Vascularity is one of the little OCD things us lifters are into.
For us, seeing a vein pop out of an arm or shoulder is a silent moment of pride. We have to just look at it. And ab veins are like newborns.
What does it take to get vascular though?
Well, while genetics certainly play a role—some guys are just naturally more vascular than others—everyone can attain a decent level of vascularity. You have to do a few things correctly, however. Just like how doing a bunch of crunches won’t give you a six pack, doing bunch of supersets for your biceps won’t give you vascularity. It takes more than that.
Genetics aside, your level of vascularity is primarily determined by three things (and in this order):
- Your body fat percentage.
- The amount of water you’re holding under your skin (subcutaneous water).
- Degree of vasodilation (how wide your blood vessels are).
In short, the leaner you are, the less water you’re holding, and more dilated your blood vessels are both with and without a pump, the more vascular you look.
Let’s look at each of these things in more detail.
Get Lean to Get Vascular
If you can’t see any vascularity in your shoulders or arms, even when you have a pump, it’s most likely because your body fat percentage is just too high.
The veins that you’re looking to draw out are known as superficial veins, because they are close to the surface of the body. For instance, the veins highlighted blue in the image below are the superficial veins we see in arm vascularity:
Like ab muscles, we all have these veins, and the main reason they remain obscured is simply because we have too much fat between them and the surface of our skin. Reduce the amount of fat, and the veins becomes more visible…
I’m not genetically very vascular, and here’s how my vascularity progresses in relation to body fat percentage:
12%: Slightly visible bicep vascularity with a pump, and none without. Cephalic vein (see image above) visible in left shoulder but not right (genetics are lame).
10%: Cephalic veins visible in biceps and shoulders with a pump, and slightly visible without.
8%: Cephalic veins clearly visible in biceps and shoulders without pump, pronounced with.
7%: Cephalic veins pronounced in biceps and shoulders with and without a pump, as well as slight “spider webbing” in shoulders with a pump. Ab veins slightly visible, reaching up to about an inch below my bottom abs. Oblique veins visible. Small chest veins visible with a pump.
6%: Same 7%, but with everything a bit more pronounced with and without a pump. Ab veins pronounced, reaching up onto the bottom abs.
So, my first tip to achieve vascularity is to get below 10% body fat. In most cases, that’s all it takes.
Mike Matthews example: visible abdominal veins at 7%-8% body fat.
Water Retention and Vascularity
Just as your body stores fat in between your muscles and the surface of your skin, it also holds water. And the more water you’re holding, the puffier and less vascular you look.
This can become particularly frustrating when you’re cutting if you don’t know what’s going on and what to do about it.
A common mistake that many people make that leads to excessive water retention is they eat too much sodium. This increases water weight, and conversely, reducing sodium intake decreases water weight.
The Institute of Medicine recommends 1,500 milligrams of sodium per day as the adequate intake level for most adults, and an upper limit of 2,300 mg per day. Most people eat a lot more than this, however. According to the CDC, the average American aged 2 and up eats 3,436 milligrams of sodium per day.
Over-consumption of sodium is surprisingly easy. A teaspoon of table salt contains a whopping 2,300 mg of sodium. Yup, you read that right—one teaspoon of table salt per day is the recommended upper limit of sodium intake (and that’s why I use potassium chloride—a salt substitute—instead of table salt).
I recommend looking over your sodium intake and bringing it down to the IOM’s adequate intake level, as chronic high sodium intake is not only bad for how you look, but can lead to high blood pressure and even heart disease.
It’s also worth noting that ensuring your body gets enough potassium is important, as it helps balance fluids in the cells (sodium sucks water in, potassium pumps it out). According to the Institute of Medicine, we should be consuming sodium and potassium at about a 1:2 ratio, with 4,700 mg per day as the adequate intake of potassium for adults.
There are many natural sources of potassium, such as all meats and fish; vegetables like broccoli, peas, tomatoes, sweet potatoes, and beans; dairy products; and nuts. You can also buy potassium tablets that you can supplement with, if necessary.
Two other effective dietary measures for reducing water retention are to actually drink enough water (about a gallon per day is good), and to reduce your carbohydrate intake, as carbohydrate increases fluid retention.
Oh and I know you can find plenty of articles on foods that are said to have diuretic effects, but I’ve yet to see any science behind these claims, and have never needed diuretics of any kind to get that dry, hard look once I’m lean.
Vasodilation and Vascularity
Another big part of vascularity is the actual size of your blood vessels. The larger they are, the more likely they are to be visible.
When you exercise, your heart has to beat faster to deliver oxygen to cells, and this increases your arterial (traveling from the heart) blood pressure. This causes the blood vessels to temporarily expand in size.
Over time, the repetition of exercise-induced vasodilation can cause blood vessels to remain widened in a resting state, and intense exercise can even cause the growth of new blood vessels (which can then show when you’re lean and dry enough). So regular, high-intensity exercise is another important aspect of improving vascularity.
On an observational note, I found it interesting that I had basically no vascularity for my first 5-6 years of training. During this time, I followed a bodybuilder style of training of 10-12 reps and a lot of isolation exercise, and I did low-intensity cardio.
On the other hand, I become noticeably vascular in my shoulders, arms, and abs only after a couple years of lifting heavy weights (focusing on the 4-6 rep range) including squatting, deadlifting, and bench pressing every week, and doing plenty of HIIT cardio.
While exercise causes a more permanent type of vasodilation, you can also use carbohydrate to induce temporary vasodilation. This is the “pump” that you feel after eating carbs. (And to clarify this advice in relation to the advice to cut your carbs, you cut carbs over the course of 1-2 weeks to flush water out, and then eat about 1 gram of carbohydrate per pound of body weight ~6 hours before you want to look big and vascular.)
Get big, get lean, get dry, and you’ll get vascular.