I received an e-mail this week that combined two questions that I have been asked many times before: What about the value of a pump in creating microtears? How deep do they run and where on the muscle do they generate the growth? Both of these issues are interesting to me because they illustrate a common problem in strength training.
This Year I’m Gonna Get a Pump!
For the benefit of those who don’t know the term, a ‘pump’ simply refers to the feeling of engorgement a muscle gets when it temporarily fills with blood following activity. Ever since Arnold mentioned it in the movie Pumping Iron in 1977 the term has taken on mythic importance to some people.
But here are a few relevant points regarding a pump and the goal of adding new muscle:
– It’s possible to fully engorge your arm by lifting a very light weight many times. Likewise you can forcefully open and close your fist repeatedly and pump your forearm substantially. However, these almost never cause new muscle to grow, and to the extent they might they still would not cause the same growth stimulation that lifting a maximum weight a few times would cause.
– A pump cannot be accurately measured. You can’t know that today’s biceps pump is 13% more than last week’s biceps pump and that your quadriceps pump is down 8% from last week’s workout and therefore your legs need more rest. It’s basically a useless piece of information. Your chest feels really pumped today, so what? What clear conclusion can be drawn from that? Nothing you can hang your hat on.
– Getting preoccupied with generating a pump on every exercise is a needless distraction. It’s just not a goal worth setting. Nobody makes a New Year’s resolution that this is the year he’s finally going to get his muscles pumped like never before. It’s just too vague. It’s also temporary. There is no lasting health or cosmetic benefit from engorging muscles occasionally.
Microtears: Cruising for a Bruising
Next we get into the issue of microtears. The hypothesis is that these microtears are the precursors of muscle growth; that productive training causes microscopic tears and when these tears heal it makes the muscle bigger and stronger. I’m not going to debate that here. But here are some relevant points insofar as practical strength training is concerned:
– These tears are microscopic and can only be examined by doing tissue biopsies that are looked at under a microscope. Fine. Are you going to do that? Is anyone going to test to see whether today’s biceps exercise was productive and effective by cutting out a piece of his biceps and looking at it to quantify the microtears? I doubt it. Without that you’re training blindly anyway.
– Microtears are not entirely good. When there are too many it becomes an injury. Sometimes a very serious injury lasting years. By getting preoccupied with literally damaging your muscles you run the risk of deliberately going too far. Imagine a person who really takes to heart the concept of causing beneficial microtears. He might be inclined to jerk a weight a little harder or to cheat a movement in a way that would cause a little extra muscle trauma – to get a little extra growth. Such a person would be playing with fire, literally trying to slightly injure himself on each exercise. Instead of being focused on progressive overload, he’d be focused on progressive injury. No thanks. Dumb plan.
What Bothers Me Most
What really bothers me about these issues is trainers who encourage people to focus on useless or dangerous elements of training instead of just measuring what can be measured and really means something: intensity of muscular overload. They just don’t want to admit that using a Power Factor measurement or the 5-second measure of intensity using Static Contraction is a very practical and useful way to track your progress.
It’s so damned easy to do it’s unbelievable, but the fitness turf wars prevent trainers from giving their customers proven, sensible advice that really works. I challenge you to find an advocate of “high intensity training” who actually has a way to measure that intensity. Shame on them.