Why do body builders constantly chase the pump? Are sore muscles an indicator of muscle growth?
The process of losing fat or gaining muscle can be a huge commitment that takes time and discipline.
During the process, people look for any source of feedback to ensure their workouts are effective.
Of course, nobody should expect to do 20-some push-ups and see a larger chest, but people often believe that they need a muscle pump in order to have an effective workout.
Makes sense, right? To know your muscles are growing they need to swell up. They should be sore! Is this your line of thinking?
Don’t feel bad if you think this way. You’re not wrong. But, there’s much more to muscle growth than that.
You can get sore muscles while on a diet, and muscle growth isn’t likely to happen while cutting back on calories.
Are either of these workout feelings actually necessary to show your workout was worth it? Let’s take a look.
What Does It Mean To Chase The Pump?
The pump is the feeling of your muscles being bigger and tighter during training. It is caused by blood rushing into the working muscles to deliver oxygen and fuel them with nutrients.
When your muscles are pumped up, you’ll look much bigger than you normally are. Most of the fitness models you see on Instagram take pictures of their physiques after a pump in good lighting.
The level of pump depends on your workout intensity. Doing higher reps with less rest in between sets can create a greater pump because your blood is continually filling the muscles.
The more reps you hit your muscles, the more likely you are to get a good pump.
On the other hand, those who train primarily for strength usually don’t get a good muscle pump.
This is because heavy weight training involves low reps. You’ll struggle to get a muscle pump when you’re benching 5 reps per set.
What’s The Deal With Muscle Soreness?
While people love the pump they get, soreness is a different story. You may feel great after a workout, but this feeling will soon fade.
The next day, you begin to feel stiff and weak in the muscles trained. This specific soreness is Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS).
To make matters worse, depending on how intensely the muscle was worked out, its soreness could last 1-3 days if not more.
This is usually the case for me when I train my legs hard. There have been times when my legs are sore for 4-5 days after an intense leg workout.
There are a few factors that help determine how sore your muscles will be, including exercise type, whether your body is accustomed to the workout, and just individual factors.
Exercises that put the most tension on muscles can cause the most soreness.
The exercises that really extend your muscles, like one-legged romanian deadlifts, can cause you to be sore for several days after.
If it’s been several weeks before your last workout, expect to be sore for several days. Therefore, it’s important that you gradually increase the intensity when you start to train.
Don’t just jump back into the gym and hit your muscles with the same intensity you had before your break. That’s just stupid and can sideline you for several days.
What causes the soreness is the pulling on the muscles through the extension part of the workout. And the fact that the muscle isn’t used to the movement!
Your Body Must Get Used To Exercise
When your muscles have not been put under any stress in a long while, they will take a big beating. This leads to soreness.
Beginners often find themselves really sore because their muscles are put under stress which they never had to do before.
People who take ample time off of lifting will find themselves sore when they restart. However, your body will acclimate quickly.
Even seasoned trainers will get sore from trying a new exercise simply because the muscles are not familiar with moving a certain way. They need time to adjust.
This is also why it’s important for seasoned lifters to change up their exercises. Add in drop sets, super sets, rest pause training and so on.
Hit your muscles from different angles. The more you change things up and add variation, the more overall muscle develop you’ll have (along with some soreness to go with it).
The science isn’t very clear about soreness and improved muscle growth. It is simply that some people may get sore in one area where others may not and visa versa.
Everyone’s body is unique, and everyone has their strengths and weaknesses. Some people can do pull-ups for days and won’t have aching lats at all. Others can bench press multiple times per week and be completely fine.
Are Pump and Soreness Necessary for Muscle Growth?
So the question becomes: when you don’t have a pump, and you aren’t sore the next day, was your workout ineffective?
The absence of either a pump or soreness does not mean you wasted your time. Of course, pumps are fun and feel great, and soreness is bittersweet, but not getting them does not mean your workout was useless.
At the same time, being sore after a workout does not prove your workout was effective.
The only way to effectively build muscle and size is by eating enough calories that supports muscle growth.
