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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
Conclusion: Beware of scientists with probes. You never know
where they'll stick them or what they might
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
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
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
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
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
Wanna get pumped? Try ramp contractions and taper training, and
utilize the mechanical muscle pump during this week's
Special thanks to Sabrina and my forensic botanist, David