The Pump, Occlusion Training, and How to Enhance Them

Call it instinct. Long before any breakthrough research on occlusion training, and its endorsement by many knowledgeable fitness professionals, bodybuilders sought to achieve the ever essential “pump” at each workout.

Ahhhhnald Schwarzenegger once compared getting a pump to having an orgasm.  …Can’t say I completely agree but, there is something about a good pump
that just feels right.

We’ve come to understand that the metabolic environment created from a skin ripping pump is essential to muscle hypertrophy.  We also know that there are few ways that are more effective in creating this environment than occlusion training (OT).

If you’re hearing of occlusion training for the first time here’s a brief explanation of what it is from one of the top researchers on the subject, Dr. Jacob Wilson:

Occlusion training involves wrapping a device like a pressure cuff or knee wraps around the top of a limb at a pressure sufficient to occlude, or obstruct, blood flow to the veins, but not the arteries. This way, the arteries continue to deliver blood to the limb, and the blood pools in the limb as the veins struggle to take it back to the heart. …During BFR, muscle cells reach a point where they are so full of fluid that they have to either burst or grow.

The second way BFR works is that the low oxygen level in a muscle during the accumulation of blood forces your body to recruit larger fast-twitch fibers, resulting in extreme growth.

Finally, when oxygen is low, lactic acid rapidly accumulates. This may sound bad, but studies show lactic acid by itself can increase protein synthesis!

If you want to learn and understand the underpinnings of occlusion training, also known as BFR (blood flow restriction training), you can find some very good research here.

I also highly recommend checking out The Use of Occlusion Training to Produce Muscle Hypertrophy and Practical Occlusion Training from Jeremy Loenneke.

The single biggest advantage of OT is the ability to train with lower intensity but receive benefit similar to training at high intensity.

You’ve seen those pendulum swings that have multiple metal balls attached, right?  And you know what happens the harder you swing the first one.  Every action has an opposite and equal reaction.

Exercise is no different.  High intensity is necessary to stimulate a hypertrophic response, but it also results in greater systemic stress on the body.  Over time, this accumulated stress makes recovery slow and difficult.

As a bodybuilder or anyone who wants to add muscle, maintaining a balance between exercise stress and recovery is a key factor in long-term success.  OT helps create the environment needed for muscle growth, minus the systemic stress.

That’s great!  But…

Is it really necessary to walk around the gym looking like a heroin addict
about to get his fix?

If strapping silly looking bands around your arms and legs will help you increase muscle, I’m all for it.

What I’m actually questioning is whether or not there may be an easier and equally productive way to get the same effect.  Unless you like portraying yourself as the Ultimate Warrior as you pace around your gym.

If we look at Dr. Jacobs description of what OT accomplishes it can be summarized as: restricting blood flow and oxygen to a working muscle and increasing the rate of lactic acid production.

By systematically applying an age old training technique, with some minor enhancements you can produce the same effect as OT without having to remember to pack your elastic wraps.

Not only that, but it is a much more effective way of restricting blood flow to the muscles of the upper torso, which has proven difficult in many of the OT studies.  Conversely, BFR of the lower body proves quite easy and effective since wrapping the upper most part of the upper thigh will directly impact the quads and hamstrings.

So, what’s the trick?

Well…some will call it partials, others will call it stage reps, or say it looks like “21’s”—at the IART we call it Zone Training.  A more systematized approach to performing short, forceful contractions over an exercises full range of motion.

A movement can be broken up into anywhere from 2-4 sections, or “Zones”, and you focus on performing very explosive contractions within that particular zone.  Check out the video below to see Zone Training is performed.

The lactic acid build up, blood engorgement, and discomfort you experience will be significant.

 And so will the pump you have, long after the set is over.  Everything about this method or rep performance works exactly like OT.

  • The rapid contractions over a short ROM traps blood in the muscles, cuts off O2 supply, and doesn’t allow lactic acid to dissipate.
  • It does not require maximal loads (50-70% of 1RM is often sufficient).  In fact, near max loads can diminish the effect since you want to concentrate on contracting the target muscle through the target ROM without tensing up outer lying muscles.
  • It results in very little systemic stress compared to typical high intensity training.
  • And did I mention, it’s painful.

One difference however, is that you are not starting with restricted blood flow but rather, building up to it.  For this reason sets may last slightly longer.  Typically 40-60 seconds for approximately 24 contractions in total.

For example, if you’re splitting a movement up into halves you would perform 12 reps per half.  If you were splitting it into thirds you would do 8 reps per zone.

[NOTE: It may be necessary to perform slightly more or less reps per zone depending upon your strength in each zone.  Also, you may opt to perform more than the recommended 24 contractions per set (i.e 40-45).  This can lead to an even greater pump but can be extremely painful.]

The initial zones should be performed short of momentary muscular failure so you can transition into the next zone without rest and enough strength to complete that zone.  It may take a couple of workouts to determine the proper weight load or exact number of reps for each zone.

There are unlimited combinations and methods of applying Zone Training, but traditionally it is best to start with the weakest part of the ROM and progressively move to the strongest.

The added benefit of doing it this way is that it flattens the exercise’s strength curve. This results in your muscles feeling more thoroughly worked from the point of origin to insertion.  The benefits of this is a different topic altogether.

As they say, there’s a method to the madness, and this is definitely the case with Zone Training.  Whereas 21’s, partials, or even stage reps are a way to “change things up” or performed as an afterthought, Zone Training is an entire method unto itself with specific directives for specific purposes.  The most notable of these purposes being blood flow restriction and creating a metabolic environment for muscle growth.

Find more information on Zone Training at Amazon.com
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