Therefore, don’t get caught up with the mentality that you should train in a way to “chase the pump.”
Getting sore is also not an effective sign of muscle development. There are several reasons I’ve covered above as to why your muscles may be sore.
Just because you’re not nearly as sore this week as you were last week doesn’t mean your workout wasn’t productive.
How Do I Know My Workout Was Effective?
Because soreness and pump do not tell us whether our workout was effective or not, then how can we know we are training properly?
You should instead focus on progressive overload to gauge your progress. As long as you’re getting stronger and adding strength or reps, your body is building.
Use numbers and real data to track your progress. If you consistently can do more reps, or more weight, or need less rest, you are probably on the right track.
Keep an account of your lifts to know whether you are improving or not. If you’re dieting, try to maintain your strength. If you’re trying to build muscle, continue to add weight or reps to your exercises.
Pump and soreness do not indicate progress, but they help you know which muscles are being used more during your exercises.
This becomes important when you want to ensure the right muscle are doing the right amount of work.
For example, if you are doing back exercises like pull-ups, lat pull-downs, rows, and you feel your biceps did all the lifting, this could be a sign that you overcompensated with your arms.
You must work at getting that mind-muscle connection. With your back exercises, make sure the weight is light enough so that you are pulling with the back and not the biceps.
When doing bench press, make sure that you’re pushing with the chest muscles as much as possible. It’s inevitable that the triceps and shoulders will activate because the bench press is a compound movement, but do try to use the chest.
If you feel a pump or soreness only in your shoulders or tris, it could be a sign that your form is off. But, this may not be true if you haven’t benched in some time.
Therefore, if you’re targeting a large muscle (chest, back, legs) and you feel the pump and soreness only in your accessory muscles (biceps, triceps, shoulders) it could be an indication that you need to make some adjustments in your form.
In that respect, the feeling of a pump and muscle soreness can be helpful in guiding your workout. Just remember that it does not mean the muscle has to be sore to be considered “worked out.”
With that said, my legs are sore every single time I train them. This is why people dread leg day as it can cause soreness in half of your body. Not fun!
I encourage you to change the type of training you do often. The rest pause training, the drop sets and others will activate your muscles in a different way each time.
The Bottom Line
With everything you have learned so far, I think it’s best that you do not rely on getting a pump or getting ultra-sore.
Getting a big pump and being sore the next day does not really mean much in regard to your workout’s effectiveness.
Your workout could have been great, average, or terrible, and you still could wake up sore as hell.
In fact, if your form is bad, you may wake up feeling incredibly sore simply because the muscle was used in ways that it shouldn’t have.
The absence of a pump or soreness means the same thing. Your workout could have been killer or only okay regardless of whether you got a pump or sore.
If your form is spot on correct, you may never feel sore the next day because you hit the muscles perfectly. They’re used to the exercise and are ready for it.
Instead of worrying about getting either of those feelings, track your progress through numbers. Real evidence.
If you are lifting heavier weights, completing more reps, and need less rest between sets, it is a good sign your workouts are doing what they are supposed to.
Focus on consistent improvement. Keep on doing what you’re doing. If you’re not improving, then it may be time to adjust your workout.
Why The Pump and Muscle Soreness Can Sometimes Matter
While the feelings of a pump and soreness do not indicate progress, they do let you know which muscles have been working.
If you want to build your chest, but you only feel the pump or soreness in your shoulders and triceps, you are doing something wrong.
Whether you need to change your form, or your exercise selection, make the adjustment so the muscles you want trained are actually feeling trained during the workout.
Again, if they are not sore the next day, it does not mean you failed. Do your best to target the muscles you want trained and track their progress through real numbers.
This is the best way to make sure your workouts are accomplishing what you want them to.
Don’t feel sore after a workout? Don’t worry. Didn’t get the pump you wanted before heading to the beach? No big deal. This does not mean your workout was in vain.
Track your workouts, know your numbers, see your progress. Pumps and soreness play no part in your knowing you are working towards your goal.
What’s your experience with soreness and the pump? Let me know in the comments below.