Who DOESN’T love a good pump? Sure, it looks and feels awesome, but the pump also has very real muscle-building benefits. When muscle cells experience a killer pump, protein synthesis increases and protein breakdown nearly stops -- the perfect storm for making lean gains.
Pumps can be produced by a range of factors (such as the amounts of water, creatine, glycogen or other compounds stored within muscle tissue). The primary way lifters achieve it is by increasing blood flow to and within muscle tissue. Scientifically, this specific type of pump is known as Hyperaemia.
While simply cranking out reps will raise localized blood flow to a muscle, there are two categories of ingredients that take pumps to another level – past what’s possible through training alone.
The first group are amino acids, such as Arginine, Citrulline, and Agmatine. All work to increase Nitric Oxide (NO2) levels, which in turn relaxes and widens blood vessels and increases blood flow. The results vary, but amino acids get the job done. However, because the chemical chain of events that lead to increasing NO2 is lengthy for amino acids, the process is inefficient. A lot of horsepower gets lost along the way.
For the strongest possible pump effect, athletes should approach the body’s interaction with NO2 via a more direct method. This brings us to the second category of pump ingredients: Nitrates – NO3.
Because NO3 can be broken down directly into NO2, Nitrates provide a more efficient and more powerful pump than amino acids can.
Some supplements have begun to use this approach, including various isolated, artificial nitrates in their ingredients – the most common being synthetic forms of sodium nitrate and potassium nitrate.
However, there is another source of nitrate that is considerably more potent – and that lasts TWICE as long, for freakish pumps long after training’s over.
Even better, studies examining this unique nitrate’s effects in mammals have found it elevates protein synthesis and produces stronger, thicker muscle fibers.
So, what’s the secret nitrate-sauce for the perfect pump?
This guy was onto something.
Spinach is one of the best sources of nitrates in existence, and when compared to nitrate supplements as well as other natural sources of nitrate (beets, arugula), pumps produced by spinach outlasted them all – by several hours.
After consuming a mere cup (a decent handful or so of straight, raw spinach), the pump effect begins within 15 minutes and gets stronger over the following 2 hours.
When NO2 levels finally peak, they don’t drop off either. Spinach pumps come down gradually, keeping you unusually swole for nearly five hours. Yes, FIVE.
When another study looked at the effect of nitrates on muscle-blood volume and blood pressure (i.e., pumps), raw spinach was run head-to-head with synthetic sodium nitrate, the nitrate used in “nitrate” based pump supplements.
Put simply, spinach blew the doors off the nitrate supplement, producing both higher peaks and a longer pump effect over all.
One more reason to steer clear of nitrate supplements in favor of the real (naturally occurring) deal: research suggests there could be a link between stomach/colon cancer and synthetic nitrates. Not good.
However, a wide range of studies have shown sources of natural nitrates (such as spinach) have the exact opposite effect: reduced cancer rates.
We’re not trying to hug trees or turn anyone into a flip-flop wearing vegan, but in this case, there is a clear advantage to sticking with what’s natural. The effect is stronger, it lasts longer, and it's genuinely good for you. And when you factor in that an entire bag of spinach is less than two dollars... there's a lot to get excited about.
Eat a big handful of spinach thirty minutes to an hour before training, especially if it’s a high volume/high rep day.
Not a fan of the taste? Throw some spinach in the pan for a minute before adding your eggs and some crumbled bacon (what’s not better with bacon, really), or into the blender before some frozen fruit and protein powder. You’ll barely know it’s there. At least until you get a ridiculous pump from brushing your teeth after breakfast. Speaking of….
There is a trick to make maximize the potency of nitrates, and it may seem a bit goofy.
No mouth wash. At least not shortly before, or for an hour after, you eat your spinach.
Nitrate is converted to NO2 by good forms of bacteria that occur naturally in your mouth, where your own chewing and saliva starts breaking down the food you eat even before you swallow it. Mouthwashes kill off these good bacteria, greatly reducing the conversion of nitrate into NO2, and cheating you out of pumps.
In fact, the role chewing plays in converting more nitrate into massive pumps may be a key reason why nitrate supplements fail when compared to nitrates obtained by eating whole spinach.
And before anyone starts rolling to the gym with savage morning breath -- toothpaste doesn’t contain the same antiseptic ingredients as mouthwash. Brushing is totally fine and won’t affect pumps.
Tip: Try the at-home Leg Day exercise that’s so good you’ll do it even when the gym opens up.