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Fatigue—Pump—Not Necessary for Strength Gains

I usually write about new discoveries, but an astute reader alerted me to a 2002 study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine that challenges bodybuilding dogma. The researchers, led by Dr. J.P. Folland, found that fatigue and metabolic accumulation (pump) is not a necessary stimulus for strength gains. That would be news to many, perhaps most, bodybuilders.

I once wrote an article in Muscle & Fitness questioning the need for a pump in order to build muscle; you’ll find it in the first volume of The Lean Advantage series. Citing the substantial musculature of Olympic weightlifters (particularly in the traps, lower back, hips, and thighs), I wrote that “maximum effort, not maximum pump, builds muscle.” (I’ve never trained for a pump.) The UK study suggests that I had a point.

It’s well known that most bodybuilders train for a pump—Arnold called it the next best thing to an orgasm. The question is whether pump is the determining factor in their development.

“High resistance training is known to enhance muscular strength and promote hypertrophy, but the physiological link between the activity and the increased accumulation of contractile proteins required for these adaptations has yet to be elucidated,” Folland et al wrote in introducing the study. “It is clear that high force muscle actions are required to increase strength but beyond this there is considerable uncertainty,” they continued.

Recent studies had produced conflicting results. “Metabolic byproducts [lactic acid, etc] accumulate both inside and outside muscle fibers, and the build up of these metabolites is associated with fatigue as well as pain and discomfort,” the researchers observed. “Recent work has suggested that metabolite accumulation during high resistance work may be the primary stimulus for gains in strength and muscular hypertrophy,” they related. Another study, however, found “no advantage of high metabolic accumulation after six months…of training.”

Folland and colleagues sought to determine whether “the pain and discomfort associated with fatigue and high metabolic accumulation are essential to optimize strength training.” The study design is simple, and clever. It isolates the pump nicely.

Study Details

Twenty-three recreationally active adults (18-29 years of age, eight women) were assigned to either a high fatigue (HF) protocol (four sets of 10 reps with 30 seconds rest between sets) to maximize metabolic stress or a low fatigue (LF) protocol (40 reps with 30 seconds between each rep) to minimize the build up of fatigue products. Both groups trained three times a week for nine weeks, lifting 75% of their one repetition maximum (1RM) in full range knee extensions. 1RM was measured every week, and load was adjusted as necessary to keep load at 75% 1RM. If necessary, load was reduced to allow the participants to complete the prescribed number of reps using proper form. The total number of reps was the same for both groups.

As you can see, the protocols were designed to differentiate as much as possible for fatigue and metabolic accumulation.

Mean 1RM increased significantly for both groups, from 85 to 114 kg for the high fatigue group (34%), and from 80 to 112 kg for LF (40%). There was no significant difference between the gains in lifting strength of the two groups after 4.5 weeks or 9 weeks. The HF group was usually unable to lift 75% of 1RM throughout each training session and trained at a mean load of 71.8% of 1RM. The LF group was able to lift 75% for all 40 reps. (1 kg = 2.206 pounds)

Discussion and Conclusion

“The main finding of this study was the similarity in the effects of high fatigue (HF) and low fatigue (LF) training,” the researchers wrote. “Our observations suggest that high fatigue is not an essential or primary stimulus for gains in strength.” 

Interestingly, the HF group experienced severe muscle soreness during the first week of training; this was not the case for the LF group. This indicates muscle damage, according to Folland et al. “In theory, this could have attenuated the strength gains and any advantage of HF training,” the researchers opined. In the final analysis, however, it didn’t seem to affect the results. It simply made the HF training more unpleasant in the beginning.

On the other hand, the researchers speculated that the LF group might have been able to complete the training protocol with a training load higher than 75% 1RM “and this may produce greater strength gains than we observed.”

While it would have been possible to measure metabolic accumulation using NMR spectroscopy, they “believe that, in practice, it would be difficult to achieve a greater discrepancy in fatigue” and metabolic accumulation during resistance training than was the case here. In short, the Folland study was an excellent test of the effect of HF and LF training on strength.

“This suggests that significant and comparable strength gains can be achieved with training than involves a low level of discomfort and physical effort,” Folland et al wrote.

They concluded: “Fatigue and metabolite accumulation do not appear to be critical stimuli for strength gains, and resistance training can be effective without the severe discomfort and acute physical effort.”

*  *  *

I do not rush through workouts. My approach has always been to take my time moving from set to set and exercise to exercise. I rest as long as necessary to prepare mentally and physically for the next set or exercise. I take care not to lose training focus and momentum, but I don’t do the next lift until I’m ready. This study suggests that my approach is effective. It also confirms that concentrating on effort, not pump, is an effective approach for building strength.

Both methods work, however. Take your pick.

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