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The pump: broscience or legitimate muscle images?

Der Pump: Broscience oder legitimer Muskelbilder?

The scientific research is in and the muscle pump can really make a difference. Find out how much it can help improve your muscle gains. This article includes a complete pump maximizing training plan.

"Remember - and I emphasize this again and again - that bodybuilding training is all about working for the pump and doing reps."

- Jay Cutler

"The greatest feeling you can get in the gym, or the most satisfying feeling you can get in the gym, is the pump."

- Arnold Schwarzenegger

"You pump it up, the pump wears off a little bit, a little bit stays. You pump it up the next time, a little more remains. And little by little it accumulates and creates your look.

- Frank Zane

Is the pump garbage or is it worth the time? That is the question

In the past, I completely ignored the pump. I thought it was a complete waste of time to strive for it and that the supposed benefits were pure broscience. Whenever someone asked me if the pump was worth paying attention to, I always tooted the same horn:

Stick to progressive overload and don't bother with the pump.

Recently, however, I've learned that there is an appreciable amount of scientific research supporting the value of pump sets. Over the past decade, evidence has accumulated to support the theory that blood flow is an important regulator of glucose uptake into muscle tissue. There is also scientific research suggesting that blood flow influences muscle protein synthesis. It does this by increasing the transport of free amino acids into the muscle cells. This in turn stimulates the synthesis of protein.

This notion is supported by the strong correlation between blood flow and fractional synthesis rate (FSR).

"In summary, the results of our study show that net protein synthesis during amino acid administration can be doubled by prior performance of heavy resistance training. Furthermore, the data suggest a link between the stimulation of protein synthesis after exercise and an acceleration of amino acid transport. The higher rate of transport after exercise may be due to an increase in blood flow." (1)

To make a long story short, extended pump sets increase blood flow to muscle tissue, which obviously creates the potential for an increase in muscle tissue due to the impact on protein synthesis.

The pump as a training tool

So we have established that the pump is indeed a useful training tool, but it should be emphasized that hypertrophy (the muscle building process) is a very complex process that requires a variety of methods if maximum gains in muscle mass are the goal. Scientific research shows us that the pump creates a potential for more muscle mass, but it is not the only muscle building mechanism.

If you were to train only for pump and ignore all other research on the muscle building process, you would be unlikely to build significant amounts of muscle mass. Pump should be used in combination with other muscle building tools and not instead of them. Think of the pump as a muscle building enhancer and not the primary stimulus for building muscle.

The human body is very efficient when it comes to adapting to an external stimulus. If you started your training with 45 kilos on the bench press and never increased the weight because you only focused on pump sets, then it is likely that you built some muscle mass during the first few months. However, from the point at which the adaptations to these specific demands are complete, the gains will slow down dramatically.

How do we know this? Let's look at the scientific evidence. I want you to draw your own conclusions from the following information.

The SAID principle

The SAID principle, which stands for specific adaptations to demands, is something very real. If you don't continue to challenge your body in new and more intense ways, your muscles will have no reason to grow. You can of course continue to use the same weight and perform more sets or repetitions, but this approach has its limits.

It is theoretically possible to start with 45 kilos on the bench and only increase the number of sets and repetitions you perform. For example, a trainee could start with 5 sets and perform as many repetitions as possible. This would be a good starting point and would probably lead to a muscle pump.

Additional sets could be added later. More reps per set could also be performed, but it would probably only take a few months for a bench press program like this to reach critical mass. By this I mean that once you are doing 8, 9, or 10 sets with as many reps as possible, it becomes extremely difficult to add more sets and reps. You will either run out of time or energy.

At this point, descending sets, rest-pause training or other advanced training techniques could be used. But if you follow this path and only chase the pump, then there is only a finite amount of volume/increasing sets, etc. you can add before you reach your limits (if you don't want to spend 2-3 hours a day in the gym chasing the pump).

