Activity Hacks for Busy People

Around 1.300 words, estimated reading time:
4 min (hacks only) or
6-7 min (hacks + theory)

In this post, we propose two hacks to add physical activity to your daily schedule:

These hacks hook exercise to existing habits. You can put them in practice today without having to start an exercise routine. If you already have one, you can use them to add useful exercises without extending your gym time.

These hacks have foundations in neurology and biomechanics. You do not need to know about it to make them work. But our hacks are inspired by a training protocol which is a hack in its own right, and we added a section about it (Hack #0). Feel free to skip the theory and to jump to Hack #1.

Hack #0 — Greasing the Groove

Our hacks are inspired by the Grease the Groove (GtG) training protocol developed in the 1990s by Pavel Tsatsouline and presented in two books, Power to the People (2000) and The Naked Warrior (2003). Since then the expression ‘greasing the groove’ has often been used by fitness authors without due credit, so we made sure not to add our name to that list.

Tsatsouline received a sports science education in the former U.S.S.R. and served in the military as a physical instructor before emigrating to the U.S. in the 1990s. He is often credited to have brought the kettlebell to the West, but the jury is still out. Less often emphasized is his extensive theoretical background, a consequence of the Soviet-era sports science curriculum.

Tsatsouline’s background is essential to understand his approach, as his training protocols are grounded in neurology, endocrinology, and biomechanics. In the last fifteen years, Tsatsouline has worked in close collaboration with Dr. Stuart McGill, the world’s foremost authority on spine health and performance. McGill borrowed some of Tsatsouline’s protocols in his Ultimate Back Fitness and Performance (2004). Tsatsouline can also be seen demonstrating the correct form of a landmine twist for McGill on video:

As for the theory, the GtG protocol revolves around two rules:

  1. Training as few exercises as necessary as often as possible.
  2. Training as fresh as possible and never go to failure.

Rule (1) is based on the Hebbian theory of learning (after Donald E. Hebb, author of The Organization of Behavior [1949]), often summed up by the slogan “neurons wire together if they fire together”. Soviet sports scientist recognized that muscular strength has both neurological and mechanical components. Hebbian theory supports the notion that the neurological component of strength can be improved by building neural pathways (just as its mechanical component can be improved by building muscle mass).

Rule (2) is primarily grounded in biomechanics and specifically, the notion that exercise should only be undertaken when failure tolerance is as close to baseline as possible, in order to avoid injuries (for a brief summary of the notion of failure tolerance, see this repost). Tsatsouline thus advocates spreading the workload over more frequent sessions and gradually building a tolerance to load, and agrees on this with McGill.

Rule (2) is secondarily motivated by research in endocrinology, but the arguments are more speculative. They are also more controversial, and jab at some recent fitness trends. We’ll leave them aside, but you can watch a video of Tsatsouline explaining them in this YouTube video about two cats (the discussion of hormones starts at 5’12”).

Rules (1) and (2) reinforce each other. Frequent bouts of activity focusing on few exercises reinforce the neural pathways associated with these exercises and improve tolerance to load, without undue hormonal or biomechanical stress. The GtG protocol formalizes these rule in exercise programs.

You can read more about GtG-based programs in this post by Craig Marker or browse through the GtG archive at (Tsatsouline’s company), but Tsatsouline’s books remain the best sources. We recommend starting with The Naked Warrior, which propose progressions for two exercises (the one-legged squat and the one-arm push-up) that require no gym equipment.

Hack #1 — Rest Room No More

Toilet breaks are a routine activity if there is one, and typically not an issue either at home or at work (but there are exceptions, of course). And when it’s time to do your business, you can mean business, too.

A toilet seat (with a cover down!) is the perfect height to try out a partial one-legged squat. If you are new to the exercise, just lower yourself under control on one leg and get up on two for one repetition before doing your business, and one after. As you progress, add one or two repetitions. When you can do five, try to get up on one leg. The same applies for push-ups (regular ones, if you cannot do them on the floor; or one-arm push-ups, if you can already do the regulars).

More generally, as a rule of thumb, always choose an exercise that you could repeat 5-8 times without noticeable form breakdown and limit yourself to sets of 3-4 repetitions. Test yourself once a week (not necessarily in the rest room). When you manage more than 10 repetitions, progress to a more challenging variation.

Here’s a demonstration of the one-legged squat by Neghar Fonooni (IG: @negharfonooni) from the Fitocracy library:

Again, we recommend Tsatsouline’s Naked Warrior for progressions (cf. Hack #0 if you have skipped it). For the thorough-minded, Mc Gill’s Ulitmate Back Fitness and Performance proposes detailed progressions for squats, push-up, as well as dumbbell, barbell, and kettlebell exercises, with an emphasis on spine stability.

Hack in the hack: Drink cold tea instead of water. You will make faster progress with the exercise you have chosen!

Hack #2 — From Couch Potato to Office Tomato

Hack #2 piggybacks the GtG protocol (cf. Hack #0, if you have skipped it) on a well-known time-management method, the Pomodoro Technique, developed by Francesco Cirillo in the 1980s. Pomodoro (tomato, in Italian) refers to a tomato-shaped kitchen timer, and by extension, to a time interval programmed on such a timer. Below is a screenshot of Cirillo’s website, where you can also buy the dead-tree and ebook versions of the method.

PomodoroThere are many applications for both iPhone and Android that let you manage Pomodoro intervals, and we will review them in future posts.

Hack #2 simply sneaks in an exercise during short breaks, or at the beginning and end of the longer breaks.

As with Hack #1, basic bodyweight exercises (squats and push-ups) work well for people new or returning to exercise. Use the same progression model as with Hack #1. The emphasis on low repetition counts and high frequency will favor motor learning while preventing you from working up a sweat.

For amateur athletes, single-limb exercises are a natural choice, as they increase the stability demand without requiring additional weight. On the opposite end of the spectrum, people with very low tolerance to exercise can just find a stairwell and climb a story or two and then progress to climb more.

How to progress from there?

The most fundamental principle in sports science is the principle of Progressive Overload. From this principle, it follows that, as one’s level of physical activity increases, one needs to increase workload in order to avoid stagnation or even de-training. The GtG protocol (including the variations we proposed) implements progressive overload through frequency.

There is a limit to the progress one can make with bodyweight exercises only, at least if one wants to stick to the GtG philosophy. But if one sticks to low repetition counts of high-skill movements without excessive stress build-up, one can build over time impressive skills with little weight and base GtG protocols on them.

As an illustration, below is a short video segment of Jad Marinovic, an Australian athlete who holds a world record in kettlebell marathon with a pair of 16kg kettlebells, adding workload to her day with a ‘light’ kettlebell of 8kg.

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