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Muscle pump: Why your muscles look bigger during exercise



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Learn what “chasing the pump” means.

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The muscle the pump is so cool: your muscles are literally growing in front of your eyes! Most fitness enthusiasts spend at least some time “chasing the pump” no matter what their overall goal is. Immediate muscle growth only makes you feel strong, perfect and, to be fair, super sexy.

But what exactly happens when you get a muscle pump? How is it possible that your muscles grow so much in just one hour and the next morning they are back to normal? I answer these questions and more in this guide to muscle pumps – including whether the muscle pump actually or not helps you build muscle.

Read more: How to lose fat and build muscle at the same time

What is a muscle pump?

illustration of a bicep muscle bent

A muscle pump happens when your muscles seem to grow in front of your eyes.

Malte Mueller / Getty Images.

“Muscle pump” is really just a fitness hose for a phenomenon called transient hypertrophy. Hypertrophy refers to the growth of a muscle, and transient means that it is only temporary. Transient hypertrophy, or the coveted muscle pump, is a rather complicated physiological process, so I’ll save you the jargon.

In short, a muscle pump occurs when fluids, including water and blood, accumulate in your muscles during movement. This happens in response to two primary triggers:

  • Lactic acid begins to build up in your working muscles and draws water into them.
  • Your heart pumps more blood to your working muscles because they need more oxygen and nutrients to drive them.

This flood of fluid causes your muscle cells to swell, making your muscles look bigger than usual. When you get a muscle pump, it can feel like your muscles are “full” in a way.

Read more: Cardio before or after weightlifting? Which is better for muscle growth?

How to get a muscle pump?

A young man performing biceps curls at the gym.

Lifting weights is the best way to get a muscle pump.

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Most people get a muscle pump from lift weights – in fact, bodybuilders take advantage of this transient hypertrophy phenomenon before going on stage in a bodybuilding competition to make their muscles look bigger than they really are.

You can theoretically get a muscle pump to do anything that increases circulation to your muscles, but research (and anecdotes from all hard-lifting lifters) suggest that high-volume strength training is the best way to get a muscle pump.

Resistance training with high volume means many repetitions and many sets, usually with shorter rest periods. You can get high volume training by manipulating some variables:

  • You can do more reps
  • You can make more sets (five sets of 10 instead of your usual three sets of 10)
  • You can shorten your rest period (60 seconds of rest versus your usual two minutes of rest)

In general, the more contractions your muscles make, the more fluid engulfs your muscles. Serious bodybuilders and weightlifters can even follow “pump training” protocols, where the primary goal is to achieve a muscle pump. Pump training focuses solely on muscle contraction and increases blood flow to working muscles.

If you are really serious about maximizing your muscle pump, be sure to hydrate before exercising to encourage more water uptake by your muscles. There is limited evidence that it can also increase the muscle pump to eat carbohydrates and supplement with creatine before exercising.

Citrulline malate is another supplement that can help – citrulline malate increases nitric oxide production and nitric oxide dilates your blood vessels, thus encouraging blood flow.

Does a muscle pump help you build muscle?

A young woman preparing to perform a deadlift in a gym.

Do not chase the pump as your primary method of building muscle.

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Yes and no. In the training industry, the muscle pump is one of the controversial things that some professionals swear by and other professionals mock.

There is not much research specifically about the muscle pump and its contribution to muscle growth, but there is an important correlation we can make: Muscle pumps happen in response to high volume training, and research shows that high volume training is the key to building muscle, especially in people who have experience of Weight Training.

However, you can not discount the proof that low-volume training with heavier loads also contributes to muscle growth, nor the fact that the volume loses its effectiveness when you become more advanced.

The best approach for optimal strength and muscle growth, in my professional opinion, is to follow a balanced training program that includes both low-volume and high-volume days, or to change your training volume per week.

For example, if I was trying to build strength and muscle mass in my legs, I could start with the following squat plan:

  • Week one: two squat days per week, five sets of five reps
  • Week two: two squat days per week, four sets of eight reps
  • Week three: three squat days per week, three sets of 10 reps
  • Week four: three squat days per week, two sets of 15 reps

Read more: How lifting weights increases your metabolism and helps you lose weight

Do not go down if you do not get a pump

It’s really fun to get a muscle pump, but it should not be your only fitness goal.

Do not feel bad if your latest weightlifting did not leave you with bulging muscles – the muscle pump is in any case only temporary and long-term muscle growth comes from consistent effort, not just intense training.

My best advice: Forget about hunting aesthetics. hunt strength and health, and muscle definition will follow.

The information in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a doctor or other qualified healthcare provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health goal.


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