Like Feeling Pumped?
Good. Because stimulating a pump can be a powerful trigger for muscle growth. This increase in blood flow delivers more nutrients to the working muscle, which is known as activating the anabolic pump.
In this article we'll discuss how to train to achieve maximal blood flow and the biggest pumps, while greatly stimulating muscle growth. Specifically, we'll look at:
1) Ramp Contractions
2) Taper Training
3) The Mechanical Muscle Pump
How To Get Pumped
Ask the average person about getting pumped and they'll tell you about how an AC/DC song makes them feel or the experience when their favorite team scores a goal. Occasionally you'll even get someone who'll share his secret for "male enhancement."
But for most of us, a muscle pump is one of the best feelings in the world. It can be a great motivator because not only does it look and feel great, but it actually helps us optimize our gym efforts. Best of all, we know we've earned it. If we understand how the pump works, we're better able to improve this sought-after reward.
The main stimulators of blood flow are metabolic by-products (a.k.a. metabolites) that build up during the course of muscle contraction. Substances like potassium and adenosine "leak" out of the muscle during intense contraction, and are the important mediators of the desired hyperemia (a.k.a. increased blood flow). These metabolites are signals for a number of metabolic processes, the most noticeable of which is the blood flow stimulation that's used to clear them away.
You probably aren't concerned with the details of the process, so let's just say that even if you don't care about metabolite clearance from the muscle, the elevated blood flow also brings nutrients to keep the muscle strong and stimulate growth. Essentially, it feeds our muscle. Perhaps even better is the fact that the metabolite buildup also hinders muscle contraction, and the improved clearance serves to increase muscle strength by removing this inhibition.
Based on what you've just read, it might be obvious that the best way to stimulate the muscle pump is to cause as much metabolite accretion as possible. This is accomplished through one of two ways, both of which can be combined to maximize the anabolic pump.
The Pulsatile Pump
During the normal course of a normal set, muscles contract and relax (somewhat), which actually helps to pump blood around, just like a mini-heart. When we contract maximally, we occlude blood flow and allow metabolites to build up. As we relax the muscle during the eccentric (negative) part of the movement, we allow more blood to reach the working muscle. Whether you knew it or not, every set you've ever done has had this rhythmic effect on blood flow, and if we manipulate it just right we can greatly enhance the effect.
One of the best ways to induce a muscle pump is to perform isometric (static) contractions. This is because the metabolites produced during normal contractions aren't cleared away with each rep, as would normally occur during dynamic or moving contractions.
Stated differently, the cyclic contraction pattern of preventing blood flow and then allowing flow to proceed, is disrupted during static contraction training. By allowing metabolites to build up and reach a critical point, we induce a tremendously powerful stimulus to activate the anabolic pump.
Case Study: Isometric Barr
My first lesson in the power of isometric contractions was during a lab experiment in which I was the subject. I was having my arterial blood flow measured (by Doppler Ultrasound) during a bunch of different muscle contractions in order to demonstrate the different effect of each.
In order to add to the impact of what occurred, a visual display of blood flow traced across a computer monitor (much like an ECG), while the swishing wave sound of blood was amplified through a set of speakers.
As the blood flowed through my artery, everything seemed normal as indicated by the rhythmic waves on the monitor and resulting wave-like sounds. When I lightly contracted my biceps, the blood flow decreased in amplitude. Not only did the size of the waves on the monitor diminish, but the sound became less audible. But when I relaxed the muscle, the blood flow waves didn't just return to normal, they came back much larger than before. This is due to the slight metabolite buildup that had happened.
What really stood out to me occurred when I maximally contracted my biceps: the wave became a flatline and the sound stopped. This flatline had essentially indicated the (temporary) death of blood flow.
I was instructed to hold this for 25 seconds and then relax. When I finally did, the normal wave pattern had become a huge surge of blood -- the visual representation of which filled up the entire screen. The sound was like an enormous wave was crashing overhead. This is exactly what we're trying to achieve with ramp contractions.
The idea behind ramp contractions is simple, but the conceptualization might not be. The idea is that we gradually increase the tension on the muscle during an isometric contraction, essentially ramping up contraction strength until we're maximally contracting against the unmovable object. As indicated earlier, this temporarily restricts muscle blood flow, resulting in a huge anabolic surge once the tension is released.
Ideally, different muscle lengths will be used for the ramp contractions to ensure that all muscle fibers are reached equally. For example, if we're using ramp contractions for our biceps, we'd use sets in which our elbows were largely straight, those with elbows bent at 90 degrees, and those with a peak contraction. The latter of which will yield the greatest blood flow occlusion, so most people find it easiest to end their sets of ramp contractions with them. If they're performed too early in the set, fatigue will build up that would hinder subsequent contraction strength.
Ramp Contractions: In Practice
In order to perform ramp contractions, we of course need to ensure that we have the desired contraction angle for the immovable object. If we use the example of biceps training again, this is easiest accomplished through either power rack pins or very heavy weight. If we're using a power rack, just set the pins to where you want the contraction to be held and pull the empty bar up into them.
Alternatively, if we don't have access to a power rack with movable pins, ramp contractions can be performed by setting the bar on a squat rack (or any bench) at the desired height. If we use excessive weight, such that it can't be moved, we can pull up as hard as we want to achieve an isometric contraction.
Ramp contractions are usually performed in conjunction with a traditional training routine, following the completion of the normal static sets. The ramping up of contraction intensity takes 5 seconds to go from 0% to maximal contraction. It seems as though the ramping process isn't only preferred by most people, but the progressive buildup of tension allows the body to contract harder for longer. Although they're isometric, make no mistake that these contractions are intense.
