1. The days of focusing strictly on progressively increasing training loads for eliciting hypertrophy are OVER. Evolve with the science; be smarter than progressive overload.
2. Metabolic stress and cell swelling oriented training should have a place in everyone’s muscle building arsenal even though they are often times overlooked aspects of training.
3. While there are many ways to increase the metabolic stress associated with resistance training, there are a few key techniques like drop sets, iso-holds, partial reps and giant set schemes that will have you burning like never before.
4. Intensity techniques aren’t just for wily veterans of the iron game, when programmed intelligently, they can be incorporated in any beginner or intermediate level programming.
The Myth of The Muscle Pump
Arnold Schwarzenegger might have been onto something when famously talking about the pump back in the 1970s. In the first testament of the meathead bible the documentary “Pumping Iron” he talks about how his training revolved around the singular focus of chasing the pump, filling his muscles so full that it became excruciating.
He was known to superset chest and back exercises with no rest in between as part of a marathon two hour session that would leave him totally exhausted. For the old-school, lift-heavy-or-die aficionados, this method of training was pure madness. Guess what, they were wrong. Now I’m not going to tell you to train for three hours straight or perform 30 sets per body part, but I will provide a ton of actionable tips and tactics for maximizing the pump next time you head to the gym.
The Science of Hypertrophy
Pretty much everyone at this point knows that lifting heavy is associated with big muscles, and rightfully so. Countless studies have indicated that exercise induced mechanical stress serves as a critical stimulus to systematic adaptations, specifically, muscle hypertrophy. Mechanical stress is most effectively accrued by implementing Ronnie Coleman style “heavy-ass weight”.
Now any of my readers will tell you that I am always the first to argue that what constitutes “heavy” is a grey area, and fundamentally subjective. However, there absolutely is a time and place for training at percentages north of 80% 1RM in an intelligently designed program, yes, even for bodybuilders. But we aren’t going to talk about that here, because I feel it is pretty well understood. We’re going to channel our inner Arnold and chase the pump instead.
The Muscular Physiology of The Pump
So what is the “pump”? Bro-science buzzword? Yes. Useful? Absolutely. Simply put, the pump is the feeling associated when our muscles are flooded with nutrient and metabolite rich fluids during exercise. The explanation is the part your typical cut-off rocking bro won’t be able to explain, so we will make it the focus of this article.
As the field of exercise physiology has evolved, researchers have begun to point at a second piece to the hypertrophy puzzle, cell swelling. The build-up of certain metabolic byproducts, most importantly H+ ions and lactate, has been shown to amplify a variety of pathways known to influence muscle hypertrophy, most notably anabolic pathways/cascades, presence of free radicals, and of course, cell swelling.
If you want to read up on the specifics, I recommend checking out Brad Shoenfeld’s paper titled, “Potential Mechanisms For a Role of Metabolic Stress in Hypertrophy Adaptations to Resistance Training”. As we continue to toe the line between science and application, lets jump into some of the most effective methods for maximizing metabolic stress, in no particular order.
Amplifying Metabolic Stress with Drop Sets
Working a muscle through it’s entire range of motion is mission critical, we know this. Anyone who has ever lifted weights also knows that some days 6-12 reps just doesn’t cut it when it comes to maximizing your pump, especially if your form goes to shit.
Enter, drop-sets. A drop-set allows you to increase your training volume without increasing load, placing more emphasis on metabolic as opposed to mechanical stressors.
I like to use drop-sets in nearly every workout for advanced trainees, and choose one or two compound lifts for beginners. Start out by choosing a weight that allows you to perform 6 reps on your last set with strict form. Focus on the squeeze, a hard contraction is essential here. When you can’t perform any more reps, reduce the load by 20% and repeat, WITHOUT REST. Do this three times, or four times if you’re a mad man, and embrace the pain. Here’s a rule of thumb, the lighter the weight, the harder you should squeeze the muscle.
Here’s an example of Dr. John Rusin on the Leg Extension Machine going through a punishing Drop Set:
I like to use cables for drop-sets on compound movements like presses and rows because you can quickly adjust the stack and not have to dink around with racking dumbbells or plates. Next time you train arms, try something I call “surfing the rack”. Perform a set of dumbbell alternating curls as heavy as you can for four reps each arm, jump down 10 pounds and go until you end up with the 10 pounders in your hands. You might look stupid, but so will your pump!
