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The Pump
Can it help you grow muscle?

Getting a muscle pump.
Want to get pumped?

Getting muscles "pumped up" is one goal many people have when working out in the gym. Muscles begin to feel tight and swell, becoming fuller and larger. The pump is often accompanied by increased vascularity. In the movie Pumping Iron, Arnold Schwarzenegger compared the pump to an orgasm.

Of course, looks and feelings are important, but what interests me most are results. I wanted to know, does getting pumped help build muscle?

The theory is that as a muscle becomes engorged with blood, the space between the skin and the muscle (the fascial layer) is stretched. That stretching then makes room for more muscle growth.

The theory is wrong. Muscles can achieve significant growth through at least two chemical and one physical process, and none of them require a pump.

In a breakthrough 2001 study, testosterone injections helped healthy male subjects put on as much as 16 pounds of muscle in 16 weeks, without exercise or a diet change. If a pump were required to expand past the connective tissue limitations, then the injections wouldn't have been able to produce such incredible growth.

In another study, researchers genetically engineered lab animals to shut down their myostatin production. (Myostatin is a protein known to restrict muscle growth.) The animal's muscles grew dramatically without any workouts. It was later confirmed to work the same way in humans when a five-year-old German boy was discovered who couldn't produce myostatin. He had half the fat of children his age and twice the musculature.

The bad news is science can't safely cut off myostatin production in humans and testosterone injections have been known to cause serious medical complications. The good news is strength training naturally increases levels of muscle-building testosterone and growth hormone.

Muscles also grow through exercise. The number of muscle fibers don't increase; the muscle cells actually get larger. As you train with weights, the protein filaments in the myofibril are being forced to accommodate the contractions you make to lift the weight. The increase in myofibrils causes the muscle fiber to grow in size and the result is hypertrophy or bigger muscles.

Back to the original question. Is there any muscle-building advantage to getting a good pump?

Yes. It can be an indicator of the quality of your workout. The more muscle fibers you use in a lift, the greater your pump, which can indicate an effective workout.

There is also a motivational reason behind getting a pump. It gives you a positive visual feedback of the work you're doing, which can be inspiring.

The only physical situation the pump seems good for is if you're training for bodybuilding or other physique competitions. Pump up just before you walk on stage to be judged for an extra visual boost.

Because the pump is technically an aberration, your body will work hard to correct it and the effect usually dissipates within 30 minutes to an hour.

How do you get pumped?

You have to take in the right type of energy. Carbohydrates are your body's primary fuel source, so you have to eat enough. But avoid simple carbs because they only provide fuel to your body for 30 to 60 minutes. Complex carbohydrates like brown rice, oatmeal, whole-grain breads, whole-wheat pasta and yams take 3 to 4 hours to digest and give you a more sustained energy release.

The type of workout matters too. Generally, routines that involve medium (8-12 reps) or higher and/or brief rest periods between sets help produce a bigger pump.

Unfortunately, we couldn't find any supplements that have been reliably tested in a proper double-blind clinical trial. As far as we're concerned, without medical proof from an independent party, any supplement that claims to increase your muscle pump is a waste of time and money.

The Bottom Line

Getting your muscles pumped up can be a great motivator and it doesn't seem to cause harm. But, if you're mainly trying to achieve increases in strength, there is no medically proven physical benefit to getting a pump. Instead, you should measure the success of your workouts by your progression in weights.


Simple Carbs are two molecule sugars that act to provide quick energy when your body digests them. A simple carb provides fuel for your body for 30 to 60 minutes.
Examples include: Bananas, French Fries, Honey, Potatoes, Soft Drinks, Sugar (Brown, Raw or White), White Bread, White Pasta and White Rice.

Complex Carbs are long chains of glucose that provide a slow release of energy when digested. A complex carb provides fuel for your body for 3 to 4 hours.
Examples include: Bulgar, Barley, Beans, Bran, Brown Rice, Couscous, Legumes, Oats, Non-starchy Vegetables, Whole Fruits, Whole Grain Breakfast Cereals, Whole Wheat and Yams.

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beginning any diet or exercise program.

Updated 7/22/2007

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  • Why do veins pop out
    during exercise?

    When you exercise, your heart beats faster and raises your blood pressure. The extra blood floods arteries and veins.

    As the arteries and veins become engorged with blood, they push excess water out of the muscles that are contracting and into compartments of muscle encased in fascia. As the compartments swell they push veins toward the surface of your skin, making them "pop".

    The pump typically stays for about 30 minutes after your workout, until the water returns to the muscles that were contracting.