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Is the Pump Necessary for Muscle Growth?

In the last fitness center that I trained in, there was a weird guy. The main focus of his training was getting a pump. He thought the pump was absolutely necessary for building muscles in any way. He lived by the philosophy of Arnold Schwarzenegger, in Pumping Iron:

I am like, uh, getting the feeling of coming in a gym, I’m getting the feeling of coming at home, I’m getting the feeling of coming backstage when I pump up, when I pose in front of 5,000 people, I get the same feeling, so I am coming day and night. I mean, it’s terrific. Right? So you know, I am in heaven. — Arnold Schwarzenegger, about the feeling of the pump

That guy once told me, that he started eating junk food before his workout sessions. Because they guaranteed, that he will get a great pump.

I haven’t heard of him since I’ve changed my training location. The chances are high that he’s still desperately chasing the pump, while completely neglecting the more important aspects of his exercise schedule. Today I want to show you, why the pump isn’t as necessary as you might think it is, and how you should train instead.

How your body works

Before we understand, how the pump works, we first need to have a basic knowledge in anatomy.

How your blood circulation works

Everytime you’re contracting your muscles, you’re constricting your blood vessels. As most of you know, the blood in your body moves from the left side of your heart, to the ride side of your heart. While supplying your organs and cells with valuable oxygen and nutrients in the midtime.

Blood Circulation 101

The first half of the blood circulation is the easy part for your body. The oxygenated and nutritious blood (red color) is far easier to transport, than the deoxygenated blood (blue color). Because of two reasons:

  1. Your heart is on the upper part of your body, because of that, gravity is on your side when pumping the blood.
  2. Your heart is actively pressuring the blood to your body parts. Naturally on the first half of the circulation, you still have more power and velocity.

The downside of the circulatory system

These stepping stones leave your body with one big challenge: how do you transport the blood from the middle of your body to your heart again when they have to work against gravity and only barely get help from your heart? A big part of the solution were valves.

Valves Explained

Valves are security measurements from your body, so that the blood only flows in a certain direction – to your heart. The valves are only allowing one-way traffic. Without valves, all our blood would likely stay in our feet. Deformed valves, due to increasing age or pregnancy, lead to varicose veins.

Side note: It’s also thought that people that were crucified have died, next to physical exhaustion, from a lack of blood in their upper bodies. Because the immobile and vertical position has created a blood congestion in the lower extremities.

What happens when you’re having a pump

I personally like the pump. Who doesn’t? Whenever I’m training in the gym and get the pump I feel amazing. I suddenly look a couple times more muscular than you actually are. Isn’t it therefore rational to conclude that a pump is an indicator of an effective workout?

Sadly, the scientific explanation of a muscle pump is rather blunt: the muscle contraction in your muscles, for example when you’re doing a biceps curl, constrict the blood flow in your veins. Temporarily, the blood gets trapped inside of your veins, not being able to return.

The Author Restricting His Venous Blood Flow

The blood trapped inside your arms, will lead to an increased volume of your muscular size. It will also lead to an increased visibility of your veins. This heavily affects your appearance – but only in the short term.

The pump therefore is a temporary blood congestion inside your working muscle. But this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Having this blood congestion forces your body to adapt. It’s a metabolic stress that may increase your protein synthesis in the working muscle. Therefore it might increase your muscle growth.

The downside is, that it increases the stress on your muscles. A functioning blood flow is necessary for recovery. Stress and recovery always have to be in balance, to guarantee best results.

Do you have to leave the gym immediately and run for the hills if you ever experience a pump? No. Is it necessary for muscle growth? No. It may help induce metabolic stress which then might increase muscle growth, but it shouldn’t be the sole purpose of your training.

How to structure your training

Instead of chasing the pump, you should structure your training to guarantee progression. For the beginning two years of my training I have never written down my workouts. I must say, that I wasted some of my potential by not doing that. Progression is the most important metric, when it comes to reaching your fitness goals.

What gets measured gets managed. — Peter Drucker

Write down the date of the workout, the machines or weights you used, how many sets you’ve did and how many repetitions you’ve managed to do. Also don’t forget the percieved intensity, simply rate a workout set from a scale from 1-10. 1 is the easiest and 10 is the hardest. If you value convenience, you can also buy a exercise book. I use the BodyMinder .

Disrupt the balance in your body. You have to increase the weight over time, you have to increase the intensity. If you don’t guarantee progression, your body will see no reason to adapt and stay where it is. Writing down your workouts can also be a motivational source for you. It’s good to look back to see how far you’ve come. Having a workout book also makes your work with a professional coach much easier, as it shows the trainer, which exercises you’re already experienced in.

Write Down Your Progress

The pump nonetheless, won’t really hurt your physique. And if the temporary increase in muscular size and vascularity truly motivates you to go to the gym – so be it. From a scientific standpoint nonetheless, the blood congestion only has a minor affect in guaranteeing your muscular growth.

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