A little known spin-off that I like to use is called a mechanical drop-set. Instead of changing the weight, you change the angle of the active joint. Example: When performing tricep extensions with a rope, start by backing three big steps from the stack with your arms slightly in front of you. Perform as many reps as possible in this position, then take a step forward and repeat. Do this until you end up back at the stack.
Biomechanically, the rationale is simple, you are changing the force curve when you change the angle of your upper arm. The reps will be harder at different points in the range of motion, allowing you to work past failure and adding another awesome tactic to your bag of tricks.
Intensifying Movements with Resistance Band Isometrics
Resistance bands are my go-to intensifier, and for good reason, they work. By challenging your muscles most at the extremes of their range of motion where they are weakest, you can really unlock some brutal isometric training with them as well.
I like to use them on push and pull movements at peak concentric contraction. If you haven’t strung a couple red bands on a hammer press machine for eight second isolated holds you are seriously missing out. Five to eight second holds seem to be the sweet spot for most people. Don’t get carried away and use these every time you set foot in the gym. Remember, this called an intensifier for a reason!
The beautiful thing about isometric contractions in regards to metabolic stress is that they literally drive fluid into your muscle while inhibiting any of it from leaving. Think about it like putting a kink in a hose without turning off the faucet. The incoming blood flow doesn’t stop, and there is nowhere for the rest of the fluid to go. The intracellular pressure will obviously increase, as will the concentration of our crucial metabolites. Increased pressure+more metabolites= grow time baby.
Check out my man JR utilizing mid-set isometrics in this Bulgarian Drop Set that even hurts to watch:
Some other great movements that are great candidates for banded isometrics include RDLs, and all rowing and pressing variations. When performing accessory or isolation work, banded isometrics can be your best friend when training all flexors (biceps, hammies) and extensors (triceps and quads). Don’t be afraid to get creative, but don’t stray too far from the tried and true movement patterns we constantly preach.
Grouping Movements with Supersets and Giant Sets
I’m guessing that most of you have experimented with supersetting opposing muscle groups, especially biceps and triceps. That’s great, as it’s definitely a tried and true method to up the intensity of your sessions. SO TRY THIS. I want you to perform a super or giant set for the same muscle group. Pick two or three exercises and perform them back to back with no rest. That, my friends, is how you chase the pump.
I have included my favorite super and giant sets for each muscle group: Pick a weight that allows you to hit 8-10 reps on the first set and then perform as many as possible for three rotations, squeeze every rep HARD.
Check out this set of Explosive Back Squats with an Iso-Hold at the top of the movement putting emphasis on gluteal and adductor tension and squeezing:
Here are some of my favorite combos for giant sets that will develop a brutal pump with some serious metabolic stress for each muscle group.
Back: Pull-Up Negatives, Straight Arm Pulldowns, T-Bar Rows
Extending Time Under Tension with Partial Repetitions
Partial reps get a bad rep, but when used as an intensifier they flat out kick-ass. I’m not talking about lowering the bar four inches on the bench or quarter squats, I’m talking about taking your body past the point of failure.
Here’s an example of John again on the Prone Hamstring Curl Machine for a nasty drop set ending with some partials out of a stretched position. Skip to 1:10 to really see the pain ensue:
When using partial reps, perform your prescribed set and rep scheme using a weight that causes you to fail at or within one rep of the target. When you fail, continue performing partial repetitions until you can’t budge the weight. If you are really feeling like pushing the limit, hold the weight for a nice 20 second loaded stretch to end the set.
Dumbbells and cables excel here as they don’t require a spotter. Remember to keep your form tight, don’t worry about completing a rep, but rather focus on executing each partial rep with perfect form. We want to keep the force directed through the target muscle.
True Mobility of Pumped Tissue with Loaded Stretching
Most of you should already know that stretching isn’t all that it was once cracked up to be. If you know a lot about building muscle, you should also know that it is much, much more. Loaded stretching is not widely used, as it is not widely understood. A loaded stretch blends isometrics, eccentrics, and static stretching into one do-it all, kick your ass method for increasing a muscle’s active range of motion, incurring maximum amounts of mechanical damage, and filling your muscles so full that it hurts.
Loaded stretching is tough to perform without a strong mind-muscle connection, so be sure you can fire specific muscles on command before incorporating this method. It is essential that the stretch ends up in the muscle and not your tendons and ligaments, as you will be passively contracting your muscles in a fully lengthened position.
Here are some examples of how to incorporate some gnarly loaded stretches into your next training session.
