What Is a pump?
45 years ago, in the movie Pumping Iron, Arnold Schwarzenegger told the whole world what a pump was, and what made it so highly sought after by serious weight trainers. Arnold told us it was just as good as sex, and while that’s debatable, there is no question that anyone who is serious about adding muscle loves getting a pump. As you train a muscle, it becomes engorged with blood and takes on a fuller, tighter, swollen look. When you’re pumped, you absolutely look bigger, and your veins stand out more prominently. What’s happening is that more blood is being forced into the working muscle than it normally contains, causing an effect not unlike a balloon being filled with air or water and expanding. Not only is a pump something that looks cool and can make you feel like a beast, but it will translate to more muscle growth. Your muscles are surrounded by very tough connective tissue called fascia. A great pump stretches that fascial layer and allows more room for the muscle to expand and grow. The more often you achieve excellent pumps, the more capillaries will be created inside the muscle. This leads to even fuller pumps as time goes on, and more growth! These reasons also help explain why bodybuilders, who train for a pump, have far superior muscle size compared to those who train purely for strength or functionality (such as CrossFit). All this should make you understand that getting the best pump possible in your workouts should always be your goal. So how do you make sure you do? Read on and I’ll tell you!
- Hydrate Before and During Workouts
One essential ingredient of a skintight, muscle-bursting pump is right on tap at home – water. Water is needed to transport nutrients, as well as for overall blood volume. If you train in a dehydrated state, not only will a pump be impossible, but you will also find both your energy and performance levels in the gutter. You should always drink adequate water with and between meals, but especially be sure to start your workouts well hydrated.
- Carbohydrates Are a Must
Along with water, the other critical nutrient needed to support a hellacious pump is carbohydrates. Carbs are stored in our muscles as glycogen, and I’m sure any of you that have gone for long periods on low or no carbs have noticed that getting a pump is extremely difficult if not impossible with no carbs in your system. Your pre-workout meal should always include a clean-burning carbohydrate source like rice, potatoes, sweet potatoes, oatmeal, cream of rice or wheat, or fresh fruit. Carbs also attract more water into the muscle cells, further enhancing the pump.
- Higher Reps
If you want to fill up a bicycle tire with a hand pump, you don’t just pump it a few times. It usually takes a good 20 to 30 pumps to reach proper pressure. It’s not so different with your muscles. Low reps with heavy weight don’t allow for much blood to rush in and fill the muscle with greater volume. For that, you need to get your reps up there. The standard 8 to 10 reps might work for some, but most people find they require sets in the range of 12 to 15 for the upper body, and anywhere from 12 to 20 for the lower body, to get a decent pump going. A lot of guys and girls shy away from higher reps because they have it in their heads that you just can’t stimulate muscle gains training that “light.” Of course, you should train heavier at times too, but higher reps and achieving a great pump also foster muscle growth. It’s very safe to say that if you don’t get pumps in your training, you are missing out on a certain amount of muscle size you are capable of attaining.
- Intensity Techniques
Higher reps with straight sets are one good training technique that will help get you pumped, but there are other, more intense techniques you should also employ. Two of the best ones are drop sets and supersets. In a drop set, you start off with a weight you can use for something like 8 to 10 reps to failure. Immediately reduce the weight and continue for 8 to 10 more reps. You can even do double drops, reducing the weight a second time. The pump will be severe, as will be the lactic acid burn deep in the muscle belly that lets you know you just worked that muscle to its limits and beyond. Another proven intensity booster is supersets, in which you perform sets of two different exercises back to back with zero rest between. These can be two exercises for the same body part, or they might be exercises for antagonistic muscle groups, such as biceps and triceps, chest and back (a favorite of Arnold’s), or quadriceps and hamstrings. You can also do pre-exhaust supersets for a muscle group, wherein you perform an isolation exercise for the muscle, followed immediately by a compound movement that brings other muscle groups in to assist. Examples of pre-exhaust supersets include lateral raises and overhead presses, pec deck and bench presses, and leg extensions and leg presses or squats. There are also tri-sets and giant sets, which are doing three exercises in a row for a body part, or anything beyond three. At one point, there was a trend in a popular bodybuilding gym in Orange County, California of doing giant sets that could feature as many as 10 exercises for a body part in a row!
- Keep Your Rest Periods Brief
If we go back to that analogy of pumping up a muscle being similar to filling a tire or a balloon with air, think of that tire or balloon as having a leak. That’s the blood circulating back to your heart from the working muscle. Getting a pump is all about keeping as much blood in the muscle as you can for a short time. Therefore, keeping rest periods brief between sets is vital. The longer you let that pumped muscle go before flushing more blood into it, the more blood leaves that muscle, and the lesser your pump. Rest between sets should be kept to 60 to 90 seconds. If you train by yourself, that’s no problem. Set a timer on your phone or look at your watch if you need to. If you train with a partner, rest only long enough for him or her to complete their set. As for training with more than one person, I wouldn’t advise it. You will end up resting too long and losing your pump.
- Flex and Stretch Between Sets
Something you don’t see many people doing in the gym is flexing and stretching the working muscles between sets. When you do that, two things happen. One, the flexing draws more blood into the muscle, because you are contracting it just as you are during resistance training. It will also improve your mind-muscle connection, making all your training more effective. Stretching the muscle helps expand that fascia tissue we discussed earlier, allowing for greater muscle growth. It will also maintain or even improve your overall flexibility and range of motion.
Now you know exactly what a pump is, why getting the best pump possible is going to help take your physique to another level, and you also have all the nutrition and training tools you need to get the ultimate pump. Now it’s up to you to put it all together. Are you excited? You should be, because you’re about to pump your way to a bigger, more muscular you!