Blood flow restriction training was first studied in 1998 as a method of post-operative rehabilitation. Since then it has become increasingly popular due to its ability to help improve muscle strength for regular gym-goers.
If you’re looking to take your training to the next level then blood restriction training is something you should be looking into. In this article, we’ll be taking a look at exactly what is blood flow restriction training and everything else you need to know to make it a part of your workout routine.
What Is Blood Flow Restriction Training
Blood flow restriction training (BFR) involves wrapping a restrictive implement, such as a cuff, around the limb when training. The cuff acts as a tourniquet, similar to a blood-pressure sleeve, and restricts the amount of blood that can flow to and from the limb being trained.
By restricting blood flow to the limb you restrict the amount of oxygen that can get to the muscles. There are two types of muscle fibers in the body:
- Slow-twitch (type I)
- Fast-twitch (type II)
The slow-twitch muscle fibers rely on fuel for energy, so they become more or less redundant in BFR. This means that the fast-twitch muscle fibers have to work harder to perform an exercise. Of the two muscle types, fast-twitch fibers have the greatest potential for strength and hypertrophy gains.
The restriction also causes a larger build of lactic acid in the muscle than you would get with regular training. You’ll recognize the lactic acid build-up in the muscles as the deep burn you get during strenuous exercise.
The buildup of lactic acid increases the metabolic stress on the muscle and also causes it to swell. It causes the brain to activate protein synthesis and start to release growth hormones.
The Benefits of Blood Flow Restriction Training
If you’re no stranger to bodybuilding then you’ll know that this is exactly what hypertrophy training aims to achieve. By performing an exercise until you begin to feel the lactic acid start to burn you increase the potential muscle growth from your workout.
The amazing thing about blood flow restriction training is that it can create this environment with much less weight than you could without restricting blood flow. Studies show that muscle filtration capacity can increase by around 25% and muscle strength by around 20%.
This means that you are working the muscle as much as you normally would with a quarter of the weight. It also means that while you are still signaling muscle growth you would expect to see less muscle soreness and muscle breakdown after your workout.
Blood Flow Restriction Training as Physical Therapy
One of the biggest advantages of blood flow restriction training is its use in physical therapies. Individuals recovering from injuries and surgeries have to be careful about how much strain they put on recovering muscles, while still being able to rehabilitate the muscle.
It is commonly used to rehabilitate after common sports injuries such as ACL ruptures. The heavy loads that you would normally associate with hypertrophy and building strength would only exacerbate injuries. Using BFR in injury rehabilitation allows you to help build strength back in the muscle without putting it under the stress of heavy loads.
Even in bed-ridden patients, you can stimulate the muscle-building effects of training under a load without any weight at all. This is because just by reducing blood flow to a limb you are creating the same physiological environment as you would when training under resistance.
Blood Flow Restriction Training for Bodybuilding
For the best results of blood flow restriction training, here’s what you need to know. The technique should be implemented into traditional hypertrophy training. The most popular way among bodybuilders is to use them as a ‘finisher’ exercise at the end of your routine.
You can use BFR training for any exercise, but it is going to be more effective in single-joint exercises such as:
- Leg extensions
- Bicep curls
- Tricep pushdowns
The aim is to secure the wrap as high as you possibly can on the limb you are training to maximize the effectiveness. They should fit so they are snug on the limb, but not too uncomfortable when you are resting between sets.
The cuff aims to restrict the amount of blood flow through the veins, but not to impede arterial circulation. If you apply the cuffs or wraps too tightly then you run the risk of cutting off all circulation to the limb. This will further reduce your training volume and begin to reduce the effects.
When you start to use BFR in your training you should start with 20-30% of your 1RM for each particular exercise. You should aim for around 20-25 reps and then a 30 second period before performing subsequent sets with a diminishing number of reps.
Is Blood Flow Restriction Training Safe?
Blood flow restriction training is considered safe in most people. However, several health complications could mean using BFR training is not safe. If you have any of the following conditions:
- Sickle cell trait
- Poor circulation
- Arterial calcification
Then it’s important to be assessed by a health care provider before trying BFR training:
Blood Flow Restriction Training Equipment
To carry out BFR training you need a tourniquet to place on the limb. In bodybuilding settings, elastic straps and even surgical training are commonly used. However, it is difficult to measure the amount of blood flow occlusion.
If you’re just using BFR for bodybuilding purposes then this isn’t usually a problem. Trial and error will eventually lead you to the right amount of pressure for your training.
In physical therapy settings, there are specifically designed occlusion cuffs that allow you to monitor the amount of pressure being applied to the limb. These work in the same way as a blood-pressure cuff. You apply the cuff and then use a pump to increase the pressure to your desired level.
Is Blood Flow Restriction Training Right for Me?
If you’re looking to increase your gains in the gym then BFR training can be an excellent way to increase muscle growth and strength gains in a short space of time. Blood flow restriction training is also an excellent way to recover from injuries and surgeries. However, if you are looking to implement BFR as part of your rehabilitation it is important to discuss it with your health care provider first.
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