Lats: Perform a set of dumbbell pullovers or straight arm pulldowns until failure, then jump up on a pull up bar and hang with your lats stretched but engaged for 20 seconds. If you feel these in your shoulders, you are not engaging your lats. Think about trying to perform just the first inch of a pull up with your arms completely straight and hold it.
Chest: Dumbbells and cables are your best friends here. Perform your normal incline or flat presses and flies until failure, then hold the cable handles or dumbbells just outside of your shoulders with your pecs fully stretched for 20-30 seconds. Again, if your shoulders are aching or burning, you should focus on activating your working muscle, in this case, your pecs. Do so by retracting your shoulder blades and squeezing the bench with your lats.
Here is a great example of loaded stretching between each rep from JR on the pec deck machine:
Biceps: Try seated incline curls with 1 + 1/4 reps. Curl the weight up ¼ of the way, let it back down, pronating your forearm as far as possible (lengthening bicep). From here, supinate your forearm while curling the weight up. By incorporating a loaded stretch with EVERY REP you take your bicep through it’s entire active ROM. A longer muscle is a stronger muscle!
Triceps: Superset 30 degree dumbbell skullcrushers with dips. When you perform the skullcrushers, take the last rep to stretch with the DBs fully behind your head (when tricep is its longest) for 20 seconds. Then crank out your dips and repeat.
Legs: I know Dr. Rusin loves this one, as I have seen his loaded stretch practice on multiple occasion. I have been following the work of John Meadows for a long time, so when I saw that they were working together, I was pumped. They have begun to popularize one of my personal favorite leg burners, unilaterally loaded split squats.
If you haven’t done these with dropsets and isometrics, you’re missing out. If you really want to kick things up a notch, go until complete failure and then quickly switch your working leg up onto the bench and lunge down STRETCHING the side you just blasted for 20-30 seconds. This should be exceedingly uncomfortable. Do this after each set on each side. Check out the video from the isometric section for a review!
For hamstring development, deficit RDL’s are your best friend. Perform 12-15 reps with a hard contraction on top, and then finish each set with a 20-30 second stretch with your hamstrings fully lengthened. Feel free to lighten the load on the stretch to keep your lower back healthy! Remember to keep your shoulders back and reach back with your butt. No bending at the waist!
Back To The Basics of Old School Training
If there is one thing I have learned in bodybuilding, it is the fact that there is no need to reinvent the wheel. Seemingly every week a new study tells us to abandon last week’s fad and adopt their findings as gospel. Now don’t get me wrong, I love science, and I have built my young career around it; however, one would be foolish to ignore the incredible physiques built without any of these modern techniques. Sometimes you just can’t beat repetitions and volume.
Two methods that will never go out of style have been used since weight training began gaining popularity in the 1970s, and they are brutally simplistic: Flexing and Shorter Rest Periods.
If you haven’t tried shortening your rest periods yet, you realistically don’t even need anything from the above sections at this point in time. If you normally take 45 seconds between sets, drop it down to 20 and see what happens. Experience tells me you will feel some serious discomfort. Throw in 10 minutes of posing/flexing after your session for the same body part you just trained and you will be cramped up in the corner wondering why you decided to try this. Give it a shot and enjoy the pump!
Putting the Pump To Action
I feel it is important to remember the fundamentals when it comes to training, especially in this day and age. As metabolic stress training continues to gain popularity, people are blindly jumping into some pretty complex training protocols like occlusion training. I won’t include my opinion on that here but I can assure you that you can experience the best pump of your life by implementing the tactics listed above. You really don’t need to throw everything at your body to force adaptation, specifically muscle growth, so add these methods to your bag of tricks and implement them strategically with a goal in mind. If you are just starting out, pick one method and use it a couple times a week. If you are an advanced trainee, your best bet is to incorporate a few of these methods into every session in some way, shape, or form.
Here’s what we learned guys if you zoned out during the last 10 minutes! First of all, you can build muscle two ways, stressing a muscle mechanically (via load), or metabolically (via cell swelling/metabolite concentration). Secondly, simple methods yield the best results when it comes to chasing the pump. And don’t forget about the fact that intensity techniques and methods are numerous and each has its place in any program designed to build muscle. That’s it, go get your swell on!
About The Author
Ian Padron is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin’s Exercise Science Program and an ACSM Certified Personal Trainer, currently residing in Seattle, WA. Ian’s mission is to revolutionize the health and fitness industry by combining science and education to evoke sustainable change in his clients and readers. He preaches the importance of a holistic approach to training, taking into account the mind AND the body. Ian also walks the walk as a natural competitive bodybuilder.