What is it about the psychological effects of a 'muscle pump' that tends to send our neural synapse activity from the purely logical sides of our brains to the emotional? Is it that we think we've finally achieved that elusive 'mind / muscle connection?' Are we inherently emotional when it comes to our bodies? Do most muscle building enthusiasts and aspiring bodybuilders simply find themselves desperate for evidence that their iron pumping efforts are paying off in some way – any way?
Regardless, it can only be this psychological effect that perpetuates the long-time belief that nitric oxide (NO) supplements can help build muscle mass. All that's required is a massive 'belief' in a cause / effect relationship – in this case the notice that a 'muscle pump' is a precursor to 'muscle gains' – followed by evidence (no matter how small) that a pill or powder can facilitate or accentuate this 'pump' effect. Then, 'voila' – you've got a "nutritional supplement" with a built-in mechanism for at least a few weeks worth of repeat sales.
'Muscle Pumps' have nothing to do with Muscle Growth
If long-term muscle growth eventually gives us the sensation of larger, stronger arms hanging by our sides while an enhanced 'muscle pump' gives us nearly the same sensation (albeit temporary) – then repeated and enhanced experiences of the latter must eventually lead to the former – correct? "If my arms are repeated larger during workouts – they stand a better chance of being bigger (and stronger) all the time – right?"
Not so fast, my (likely) over-trained "gym rat." The sensation that occurs during a workout that's often referred to as 'pump' actually has NOTHING to do with muscle growth. If you believe the 'nitric oxide works for muscle building' crowd who claims otherwise, I've got beachfront property in Montana to show you.
Seriously, a muscle that's become "pumped" during a workout is more a phenomenon of built-up lactic acid than anything else. Lactic acid is a byproduct of anaerobic energy production. It accumulates within a contracted muscle cell because the cell wall becomes impermeable during contracting. At the same time, blood flow becomes constricted during this muscular contraction. What's more, the longer the muscle is contracted, the greater the lactic acid build-up combined with the constriction of blood flow. This is why high repetition exercise sets tend to create a greater "muscle pump" than lower rep sets. When this sort of "hose kink" in the blood vessels is relieved at the cessation of muscular contraction, the blood rushes into the interstitial spaces around the muscle tissue and causes the temporary swings we refer to as "muscle pump."
After what the 'nitric oxide works for building muscle' marketers would have you believe, muscle building is an unrelated phenomenon to what was just described. Muscle growth occurs due to a long and successful series of "muscle tear-down sessions" (workouts) intermittently combined with "muscle recuperation sessions" (rest days between workouts). It's as simple as that. When we utilize the overload principle (optimally) while making sure the muscle tissue not only fully recuperates between workouts, but is also in possession of compensatory strength and tissue, our muscles will grow. They will get stronger and bigger – regardless of how well (or even wherever) we achieve a "pump" during workouts.
What does Nitric Oxide do?
'Nitric Oxide supplements' are purported to be blood vessel vasodilators. This means that the marketers of these products are claiming that nitric oxide facilitates the relaxation and widening of blood vessels. This, in turn, is being purported as a way to increase blood flow to working muscles (enhancing the 'pump'), and resting muscles (enhancing recuperation).
Theoretically, this sounds like a fun thing to believe. If the 'nitric oxide works for muscle building' crow is right, what could be more enjoyable for a hard working bodybuilder than achieving a larger pump in the gym while obtaining better recuperation outside the gym? Sounds like just what the doctor ordered for the purely emotional side of my psychological makeup.
Ah … but my logical side steps in. Nowhere have I seen, either in studies or my own anecdotal experience, any evidence that:
1. Nitric Oxide supplements significantly cause blood vessel vasodilation.
2. Increased vasodilation of blood vessels (if it does occur) enhances inter-workout muscle recuperation.
Think of your blood vessels as an interstate highway. Think of protein synthesis (muscle repair) as highway workers doing repairs on the side of the highway. If we open up another lane and provide more room for the workers to get their repair trucks in and out of the site, it does not mean they will work faster. It does not even mean that they could work faster if there are other, more important contributing factors to the speed and efficiency of their work. If the intricacy of the specific repair work requires 'X' amount of time regardless of the increase in space resulting in improved transport of waste material from the site and building material to it, then an "opened up" highway will make no difference to the speed of repair of the side of that highway.
Be Discriminating with 'Muscle Building Products'
Am I telling you not to try what the 'nitric oxide works for muscle building' crowding is trying to sell you? No … I will not tell anyone what to do with their own money. I also will not attempt to dissuade individuals from trying something for their own experience if they're extremely curious about it, provided I do not think it will hurt them in any way.
That said; I have twenty-three years of experience in completely natural bodybuilding. My early years of that experience were spent in utter frustration with my progress. As a young neophyte, I thread thousands of dollars at the popular supplements of the late 1980s / early '90s – the' nitric oceans' of that day, as it were.
Not until I discovered the true "secrets" to successful natural bodybuilding did I stop being frustrated with wasted time and money. And since then, I've been able to laugh at the 'nitric oxide works for muscle building' crowd as they've replaced one 'snake oil' for another.