We all go through periods when pumps elude us. Frankly, these periods really suck. And worse, they seem beyond explanation. It's a bloody shame, considering how motivating enlarged, vascular muscles can be. As Arnold once said, a huge pump in a body part is almost as good as having sex… and you know how you feel when you're denied that. So what can you do? What, oh what can you do?
A quick look at the underlying physiology of "reactive hyperemia" (a localized pump) suggests a couple of things. First, blood flow to an area is critical. Interestingly, exercisers develop an improved ability to shunt blood to working muscles due to things like increased vasculature(1) and nitric oxide (NO) production.(4) Admittedly, weight trainers have different capillary adaptations than say, runners (depending upon how the changes are expressed) but we won't quibble — most lifters do some "cardio" anyway.
Second, a muscle full of glycogen has greater cell volume, which — at least pragmatically — facilitates (allows?) a big pump.
Another big factor, one that's affected positively by anabolic agents, is potassium shift. Potassium is our primary intracellular cation (positively charged mineral in this case). When one's growing on androgens, insulin, beta-agonists and the like, there's typically a shift in this electrolyte.(2,9) It moves from the vascular and interstitial spaces (extracellular compartment) to the intramuscular space. As the mineral enters, water accompanies it.
We've all seen professional bodybuilders "blow up" their muscle bellies in just brief periods by (presumably) using such traditional anabolics. Conversely, preserving optimal amounts of muscle potassium is one reason behind the popularity of "potassium-sparing diuretics" in competitive bodybuilding.
Fourth, intramuscular creatine elevation occurs in methods similar to those discussed for potassium (anabolic agents, etc.). Elevated creatine concentrations within skeletal muscle are a longstanding way to make a muscle appear bigger.
Lastly, leanness also contributes to a satisfying pump as muscular changes are more visible.
By reading that brief list, we see that there are some opportunities for intervention. There are a few substances that can increase peripheral blood flow, such as ginkgo(10,11) and there are environmental issues like temperature. And of course, proper hydration is critical, regardless of how one chooses to manipulate it (via distilled, filtered or even tap water).
Okay, that'll get us fluid availability but what about materially affecting the target muscle cells?
Basically, the more stuff we can get into our muscles, the better our chance of an explosive pump. Creatine, carbohydrates, potassium, magnesium (the second most abundant intracellular cation), intramuscular triacylglycerol (fat), and amino acids like alanine and glutamine are key nutrients. We'll tackle these in turn below.
Perhaps the most exciting thing about reversing flatness and expanding our muscles is the time frame associated with it. I'm going to propose a one-week period (if the lifter is already lean) to banish the flatness demon for at least a while.
So here are both acute and more chronic strategies for a hypothetical "pumpless" individual who has no contraindications:
Increase Blood Flow:
- Don't over-rely on air conditioning during warm months. Start a workout wearing sweats in the winter if you live in a cold climate.
- Take a walk outside the gym between sets on sunny warm days when possible.
- Try 1-2 higher repetition sets of up to 20 reps after your heavy work. Shamelessly pursue the pump!
- Eat a banana or brown potato with a sports drink 30 minutes before/ during exercise to increase muscle blood flow. (Insulin stimulates NO  while glucose and potassium become available).
- A little ginkgo biloba (perhaps 60-120 mg of a standardized extract, depending upon tolerance and contraindications) an hour or two prior to exercise may help peripheral blood flow. Jung, et al. (1990) found a 57% increase in one marker of peripheral blood flow 60 minutes after administration. Of course, avoid gingko if taking any other "blood thinning" substances.
- Maybe even try a hot shower, brief sauna, or topical vasodilator cream before exercise.
Maximize muscle glycogen and triacylglycerol:
- Take a week off from training! (The single best tactic!) This will prevent further muscle microtrauma, which itself appears to limit glycogen storage / insulin action (6,7,14,17) and reduce the usual depletion that would otherwise fuel your workouts.
- Remember that a chronically hot environment itself can exacerbate carbohydrate metabolism/glycogen depletion and may be one reason for flatness. Heat may help peripheral circulation, but too much for too long (e.g. training in a non-temperature-controlled gym) can ultimately lead to deflation.
