How to Get a Muscle Pump: The Optimal Number of Sets to Influence Muscle Thickness Summary
- Researchers measured various factors before and after exercise, including muscle thickness (i.e., muscle pumps), peak force, and rating of perceived exertion after 4 sets of 10 repetitions maximum (10RM), 8 sets, 12 sets, and 16 sets.
- All resistance training protocols showed a similar increase in muscle thickness or pumps immediately after training. The resistance training protocols with more sets induced small effects of increasing muscle pumps or swelling after exercise, but for the most part, these results were pretty similar across all the sets: 4 sets (12.5%) < 8 sets (13.1%) < 12 sets (14.3%) < 16 sets (14.7%).
- Overall, the results suggest that weight training protocols with 12 to 16 sets may be more effective in inducing high levels of metabolic stress and mechanical tension, which are essential for muscle growth and adaptation.
The sensation of muscle pump or feeling of fullness in the muscle, often experienced by athletes and fitness enthusiasts, is more than just a fleeting feeling. But how to get a muscle pump effectively? It’s more than just heavy lifting (i.e., mechanical tension placed on the muscle); it’s about understanding the science behind muscle pumps and using techniques that maximize this physiological response.
A recent study published in the Journal of Kinesiology and Wellness titled “Acute Effects of Different Number of Sets and Non-Equalized Volume on Muscle Thickness, Peak Force, and Physical Performance in Recreationally-Trained Participants” aimed to examine the effects of different numbers of sets and how they influenced muscle pumps. Before jumping into the study results which examined high volume exercise, here is a brief overview of the muscle pump.
The Science Behind Muscle Pump and Swelling
How to get a muscle pump is a common question among those new to resistance training. The sensation, often experienced after a rigorous workout, is more than just a fleeting feeling. It’s a physiological response that feels great and may influence muscle growth. The muscle pump is a temporary increase in muscle size that occurs during exercise with mechanical tension (i.e., resistance exercise). But does muscle pump equal growth? Let’s delve deeper.
When engaging in resistance training or any form of exercise that contracts our muscles, there’s an increase in blood flow to those muscles. This influx of blood causes the muscles to swell, leading to the sensation commonly called the “pump.” This process is primarily a result of nitric oxide and increases in metabolic byproducts like lactic acid (i.e., lactate), molecules that dilate blood vessels and increase blood flow. The result of this increased blood flow is a great muscle pump. (Tschakovsky & Joyner, 2008)
According to recent studies, engaging in pump training provides a great feeling and offers several physiological benefits. These benefits include increased blood flow, improved nutrient delivery (specifically amino acids into the muscle cells), increased capillaries in muscle tissue, and enhanced activation of satellite cells in muscle fibers, ultimately leading to muscle hypertrophy. (T. Stokes et al., 2018; Tanner Stokes et al., 2018)
Blood Flow Restriction Training
Blood flow restriction training is a technique that utilizes specialized cuffs or wraps to limit the amount of blood flow to the working muscles. This strategy creates a metabolic stress response, leading to an enhanced muscle pump and promoting muscle growth. By restricting the oxygen supply to the muscles, blood flow restriction training stimulates the muscle fibers and triggers protein synthesis.
Blood flow restriction training is an advanced technique for building muscle but also for achieving an intense muscle pump. This method involves restricting blood flow to the working muscle, using light weights, and performing high repetitions. The result? An immense muscle pump that feels almost painful but effectively promotes muscle growth. Studies have found blood flow restriction training sessions with very light weight but substantial metabolic stress and swelling result in increases in muscle mass. (Farup et al., 2015)
Mechanical Tension and Metabolic Stress: Mechanisms of Muscle Swelling and Hypertrophy
Mechanical tension and metabolic stress are critical factors in achieving a muscle pump. Tension results from the weight and resistance placed on the muscle during exercise, while metabolic stress is caused by the accumulation of metabolic byproducts during high-intensity workouts. Both play a pivotal role in the process of how to get a muscle pump through muscle contraction. A great way to optimize muscle pump is by focusing on muscle contraction and increasing blood flow to working muscles.