How long would it take you to reach your limits when it comes to increasing intensity while staying at the same weight? Probably not long, unless you're superhuman or rich and independent and don't mind working out for hours at a time. Even in extreme cases where a trainee is only looking for extra sets, they would have to shift their focus to progressive overload at some point during their first year of training. Increasing the number of sets and repetitions is not possible indefinitely. At some point a limit is reached. Progressive overload, on the other hand, can be pursued practically indefinitely.

It is certainly possible to work your way up to 15 sets of bench presses with 45 kilos. Would this build muscle? Yes, of course. Would you build muscle at an optimal rate? Most likely not. A stronger muscle is a bigger muscle. Wouldn't it be better to use the pump in combination with progressive overload? I think the answer is obvious. The scientific data on muscle hypertrophy supports this conclusion.

If you have reached that set and volume limit and cannot perform more work due to a lack of time or energy, your gains will slow substantially because the stimulus will not change. The body will adapt and without new challenges, gains will be minimal. Either that, or the body will eventually break down due to the brutality of this extremely high volume of training.

When I look at the finite nature of increases in volume in light of the SAID principle, I realize that the pump must be used in combination with other hypertrophy methods and not as the sole training tool. If you want to abandon all other gold standards of muscle building like progressive overload and just find more creative ways to rechallenge your body using the same weight, I'd love to see you get any substantial results with this.

Where are all the weak bodybuilders? There aren't any. I've never met a strength athlete with any significant muscle mass who didn't also have a substantial amount of strength. This doesn't mean that these exercisers are necessarily as strong as powerlifters, but these guys are certainly significantly stronger than when they started their training careers.

You'll often hear experienced trainers talk about chasing the pump instead of talking about heavy weights. Jay Culter, for example, is one of them.

Let's put Jay's statements about pump into perspective by looking at his overall strength levels. In a 2014 article, Jay Cutler makes the following statement (2):

"My best flat bench press performance was 2 reps at 550 pounds."

"I remember being able to do squats at 19 with almost 700 pounds for a few reps and those were very deep squats."

"I've done 8 to 10 (reps) with 405 pounds and I can do 10 reps with 365 pounds in each of my back training sessions." Note: Jay Cutler was talking about his barbell rowing strength here.

Neither Arnold Schwarzenegger nor Frank Zane were weak. Arnold had Herculean strength and I had the pleasure of speaking with Mr. Olympia Frank Zane himself about his early strength training days. He was very strong before he switched to a pump-focused method of training.

Each of these Mr. Olympia contestants, even though they focused on the pump later, had built an amazing strength base beforehand. What does this tell us? Strength plays a critical role in muscle development and should be combined with pump for maximum results.

Over the past 28 years, I have had the opportunity to speak with hundreds of muscular exercisers. These individuals have included steroid-free professionals, top-level fitness models and even Ms. Olympia competitors. Despite the fact that many of them made similar statements such as "I don't focus on heavy weights or chase personal bests," each of these exercisers was amazingly strong.

What is going on here? The answer, in my opinion, is simple. Each of these strength athletes has built a muscle base using some form of progressive overload. When the demands of training with heavy weights began to punish them physically, they looked for ways other than straight-line progression to challenge their bodies.

By and large, the concept of intensity periodization has yet to catch on in the field of bodybuilding. As a result, it is common to see experienced exercisers moving away from focusing solely on progressive overload. They need to do this to protect their bodies from excessive wear and tear.

It should be noted that these bodybuilders and figure athletes are still moving significantly more weight during their pump sets than most of us use during our heavy sets. Everything is relative and this reality should not be ignored.

The "other" science of muscle building

The muscle pump is far from the only training tool supported by scientific research. Science also tells us that the following are important aspects of hypertrophy:

  • Heavy sets (80 to 85% of maximum weight for one repetition), which recruit maximum amounts of muscle fibers from the first repetition
  • Progressive overload (increases in strength) (3)
  • Maximum sets (sets in which as many repetitions as possible are performed (4)

The repetition range from 5 to 8 repetitions

Heavy sets will recruit maximum amounts of muscle fibers simply because of the weight involved. Scientific research shows that sets with 80 to 85% of the maximum weight for one repetition (which corresponds to a repetition range of 5 to 8 repetitions) tend to recruit a near-maximal amount of muscle fibers. Simply put, nearly every repetition will involve maximal muscle fiber recruitment.

