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How Important Is Getting a Pump for Building Muscle?

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If you want to know whether or not you need to get a pump to build muscle, then you want to read this article.

Key Takeaways

  1. The pump refers to the temporary increase in muscle size that you get when you train with lighter weights and higher reps.
  2. You can build muscle with both “pump” training and heavy strength training.
  3. You should spend most of your time training with heavy weights and use “pump” training to add volume to lagging muscle groups.

You may have noticed something toward the end of your workouts.

Your muscles feel like they’re about to pop out of your skin and grow visibly larger.

That, you see, is a “muscle pump.”

If you listen to bodybuilding magazines, blogs, and fitness gurus, this is one of the keys to building muscle. If you want your muscles to grow, then you need to hammer them with high reps, short rest periods, and as many sets as you can handle until they’re swollen and sore.

Others counter that “chasing the pump” is a fool’s errand. Muscle swelling has nothing to do with muscle growth, and your time is better spent getting as strong as possible.

So, who are you supposed to believe?

If you don’t get a pump, does that mean you’re doing something wrong?

Well, the long story short is this:

You can build muscle without getting a pump, and it’s far from the most important thing you should be focused on.

That doesn’t mean it’s useless, though.

Pump training does have a place in your workout routine, and you can use it to build more muscle than you would with strength training alone.

In this article, you’re going to learn what the pump is, what causes it, why people think it’s important, why it isn’t essential for muscle growth, and why it’s still worth doing some “pump” training in your workouts to get the best results.

Let’s start at square one.

What Is “The 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.

To understand why this happens, we need to look at what’s going on inside our muscles when we lift weights.

When you contract your muscles, metabolic byproducts like lactic acid build up in and around the cells. These substances contribute to the muscle pump in a few different ways.

First, your body pumps more blood into your muscles to carry these compounds away, which makes your muscles swell.

Second, these compounds pull water into the cells, making them larger.

Third, as these cells expand, they reduce the amount of blood that’s able to escape the muscle.

You can see what this looks like in a diagram like this:

 

When your muscle fibers are relaxed, blood can easily pass between them. When they expand, they pinch off the veins that are trying to carry blood back to the heart. 

The net effect is that blood is being pumped into your muscles faster than it can leave, which makes the blood “pool” in your muscles, and gives you a pump.

The more contractions you perform, the more these compounds accumulate in your muscle cells, and the more swelling occurs.

So, why doesn’t this happen when you lift heavy weights for fewer reps?

If you rest several minutes between each set, then your body has enough time to shuttle these byproducts out of your muscles before you do your next set.

There are two things that can cause these compounds to accumulate faster, though:

  1. Doing more reps in each set, so that your muscles produce these compounds faster than your body can shuttle them away.
  2. Resting less than you normally do between sets, which also makes it harder for your body to remove these metabolic waste products.

This is why “pump training” usually involves sets of 12-15+ reps, with around 30 to 90 seconds of rest between each set (or less), for as many sets as possible (or until you get a pump).

The combination of high reps and short rest periods causes a rapid buildup of these metabolic byproducts and a large spike in blood flow, while simultaneously making it harder for blood to escape.

And viola, you have a pump.

This effect doesn’t last long, though. Within the first hour your muscles will be close to their normal size, and after after two or three hours you won’t be able to notice any difference.

So, that’s why you get a pump.

The real question is, does this translate into more muscle growth?

Let’s find out.

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Does Pump Training Build More Muscle?

muscle pump workout

There’s no doubt that you can build muscle with lighter weights and higher reps, which is what most people consider “pump” training.

But is that the best way to train?

The short answer is, no, it isn’t, but we shouldn’t discount it entirely.

You can build muscle effectively without ever getting a pump, as researchers from the University of Central Florida found in a recent study.

One group of people trained in the 10 to 12 rep range, resting one minute between each set. The other group trained in the 3 to 5 rep range with much heavier weights, resting three minutes between each set. Both groups used the same exercises and did the same number of sets.

In other words, the first group did “pump” style training, and the second group used strength training.

Both groups gained about the same amount of muscle, but there was a small trend for greater gains in the group that used heavy weights. This has been borne out in other studies as well. 

