What Is Blood Flow Restriction Training And Does It Work?

What if it was possible to build muscle faster, while lifting less weight at a lower intensity? 

Or, what if it was possible to regain muscle strength after injury or surgery quickly and without the risk of further injury through intense activity. 

Blood flow restriction training has been delivering these exact results for some time now, but now that this type of training is catching on as a new trend, there’s much to be discussed. 

What is blood flow restriction training? How does it work? Is it effective? 

Who can benefit from this type of training? Who shouldn’t do this type of training? 

What about…wait, why don’t we skip the endless line of questioning and get on with the details…

Blood Flow Restriction Training

Blood Flow Restriction Training, or BFR training is not a new technique. It was first developed in Japan in the 1960’s, then known as KAATSU training. 

And, as you may have guessed from the name, this type of training involves using an outside source, here generally a tourniquet or cuff, to restrict blood flow in a limb or muscle during training (or injury recovery). 

In BFR training, the tourniquet or cuff is applied to an upper or lower limb near the muscle that is being trained. 

Once properly positioned, the cuff is then inflated to a precise pressure where the goal is to restrict or slow blood flow to this area throughout the training session. 

When such blood flow is restricted to a limb or muscle, the oxygen that is normally carried to this area in your blood is also restricted, and subsequently, the lactic acid and waste byproducts of exercise that are generally carried out through your blood are also restricted. 

Limiting the ability of your blood to carry out lactic acid and waste in a muscle group or limb, while simultaneously limiting the amount of oxygen capable of being carried to that area creates a very specific type of environment for this muscle (or limb). 

And, this specific environment, a low oxygen environment…this is the goal of blood flow restriction training. 

When a muscle lacks oxygen, it is forced to work harder. And, when a muscle works harder, protein synthesis, which is needed for muscle growth and repair, increases. 

A lack of oxygen in the muscle during training can also increase: 

  • growth hormone production 
  • muscle strength 
  • muscle fiber, resulting in increases in muscle mass and volume

To get a better picture of how this occurs, let’s look at the brain. 

Once oxygen is restricted to a certain area of the body, here muscles or limbs, the brain is notified via the central nervous system. 

The brain then sends messages to the endocrine system signaling the need for it to release certain hormones (here, growth hormone). And, these hormones then do their typical job, which is aiding in muscle cell reproduction, regeneration, and even the breakdown of certain fat cells. 

In the cases where BFR training is used as therapy, the lack of oxygen to limbs trains what are known as fast twitch muscle fibers as well as prompting protein synthesis which repairs and strengthens muscles.

And now, let’s look at this in numbers to see how this type of training can benefit athletes, comparing BFR training to traditional methods. 

Traditionally speaking, to increase strength or muscle mass, one must lift 70-85% of their one rep max. 

However, with BFR training, these results have been known to be achieved while only lifting 20-35% of a person’s one rep max. 

In other words, this process exponentially boosts the results of training in athletes! 

But, as we briefly mentioned earlier, BFR training also offers benefits to more than athletes alone. 

Physical therapists use BFR training to help patients throughout the recovery process from both surgery and injury. 

Even the elderly and people experiencing chronic pain have been known to benefit from blood flow restriction training. 

For those with limited mobility due to injury, surgery, or pain, BFR training offers a way for patients to regain strength in a shorter timeframe while exerting less energy or work overall. 

Using this type of training allows for a maximum gain of strength with much less stress on muscles and joints in an injured area (or area experiencing great pain). 

How Effective Is Blood Flow Restriction Training?

When used safely as part of a balanced training program, one including aerobic exercise and  resistance training, blood flow resistance training is considered highly effective.

Regarding patients recovering from surgery or injury, or even those with limited mobility due to age or chronic pain, BFR training has proven to be an effective method in treating many ailments, from knee pain, tendinopathies, fractures, and even osteoporosis. 

Even the health of one’s heart can be improved using BFR training, especially in patients who are unable to perform cardiovascular exercises. 

Concerning athletes, it is said that most any field can benefit from BFR training as most all athletes include strength training as they prepare to either compete or simply reach personal goals. 

But, to get a better understanding of exactly how well this method of training works, let’s allow the science to speak for itself: 

One study published in the Journal of Applied Physiology “found that BFR paired with low-intensity resistance exercise yielded similar muscle gains when compared with high-intensity resistance exercise in a group of 55 adult men over a 14-week period.”

Another review concluded that blood flow restriction training was effective at improving muscle growth in athletes.

The only problem here? 

Research has indicated that this type of training done without the supervision of those specifically trained or certified in how to use it properly has resulted in inconsistent results.

In other words, any average Joe slapping on a cuff or tourniquet below a muscle or limb and performing low intensity exercise cannot expect to benefit from BFR training. 

Which leads us to our next point…

Is Blood Flow Restriction Training For You? 

Blood flow restriction training is considered safe for all ages. 

And, BFR training is also recognized as an effective means at increasing muscle mass and strength, improving athletic performance, and promoting gains in strength throughout injury recovery.

But, this doesn’t mean that just anyone can do it. In other words, there is an element of need for the following warning: “kids, don’t try this at home.” 

Blood flow restriction training is advised to be done under the supervision of a physician, athletic trainer, or physical therapist. 

Attempting this type of training without the proper knowledge of just how much pressure is needed at the point of the tourniquet or cuff could result in injury. 

Bruising, numbness, pain, and nerve damage are common side effects of BFR training. 

And, if you are experiencing any of the following conditions or symptoms, BFR training may not be an appropriate method of training for you: 

  • Pregnancy
  • Under the age of 12
  • Cancer
  • Open wounds 
  • Infection
  • Lymphedema
  • Varicose veins
  • Sickle cell anemia
  • Heart disease
  • Diabetes
  • High blood pressure


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