The muscle pump, popularized by Arnold and Pumping Iron, is something many try to achieve. It’s not a simple process, though, and with that comes many questions. What causes muscle pumps? Are they more than “just for show” in the gym? What supplements support vascularity and the pump? Finally, what is the best pump supplement? All of these are great questions!
In this article, we will explore these questions and more. We’ll discuss the long-term benefits of pump supplements, the best ingredients, and (of course) our picks for the best pump supplements that will have your muscles looking their best. We’ll go beyond the big three, Citrulline, L-Arginine, and Betaine, give Beetroot its due, and address several other components gaining popularity in the vasodilation space.
Ready to learn more about muscle pumps and find out what the best pump supplement is? Let’s dive in!
Muscle Pumps and Nitric Oxide – Vasodilation
Nitric oxide is a colorless gas with the formula NO (nitrogen oxide or nitrogen monoxide). It is a signaling molecule produced naturally by your body, essential for many physiological and pathological processes. Since 1998, NO has been the topic of more than 30,000 scientific papers as researchers study its role in cardiovascular and overall health.
NO’s primary function is vasodilation, relaxing the inner muscles of blood vessels, enabling them to widen and increase circulation, allowing more blood, nutrients, and oxygen to every part of your body. Vasodilation helps keep blood vessels and blood pressure healthy and plays a role in other bodily systems. Researchers have identified several areas where nitric oxide is beneficial; in general health, heart health, regulating blood pressure, sexual performance for those with E.D. erectile dysfunction, and athletic performance.
In 1998, nitric oxide won American Pharmacologist Louis Ignarro the Nobel Prize for Medicine or Physiology. In 2002, Ed Byrd, the founder of MRI, introduced NO2 for athletic performance. Thus the pump category was born.
Pre-Workout Supplements and Nitric Oxide Boosters
Pre-workout supplements provide specific compounds and nutrients designed to enhance your workouts by providing energy, buffering lactic acid, allowing you to train longer and harder, recover faster, and increase nitric oxide production to improve blood flow to working muscles. Many are multi-ingredient formulas, including BCAAs, creatine, Beta-Alanine, caffeine, and precursors to nitric oxide.
A sub-segment of the pre-workout category is the nitric oxide booster/pump product, designed to be taken shortly before your workout to induce vasodilation. This review focuses on pump products versus more comprehensive, all-inclusive pre-workouts; however, there will be some crossover. Although the primary goal of the nitric oxide booster is bringing more blood into the muscle, several of our Best of products include some combination of a stimulant and buffering agent. In addition, in some products, a form of creatine is included to pull water into the muscles for hyper-hydration.
The Lasting Benefits of Muscle Pumps
The immediate goal of a pump supplement is to dilate your blood vessels and increase the blood flow to your working muscles. The intended result is to temporarily increase muscle size, swollen with blood, and vascularity.
Research shows, however, that this muscle-pumping strategy also has beneficial longer-term effects. The improved blood flow allows for better transportation of nutrients, such as amino acids to muscles, post-workout, improved protein synthesis, and less protein breakdown—the more blood flowing to your muscles, the more significant potential for hypertrophy of muscle fibers and long-term growth.
You will need to be lean to see the immediate benefits of a pump product, vascularity, and muscle separation. Most men will need to be below 14% – 15% body fat, and most women will need to be at 12% or less. Typically, men have lower body fat to lean tissue ratio than women.
Pump Supplement Key Ingredients
As previously mentioned, the top three ingredients in a pump supplement are L-arginine, citrulline, and betaine, explained below. Most major brands use either arginine or citrulline, many in combination with betaine:
Nitric oxide is a molecule composed of nitrogen and oxygen. It’s created from arginine and nitrates that we access through diet and supplementation. L-arginine is an amino acid found in red meat, fish, poultry, and dairy products, that helps make proteins. It is also manufactured in the laboratory for use as a medicine or a supplement to treat heart disease, erectile dysfunction and to regulate blood pressure. It stimulates the release of growth hormone, insulin, and other substances in the body. Recommended dosage 2-3 grams, three times per day.