- Eat 8-10 g/kg carbohydrate each day (12,13) on Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday (especially 100-200 g in the morning and after any mild exercise); Snacks can be as outrageous as pure syrup. Muscle glycogen can more than double on such a carb-loading regime. Although some data suggest no increase in actual muscle girth (3), it does make the muscle look bigger.
- Avoid caffeine and stimulants, which generally increase cAMP within cells (telling the cell it's time to break down substrates rather than store them). Stimulants can interfere with muscle glucose uptake if overdone. Conversely, a cup of joe before a targeted gym session (and after the carb-up week) may facilitate the overall "pumped-up experience" for some.
- Adding additional fat and protein to the main meals (breakfast, lunch, dinner) on days 4-6 (Wed. — Fri.) of our preparatory "pump-up week" will help spike insulin for massive storage while providing lipid and amino acids to help swell the muscle fibers further. Put back the ~30 percent (8) or more of lipid (and glycogen) lost during exercise!
Eat potassium-rich and magnesium-rich foods
- Again, bananas, potatoes and orange juice are great for potassium, while legumes, seafood and peanuts are good magnesium sources (and even coffee has about 10-12 mg).
- Even a lower-dose (<350 mg) magnesium supplement could help, as many Americans are about 25% sub-optimal in this mineral, with athletes losing a bit more during exercise. But beware, any more than 350 mg from a pill could have you "assaulting the porcelain" and clearly such diarrhea would counteract our purposes.
- Avoid potentially arrhythmia-inducing potassium supplements; whole foods really are the best sources and they include necessary carbs as well.
Glutamine (and alanine?) supplements may help
- These amino acids occur in naturally high intramuscular concentrations but are lost from muscle tissue during intense training.
- Supplemental glutamine (sometimes as glutamine dipeptide) recommendations vary (generally a few grams daily). Protein in general — as any complete protein contains glutamine — helps maintain bodily concentrations, too.
- Remember, glutamine is physiologically at a premium in hard-training athletes. Muscles can lose the three way tug-of-war that they undertake with gastro-intestinal cells and leukocytes (white blood cells).
- Alanine is less of an issue as its turnover is a natural part of the glucose-alanine cycle (it readily loses/accepts its amino group as pyruvate [a "sugar"] or alanine, respectively). Again, frequent feedings and plenty of protein help prevent such gluconeogenic losses.
Creatine is tried and true for pumps
- Although anecdotal, typical loading doses of 20-30 g/ day (including 4-6 g post-exercise) over 3-5 days seem to work better for monster pumps than smaller doses over a month.
- Since about 100 g of carbohydrate are required to get insulin levels high enough to optimize creatine transport into skeletal muscle(16), creatine loading fits in well with our high-carb regime above.
- Many guys find that after a big 3-5 day load, "creatine pumps" occur for just two to three weeks, however. My guess is that fluid homeostasis can only be pushed for so long before something (sodium-potassium ATPase, hormones, etc.) bring us back to reality, perhaps even as intracellular creatine concentrations remain elevated. Similar negative feedback has been reported regarding creatine biosynthesis with long term use, after all.(15) Overall, it's best to acknowledge that huge pumps don't last forever.
Lean-out and minimize bloat
- Allow 8-12 weeks to drop a few percent body fat before attempting this "pump-up strategy." You'll want to actually see the pump, after all. "Michelin men" don't change much in the gym.
- While cutting fat, one theory suggests purposely overtraining a bit (volume, aerobic exercise) for the last few weeks to create hyper-sensitive muscles when you carb load and cut out your training.
- Last minute precariousness: Cutting sodium will minimize subcutaneous bloat acutely for many guys but the timing before homeostasis kicks in (aldosterone, etc. returning them to normal) varies from 1-3 days. Reducing sodium and drinking filtered water Thursday and Friday during our hypothetical "preparation week" might help.
So if you're flatly sick and tired of being flat, sick, and tired, then there you go, girlie man. There really are reasons for the elusive nature of monster pumps. And beware; there's a real possibility of going through life in a chronic state of glycogen depression, fatigue, and muscle staleness due to underfeeding and intense training.(5) Understanding both the physiologic and pragmatic aspects of "localized hyperemia" will almost surely pump [clap] you up!
Be sure to hit a few shots in the mirror for me after your victorious ascension from flatness.
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