As science peels back the layers of human physiology, a groundbreaking approach has emerged that can unlock your body’s full building potential. The blood flow restriction training technique allows you to enjoy high-intensity training benefits without lifting heavy weights.
While conventional weight training involves substantial loads, blood flow restriction training (BFRT) unlocks the potential for unprecedented gains by strategically manipulating blood flow. By occluding venous blood flow while allowing arterial flow during low-intensity resistance exercises, BFRT fosters an environment ripe for accelerated muscle growth, all while utilizing a fraction of the load previously deemed necessary.
What is Blood Flow Restriction Training?
Blood flow restriction training, or occlusion training, is a fitness and rehabilitation technique involving specialized cuffs or wraps to partially restrict blood flow to the muscles during exercise, allowing you to exercise at a low intensity but still enjoy the benefits of high-intensity training.
Blood flow restriction training was initially developed in Japan in the 1960s. It has gained popularity in fitness recently for its potential benefits in improving muscle strength and size while using lower resistance or lighter weights.
During this exercise, a unique cuff or strap is placed tightly around the trained muscle, either the upper arm or upper limb. The strap is inflated to a specific pressure to restrict blood flow out of the area partially.
Since BFR training often uses low-resistance exercises, the bodybuilder or the patient performs bodyweight movements, light weights, or resistance bands at a low intensity with high repetition.
The occlusion is designed to trick the body into thinking that you are carrying heavy loads so that it can create an environment where the muscles experience increased metabolic stress with lower loads. The increased pressure leads to muscle damage, which calls for repair and rebuilding, leading to muscle growth.
How Does Blood Flow Restriction Work?
To understand how BFR works, you first need to understand the process of muscle hypertrophy and gaining strength. Muscle growth occurs through various methods, including the following.
Placing your muscles under pressure damages the muscles by injuring the muscle fibers. Once muscle fibers are damaged, the body starts repairing and building the damaged cells, leading to muscle growth or hypertrophy.
Mechanical stress also increases the concentration of anabolic hormones such as testosterone and growth hormone levels and activates myogenic stem cells and insulin-like growth hormones. Activating these pathways and increased anabolic hormones produce protein metabolism, leading to muscle hypertrophy.
Hypoxia |Oxygen Depletion
Your body needs more oxygen when strength training. Because there is no available oxygen in your body to match the required oxygen demands, the muscle’s blood vessels being trained compress, resulting in a hypoxic environment. The hypoxia environment activates the hypoxia-inducible factor, producing muscle recovery, which stimulates muscle growth.
During resistance training or high-intensity exercise, the muscles experience increased blood flow, and the cells within the muscle tissue accumulate water and other fluids. This cell hydration can lead to temporary swelling of the muscle cells.
Cellular swelling can be seen as a form of stress or “muscle pump” during resistance training. This stressor signals to the muscle cells that they must adapt to handle the increased workload. In response, the cells undergo structural and functional changes to become more efficient and capable of handling greater loads in the future, leading to muscle hypertrophy.
Blood flow restriction works similarly to strength training; however, it uses less weight and low-intensity exercise to create the muscle environment to stimulate muscles.
Like strength training, the blood flow to the arteries increases during BFR training, but the specialized bands or straps block the blood from leaving through the veins. This restriction reduces the amount of oxygen reaching the muscle, creating a hypoxia environment. This causes fatigue, swelling, increased hormonal responses, and activation of anabolic signaling pathways, leading to muscle hypertrophy.
Another way BFT works is by tricking your body into thinking it is training with heavy weights. This makes your body respond by increasing the recruitment of fast-twitch muscle fibers that generate greater force and have a higher potential for growth.
Blood flow restriction training is appropriate for people who want to enjoy the benefits of high-intensity exercises but can’t carry heavy weights. For instance, people with injury or surgery, chronic pain, or those working out at home without weights or workout equipment for high-intensity training.
Benefits of Blood Flow Restriction Training
Blood Flow Restriction (BFR) training has a range of applications, and it can be used in various contexts, including fitness, rehabilitation, and sports performance. Here are some expected benefits of BFR training for bodybuilders:
Injury and atrophy are some of the common problems bodybuilders face in their journey to building muscles. Although there are various methods to address these problems, they may not be suitable since they involve heavy loads, which may damage the healing tissue in its early healing phase.
BFR training is the best method to address bodybuilders’ injury and muscle atrophy. It attenuates atrophy in individuals recovering from injuries or surgeries and increases strength in a low-load environment.
BFR training is also used in physical therapy and rehabilitation settings to promote muscle recovery in individuals who cannot engage in regular high-intensity exercise.
2. Promotes Muscle Hypertrophy and Strength Training
The main goal of bodybuilders is to build and strengthen muscles, and the BFR training technique is suitable for both muscle hypertrophy and strength gain.