It should also be noted that of the two types of muscle fibers (Type I & II), Type II fibers generate the most force and have the greatest potential for growth. Type II fibers also require a substantial amount of weight to be activated, making sets with heavy weights and low repetitions a muscle building tool you can't do without.

Type II muscle fibers are made up of the following 2 subcategories:

  • Type IIA - require a slightly lighter weight than Type IIB fibers to be activated. In the case of most bodybuilding programs, you will use conventional repetition ranges (8 to 12) to activate these fibers.
  • Type IIB - require a very heavy weight to be activated. In most cases, this involves sets of 5 to 8 repetitions.

As you can see, sets with low and conventional repetitions work together to target the Type II muscle fibers, which have the greatest potential for muscle growth.

Maximum repetitions per set

Another primary factor that leads to improved muscle fiber recruitment is the relative duration of a set. Simply put, the closer you get to muscle failure during a set, the more muscle fibers are recruited.

This practice is independent of the repetition range. This means that as long as you perform a set to near muscle failure, you will recruit as many muscle fibers as possible regardless of the repetition range used.

This does not mean that it is necessary to perform a set until muscle failure is reached. This does not increase muscle fiber recruitment. I personally recommend performing as many repetitions as possible in each set and ending the set when you feel that you can no longer complete the next repetition or when the form of the exercise execution noticeably decreases.

Training to muscle failure only increases the risk and potential for injury. Your exercise form will drop significantly on the last repetition, although there are some exercises that you can perform to muscle failure without additional risk. Every exercise is different. Use your common sense, but keep in mind that training to muscle failure is not a necessity for muscle growth.

There are several studies that suggest that the greater the effort in a repetition, the greater the response. Dr. Ralph N. Carpinelli, a faculty member of the Human Performance Laboratory at Adelphi University in Garden City, New York, has conducted a comprehensive meta-analysis of the science of training with weights and gains. (4)

Dr. Carpinelli had this to say:

"The size principle states that as the central nervous system recruits more motor units for a specific activity, it starts with the smallest, most easily excitable, weakest motor units and progressively activates larger, harder to excite, stronger motor units to maintain or increase strength."

Why does any of this matter to us? Simple...more intense repetitions activate more muscle fibers because the repetitions become harder to perform.

The Pump "Plus" - building a well-rounded muscle building plan

In this article we have discovered several things about the muscle building process:

  1. The pump is a quality muscle building tool.
  2. Chasing the pump alone will probably not lead to optimal hypertrophy.
  3. Heavy training combined with training with conventional repetition ranges will activate the Type II muscle fibers, which have the greatest growth potential.
  4. Performing as many repetitions as possible during training sets promotes the recruitment of more muscle fibers.

To maximize the muscle-building process, we should take each of these science-based principles seriously. One tool alone (to varying degrees based on the individual tool) can build muscle, but a combination of all of these tools has the greatest potential for building muscle. At the very least, these principles provide a good starting point. Training can be customized from here based on individual needs and feedback from the body.

So even though the pump is an effective muscle building tool, it makes little sense to make it your sole focus. Without a strength base and a sufficient amount of training intensity (performing a large portion of your sets with as many reps as possible), pump will not give you the amount of quality muscle mass you are after.

Structuring a training session for the primary muscle groups

If you are training a large muscle group, then it makes sense to target type IIB first with heavy weights and a repetition range of 5 to 8 reps. You can then shift your focus to the type IIA fibers and more conventional repetition ranges (8 to 12 repetitions). This combination generates a qualitative potential for muscle growth and provides a highly effective base.

To amplify the results of these sets, make sure you perform as many repetitions as possible per set. However, never sacrifice exercise form for an extra repetition. Live for progress, but not if it means extra risk.

After you've challenged a muscle group with these two repetition ranges, it's time to move on to pump training. Pump training can take many forms. It can include the following:

  • Volume sets such as 5 sets of 8 to 15 reps with limited rest intervals between sets
  • burns
  • Supersets, triple sets, mega sets or descending sets that bring a muscle into the pain and pump zone without rest.

