Some say that getting a pump is essential for building muscle. If you want to make your muscles grow as fast as humanly possible, getting one should be the aim of your workouts. A good muscle pump is a sign that you’ve had a good workout, and that growth is sure to follow.
Others will tell you that getting a muscle pump is purely cosmetic and means absolutely nothing. Your muscles might expand temporarily, but that doesn’t mean they’re going to grow any faster. Forget about the pump, and just focus on lifting heavy and getting stronger.
Who’s right? Is getting a pump a sure sign that growth has been stimulated? Or will you build muscle just as fast without one?
What Is a Muscle Pump?
The “pump” refers to the temporary increase in muscle size that occurs when you lift weights, especially when you use higher reps and shorter rest periods.
Blood is coming into a muscle faster than it can leave. As a result, your muscles become temporarily engorged with blood, which is what gives you that “pumped” sensation.
However, the pump is relatively short-lived. Your muscles will typically return to their normal size by the time you’ve had a shower and left the gym.
Everyone likes getting a pump. Your muscles blow up and feel full. Your skin feels tight. You appear more muscular than you really are, especially if you’re looking at yourself in your favorite mirror where the lighting is just right. It’s a good feeling.
A Muscle Pump: The Fix and Rush of Bodybuilding
In their book Pumping Iron: The Art and Sport of Bodybuilding, George Butler and Charles Gaines had this to say about the pump:
“A pump is the fix and rush of bodybuilding. It is the workout gone inside: the exercise swallowed and digested, metabolizing visibly into growth. It produces a feeling that is wonderfully clearheaded, self-sufficient and refreshed – as though all the blood were new.
“Some bodybuilders will tell you that it feels better than coming. Whether that is true or not, it is one of the finest and most complicated physical sensations you can have. The part of the body being pumped feels like one of those fast-frame films of flowers blooming or seeds ripening; the muscles seem actually to go from pod to blossom in seconds under the skin.”
In the 1977 film of the same name, here’s how Arnold Schwarzenegger describes the pump:
How Do I Get a Muscle Pump?
Bodybuilders typically “pump up” by performing a series of high rep sets immediately before a contest so their muscles look bigger when they step on stage.
Training programs geared towards building strength, which involve the use of heavy weights, low reps and long rest periods, don’t usually lead to much of a pump.
In fact, a lot of guys making the switch from a bodybuilding-style training program to something like Stronglifts 5×5 say that it doesn’t feel like it’s doing anything because they get no pump at all.
They’re not sure if it’s common to remain “pumpless” while training for strength, or if they’re doing something wrong.
Does Getting a Pump Build Muscle?
Getting a pump, in and of itself, isn’t essential for muscle growth. It is possible to build muscle without a pump. What’s more, if you don’t get a pump, it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re doing anything wrong.
There’s plenty of research out there to show that training with lighter weights and higher reps – the type of training that gives your muscles that nice tight “pumped” feeling – is an effective way to build muscle.
However, your muscles can also be made to grow with very heavy weights, low reps, and long rest periods between sets (which doesn’t usually lead to much of a pump).
In one study, researchers from the University of Central Florida compared two different training programs over an eight-week period.
Lifters in the first group did 4 sets of 10-12 reps, with 1 minute of rest between sets. Subjects in group two did the same exercises and number of sets. But they used a much heavier weight that limited them to 3-5 reps, resting for around 3 minutes between sets.
This latter type of training doesn’t lead to as much of a pump as the lighter weights and higher reps used by group one.
Other than that, everything else – the exercises and number of weekly training days – was kept the same. It was only the amount of weight that was being lifted, the number of reps per set and the amount of rest between each set that differed between groups.
None of the differences in body composition between the groups were statistically different. In other words, both the “high pump” and “low pump” training programs had a similar effect on muscle growth.
In fact, the researchers did find a clear trend towards greater gains in the group lifting heavier weights. That is, the men who trained in the 3-5 rep range were the ones that built the most muscle.
To be clear, this study wasn’t set up to test the idea that getting a pump leads to a faster rate of muscle growth than remaining pumpless.
It’s not like the researchers made any objective or subjective assessments of how “pumped” each subject got during a workout. But by comparing different styles of training that lead to more or less of a pump, the study does put a big question mark next to the idea that getting a pump is essential for building muscle.
However, while getting a muscle pump may not be necessary for growth, the type of training that leads to a pump does provide a potent hypertrophic stimulus, possibly via a different pathway to heavy lifting.
Here’s what Dr Brad Schoenfeld, author of the Science and Development of Muscle Hypertrophy, has to say on the subject in a review published in the Strength and Conditioning Journal:
“It is likely that exercise centered on achieving a ‘pump’ through higher repetition sets combined with shorter rest periods also provides a potent hypertrophic stimulus that is synergistic to heavy compound lifting.
“Therefore, individuals seeking maximal hypertrophy should consider dedicating a component of their training sessions toward ‘pump’ training, ideally after heavier strength work, to take advantage of the multiple pathways involved in muscle hypertrophy.”
Getting a pump feels good. Arnold Schwarzenegger called it “the greatest feeling you can get in the gym.” And the type of training that gives you a pump is also a highly effective way to gain muscle, particularly if you’re not a fan of lifting heavy weights
However, I don’t think that the pump tells you anything about whether or not a particular workout has been effective, and getting one shouldn’t drive your decisions about how to set up your training program.
SEE ALSO: THE MUSCLE BUILDING CHEAT SHEET
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ABOUT THE AUTHORChristian Finn is the nation’s leading authority on science-based, joint-friendly ways to build muscle. A former "trainer to the trainers," he holds a masters degree in exercise science, and has been featured in or contributed to major media on two continents, including the BBC and Sunday Times in the U.K. and Men’s Health and Men’s Fitness in the U.S.