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I'm currently doing Stronglifts 5x5, and I've read a lot of material about strength training. Everything I've read so far indicates that sufficient rest is essential to making progress and building strength. All the reputable lifting routines prescribe "rest days". Stronglifts and Starting Strength both say not to work out more than 3 times per week.

The theory as I understand it, is that your muscles break down and weaken after you use them strenuously, and then "bounce back" over time. If you time your workouts right, you can train during a period where your muscles are overcompensating for the damage you've done, and you'll get a boost to your next workout. But if you train too soon, your muscles won't have recovered from the damage done, and you'll just be tearing them down again, preventing progress.

Ok, sounds reasonable. But here's where I get confused. I've been looking into ways to train myself to do pull-ups and chin-ups. At present, I can not do even one rep. One method that gets mentioned a lot is "greasing the groove" or "greasing the bar". Some people advocate putting a pull-up bar in a doorway in a frequently-used part of your house, and doing one rep every time you pass it. Other people suggest doing a certain amount of reps (or attempts) every single day, or at least every workout, until one is able to do a few pull-ups.

Based on the anecdotal evidence I've seen, "greasing the groove" sounds like it works. But how could that be? If I'm straining my muscles doing negative pull-ups or negative chin-ups, and I'm doing a rep here-and-there throughout the day, every day, when would my muscles have time to recover? Wouldn't it be the same as if I were doing squats or bench pressing every single day - overtraining and preventing progress? How is it possible that rest days are important for some exercises, but constant every-day effort would work for chin-ups/pull-ups? Can these two lines of thought be reconciled?

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It doesn't address your question, but if you're on 5x5, the amount of recovery you require for that program should take precedence. It should be challenging you enough that extra work on chin- and pull-ups would be detrimental to your 5x5 progress. (That's separate from your excellent question about reconciling the theory & physiology of GTG and rest-day-based programs.) –  Dave Liepmann Aug 23 '11 at 16:13
    
@Dave - Thanks. I'm still figuring this out. The author of the Stronglifts site suggests that if you want to do pull-ups/chin-ups you can do them after your deadlift on your "B" workout, roughly 3 times per 2 weeks. So that's what I'm going to do for now. But I'm still curious why the two approaches I mentioned seem so different. –  Joshua Carmody Aug 23 '11 at 16:57

4 Answers 4

up vote 6 down vote accepted

From Training Dimensions:

Greasing the Groove is a technique used to practice any strength movement at a high volume without requiring a long period of recovery. If you are new to pullups, greasing the groove allows you to practice pullups often, teaching your central nervous system to perform the movement more efficiently. In greasing the groove, you perform as few as one pullup at a time, several times throughout the day.

Note that the volume is high over a longer period of time. It is also recommended for beginners who are not necessarily on another program. In that scenario, the trainee can probably only do a few pull-ups, which means that only doing them 3x/week won't provide enough volume to drive adaptation.

You'll see the same note struck in Pavel's PDF on the subject. By doing only a few, manageable reps at a time, the recovery of greasing the groove is less, so the frequency can be jacked up. Pavel does include a few examples of powerlifters greasing the groove, but as he notes, these are sub-maximal loads (60%-80%) and done for six reps or less.

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So would jumping at the bar for 1 rep 4-5 times throughout the day qualify as "sub maximal"? I would think that if you can't even do 1 pull-up, that any attempt you make would be maximal effort. –  Joshua Carmody Aug 23 '11 at 17:52
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I think you're right, it qualifies as maximal. It might still work. Then again, you might do better at the pull-ups/chin-ups if you did them instead of the rows. I'm no expert. –  Dave Liepmann Aug 23 '11 at 18:00
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A maximal effort would be if you were doing a strict pull up with the maximum amount of weight you can do (in this case, less than your body weight). The jumping in your jumping pull-up reduces the pull-up to less than maximum by giving you momentum. To do your max, you would need to have some static assistance, like a rope tied to your waist, and over the bar, with weight on it. –  michael Aug 23 '11 at 18:45
    
