What is 'the pump'?

The “pump” is a term commonly used in the fitness and strength training community to describe a temporary physiological response that happens during a workout. It refers to the sensation of increased blood flow, swelling, and tightness in the muscles being worked. Basically, it’s the temporary gain in muscle volume during and shortly after your workout. It’s the reason that all of your selfies look better in the gym after a session, and it’s why some actors and models will drop into push-ups before getting in front of the camera. 

But it’s not just for short-term aesthetics. Like the runner’s high for those on the cardio side of fitness, the pump can be a great feeling and a lot of lifters chase it. If you are yet to feel it, Arnie’s description might help you understand it.

“The greatest feeling you can get in a gym or the most satisfying feeling you can get in the gym is the pump. Let’s say you train your biceps, blood is rushing into your muscles, and that’s what we call the pump. Your muscles get a really tight feeling like your skin is going to explode any minute, and it’s really tight, and it’s like someone is blowing air into your muscle, and it just blows up, and it feels different, it feels fantastic.” – Arnold Schwarzenegger 1977 

When people talk about ‘the pump’, they are usually talking about this short-term gain in muscle volume rather than sustained hypertrophy from months of working out. The pump is not gaining in muscle from strength training but is a good indicator that your workout is working your muscles properly.

How does the pump work?

When you engage in resistance training or other forms of intense exercise, such as weightlifting or bodyweight exercises, your muscles contract and exert force. This muscular contraction compresses the blood vessels within the muscles, momentarily reducing blood flow.

As a response to this reduced blood flow, your body’s circulatory system kicks into action, increasing blood flow to the working muscles. This surge of blood delivers oxygen, nutrients, and hormones to the muscles, while also removing waste products. The increased blood flow causes the muscles to swell and feel fuller, creating the sensation of the pump. Generally, you’ll feel the pump after a longer session aimed at hypertrophy instead of hitting PBs. This is because you’re aiming to inflate your muscles by keeping the pressure in the muscles. While the extra fluid pressure is in your muscles, it can create a diffusion gradient that means your cells pull in additional water and nutrients which causes them to swell. So, the pump is part increased circulation pushing blood into your muscles but also the muscle cells themselves expanding. Repeating this expansion through regular workouts is one way that hypertrophy occurs.

Experiencing a pump can be quite satisfying for fitness enthusiasts. It’s often described as a tightness or a feeling of fullness in the muscles being trained. It can contribute to an increased mind-muscle connection, making you more aware of the targeted muscles and enhancing your overall training experience.

The pump is considered a temporary effect that subsides shortly after you finish your workout. A single pump doesn’t directly translate into long-term muscle growth or strength gains, but it can be a positive indicator that you’re effectively engaging your muscles during your training session.

While the pump itself may not be the primary goal of strength training, many athletes and fitness enthusiasts find it motivational and enjoy the feeling. Additionally, the increased blood flow during the pump may have some short-term benefits, such as improved nutrient delivery and waste product removal, which can contribute to muscle recovery and growth over time.

If you really want to get into the depths of the pump with some scientific studies, you can jump in the links below.

Schoenfeld pump review paper – https://journals.lww.com/nsca-scj/ful… Varovic et al. – https://www.mdpi.com/2075-4663/9/9/11… 

Fink et al. drop set study – https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28474… 

Fink et al. rest interval study – https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28032…

Or, if you are more of a Youtube person

How to get the best pump?

So, if pumps feel great and indicate a good muscle building workout, how can you perfect the pump? 

Start with form and technique. It can take a few sessions to be able to identify the pump and specific muscles or muscle groups that it is affecting. Having good form and a good connection to the sensations in your movements will help you identify what is working or what isn’t. The cadence of your lifts/pushes/pulls. The intensity or pushing towards failure. 

Aim for 80%. The pump will come from resistance training but it isn’t the best for strength training and certainly won’t be helped by working to failure / causing excess damage to your muscles. Aim for around 80% of your 1 rep max.

Drop sets. The best pump is not going to be from setting personal bests and you’re aiming to extend the working time as much as possible. So starting out with lower than usual weights is great but don’t be afraid to keep lowering the weight and using drop sets to get more sets in.

Hydration and nutrition. It sounds obvious but your hydration and nutrition need to be on point to get the pump in full effect. If you’re dehydrated, the diffusion gradient between your muscle cells and intra-cellular space is not going to be pushing fluid and nutrients into your cells. Acheieving the pump while cutting for definition is going to be tough. As with any training regime in calorie deficit, you need to maintain a minimum level of nutrition. 

Range of motion. You might hear conflicting advice on range of motion. Some will say that a good long stroke and movement will maximise the fluid forced into extended muscles and full contraction will increase the vasoconstriction, so a longer range of motion will work best. You might also hear that a full range of motion will lock out the movement/joint and you will lose tension in the muscle, and this will reduce pressure keeping blood in your muscles so you shouldn’t use a full range of motion. Take both into account with the overall goal of keeping your muscle in tension.

Staying under tension with 8-12 reps. On the flip side to using lighter weights to avoid fatigue, you want longer sets that keep your muscles under tension and keep the blood pumping in. The pump is more commonly experienced during higher rep sets, where you perform a moderate to high number of repetitions with a relatively lighter weight. This type of training typically emphasises muscle endurance and hypertrophy (muscle growth).

A shorter rest period. Longer sets are matched with shorter rest periods of around 30-60 seconds. It’s all about maximising the time that your muscles are working.

Pre-workout and nitrous oxide. Anyone who has tried pre-workout knows the feeling of the pump. Most pre-workout supplements contain ingredients that aim to increase the levels of nitrous oxide in the blood and increase overall blood flow. Men’s Health has a great article on the potential benefits of pre-workout on vascular health. In short, yes it helps but focus on your workout before supplements.

  • Posted by James Shannon 9 months ago

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