A pump is what you get when you exercise a certain muscle group and that muscle becomes gorged with blood, making your skin feel very tight against your muscle, veins popping, etc. You might even walk differently because a muscle is so pumped, making some people feel very egotistic.
Pre-workouts are sold by the millions for this purpose to promote a pump and people just love the effect.
First off, why do you get pumped?
During exercise, and this effect increase with intensity, blood flow to the muscle is increased up to 20-fold on average above resting conditions and in certain, predominantly white, muscles (fast twitch), blood flow can increase up to 80-fold. This enormous increase in blood flow during maximal exercise is necessary to meet the 20- to 50-fold enhanced oxygen demands of the muscle tissue.
Usually, in resting muscle, oxygen extraction is in the range of only 20–40%, and has been reported to increase to a range of 70–80% with increasing levels of exercise.
Blood flow is enhanced very rapidly, within the first 5 seconds, of the start of the exercise. Blood flow transports oxygen and glucose to the muscle and then transports lactate, CO2, hydrogens, etc., away from the exercised muscle.
But you have to ask yourself, why do you want a bigger pump. Does it have any benefits? Are you doing it merely for the feeling? To what extent do enhanced blood flow promote exercise performance?
Let me just say that you can build muscle perfectly well without generating much of a pump. When it comes to building muscle, progressively overloading the muscle and daily nutrition is what will build muscle, not the pump. So before you spend all your money on blood flow enhancing supplements, ask yourself, will this enhance my gains, or am I just using it to get a nice feel? Because to be honest, most blood flow enhancing supplements contain tons of ingredients, at too small quantities, that don’t improve exercise performance and don’t potentiate gains.
When people talk about a pump, most people think about nitric oxide and sometimes about glucose. This is because nitric oxide promotes vasodilation and blood flow. People also sometimes experience that after they eat a big carbohydrate meal, they experience a better pump.
But nitric oxide isn’t the only vasodilator. The body is complex and regulates blood flow via a complex variety of ways. For instance, excess free radicals, adrenaline, noradrenaline (via activating the α1-adrenoceptor), acetylcholine, vasopressin, angiotensin, cyclooxygenase-derived vasoconstrictor substances (aspirin inhibits COX and will promote blood flow) (8), etc., promote vasoconstriction, whereas sufficient free radicals (without causing oxidative stress; 2g of vitamin C blunts post contraction blood flow by 50% (8)), histamine, androgens, ATP, CO2, etc., promote vasodilation and blood flow.
Let’s talk about nitric oxide first. Nitric oxide is an endogenously created gaseous molecule that promotes vasodilation. It’s created from arginine, using BH4 as a cofactor, and also from dietary nitrates (nitrate (NO3¯) ⇒ nitrite (NO2¯) ⇒ nitric oxide (·NO). Hypoxia (low oxygen) and low pH (caused by an increase in hydrogen atoms from contracting muscles) increase the conversion of NO3¯ to NO2¯ to ·NO.
If you didn’t know, ·NO actually has a few side effects. ·NO binds to the cytochrome c oxidase (COX) complex in the electron transport chain, leading to partial inhibition of mitochondrial respiration, which leads to lower ATP and CO2 production and an increase in free radicals; leading to increased oxidative stress. This is luckily reversible and controlled by oxygen. However, hypoxia, caused by an excess of polyunsaturated fats, estrogen, lactate, etc., will deprive the mitochondria of oxygen and prevent the release of NO from COX. In a feed-forward loop, NO will reduce CO2, which is needed for tissue oxygenation. Exercise-induced hypoxia is associated with increased lipid peroxidation, likely due to increased free radical production, such as NO reacting with polyunsaturated fats (8).
Another side effect of NO is that; because it’s a free radical in nature, will react with polyunsaturated fats and proteins, creating the highly toxic and reactive peroxynitrite, as well as oxidative damage, DNA damage, cellular damage (indicative of an increase in nitrotyrosine (8)), etc.
Finally, nitric oxide at low (nanomolar) concentrations favors enhanced blood flow, whereas high concentrations favor cell cycle arrest and apoptosis.
So all in all, the body will increase nitric oxide as needed during exercise, and using supplements that will increase it to unphysiologically levels, increases the risk of cellular damage, etc., and will have the opposite effect of what you want. And also interestingly, inhibiting nitric oxide synthesis doesn’t lower muscle blood flow during exercise.
To ensure that your body is making optimal amounts of nitric oxide on its own, you have to eat enough protein (for arginine), a wholesome diet with all your vitamins and minerals (B-vitamins are especially important for NO synthesis), anti-oxidants, like phytochemical found in cocoa, vitamin E and C, etc., and consume a low PUFA diet. Interestingly, supplementing arginine does not boost nitric oxide, which indicates that arginine is not the rate-limited step to increasing nitric oxide.
In conclusion about nitric oxide, I don’t advise to use nitric oxide boosters to enhance your pump, but rather stick to the guidelines above. Arginase inhibitors such as L-norvaline (an isomer of the more common amino acid valine), lysine, etc., inhibit the conversion of arginine to ornithine in the urea cycle, which should increase arginine for nitric oxide synthesis, should be fine to use as they are generally safe and beneficial, but should be avoided if you have already high ammonia.
Carbon dioxide (CO2) is also a gaseous molecule produced in the mitochondria through glycolysis and oxidative phosphorylation. It’s the body’s primary vasodilator and it increases tissue oxygenation (Bohr effect), lowers lactate production and helps to regulate cellular function, by increasing the export of calcium and sodium from the cell, thus increasing ATP and reducing fatigue. Read more here on CO2.
