Key Takeaways

  1. The muscle “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.
  2. Pump training should never be your primary focus if you want to gain muscle as fast as possible, but it can help you build muscle faster when done in conjunction with heavy strength training.
  3. If you want to know how to use pump training to build muscle more effectively, keep reading to learn how.

If you’ve read anything about bodybuilding, you’ve probably heard about something called “the pump.” 

In a nutshell, this refers to the temporary increase in muscle size that occurs when you lift weights.

Bodybuilders have been strangely obsessed with this phenomenon since people started lifting weights, and according to many, it’s the cheat code for unlocking rapid muscle growth.

For example, here’s how Arnie described it in the 1977 film, Pumping Iron:

 

George Butler and Charles Gaines, authors of Pumping Iron: The Art and Sport of Bodybuilding, claimed getting a muscle pump, “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.”

This explanation reveals one of the main reasons weightlifters like getting a pump: it’s a visible sign your efforts in the gym are paying off. Your muscles are getting bigger before your eyes!

This preoccupation with the pump hasn’t waned, either.

You’ll still find articles touting the benefits of “chasing the pump”—bodybuilder lingo for doing lots of reps with short rest periods until your muscles are swollen and sore.

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

So, who’s right?

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

And if you want to build as much muscle as possible, should you change your training to get more of a pump? 

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.

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What Is a Muscle “Pump?”

The muscle “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 heart 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:

muscle-pump-2

When your muscle fibers are relaxed, blood can easily pass between them. When they expand, they pinch off the veins 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.

In other words, the pump is a temporary enlargement of a muscle due to an increase in the amount of blood in the muscle. 

The three main things you can do to get a pump are to . . . 

  • Do more reps in each set, so your muscles produce these metabolic byproducts faster than your body can shuttle them away.
  • Rest less than you normally do between sets, which also makes it harder for your body to remove these metabolic byproducts.
  • Do more sets, which further increases blood flow to your muscles and generates even more metabolic byproducts.

This is why “pump training” usually involves sets of 12 to 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, short rest periods, and multiple sets 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 two or three hours you won’t be able to notice any difference.

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

Let’s find out.

Summary: A muscle pump is a temporary increase in muscle size due to increased blood flow, typically due to using higher reps and shorter rest periods.

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Does Getting a Pump Help You Build Muscle?

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Yes and no. 

While scientists are still unraveling the complex systems responsible for muscle growth, it’s clear pump training is effective for building muscle. 

That doesn’t mean it’s optimal for building muscle, though.

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

The researchers split 33 resistance-trained men with an average age of 24 into two groups: 

  1. Group one trained in the 10-to-12-rep range using 70% of their one-rep max (1RM), resting one minute between each set. 
  2. Group two trained in the 3-to-5-rep range with 90% of their 1RM, resting three minutes between each set. 

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

Both groups used the same exercises, did the same number of sets, trained the same number of times per week, and were observed by the researchers to ensure they used proper, consistent form. 

The researchers also had both groups complete a two week preparatory phase so they could familiarize themselves with the exercises and all start the study with more or less the same amount of fatigue.

They all trained four days per week using a lowerupper split made up of a combination of compound exercises like the squat, deadlift, bench press, and incline bench press, and isolation exercises like the dumbbell raise, triceps extension, and biceps curl. 

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 in muscle growth from pump training and strength training. 

That said, there are two reasons you should prioritize heavy lifting over pump training:

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 similar 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 exposing your muscle fibers to greater and greater levels of tension, and the most effective way to do it is to progressively increase the amount of weight you’re lifting.

In other words, pump training and strength training will get you to the same destination, but strength training will get you there more efficiently. 

As I’ve said many times before (and will continue saying), if your goal is to gain muscle as quickly as possible, then, ultimately, you need to gain strength as quickly as possible.

So, 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.

That said, there are a few problems with this approach.

For one thing, most people wind up with muscle imbalances of one form or another after following a workout routine made up of only compound exercises. This is easily corrected by including a few isolation exercises in your routine, but these often don’t play nicely with low reps and heavy weights.

For example, many people wind up with undersized shoulders when they follow many strength training plans, and doing some dumbbell side raises or dumbbell reverse flyes can work wonders for bringing up these small, stubborn muscles. 

If you’ve done either of these exercises, though, you know it’s almost impossible to maintain proper form when using weights that limit you to 4 to 6 reps. Instead, you’ll generally make better progress using slightly lighter weights and higher reps. 

In other words, pump training.

Another reason it’s worth including pump training in your workout routine is it may help you build muscle faster than solely focusing on strength training.

You see, while progressive tension overload is the primary driver of muscle growth—the 20% of your training that will give you 80% of your results—pump style training can complement your heavy strength training.

Without getting into the biological weeds of muscle growth, the long story short is there are three main levers you can pull to kick muscle growth into high gear:

  1. Progressive tension overload, which refers to exposing your muscles to greater and greater levels of tension over time. (This is the most important of these three levers.)
  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 the fibers can’t contract effectively anymore. 