The Journal of Nutrition tells us that supplementing with citrulline is more efficient than arginine. Citrulline is an amino acid, a precursor to arginine, that converts to arginine in the gastrointestinal tract, allowing the body to utilize arginine more effectively – the more arginine, the more nitric oxide, which results in greater vascularity and enhanced blood flow. The recommended dosage of citrulline is 6-8 grams per serving.
Also known as trimethylglycine, or TMG is made up of the amino acid glycine and three methyl groups. Betaine is found in beetroot and occurs in meat, seafood, grains, legumes, and green leafy vegetables. In addition to boosting nitric oxide levels, betaine also increases creatine production, growth hormone, IGF-1, and muscle protein synthesis. In combination with resistance training, some research indicates that betaine can improve strength while increasing power and lean muscle mass. Recommended dosage 1.5 grams pre-and post-workout.
Additional Pump Supplement Ingredients
Our research for this article uncovered a plethora of other ingredients used by sports nutrition manufacturers in their pump products. Many are patented, trademarked ingredients with clinical studies supporting their efficacy – at the proper dosages. Among the most popular additional ingredients are:
Agmatine Sulfate – Unlike the above ingredients, Agmatine Sulfate is not a precursor to arginine and nitric oxide; instead, it prolongs the presence of nitric oxide, allowing you to train longer and harder. It improves endurance by blocking the enzymes that break down nitric oxide. Several of our Best of selections incorporate agmatine in their pump formulations.
Several experts recommended L-Carnitine as an add-on to your pump product post-workout, not for its weight management benefits but due to its ability to aid in recovery as it increases blood flow to your muscles. As we’ve established, greater blood flow results in more oxygen, nutrients, and hormones to the muscles.
Several brands include L-Ornithine in their NO formulations. Ornithine is an amino acid that aids in NO production, widens blood vessels, and breaks down fatigue-promoting metabolites. Taurine, another amino acid, is used in multiple pre-workouts, including NO formulations to help regulate blood pressure and calm the nervous system.
Vitamins and antioxidants are components in many pump products. Nitric oxide is an unstable molecule that degrades quickly in the bloodstream. To limit its breakdown and improve its stability, manufacturers add antioxidants to neutralize free radical damage. Vitamins C and E are common ingredients, as is Glutathione, the mother antioxidant. When coupled with citrulline, glutathione helps to maintain and replenish nitric oxide levels.
Two additional ingredients observed in some of the best-in-class pump products act on hydration, bringing more water into the muscle versus increasing vasodilation through nitric oxide. First, and the more popular, is Hydro-Max Glycerol. The parent company markets Hydro-Max as “promoting blood” flow and hyper-hydration, for its pump-inducing ability, as a water-attracting molecule. If muscle pump is all about swelling the muscle, stretching the cells, and forcing them to adapt, then combining more blood and more water in the muscle seems logical. The other ingredient observed less frequently is Creatine Nitrate, which adheres to the same blood/water logic.
Beetroot for Pump Supplements
Almost a category unto itself these days is the beetroot nitric oxide booster. Beetroot has become ever more popular due to its concentration of nitrates which convert to nitric oxide.
Many of the better formulations in sports nutrition include beetroot in one form or another; however, there are many products on the market today that are primarily beet-based without the arginine, citrulline, or betaine. Although much of the marketing for these products tend to focus on general health, heart health, and sexual health, particularly for the aging individual, some brands extoll the benefits of beetroot on sports performance.
For example, HumanN, formerly Neogenis, has pivoted from NEO40 and their doctor recommended strategy to a sports nutrition focus, securing Informed-Sport, third-party certification for their BeetElite product. They’ve continued that momentum with their other beet supplement, SuperBeets, as well.