@michael, thanks for the rope+weight tip, hadn't ever thought about doing assisted pullups that way. –  Illotus Jan 10 '12 at 20:27

I think, simply put, the answer is that in the "Greasing the groove" technique as a beginner, you are doing such a small amount of effort at a time that you don't need as much recovery time. Chances are, even with the bar being in one's interior doorway, a person is just not going to really attempt a pull-up every time they pass it, so they realistically might attempt 4-5 throughout each day, with each attempt being 60% strain and 40% awkwardly being unable to command the muscles appropriately to execute the lift. (I'm just pulling those numbers out of thin air to make the point).

That's quite different from someone who is advanced with pull-ups doing 20 with a weighted belt and then repeating more sets for a total of 60 in one hour. That requires rest, whereas greasing the groove sounds like far lower intensity.

I've also wondered if rest is, in some cases, a little overgeneralized to all situations. There are clearly manual laborers who "work out", the same muscle groups, 8+ hrs a day, 5 days a week, for years without much more than a weekend's rest, and they are not scrawny. Maybe the body has a kind of meta-adaptation that allows for this.

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"A person is just not going to really attempt a pull-up every time they pass it" -- That's the program. People really do it. Also, do you have any references for your "meta-adaptation"/overgeneralized-rest theory? –  Dave Liepmann Aug 26 '11 at 3:24
    
Regarding your statement in the last paragraph - that rest is overgeneralized and that there are people who do hard labor every day without resting - well, finding out the reason for that is pretty much the intent of my question. I'm wondering why this is so. –  Joshua Carmody Aug 26 '11 at 13:15
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The "laborers scenario" is separate from both greasing the groove and resistance training, since manual labor is neither a maximal effort (if it were, how could you sustain it all day?) nor progressively loaded (except, perhaps, in the first weeks or months, which changes the scenario). –  Dave Liepmann Aug 26 '11 at 17:49

There does seem to be some gradation of training schemes that effective at low numbers of repetitions (say less than 10) and those that are effective at reaching higher numbers. From my experience variations of 'volume training' (or sub-maximal training) seem to work well in the relatively low range of repetitions. The common theme in these schemes is that they separate sets of manageable repetitions by adequate recovery periods so that complete muscular failure is not reached as early as you otherwise might. This approach allows you to complete more repetitions in a time period than than if you attempted sets of maximal repetitions.

I'd also urge you to chase form and try to rise quickly and try to get your nipples to the bar and descended slowly to a fully extended hang (with an active shoulder, beware of dislocation!). I found that I could do far fewer pull-ups with this standard than I had previously thought, but I think it was beneficial in the long run, particularly for the muscle-up.

I have had success in the <10 reps maximal range with the scheme suggested here http://journal.crossfit.com/2011/02/volume-training-for-goats.tpl:

Let n be approximately 1/3 of your maximum reps, with a continuously running clock perform a set of pull-ups every minute on the minute for 20 minutes. Start by performing sets of n repetitions. You may reduce the number of repetitions in each set but no set may contain less than n - 2 repetitions.

Record the repetitions for each minute and try to add pull-ups distributed across the sets on subsequent attempts. The rule is that no two sets are allowed to differ in repetitions by more than 2.

I found that the increase to my maximal sets tailed off as I reached 10-15 maximal reps. Since then I have found the scheme proposed on http://www.50pullups.com/, which uses fewer sets with more repetitions, to increase the number I can perform.

The scheme itself is a bit arbitrary, but those above seem to work. With regards to recovery, I found I could see an increase with the 20 minute volume training repeating 5 days a week, but I need to leave 1-2 days between attempting the larger set volume training set. When I reach 20 pull-ups I intend to increase the difficulty of the effort with weight or by performing pull-ups with a more open elbow (think smooth muscle-ups).

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Seems your best bet would be to use resistance bands. Figure out your max with the strongest resistance band. once you have established this number than do your sets throughout the day with 60-75% of that number. As you increase your repetitions over time use lighter resistance bands and then eventually no resistance bands at all.

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