Heavy strength training tends to emphasize progressive tension overload and muscle damage, whereas pump training emphasizes cellular fatigue. 

If you only train with heavy weights, you’ll expose your muscles to plenty of tension and make good progress, but you’ll also be missing out on the muscle-building benefits of cellular fatigue.

As you know, pump training causes a great deal of cellular swelling, which increases protein synthesis and decreases protein breakdown and, 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

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

Pump training tends to require less focus and effort than heavy strength training (which is one of the reasons many people are drawn to it), which makes it an ideal way to add a few sets at the end of your strength workouts. 

For instance, 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 or some heavy dips, but these exercises may be too taxing to do properly or consistently.

Instead, you can tack on a few high-rep, lower-weight “pump” sets of biceps curls and dumbbell side raises to the end of your workout. 

Summary: Pump training should never be your primary focus if you want to gain muscle as fast as possible, but it can help you build muscle faster when done in conjunction with heavy strength training.

The Right and Wrong Way to Use Pump Training to Build Muscle

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Most people make the mistake of prioritizing pump training to the exclusion of heavy strength training, but you don’t want to go to the opposite extreme, either. 

Instead, you can reap the benefits of both approaches by incorporating them intelligently into your training plan.

There aren’t any studies on what the ideal mix of high- and low-rep and heavy and light weightlifting is, but the following strategies are often employed with success by high-level powerlifters and bodybuilders, coaches, and researchers. 

Spend roughly 80% of your time in the gym doing heavy, compound exercises, and 20% doing lighter pump training.

This is a good starting place for exposing your muscles to greater levels of tension via heavy compound lifting, and more metabolic stress via pump training. 

For example, in my Bigger Leaner Stronger program for men who are new to weightlifting, I prescribe several workouts where you do 9 sets of heavy, compound weightlifting in the 4-to-6-rep range, followed by 3 sets of lighter pump training in the 8-to-10-rep range.

That is, you spend roughly 75% of your time on heavy, compound weightlifting, and 25% of your time on pump training. 

I also have people only do pump training at the end of a few workouts per week, so in reality, you’re really spending more like 80 to 85% of your time on heavy compound weightlifting and 15 to 20% of your time on pump training.

Always do your heavy, compound weightlifting before pump training.

You’ll generally make the most progress on the exercises you do first in each workout.

Since heavy, compound exercises are responsible for the lion’s share of your gains, you always want to do these at the beginning of your workouts.

Make sure you’re progressing in your pump training, too.

Like all forms of resistance training, pump training will only help you build muscle if you continually try to lift heavier and heavier weights over time. 

Since you’ll be using higher reps, you’ll need to progress in smaller increments and may not be able to add weight every workout or even every week, but over time you should be lifting more weight than you are now. 

Use pump training on your isolation exercises, not your compound exercises.

By definition, compound exercises involve many more muscles and allow you to lift heavier weights than isolation exercises, so they’re best paired with heavier, lower-rep training.

Isolation exercises, though, involve fewer muscles and don’t allow you to lift as much weight as compound exercises, and are better suited to lighter, higher-rep training. 

Experiment with different forms of pump training.

To make your workouts more interesting, you can also try several different kinds of pump training. The two most popular and scientifically proven are rest-pause training and blood flow restriction training.

Rest-pause training involves doing multiple mini-sets back-to-back, and blood flow restriction training is more or less the same thing, but also involves wrapping bands around your limbs to restrict blood flow out of the muscle.

In both cases, you get a skin-splitting pump, but little to no muscle damage, which makes them effective ways to add additional volume to your workouts without causing too much fatigue. 

Check out these articles to learn more about rest-pause and blood flow restriction training: 

How to Use Rest-Pause Training to Gain Muscle Faster

Does Blood Flow Restriction (Occlusion) Training Really Work?

The Bottom Line on the Muscle Pump

Although getting a pump feels good and can be gratifying in the short term, research shows you don’t need to get a pump to build muscle.

What’s more, focusing exclusively on the kind of training that’s most effective for getting a pump—high-reps, light weights, short rest periods, and so forth—may actually hinder your progress.

In reality, most of your strength and muscle gains will come from getting as strong as possible on the heavy, compound lifts like the squat, deadlift, and bench and military press.

This doesn’t mean pump training has no place in your program, though. 

When done in small doses at the end of your heavy strength training workouts, pump training can help you gain more muscle than you would from strength training alone. 

If you want to incorporate pump training into your workout routine, make sure you adhere to these five guidelines: 

  1. Spend roughly 80% of your time doing heavy, compound exercises, and 20% doing pump training.
  2. Always do your heavy, compound weightlifting before pump training.
  3. Make sure you’re progressing in your pump training, too.
  4. Use pump training on your isolation exercises, not your compound exercises.
  5. Experiment with different forms of pump training.

Do that, and you’ll get the benefits of both pump training and heavy compound weightlifting. 

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What’s your take on getting a pump for building muscle? Have anything else to share? Let me know in the comments below!

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