When you first start weight training, the pump is one of the most uncomfortable (yet satisfying) feelings you can experience. The muscle contracting and building up lactic acid can be unbearable at times yet the feeling of a fully pumped up muscle group is always worth it afterward.
The pump is also a good indicator of workout intensity and people say your set doesn’t start until the rep when you feel the burn. While these are not necessarily indicators of something that will lead to muscle growth, getting a good pump is usually one of the first signs that you are doing something correctly with your training.
What happens though, when you can’t get a pump in the gym?
If you can’t get a pump in the gym this could be the result of a lack of carbohydrates in your diet, dehydration, an incorrect training program with too few reps per set, or an adaptation to your current training routine. Isolating a muscle should be your first step to achieving a muscle pump.
The inability to get a pump in the gym can be a frustrating thing. Not only does it feel good but it usually acts as an indicator that you are working the target muscle and not secondary muscle groups, or worse, ligaments and tendons through an incorrect form.
In this article, I’ll cover reasons why you can’t get a pump in the gym (this is more common than you think) but also what you can do to rectify this and start to feel the pump again when training.
What Is a Muscle Pump
A muscle pump sounds strange, no, It’s not a pump that literally inflates your muscles. Rather it’s the feeling and appearance you get when a muscle is filled with blood as a result of muscular contractions.
The muscle pump is caused by a lactic acid buildup in the muscle which draws more oxygen into the muscle and also the heart pumping more oxygen-rich blood into the muscle group simultaneously.
This accumulation of blood and oxygen within the muscle quite literally pumps it up causing temporary enlargement of the trained muscle group. Your muscle feels and also looks bigger as a result of the pump and is the reason many people look to ‘chase the pump’ when training.
Before I go on, getting a muscle pump is not essential for muscle growth. While it can be an indicator that you are doing something right with your training, it is only something that assists muscle hypertrophy and is not the causing factor.
Therefore, don’t worry if you are not feeling a pump in the gym. Muscle growth occurs through stimulating a muscle group through resistance training, causing damage to the muscle tissue (which can then grow back stronger/larger), and activating muscle protein synthesis (a muscle-building process).
Can’t Get a Pump in the Gym
As Arnold Schwarzenneger famously said, “the pump is the most satisfying thing you can get in the gym” which he sums up in the video below.
For many, the pump is a sign of a good workout, it lets you know that you’ve worked the intended muscle (because you can feel it full of blood), and it has well-documented benefits to support muscle hypertrophy.
Research shows that cellular swelling (better known as the pump) has positive effects on protein synthesis and muscle hypertrophy so while I mentioned earlier that it’s not necessarily needed for muscle growth, there are certain benefits to it and it’s arguably better to have a muscle pump than not have one in the gym!
Why You Are Not Getting a Pump in the Gym
There are likely a few factors that are preventing you from getting a pump in the gym and I’ll list some of them below. There’s a good chance that one, or a few of the following are the key reason why you are not getting a pump in the gym.
** I’m also not going to list all of the factors that will stop you from getting a pump in the gym because in the next section I’ll be listing what you can do to get a pump again. That list will cover some of the more complicated issues with getting a pump and this list is for more general factors.
1. Low Carb Diet
A low carb diet, from my experience with clients, is usually the number one thing that is stopping them from getting a pump. People will assume it’s training related but carbs provide muscle glycogen which in turn is the energy source for muscular contractions.
A poor muscular contraction will ultimately mean that you can’t get a sufficient pump as peak contractions are needed to drive blood and water into the muscle. Whilst on that topic, carbs also draw water into the muscle, and for every 1g of carb you store in the form of muscle glycogen, you also store 2 – 3g of water.
This is why people deep into a cutting phase or prepping for a bodybuilding show struggle to feel any kind of pump or muscular contraction. A depleted level of glycogen in the muscle and lower stores of water makes it very difficult to feel a muscle contraction and even more difficult to drive blood into the muscle during these contractions.
A cut and a pump do not go hand in hand and this could be stopping you from getting a pump.
2. No Isolation Work
Compound movements like:
- Weighted carries
- Bench press
- Overhead press
- Pull ups
All train multiple muscle groups and this means that the blood distribution to each muscle group is shared out. It also means that muscular contractions for each muscle group are lessened as they won’t be in a fully shortened position (the chest for example is only fully contracted when the upper arm crosses the chest which does not happen in a bench press).
If you are not making use of isolation exercises in your routine, you are not fully driving muscle into the targeted muscle group or getting it into a fully contracted position and this could therefore be a primary reason why you’re not getting a pump.
3. Incorrect Rep Range
When I say incorrect rep range, I don’t mean you should be doing an exact number of reps, and the number I say is optimal for muscle growth. That’s obviously not the case and different rep ranges will cater to different training goals.