Smaller muscle groups are often heavily challenged during the execution of multi-joint exercises. It can be quite difficult to train smaller muscle groups using the 5 to 8 repetition range. Therefore, when training smaller muscle groups, you should stick to more conventional repetition ranges and round off your training session with pump training.

Here are a few example workouts that include pump training: one for the chest, one for the quadriceps and one for the calves.

Chest training session with pump focus

Chest pump workout

Exercise

Sets

Bench press

4

4-6

Dumbbell incline bench press

3

8-12

Chest press on the machine

3

8-12

Butterflys - 20 seconds rest between sets

5

10

Quadriceps training session with pump focus

Quadriceps pump training session

Exercise

Sets

Squats

5

5

Leg press

5

10-15

Leg extensions - descending sets. Perform as many repetitions as possible and then reduce the weight by 5 kilos each time until you reach the end of the weight stack

2

Calf training session with pump focus

Calf pump training session

Exercise

Sets

Seated calf raise

4

10-15

Superset - standing calf raise

3

15

Superset - jumping squats

3

20

The structure of a complete program for slightly advanced users

Training hard and heavy every week can take its toll on the body. However, the need for progressive overload remains. Rather than forgoing the heavier side of training as you progress in your training, I recommend using periodization.

This sample training program rotates between 3 different types of training:

  • Week 1 - Heavy workout, 5-8 reps
  • Week 2 - Conventional training, 8-12 repetitions
  • Week 3 - Pump training, focus on supersets

Perform as many repetitions as possible in each set. This will allow you to continuously challenge your body and aim for progressive overload without training super heavy every week.

Week 1 - Heavy training

Here is a sample program for week 1:

  • Monday - Lower Body A
  • Tuesday - Upper body A
  • Thursday - lower body B
  • Friday - upper body B

monday

Lower body A

Exercise

Sets

Squats

3

5-8

Hackenschmidt squats

3

5-8

Romanian deadlift

3

5-8

Seated calf raise

3

8-12

Planks

3

60 sec.

Tuesday

Upper body A

Exercise

Sets

Bench press

3

5-8

Barbell row

3

5-8

One-arm dumbbell shoulder press

3

5-8

Dips with additional weight

3

5-8

Barbell curls

3

5-8

Thursday

Lower body B

Exercise

Sets

Front squats

3

5-8

Leg presses

3

5-8

Good mornings with wide stance

3

5-8

Standing calf raise

3

8-12

Ab wheel rollouts

3

8-15

Friday

Upper body B

Exercise

Sets

Incline bench press

3

5-8

Deadlift

3

5-8

Standing shoulder press

3

5-8

Close bench press

3

5-8

Pull-ups with additional weight

3

5-8

Week 2 - Conventional training

Here is a sample program for week 2:

  • Monday - Lower body A
  • Tuesday - Upper body A
  • Thursday - lower body B
  • Friday - upper body B

monday

Lower body A

Exercise

Sets

Squats

4

8-12

Lunges with dumbbells

4

8-12

Leg curls

4

8-12

Calf raises on the leg machine

4

10-15

Planks

4

60 sec.

Tuesday

Upper body A

Exercise

Sets

Bench press

4

8-12

One-arm dumbbell row

4

8-12

Arnold Presses seated

4

8-12

Tricep press on cable

4

8-12

SZ Curls

4

8-12

Thursday

Lower body B

Exercise

Sets

Leg press

4

8-12

Hackenschmidt squats

4

8-12

Dumbbell deadlift with straight legs

4

8-12

Seated calf raise

4

8-12

Ab wheel rollouts

4

8-12

Friday

Upper body B

Exercise

Sets

Dumbbell incline bench press

4

8-12

Pull-ups with additional weight or lat pull-downs

4

8-12

Rowing upright

4

8-12

Prone tricep presses (skullcrushers)

4

8-12

Dumbbell curls

4

8-12

Week 3 - Pump training

Here is a sample program for week 3. Keep the pauses between the superset combinations to a maximum of 60 seconds.

