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Health & Fitness How ‘The Pump’ can help give your muscles – and ego – a quick boost

Resistance bands are useful tools for building a 'pump.'

NIKOLA_NIKOLOVSKI/iStockPhoto / Getty Images

We’ve all been told that the pursuit of fitness is one of the keys to a happy and healthy life; that the physical and mental benefits of maintaining a regular exercise regimen far outweigh whatever superficial boost one’s ego may get from having shoulders like boulders and a barrel chest to match.

All of this is true, but still, many of us gym rats are unenlightened goofs who want to attract positive attention at the beach come summertime.

If you’re reading this in the hope of becoming a bronzed beach god in time for those sweltering dog days, I’ve got some bad news: It’s already June, and that ship has sailed. Keep working and focus on next summer. If, however, you’ve been putting in the hours and you’ve already built an appreciable amount of muscle that’s not hidden underneath a smooth layer of fat, keep reading, because you’re a prime candidate for taking advantage of the vainglorious lifter’s best friend – “the pump.”

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Immortalized by Arnold Schwarzenegger in the 1977 documentary Pumping Iron, “the pump” is the temporary increase in a muscle’s size that follows ultraintense sets of high-repetition resistance exercises. As your muscles contract during a lift, metabolic compounds such as lactic acid accumulate in and around the muscle cells. Water and blood is then drawn into the muscle (“pumped,” if you will) as a defence mechanism against the inflammation brought on by these compounds. The longer and more taxing the set, the more fluid that enters the cells, the ultimate result being a muscle that looks like it’s been shrink-wrapped.

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A side benefit of this practical biological function? For up to about an hour afterward your muscles will appear significantly larger, providing an instant ego boost before strutting one’s stuff on the beach-side boardwalk or disrobing for a photo shoot. But the pump isn’t all smoke and mirrors. This style of training forms the basis of all bodybuilding programs, where the end goal is the accumulation of maximum muscle.

Even if your goals are focused more on maximizing health, strength and performance, chasing after a muscle pump is still beneficial. When muscle cells are engorged with fluid, they become primed for protein synthesis and are less susceptible to protein breakdown. This means the muscles are being rebuilt faster than they’re degrading. You don’t need a PhD in exercise science to understand that’s a good thing.

As I’ve discussed before, not all muscles are created equally. Fast-twitch muscle fibres – the ones that support powerful, explosive movements – are more sensitive to pump-style training. A slow to moderate pace is fine when you’re shouldering a barbell during a set of squats, but when it comes to getting swole, you need to be a little more fast and furious. Your choice of exercises matters too. Isolation exercises such as bicep curls and tricep extensions – or modified compound exercises such as chest-supported rows – allow you to concentrate fully on the muscle being worked.

The pump-training protocol is the exact opposite of strength training. Whereas strength gains come from lifting relatively heavy weights for low reps with up to two minutes of rest between sets, building a pump is all about high volume and minimal rest. Anywhere from 12 to 20 reps will suffice, with 30 to 45 seconds of rest max. Adding some pauses at the end-point of the exercises will increase the intensity and test your mental fortitude, as will employing “finishers” such as drop sets, in which you extend the set for as long as you can by continually reducing the weight once you’ve hit failure so you can keep firing off a few more reps.

Resistance bands are the perfect tool for building a pump, as they offer constant tension throughout the entire range of motion during each exercise, never giving your muscles a chance to rest. Bands are also gentle on the joints; in fact they work wonders for strengthening the ligaments and tendons that connect our bones and muscles.

Another reason to love bands: They’re more portable than a set of dumbbells. Toss a couple of full-sized resistance bands (one on the light side, one a little more tense) into your go-bag and you’ll have everything you need to build a pump at home or on the road.

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Paul Landini is a personal trainer and health educator at the Toronto West End College Street YMCA.

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