning Coach - BioForce HRV
Marten is strength and conditioning coach with a passion for Olympic Weightlifting and optimizing human biomechanics. He is a certified personal trainer through the American Counsel of Exercise and has received certifications ranging from CrossFit level 1 trainer, USA Weightlifting Sports Performance Coach, and Bioforce Certified Conditioning Coach. He has also completed a 100 hour internship with USA Weightlifting Hall of Fame Coach Bob Takano, gaining a deeper understanding of the classical lifts, strength training, and program design. Marten’s interest in pain-free movement and performance optimization shows through his programming and coaching style. Originally from Lander, Wyoming, Marten moved to Laramie to pursue higher education. He is currently finishing two Bachelor’s degrees in Kinesiology and Physiology at the University of Wyoming. After graduation, he hopes to continue his education at physical therapy school. Marten is excited to teach what he is passionate about, and is proud to be a part of the Altitude Fitness team. He enjoys the opportunity to impact the health of the Laramie community and learn more about himself in the process. He enjoys outdoor activities (backpacking, mountain biking, climbing, mountaineering), playing music, and training for weightlifting competitions.