  • Monday - Lower body A
  • Tuesday - Upper body A
  • Thursday - lower body B
  • Friday - upper body B

monday

Lower body A

Exercise

Sets

Superset - squats and leg extensions

3/3

8/12

Superset - Squats and jump squats with own body weight

3/3

10/20

Superset - good mornings and leg curls

3/3

8/12

Superset - seated calf raises and standing calf raises

3/3

12/20

Superset - Planks and cable crunches

3/3

60 sec/20

tuesday

Upper body A

Exercise

Sets

Superset - bench press and cable pulldown crossover

3/3

8/12

Superset - barbell rows and pull-ups

3/3

8/AMAP*

Superset - shoulder press on the multi press and side raises

3/3

10/12

Superset - lying tricep press (scull crusher) and close bench press with a SZ bar

3/3

10/15

Superset - dumbbell curls and SZ Scott curls

3/3

10/10

Thursday

Lower body B

Exercise

Sets

Superset - leg presses and goblet squats

3/3

12/15

Superset - front squats and dumbbell lunges

3/3

8/12

Superset - reverse Hackschmidt squats and dumbbell deadlifts with straight legs

3/3

8/8

Superset - calf raises on the multi press and standing dumbbell calf raises

3/3

12/12

Superset - Ab wheel rollout and sit ups

3/3

10/20

Friday

Upper body B

Exercise

Sets

Superset - incline bench dumbbell press and butterflies

3/3

10/12

Superset - seated rows on cable and lat pulldowns

3/3

10/10

Superset - standing shoulder press and upright rowing with dumbbells

3/3

8/15

Superset - bench press with close grip and tricep press on cable with rope grip

3/3

8/12

Superset - drag curls and cable curls with a rope handle

3/3

10/12

* AMAP = as many repetitions as possible

Final thoughts

There is no single magic muscle building formula that works for everyone all the time. You can build plenty of muscle without heavy sets with low reps and you can also build muscle without the pump. Progression and consistency will take you a long way, which is especially true when a solid majority of these sets are performed with as many reps as possible.

Arnold Schwarzenegger wasn't just a fan of the pump. He was strong as a bear and made sure to push as many sets as possible to the limit.

"The last three or four repetitions make the muscle grow. That area of pain separates the champion from someone who is not a champion. That's what most people lack - they don't have the balls to keep going and go through the pain no matter what." - Arnold Schwarzenegger

Once you've performed a maximum number of reps on a set, it's quite easy to kick on when the muscle is already down and train for an intense pump. You can continue immediately afterwards with a superset, a descending set, rest-pause volume training or simply a burn set.

However you perform your pump workout, use it as the final death blow to the muscle.

Notes on anabolic steroids in connection with the pump

Prolonged use of anabolic androgenic steroids can lead to desensitization of the receptors. This receptor fatigue inhibits the gains stimulated by steroids. There are several scientific studies that show that exercise helps to reopen these desensitized receptors. Well-known steroid expert Dharkam had this to say about exercise intensity and receptor stimulation:

"Since muscle contractions are one of the main factors that upregulate androgen receptors, the harder a muscle contracts, the more androgen receptors you'll get."

It probably goes without saying that pump training produces brutal muscle contractions. For this reason, the pump seems to be an even more useful tool for advanced bodybuilders.

References

  1. Biolo, G. An abundant supply of amino acids enhances the metabolic effect of exercise on muscle protein, Am. J. Physiol. 273 (Endocrinol. Metab. 36): El22-E129, 1997
  2. Cutler, Jay. 4x Mr. Olympia Jay Cutler's best lifts for every bodypart. Muscular Development, June 28th, 2014.
  3. Golberg, AL. Mechanism of work-induced hypertrophy of skeletal muscle. Med Sci Sports. 1975 Fall;7(3):185-98.
  4. Carpinelli RN. The size principle and a critical analysis of the unsubstantiated heavier-is-better recommendation for resistance training. J Exerc Sci Fit 2008; 6: 67-86.

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