Finally, there are NO products explicitly marketed for sexual performance, such as GNC’s ArginMax. In addition to citrulline or arginine, these products frequently feature other herbal remedies such as Ginseng or Ginko Bilboa.
Will a Pump Supplement Work for You?
There is ample clinical evidence, remember those 30,000 scientific papers, that increased nitric oxide production from a pump supplement can benefit a variety of health outcomes. The real question is, why are you taking the supplement? For general health, heart health, regulating blood pressure, and sexual health, it appears nitric oxide supplementation is beneficial.
As to those promised mind-blowing pumps and vascularity, these supplements will deliver more blood, oxygen, and nutrients to the muscle – which may also have longer-term benefits. To see the effects, vascularity, you will need to reduce body fat while building lean muscle, perhaps incorporate some cardio into your resistance training regimen, stay hydrated, consume more nitrate-rich foods in your diet, and consider one of our “Best of Pump Supplements.”
Pump Supplements and Nitrate-Rich Foods
Diet is another method to improve your nitric oxide levels to enhance muscle pumps – consider the popularity of beetroot products today due to their level of nitrates. Here is a list of nitric oxide boosting foods:
- Beets / Beetroot Juice
- Red Meat, Poultry, Seafood
- Leafy Greens – Spinach, Kale, Lettuce
- Dark Chocolate
- Nuts and Seeds
- Citrus Fruits
- Red Wine
When added to your diet, the nitrates in the above foods are converted into nitric oxide, enhancing the benefits related to heart health and exercise performance from your pump supplements.
Are Pump Supplements Safe?
While pre-workout pump supplements are generally considered safe for most people, we suggest you start with a smaller dosage and increase after gauging your tolerance. In addition, given the potency of some products, we suggest usage be limited to healthy individuals 18 years old or older.
The most common side effects people experience are diarrhea, nausea, bloating, or headaches. Some people also complain of headaches when using a pump product. Those with hypertension or heart conditions should discuss any nitric oxide products you consider with your medical professional.
Pregnant or nursing women should avoid these products, and those who are caffeine-sensitive should seek a stimulant-free product.
As always, we recommend you consult your healthcare provider before adding any new supplement to your regimen.
Best Pump Supplements
When selecting our winners for the best pump supplements, we adhered to the criteria below. As always, we started our search with products manufactured in certified cGMP (Good Manufacturing Practices) facilities by companies that have independent third-party testing for purity and quality assurance:
- We opted for products with the correct, clinically proven active ingredients at the appropriate dosages.
- We sought transparency, avoiding products with proprietary blends as best as possible. A few blends are included in our Best of choices.
- We rewarded companies with established reputations in the sports nutrition space and included some newer brands with unique formulations and combinations of ingredients.
- Products that are certified banned substance-free or safe for sport were given special consideration.
Additional considerations when selecting a pump supplement are stimulant versus stim-free, taste, price per serving, and organic or vegan certified.
No2 Black from MRI
We felt it only appropriate to include the current version of the product that started it all for MRI Performance, NO2 Black. While they’ve expanded with other products, such as MRI Black Powder Pre-Workout, N02 Black Muscle Pump is still one of MRI’s most well-known supplements. Now a powder versus the original pill form, NO2 Black packs a powerful blend of Citrulline, Ornithine, Agmatine Sulfate, and HydroMax® Glycerol, the first of three trademarked ingredients. The other patented components are NitrosigineÃ¢¢ (Arginine) and S7Ã¢¢, a blend of seven plant-based ingredients to increase NO production.