Key Point: Just because ramp contractions are isometric doesn't mean they should be treated as such. In order to achieve the greatest contraction, it should be your intent to actually move the bar, even though this is clearly impossible. Studies suggest that it's this intent to move the bar that yields the greatest results.
Total Sets: 3-5
Reps: 1 (naturally)
Duration: 10 Seconds
Rest: 1-2 Minutes
Another key to activating the anabolic pump is to employ a method called taper training. Once again we focus on the metabolite-induced stimulation of blood flow to trigger muscle growth, but this time we combine high reps with our normal training routine in order to achieve the desired effect. In fact, taper training is best thought of as an adjunct to normal training rather than a system of its own.
The way in which it serves to optimize blood flow for the anabolic pump is by using the fatigue and stimulation of the preceding sets for maximal effect. Once all heavy work on a muscle is completed, lighter sets are performed with higher reps. Because the muscle is already stressed by the first part of the workout, it's primed to receive the extra nutritive blood flow that the high reps will induce.
For example, if we perform 6 sets of chest work with a 6-10 rep range, we will have already stimulated muscle growth. But by tapering down the weight for more sets, we'll be able to feed the anabolic drive though elevated blood flow. Low reps create the need while the high reps activate the feed.
Taper Training: In Practice
It's best to use taper training within ten minutes of the last set to ensure that the muscle isn't completely fatigued, but still in the receptive state for blood flow. Using chest training again, we'd begin tapering down the weight five minutes after the last heavy work set. Sets of the first chest exercise are used again, but this time, the weight is adjusted such that 15 reps can be performed.
Following this set, you'd wait one minute before doing the same exercise with a weight with which 20 reps can be performed. Don't let the high reps fool you; you're going to feel a serious burn. From here it's best to move on to sets of subsequent chest exercises.
Key Point: By the time you get to even the second tapered set, the weight may be so low that it seems inconsequential. But remember that the key here it to stimulate metabolite buildup, which is exactly how the anabolic pump is activated.
Total Sets: 3-6
Rest: 1-2 minutes
Case Study: Stagnant Space Blood
When I was working with NASA at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, I had the opportunity to have my leg blood flow examined via Doppler Ultrasound, the same measurement technique described under Ramp Contractions. (The reason that this is studied in astronauts is because zero gravity screws with the way our blood flow works, and if we have any hope of long term space flight, this is one problem that needs to be solved.)
When the probe was applied to my upper calf I was happy to see that most of the blood traveled though the vein in a smooth motion. But what surprised me was an area behind the valve (much like an inward-opening gate) where the blood just swirled around in a circle and didn't flow at all.
This is analogous to having a small room filled with people and only a single door. If the door is opened inwards, most of the people could leave except for those who were trapped behind the door as it opened. Interestingly, it's this localized inhibition of blood flow that's often responsible for blood clots.
What's worse is that they applied the probe to my chest and found that I have a slightly leaky heart valve (mitral valve regurg), which they assured me was quite normal. After finding these issues with me it was decided that I should no longer be a subject, if for no other reason than my own sense of well being. Awesome.
Conclusion: Beware of scientists with probes. You never know where they'll stick them or what they might find.
The Mechanical Muscle Pump
No, this isn't a weak new supplement specially formulated to get you "jacked" and "swole" (and make girls like you). The muscle pump is a fundamental physical process in which we assist our natural blood flow by contracting our muscles.
If you've ever performed vigorous physical activity and were told not to lie down afterwards, this is why. Walking around occurs by contracting our muscles which squeezes our blood vessels and subsequently forces (or pumps) the blood around our body. Hence the muscle pump.
If we didn't have such a mechanism, our blood could pool in our legs as we stand (due to gravity), which would reduce blood supply to our tissues, including our brains. Once this happens, we pass out.
You may have heard such stories from military personnel who are forced to stand at attention for long periods of time. If they don't periodically contract their calf and thigh muscles, without making it appear as though they're moving, then there's a chance that their blood will remain in their legs and down they go.
Now you're probably not passing out during training, but we can use this muscle pump to improve strength by simply getting off of our asses after a set. By walking around, we're preventing any gravity-induced pooling, and assisting blood flow to the muscles being trained.
This helps inter-set recovery, especially during leg training, but is recommended following every set. After all, if we're just sitting there waiting for our next set then we're not experiencing ideal metabolite clearance, and our strength on subsequent sets will be impeded.
Frequently Asked Questions
Q: You're wrong! I know that doing high reps doesn't cause good muscle growth!
A: I agree that if you're performing high reps exclusively then a good pump doesn't mean much at all. It's the combination of low-moderate rep training with taper training that activates the anabolic pump. Remember that the former causes the need while the latter feeds.
Q: You say that metabolites are good for blood flow, but then walking around is good because it clears metabolites (via the muscle pump). What gives?
A: Good question. The metabolite buildup is initially required to activate the anabolic pump, but remember that it also reduces muscle strength. This is why it's desirable to achieve the buildup later in the workout. But the enhanced pumping blood flow caused by walking around is used to clear away metabolites during earlier sets, when muscle strength is critical. Remember that the anabolic pump is only activated after the need is induced by lower rep training.
Wanna get pumped? Try ramp contractions and taper training, and utilize the mechanical muscle pump during this week's workouts!
Special thanks to Sabrina and my forensic botanist, David Lounsbury.