When Ben Franklin flew his kite, oh, how they laughed. When the Wright brothers claimed that man could fly, oh, how they laughed. And now, when science reveals to you that "the pump should be avoided for size and strength increases, oh, how you may laugh.
Misconceptions concerning muscle pump are perfect examples of why we need education in bodybuilding today. As bodybuilders we attempt to multiply and divide before we learn to add and subtract! Instead of first learning muscle structure and function and adhering to the basic fundamentals of weight training and proper eating habits, we opt for short cuts. We blindly follow in the footsteps of successful and genetically gifted bodybuilders. Face it, if you're still a Volkswagen, do you really need Mario Andretti's pit crew to tune you up? It's high time we all learned to add and subtract. Let's take a look at the pump.
To begin with, a brief, but necessary, lesson in muscle physiology is in order. Your muscles are comprised of millions and millions of tiny cylindrical fibers with identical intercellular components. Each fiber travels the entire length of the muscle group from its origin to its insertion. The two intercellular components that you need to be most familiar with in discussing the pump are the myofibrils and the mitochondria.
The mitochondria are actually the contractile components that experience the hypertrophic growth that's responsible for most increases in muscle size and strength. The mitochondria are located randomly along the entire length of each myofibril, and they produce the ATP energy that the myofibrils need to perform work. During contraction the muscle tissue cell membrane is impermeable. Oxygen and nutrients cannot get in, and lactic acid and cellular wastes cannot get out. Since oxygen is not present during prolonged contraction, intercellular lactic acid accumulates more rapidly.
Now let's look at the fibers' surroundings. The cell membrane is wrapped in a fatty connective tissue layer called the endomysium. Individual fibers occur in bundles called motor units. Visualize looking into an open container of straws. This is what a cross-section of a motor unit looks like. The empty spaces in between the straws, or fibers, are known as interstitial spaces. There are countless nutrient-rich arterial capillaries, as well as nutrient-poor veinular capillaries, located in these interstitial spaces. The arterial capillaries are made of epithelial tissue, which has tiny microscopic holes to allow for the mediation and/or diffusion of oxygen and nutrients from the bloodstream into the interstitial spaces. Once they get there, oxygen and nutrients are available to the individual fibers. The veinular capillaries, conversely, pick up excreted cellular wastes and lactic acid from the interstitial spaces. It's crucial for you to completely understand all of this information if you are going to grasp the concept of the pump.
Now we're ready to talk turkey. When you take a set to absolute, positive failure, regardless of the weight used or the repetitions performed, the muscle will eventually fail for one of two reasons: either myofibril or mitochondrial failure.
Myofibril failure typically occurs during heavy, low-rep training. This training causes myofibril damage that results in hypertrophic protein synthesis and optimum tissue growth, which is obviously desired in size and strength training. You do not experience that "burning sensation" while performing this type of training, nor should you.
On the other hand, mitochondrial failure typically occurs during light, long-term sustained contraction. The weight is not sufficient to cause myofibril damage and consequential growth. The muscle simply runs out of energy and retains excessive amounts of lactic acid. Lactic acid inhibits the contractility of muscle tissue fibers! This lactic acid buildup is indicated by the intense burning sensation and the contractile failure of a fiber in a high-rep set. Thus, you should avoid high-rep training when training specifically for size and strength. It should also be noted that the fibers with the greatest potential for growth store very little energy. Therefore, short, high-intensity training is more effective for size and strength increases.
As for the pump, during the contractile shortening of muscle fibers there is an increase in their circumference. This pinches off the capillaries in the interstitial spaces, stopping blood flow until the relaxation phase. After a prolonged set relaxation opens these capillaries, relieving the back pressure of blood in them, which results in an immediate perfusion of blood into the interstitial spaces.
This occurrence is similar to the effect of pinching off a garden hose and then suddenly opening it. The tremendous amount of fluid suddenly released into the interstitial spaces exerts enough osmotic pressure against the fibers' cell walls to inhibit lactic acid removal, even during the relaxation phase. Since veinular capillaries can only remove this fluid at a specific rate, the interstitial spaces remain engorged for prolonged periods, thus causing the "pumped" sensation. This obviously results in a short-term increase in muscle size, which is extremely gratifying but very deceiving. Also, because of the pump, lactic acid is still present in the fiber when you start your next set. You will get fewer reps in this next set because you are starting out with a lactic acid handicap.
So all things considered, when training for optimum size and strength, you should avoid that "burning sensation" and "the pump" like the plague. Apply the following principles to your size and strength training:
- Train with maximum intensity in low-rep ranges. This will cause sufficient structural damage to result in muscle tissue growth.
- Perform fewer total sets. The tissues with the greatest potential for growth store very little energy.
- Rest longer between sets. Provide muscles with ample time to excrete lactic acid and wastes that would otherwise reduce the number of reps you can perform in following sets.
- Train each bodypart less frequently. Allow for maximum recovery and reduce the likelihood of injuries commonly associated with heavy training.
Always remember that in order to increase in size and strength, you must take in plenty of calories, including complete proteins, and you should eat every three to four hours. After applying the above addition and subtraction, you may not even want to go on to multiplication and division. At least not for a while anyway.