You can use it as a supplementary method, particularly when you cannot lift heavy weights or perform high-intensity exercises due to various constraints, such as injury, surgery, or time limitations.
By combining BFR training with low-load resistance exercises into your fitness routine, especially during the recovery period, you can experience muscle growth and strength improvements comparable to those achieved with traditional high-load training.
3. Improve Endurance and Cardiovascular Training
Some research suggests that BFR training can improve endurance and cardiovascular health. By inducing metabolic stress and muscle fatigue, BFR training can simulate the effects of high-intensity endurance exercises, leading to improved cardiovascular adaptations and endurance capacity.
4. Helps in Aging and Sarcopenia Management
Bodybuilding does not only involve young people but also aged individuals. In fact, various workouts and tips are designed to help older individuals over 50 years and beyond stay fit.
BFT is among those techniques that can be helpful for older bodybuilders. It has shown promise in addressing age-related muscle loss, known as sarcopenia, commonly observed in older adults.
By enabling muscle growth and maintenance with lighter loads, BFR training can help counteract the effects of muscle atrophy, relieve pain, and promote functional independence and overall quality of life in the elderly population.
Be sure to always take precautions while applying this training.
5. Sports Performance Enhancement
BFR training has gained popularity among athletes and sports professionals as a complementary method to improve muscle strength and power while minimizing the risk of overuse injuries.
Incorporating them into a comprehensive training program can enhance your overall performance and recovery, especially during intense training or competition.
Is Blood Flow Restriction Safe?
Any workout, including blood flow restriction training, done inappropriately or by the wrong person can be detrimental.
BFRT is safe when done correctly with the fitting BFRT cuffs and equipment. It has been used in various muscle-skeletal pathologies and has shown no adverse effects. However, it’s not recommended for people with the following conditions:
- Blood clotting concerns
- Cardiac conditions
- Bone fracture
- Active infections
- Diabetes and Hypertension
Although BFRT has no adverse effects on most people, it still has some side effects that some people may experience. These include:
- Skin abrasion
- Delayed onset muscle soreness
- Petechial hemorrhage
Does Blood Flow Restriction Training Work?
Evidence suggests that blood flow restriction training can be effective for specific purposes. However, its effectiveness can vary depending on the individual, the particular goals, and the proper application of the technique.
Here’s what the research suggests about BFR training:
Muscle Hypertrophy and Strength Gains: Most bodybuilders often injure their knees when working out, which may require surgery like ACL reconstruction. ACL reconstruction surgery causes the quadriceps to lose strength and muscles.
BFR training has effectively promoted muscle hypertrophy (growth) and strength gains following ACL reconstruction, particularly when combined with low-resistance exercises.
Knee Pain Relieve: High-intensity exercises are more likely to aggregate an already injured knee during exercise since they involve high loads. BFR training has been successfully used in rehabilitation settings to reduce pain in the knee, patellofemoral pain, and muscle recovery in patients with knee injuries.
Sarcopenia Management: BFR training has shown promise in addressing age-related muscle loss (sarcopenia), which is common in older adults.
How to use Blood Flow Restriction Bands
Using blood flow restriction (BFR) bands or cuffs requires careful and proper application to ensure safety and effectiveness.
While BFRT is an effective workout for muscle hypertrophy, you should use it as a complementary workout to add to your fitness routine. For instance, incorporate BFRT into your active recovery week after three or four weeks of training.
BFR is commonly applied to the arms or legs, and the choice depends on your workout goals. Before using the BFR bands, ensure the limb or arm is clean and dry by removing any sharp objects or items that could interfere with the bands.
Position the BFR bands on the upper portion of the limb (typically near the top of the arm or thigh) and make sure they are snug but not too tight. The bands should be tight enough to restrict blood flow partially but not so tight that they cause numbness, tingling, or pain.
Experts recommend between 30% and 50% restriction for arms and between 50% and 80% for legs, or a perceived tightness level of about 7 out of 10 is a standard guideline.
Most BFR bands have a way to adjust the pressure, such as a strap or buckle. Follow the manufacturer’s guidelines to set the pressure to an appropriate level.
Once the bands are securely and comfortably in place, perform your chosen exercises. The restrictions created by the bands will make these lighter loads feel more challenging. Start with fewer repetitions and sets, gradually increasing as you become accustomed to the training.
When correctly applied, BFR training can offer a time-efficient method for promoting muscle hypertrophy, strength gains, and rehabilitation. However, it’s essential to use BFR training under the guidance of a qualified professional to ensure the proper application of pressure and minimize the risk of potential complications.
Consult a healthcare provider or fitness professional to determine whether BFR training suits your circumstances.