The mechanisms underlying the relationship between muscle pumps and hypertrophy are not fully understood. However, several hypotheses have been proposed. One theory suggests that muscle cell swelling may activate mechanosensitive pathways, such as the mammalian target of rapamycin (mTOR) signaling pathway, which plays a crucial role in muscle protein synthesis and muscle growth. Another hypothesis suggests that muscle cell swelling may enhance nutrient uptake and delivery to the muscle cells, promoting an anabolic environment conducive to hypertrophy. Increases in muscle protein synthesis and reduced protein breakdown have been found to be mediated and enhanced by cellular swelling, often caused by the muscle pump. (Schoenfeld & Contreras, 2014)
Understanding the True Role of Muscle Pump and Swelling
The time for which a pump lasts can differ among individuals. Factors influencing this include the nature of the exercise, its intensity, and one’s unique physiology. (Hirono et al., 2022) At the same time, it can range from a few minutes to several hours post-exercise. Studies have found that the muscle pump was associated with greater increases in muscle growth. (Hirono, T. 2022)
Does Muscle Pump Equal Growth?
Contrary to popular belief, the presence or absence of a pump is not a definitive sign of a productive workout. Muscle growth results from consistent training, progressive overload, and adequate nutrition. (Krzysztofik et al., 2019) The pump is merely a physiological response, not a growth indicator. As mentioned above, the researcher found that the “muscle pumps” were associated with muscle growth but not a direct factor.
Powerlifting protocols consisting of low reps are not very good for muscle pumps. A recent study by Kubo et al. examined the effects on muscle size and strength in 42 men assigned to four groups: One group did seven sets of 4 reps each session, one group did 4 sets of 8 reps, and one group did 3 sets of 12 reps. Irrespective of the rep range, muscle size was similar between all the groups. The 4 and 8-rep groups had greater increases in strength than the 12-rep group. Despite the 4 reps per set group more than likely not getting very good pumps, they still had equal muscle growth. (Kubo et al., 2021)
New Study on the Optimal Number of Sets for Maximizing the Pump
Determining the optimal number of sets is crucial for enhancing the effectiveness of prescribing and managing each resistance training session. This understanding not only optimizes the duration of each RT session but also promotes desired levels of metabolic stress and mechanical tension for muscle gains (Lim et al., 2022; Marchetti et al., 2023)
The researchers measured various factors before and after the exercise, including muscle thickness (i.e., muscle pumps), peak force, and rating of perceived exertion. However, the main thing that interested me was they wanted to know if more sets per training protocol would increase muscle thickness (i.e., greater muscle pumps).
Each training protocol was performed unilaterally, meaning one side of the body was worked at a time. Additionally, all sets were performed until concentric muscular failure (RM), which means participants continued each set until they could no longer complete a repetition with proper form. These protocols varied in the number of sets performed, with participants completing either:
G4: Participants performed 4 sets of 10 repetitions maximum (10RM) with a 2-minute rest between sets.
G8: Participants performed 8 sets of 10RM with a 2-minute rest between sets.
G12: Participants performed 12 sets of 10RM with a 2-minute rest between sets. or
G16: Participants performed 16 sets of 10RM with a 2-minute rest between sets.
The interesting finding was that the researchers thought more sets would result in a greater amount of muscle swelling or muscle pumps. That’s not what happened. All resistance training protocols showed a similar increase in muscle thickness or pumps immediately after training, and muscle swelling did not return to the baseline (pre-test) after 30-min rest for all RT protocols.
The RT protocols with more sets induced small effects of increasing muscle pumps or swelling after exercise, but for the most part, these results were pretty similar across all the groups: G4 (12.5%) < G8 (13.1%) < G12 (14.3%) < G16 (14.7%).
