Occlusion training involves restricting blood flow to working muscles by way of a cuff or tourniquet. Originally developed in Japan, this style of training has been shown to increase anabolic factors related to muscle growth. Even more interestingly, training in this manner allows you to lift much lighter weights, yet gain similar benefits compared to high intensity, heavy training. As such, this type of training may be particularly suitable to promote muscle gains in older people. Many older people, through years of inactivity, have developed joint problems that prevents them from lifting the amount of weight needed to foster significant gains in muscular size and strength. The question is, can occlusion training help such people?
A recent study involved studying changes in the thigh muscles of seven older men, average age, 70, when they engaged in light weight leg extensions with and without inflatable cuffs on their thighs. The cuffs were used to restrict blood flow to the thigh muscles while the subjects did leg extensions. The results showed that when training with the cuffs on, the older men responded to the exercise in a manner similar to that of young men doing high intensity exercise. The occlusion exercise increased muscle protein synthesis pathways associated with gains in muscle size and strength. Why the occlusion exercise did this isn’t certain, but it could be that training in this manner permitted the older men to activate type-2 muscle fibers more amenable to growth. Normally, these fibers can be activated only by lifting heavier weights. Previous studies of occlusion exercise with younger subjects showed that it increases several anabolic factors in muscle, including IGF-1. IGF-1, when produced locally in muscle, activates muscle satellite cells required for muscle repair and growth. In older people, it’s more difficult to activate these satellite cells, usually because of a age-related loss of neuromuscular function. If occlusion exercise can bypass this age limitation, it could be a useful protective exercise against the development of sarcopenia, or loss of muscle with age. Sarcopenia is the primary cause of weakness and disability with age, so this could be quite significant. Older people would need to be closely supervised when doing occlusion training, since blocking blood flow too long can present some serious problems, such as the development of a blood clot.
Fry, CS, et al. Blood flow restriction exercise stimulates mTOR1 signaling and muscle protein synthesis in older men.J Appl Physiol 2010;108;1199-1209.
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