We applaud MRI for listing each ingredient and its proper dosage for not only a one-scoop but a two-scoop serving size. We were so favorably impressed we opted to ignore the packaging hype, “500% BIGGER PUMPS.”GET THE BEST PRICE ON MRI NO2 Black
Cellucor NO3 Ultimate
One of the pioneers in pre-workout supplements with their C4 products, Cellucor has line-extended to powders, ready-to-drinks, cutting products, and NO3 Ultimate, their pump supplement. Cellucor’s marketing department positions NO3 as a non-stimulating, pre-workout so potent “you’re worried your skin might actually tear.” We know, hyped-up promises of a “hyper-drive” product. Marketing aside, the formulation is impressive with Citrulline, three types of Arginine (two are patented, trademarked ingredients), and trans-Resveratrol.GET THE BEST PRICE ON CELLUCOR N03 ULTIMATE
BSN Nitrix 2.0 and NO-Xplode Vaso Pump
Not to be outdone by their sports nutrition competitors, BSN offers pump products in two forms, pills, Nitrix 2.0, and powder No-Xplode Vaso Pump. The NO-Xplode powder is one of the more complete pre-workout products in the space with a Pump Blend, an Endurance/Performance Blend, and an Energy/Focus Blend. Note, each blend correctly identifies each component and dosage – congrats BSN.
The Pump Blend includes Citrulline, Creatine Nitrate, Trans-Resveratrol, and Hydrolyzed Casein. For energy and focus, Caffeine and Yohimbe are the primary ingredients, and for endurance, there is Beta-Alanine, as would be expected. Finally, Creatine Monohydrate is the performance booster. An interesting combination of both blood and water to pump the muscles.GET THE BEST PRICE ON BSN NITRIX 2.0 AND NO-XPLODE
Purus Labs Noxygen
A newer entry into the sports nutrition industry, Purus Labs formulates and manufactures excellent products. Their KetoFeed is a great-tasting protein for those following a ketogenic diet. Noxygen is positioned as a stimulant-free pre-workout accelerator, and blood flow and oxygen amplifier. The product contains two key ingredients, HydroMax® Glycerol and the Noxygen Blend of NO3-T Sodium Nitrate and NO3-T Betaine Nitrate. The product is unflavored and contains no dyes or performance blend with creatine.GET THE BEST PRICE ON PURUS LABS NOXYGEN
Another newer player in the sports nutrition space is Ghost. Ghost supplements are all vegan-friendly, making their Ghost Pump powder our choice of pump product for those following a vegan lifestyle. In addition to Ghost Pump, their vegan products include Ghost Vegan Protein, Ghost Size, Ghost Whey Protein, and Ghost Legend Pre-Workout. We promised some unique formulations and combinations of ingredients, and Ghost Pump delivers.
The 3 grams of Citrulline in Ghost Pump are vegan fermented. In addition to the Arginine we anticipated, Ghost Pump includes a healthy dose of Vitamin C and Glutathione as antioxidants. Taurine, Pine Bark Extract, and Panax Notoginseng complete this unique product formulation. Ghost Pump is stim-free, vegan-friendly, sugar and gluten-free, and contains no creatine.GET THE BEST PRICE ON GHOST PUMP
Stacking Pump Supplements
Pump supplements have some of the most comprehensive formulas in sports nutrition, and unfortunately, too many products resort to proprietary blends. As previously mentioned, many pump products include stimulants, lactic acid buffers, a combination of nitric oxide boosting ingredients, and some contain focus or cognition ingredients.
Those seeking to lean out to see the evidence of your pump product’s effectiveness (increased vascularity) may wish to add a thermogenic, preferably taken outside your workout window. A post-workout protein shake with high-glycemic carbohydrates when not dieting is another logical add-on to your pump supplement.
To Summarize: Pump Supplements and Your Muscles
Once your diet and exercise program are dialed in, a pump supplement can be a welcome addition to your supplement regimen. As you become leaner, seeing vascularity and muscle separation are excellent motivators to take your physique to the next level. In addition, knowing the pumps you see in the gym, from driving more blood, oxygen, and nutrients into your muscles, have even longer-lasting benefits from hypertrophy can be a potent motivation to continue your journey.