You’ve probably heard serious bodybuilders talk about the muscle pump. It’s not surprising since people who weight train want their muscles to “pop.” The muscle pump may be short term, but some people enjoy the slight swelling their muscles have after a weight training workout. Here’s the question. Does the pump really help with muscle gains or is it just something people seek for vanity purposes?
What is Muscle Pump?
A muscle pump is where your muscles become larger and more defined for a short period of time after weight training or working against your own body weight. You may have noticed that after a workout, your muscles look larger and more defined. In other words, they’re more “pumped up.” In fact, the muscle pump is a well-characterized phenomenon. Although it won’t make you stronger, the muscle swelling makes you look stronger while it lasts.
Why do you get a muscle pump? When you lift weights or otherwise work your muscles against resistance, the muscles fill with blood. Makes sense, doesn’t it? Contracting a muscle against resistance increases blood flow to the muscles you’re working. It takes time for the excess blood to drain from the muscle. As the blood accumulates, fluid leaks out of the blood vessels into the tissues and they swell. As a result, the muscle looks larger and more pronounced. Usually, a pump lasts at most an hour and, in most cases, no more than 30 minutes.
How to Create a Muscle Pump
The best way to get a temporary muscle pump is to lift lighter weights for a greater number of reps. A weight you can lift 15-20 reps before fatiguing would work well. Lifting heavier weights for fewer reps helps with strength gains, but you need higher reps to pump up your muscles. Another way to increase the muscle pump is to shorten the rest period between sets. Rather than resting for 2 minutes, shorten the rest period to a minute between each set. Many bodybuilders try to create a pump in their biceps, so 3 sets of biceps curls with 15-20 reps per set works well. Biceps curls and other isolation exercises like triceps extensions are best for a pump because you’re hitting a single muscle group hard rather than working multiple muscles simultaneously.
Although you’re doing a higher number of reps, the actual tempo of each repetition should be slow and controlled. A slow tempo increases the time the muscle is under tension, a factor that aids in achieving a pump. Momentum is the enemy of a good pump. Squeezing the muscle at the top of the movement and keeping full tension on the muscle by not locking elbows at the top of a biceps curl helps too.
So, higher reps and increased time under tension maximizes the muscle pump. However, fitness experts recommend doing both high volume training with lighter weights for the pump and heavier weights and fewer reps for strength development. Don’t depend on one exclusively to achieve your goals. A study published in Physiological Reports showed that in trained men, 8 weeks of low-volume training using heavy weights and long rest intervals led to greater improvements in strength and gains in muscle mass relative to high-volume training and short rest periods between sets. Therefore, if you’re trying to maximize muscle gains, high-intensity training gives you an edge.
How can you incorporate both into your training? You might do a lighter workout one session and a heavier strength session the next. You could also lift heavy and do lower reps for a set or two and finish it off with a few sets of lighter reps and higher volume for the pump. The heavy sets maximally recruit fast-twitch muscle fibers early in the exercise and that helps with strength and muscle growth.
From a nutritional perspective, topping out your muscle’s glycogen stores helps maximize the pump you get when you train since glycogen holds on to water. Any time your muscles are loaded up on glycogen, they’ll look fuller. Hydration is important too. Volume depletion will lead to less fluid accumulation in the muscles and less of a pump.
Can Achieving the Muscle Pump Maximize Hypertrophy?
You’re probably wondering whether achieving a muscle pump boosts muscle hypertrophy or is it just something bodybuilders strive for to look ripped temporarily? There really hasn’t been enough research to say with certainty whether the temporary swelling that goes with the pump stimulates muscle hypertrophy. The theory is that when muscles are engorged with blood or fluid, the muscle cells are stretched. The body sees muscle stretching as a threat to their well-being and boosts muscle protein synthesis to protect themselves. However, there’s a lack of research in this area to support or refute this claim.
What’s clear is that you don’t need to get a good pump to get your muscles to grow. People often strive for a muscle pump for vanity purposes. Although the swelling may boost muscle hypertrophy, it’s not a prerequisite for muscle gains. However, training in a manner that brings about a muscle pump is a good way to diversify your training. It offers more benefits for hypertrophy gains than it does for building strength since you’re using lighter weights and higher reps. You need heavier weights to maximize strength.
The Bottom Line
The muscle pump is a way to “pump up” your muscles temporarily, but it’s short-lived. Here are some things to know about it:
· For a good pump, use a higher volume and slow tempo to keep the muscles under tension longer.
· Focus on isolation exercises that work a single muscle group to develop a pump in that muscle.
· Muscle pump training is not ideal for building strength, so don’t make high-volume, lower intensity training your only approach.
· Training in a manner that elicits a pump may boost muscle protein synthesis, although it’s still unproven.
Don’t forget to look in the mirror the next time you train in this manner and don’t be surprised to see your muscles “pop” a little more!
· Strength and conditioning journal 36(3):21-25 · June 2014
· Physiol Rep. 2015 Aug; 3(8): e12472.