The author concluded, “Regarding metabolic stress, all RT protocols induced high cell swelling and reduced force production. Thus, summarizing the results, RT protocols between 12 and 16 sets may be a better option to induce high and similar levels of metabolic stress and high levels of mechanical tension.” So, the main takeaway? Doing more sets doesn’t mean your muscles will get way more pumped up. It’s kind of like blowing up a balloon – after a certain point, it won’t get much bigger, no matter how much more air you put in.
In conclusion, understanding how to get a muscle pump is more than just the feeling after a workout. It’s about recognizing the science behind muscle pumps, the importance of mechanical tension, metabolic stress, and techniques like blood flow restriction training. Furthermore, while the pump shows increased blood flow and metabolic activity, remember that consistent training and a balanced approach are key to muscle growth and development.
However, this study suggests that the number of sets in a resistance training protocol minimally affects the degree of muscle pump or thickness achieved. While the pump can motivate many, it’s essential to remember that it’s just one piece of the puzzle in developing bigger muscles.
Farup, J., de Paoli, F., Bjerg, K., Riis, S., Ringgard, S., & Vissing, K. (2015). Blood flow restricted and traditional resistance training performed to fatigue produce equal muscle hypertrophy. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports, 25(6), 754-763. https://doi.org/https://doi.org/10.1111/sms.12396
Hirono, T., Ikezoe, T., Taniguchi, M., Tanaka, H., Saeki, J., Yagi, M., Umehara, J., & Ichihashi, N. (2022). Relationship Between Muscle Swelling and Hypertrophy Induced by Resistance Training. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 36(2), 359-364. https://doi.org/10.1519/jsc.0000000000003478
Krzysztofik, M., Wilk, M., Wojdała, G., & Gołaś, A. (2019). Maximizing Muscle Hypertrophy: A Systematic Review of Advanced Resistance Training Techniques and Methods. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 16(24), 4897. https://www.mdpi.com/1660-4601/16/24/4897
Kubo, K., Ikebukuro, T., & Yata, H. (2021). Effects of 4, 8, and 12 Repetition Maximum Resistance Training Protocols on Muscle Volume and Strength. J Strength Cond Res, 35(4), 879-885. https://doi.org/10.1519/jsc.0000000000003575
Lim, C., Nunes, E. A., Currier, B. S., McLeod, J. C., Thomas, A. C. Q., & Phillips, S. M. (2022). An Evidence-Based Narrative Review of Mechanisms of Resistance Exercise-Induced Human Skeletal Muscle Hypertrophy. Med Sci Sports Exerc, 54(9), 1546-1559. https://doi.org/10.1249/mss.0000000000002929
Marchetti, P., Samaniego, A., Talamantez, R., Lopes, C., & Martinez, V. (2023). Acute effects of different number of sets and non-equalized volume on muscle thickness, peak force, and physical performance in recreationally-trained participants. Journal of Kinesiology & Wellness, 12, 10-19. https://doi.org/10.56980/jkw.v12i1.121
Schoenfeld, B., & Contreras, B. (2014). The Muscle Pump: Potential Mechanisms and Applications for Enhancing Hypertrophic Adaptations. Strength and Conditioning Journal, 36, 21-25. https://doi.org/10.1097/SSC.0000000000000021
Stokes, T., Hector, A. J., Morton, R. W., McGlory, C., & Phillips, S. M. (2018). Recent Perspectives Regarding the Role of Dietary Protein for the Promotion of Muscle Hypertrophy with Resistance Exercise Training. Nutrients, 10(2). https://doi.org/10.3390/nu10020180
Stokes, T., Hector, A. J., Morton, R. W., McGlory, C., & Phillips, S. M. (2018). Recent Perspectives Regarding the Role of Dietary Protein for the Promotion of Muscle Hypertrophy with Resistance Exercise Training. Nutrients, 10(2), 180. https://www.mdpi.com/2072-6643/10/2/180
Tschakovsky, M. E., & Joyner, M. J. (2008). Nitric oxide and muscle blood flow in exercise. Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism, 33(1), 151-160. https://doi.org/10.1139/h07-148 %m 18347667