So, all in all, there isn’t a huge difference. That said, there are two reasons you should prioritize heavy lifting over pump training, though:

1.) Heavy strength training takes less time.

If you follow most of the high-volume “pump” style training plans you’ll find in bodybuilding magazines, you can easily find yourself in the gym for several hours every day.

A workout based on heavy, compound lifts in the 4 to 6 rep range might take half as long, but will yield the same results.

2.) You’ll need to train with heavy weights eventually, so you might as well start now.

When you first start lifting weights, you can build muscle following almost any program.

The closer you get to your genetic potential, through, the more you have to focus on progressive overload to keep making progress.

This refers to increasing tension levels in the muscle fibers over time, and the most effective way to do it is to progressively increase the amount of weight that you’re lifting.

That isn’t to say that pump training has no place in your workout routine, but if your goal is to gain muscle as quickly as possible, then, ultimately, you need to gain strength as quickly as possible.

So, if getting stronger is the best way to build muscle, why bother with pump training at all?

Well, many people don’t. They make fantastic progress using only the main compound lifts like the squat, bench press, military press and deadlift.

If you want to build muscle as fast as possible, though, then you should consider including some “pump” training in your workouts as well.

How Pump Training Builds Muscle

muscle pump benefits

There are three main “pathways” to stimulate muscle growth:

  1. Progressive tension overload, which refers to exposing your muscles to greater and greater levels of tension over time.
  2. Muscle damage, which refers to the process by which weightlifting stretches and tears muscle cells, forcing them to recover and grow stronger than before.
  3. Cellular fatigue, which involves exhausting a muscle to the point that the fibers can’t contract as forcefully anymore.

Heavy strength training tends to emphasize progressive tension overload, which is also the most important of the three pathways.

If you only train with heavy weights, you’ll expose your muscles to plenty of tension, but you may also be neglecting the muscle damage and cellular fatigue pathways.

“Pump” style training, on the other hand, causes more cellular fatigue and swelling, and less tension overload.

This “cellular swelling” increases protein synthesis and decreases protein breakdown, which, theoretically, should result in more muscle growth over time.

This is why you generally want a balance of both heavy, compound strength training, and lighter, higher-rep exercises in your workout routine

In other words, heavy strength training will get you about 80 percent of your results in the gym, and pump training will get you that remaining 20 percent.

Pump-style training is also a great way to add some extra volume to lagging muscle groups.

Let’s say you’ve just finished doing several heavy sets of bench press, and your chest is toast. You still want to give your shoulders and arms some extra volume, though.

You could just do more sets of bench, but you may not be able to do enough reps to effectively train your arms or shoulders.

In that case, you could pick some other exercises that let you isolate those muscles, like bicep curls and shoulder side raises.

Now, when you train with isolation exercises, or exercises that focus on a smaller group of muscles, it’s difficult to maintain proper form with heavy weights.

For instance, it’s hard to do sets of 4 to 6 reps with shoulder side raises without risking injury. In that case, you’re better off using higher reps with lighter weights, or “pump” training.

If your goal is to build as much muscle as you can in the shortest time possible, you should spend about 80% of your time doing heavy, compound strength training. Then, spend the remaining 20 or so percent of your time on pump training to target your lagging muscle groups.

The Bottom Line on The Pump and Muscle Growth

You don’t need a pump to build muscle, and getting a pump isn’t a guarantee that your workouts are effective.

In fact, you’ll make faster progress if you focus on heavy, compound strength training in the 4 to 6 rep range for the majority of your workouts.

That doesn’t mean you should completely avoid pump style training, though.

Doing lighter, higher rep training after your heavy sets is a great way to add volume to lagging muscle groups like the shoulders, calves, and biceps.

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What’s your take on muscle pumps? Have anything else you’d like to share? Let me know in the comments below!

armilegge Armistead Legge is the Director of Content for Muscle for Life and Legion Athletics. He has completed over 100 triathlons and cross-country, cycling, and adventure races, and has researched and written for over a dozen organizations, including the National Institutes of Health. When he isn't helping people get into the best shape of their lives, he's lifting weights, riding his bike, hiking, camping, reading, and making delicious food.

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