What I mean instead, is that the reps you are doing might not be what’s needed to feel a pump. There’s no right or wrong, just reps that do not lend themselves to feeling a pump. Firstly, low rep ranges on heavy compound lifts are unlikely to lead to a pump as there will not be enough muscular contractions to create a sufficient pump and drive blood into the muscle.
Secondly, focusing on a weight that is too light and doing too many reps could mean that you fatigue the muscle fibers to the point that you simply bypass the pump. There is a fine line between getting a pump and then going past this point where it becomes difficult to contract the muscle at all.
The hypertrophic range which coincides with getting a pump is 8 – 12 reps though some exercises and muscle groups it’s ok to increase that range to 12 – 15 reps. This isn’t a set in stone method but if you select a challenging weight and use a favorable rep tempo (more on this shortly) you should feel the pump.
How To Get a Good Pump at the Gym
Now that you know some of the reasons why you might be struggling to get a pump in the gym in the first place, I’m now going to look into what you can do to get the pump again. Some of these tips literally rectify the above issues whereas others are more advanced and involve training techniques and supplementation.
It’s best to rectify the easy stuff first like training and diet as this is where 80% of your response will come from, everything else is minor but will still contribute to a better pump.
1. Stay Hydrated
The most important thing you can do to get a good pump in the gym is to ensure you are properly hydrated. Water getting carried into the muscle group through repeated contractions and held there is one of the major factors of a pump.
If you are dehydrated going into a workout, you won’t have any surplus water that can be dragged into the muscle group. The human body works in order of priorities and if you don’t have enough water available for the muscle group, it’s not going to then prioritize water from other surrounding areas that are more vital for our survival.
That seems a little extreme but that’s how our bodies are programmed to work, on a survival first mechanism so if you are not fully hydrated, the body won’t spare much water to the muscle groups and you’ll struggle to get a pump.
Proper hydration is also the most important thing to have in place before doing any form of a workout so I’m not just saying hydrate to get a pump, I’m also saying hydrate as a necessity for any workout in general.
2. Increase Workout Intensity
By this, I don’t necessarily mean lift heavier but I mean you should actively get more blood flowing into, and staying, in the target muscle. This is done through increased reps, forced reps, slow negatives (to increase the time under tension), and short rest periods.
Each of these points alone can help to get a pump so I’ll cover each one separately. Firstly, you need to perform a certain rep range to get enough blood into the muscle and keep it there. Muscular contractions not only drive blood into the muscle but they slow down the amount that escapes and this holding of blood in the muscle needs to be done over a set number of reps.
Ensure your sets and reps are in the hypertrophy range mentioned earlier and then look at ways to drive more blood into the muscle.
Slow negatives involve lowering the rate under a slower count of 2-3 seconds to increase the time under tension. You can also utilize drop sets, forced reps, and giant sets all in an effort to drive the maximum amount of blood into the muscle group.
If you’ve only been doing the standard 3 sets x 8 reps for each exercise, it’s time to mix it up and add some more advanced loading techniques.
3. Carb Load
Carbs provide the necessary levels of muscle glycogen and water retention needed to have a forceful contraction of the muscle. Diet is usually going to be the key thing and while your salt, potassium, and magnesium intake can be adjusted to benefit a muscle pump, I’d say carbs are the biggest issue for most people.
Another issue is that you might have been consuming too many carbs for a long period of time and your insulin sensitivity is impacted. Personally, I’d look to get to a body fat range of 10 – 12% before you can expect to see noticeable pumps.
Both a low body fat percentage will mean you are carb depleted and a high body fat percentage will mean that you are more carb resistant (I’m generalizing here). You need to get down to a body fat percentage where you are more sensitive to carb intake and then load up on the carbs.
People that are just coming out of a cutting phase of competition find they get the best pumps of their life and this is a large part down to their carbohydrate and insulin sensitivity. This one, therefore, isn’t a quick fix but you can test a carb load before a workout just to test it before committing to a diet.
4. Pump Supplements
Nitric oxide and any sort of pump formula are designed to cause vasodilation. This increases blood flow to the muscle and significantly enhances blood flow. I don’t want to spend too long on this section because the title is quite self-explanatory.
These supplements are designed to increase blood flow to the muscle, get stronger contractions, and ultimately, provide a muscle pump (hence the name). Some good option to look for include:
- Redcon1 Big Noise Pump Formula (find it on Amazon)
- PEScience High Volume Nitric Oxide Booster Pre Workout (find it on Amazon)
- N.O. XT Nitric Oxide Supplement (find it on Amazon)
A pump is not a necessity for muscle growth and it’s certainly not a sign of an effective workout like most beginners think. It is, however, a good indicator that you are working the target muscle and there is research and evidence to suggest that it contributes to muscle hypertrophy.
To get a good pump, ensure you are doing enough reps with enough time under tension to force blood into the muscle, ensure you are hydrated and make sure you are both sensitive to, and consuming enough carbs. Then you can look into the more intricate things like pump supplements and mineral deficiencies.
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