Cardiac output, carotid flow, and coronary flow correlate directly with the carbon dioxide tension in the blood, irrespective of the hydrogen ion concentration (8).
Substances that increase CO2 production are sodium bicarbonate (baking soda), high dose vitamin B1, methylene blue, caffeine, magnesium, nose breathing, etc. I highly advise reading the article on CO2 to learn more about it and the anti-metabolic effect of lactate.
Catecholamines, such as noradrenaline and adrenaline, promotes vasoconstriction by acting on the α1-adrenoceptor. Higher doses of catecholamines will promote blood flow by overriding it by binding to the β-adrenoceptors. Catecholamines are essential to regulate blood flow to the necessary organs during exercise, such as more blood to the muscle and less to the digestive tract.
Catecholamines are also very important to control the amount of vasodilation that is allowed, because too much vasodilation can cause hypotension. The way to combat this (too much vasoconstriction) is to eat enough salt and potassium so that blood pressure can be maintained when vasodilation takes place; it will basically increase the vasodilation threshold.
However, thyroid hormones and catecholamines are inversely correlated, whereas thyroid hormones promote the oxidation of glucose and the creation of CO2, catecholamines increase the oxidation of fats and promote insulin resistance. You want low catecholamines levels with high thyroid hormone levels, else you might start to lose your pump, due to too high catecholamines. This is also true to when you push yourself too far (too many sets and reps), where you go past your maximum pump, you actually lose your pump, because lactate and catecholamines get too high and glucose and CO2 go too low. Importantly, don’t overdo an exercise with too many reps and sets just because you’re chasing a feeling.
Other supplements that stimulate blood flow and increase tissue oxygenation
- Glycine propionyl-L-carnitine (GPLC). GPLC increases tissue oxygenation, improves exercise performance and lowers malondialdehyde (a marker of oxidative stress). This would be a great supplement, but it contains carnitine and carnitine supplementation has been shown to lower thyroid hormones.
- Sodium bicarbonate (SB). SB supplementation lowers circulating potassium (elevated extracellular potassium reduces muscle blood flow (8)), enhances muscle potassium uptake, sodium delivery, increases CO2, tissue oxygenation, increases pH, etc. (8)
- Niacinamide and/or niacin (8). Take 500mg-1g niacinamide before your workout. Elevated lipolysis and free fatty acids promote insulin resistance and will lead to vascular problems if it’s polyunsaturated fats. Niacinamide helps to lower excess lipolysis and promotes vasodilation and glucose oxidation during exercise, thus potentiating the pump.
- Vitamin B1 (8). Take 300-500mg before your workout with a hefty carbohydrate meal. It will promote glucose oxidation, CO2 formation, and lower lactate production, thus increasing NADH (lactate production lowers NADH) in response to exercise, which will increase blood flow to the muscle.
- Pomegranate and beetroot extract (8). Nitric oxide-dependent pathway.
- Creatine (8). It may be due to the increase in total body water (creatine is an osmolyte, optimizing cellular hydration) impacting plasma volume, venous return, and cardiac output.
- Folate (8). Folate is used in the folate cycle, which is connected to the tetrahydrobiopterin (BH4) salvage pathway, which is needed to recycle BH4. BH4 is then used as a cofactor to create NO (8). I advise getting your folate from food, or if you do want to use a supplement, use folinic acid (start with ¼ to ½ a tablet) instead of folic acid.
- DHEA (8) – start with 1 cap before the workout to enhance blood flow or 1 cap after the workout to enhance recovery.
- cAMP enhancers – caffeine, butea superba, forskolin.
- Aldosterone/renin/angiotensin inhibitors – Chronic exposure to aldosterone (due to low salt intake as well as low thyroid hormones), results in impairments of endothelial function through decreased NO synthesis and action in healthy individuals. Aldosterone liberates endothelin-1 (ET-1), which is the most potent vasoconstrictive agent (8). Salt and progesterone are potent aldosterone antagonists and certain compounds in milk are angiotensin-converting enzyme inhibitors.
- Vasopressin inhibitors – caffeine (8) and ginger (8).
- ATP increases vasodilation (8) – ATP blunts α-adrenergic vasoconstriction, most likely via binding to endothelial ATP/UTP-selective P2Y(2) receptors (8). ATP can induce an increase in NO production by activation of endothelial purinergic receptors of the P2Y type (8). ATP is able to promote vasodilation independent of NO and acetylcholine and even where they were dysfunctional (8). Adenosine, the breakdown product of ATP, can attenuate vasoconstriction by acting on the P1 receptors on presynaptic sympathetic nerve terminals to inhibit neurotransmitter release (8). A few good supplements to boost ATP is methylene blue, succinic acid, pentadecanoic acid, niacinamide, vitamin B1, B2, B6, inosine, ancient peat and apple extract (8, 8), etc.
- Calcium channel blockers – any mechanism that leads to a decrease in intracellular Ca2+ will usually be followed by vasodilation. Magnesium, CO2, DHEA, androsterone, testosterone, adamantane, taurine and caffeine helps to keep calcium out of the cell and optimize CO2 production.
Blood flow and pump stack
- Vitamin B1 – 300-500mg
- Vitamin B2 – 50mg
- Vitamin B3 (niacinamide or niacin) – 500mg-1g
- Vitamin B6 – 25-50mg
- Electrolytes – Sodium bicarb (½ to full teaspoon), potassium (100mg), magnesium (100-200mg), calcium (200-300mg)
- Caffeine – 200-400mg
- Creatine – 5g
- DHEA – 5mg
- Methylene blue – 5mg
- Succinic acid – 200mg
- Taurine – 2g
- A boat load of glucose and fructose – 1:1 or 2:1 glucose to fructose ratio.