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November 27, 2019 5 min read

Blood flow restriction training has been getting a lot of attention lately, and for good reason. 

There’s a lot of promising research showing blood flow restriction training (BFR) to be a viable method for building muscle. So let’s go into detail about what it is, how it works, and how you can use it to your advantage.

Blood flow restriction training, also called occlusion training, is what it sounds like. You restrict blood flow to a certain part of the body and then train it.

You restrict blood flow by putting a tourniquet over the target muscle before going into your exercise. Just like if you were getting blood drawn, but instead of getting a needle injected into your arm you start doing bicep curls.

We’re going to go into more detail about the specifics of how to implement BFR later, but that’s the basic premise. And it might seem kind of odd. So you have a right to be skeptical.

After all, most of what we know works for building strength and muscle we’ve known for a while. It’s rare that a new technique comes along that isn’t just another gimmick. Beyond having quite a bit of research behind it, it's important to note occlusion training is simply a new technique to achieve something we’ve always known to promote hypertrophy: the pump.

 

So let’s get into what’s actually going on with BFR training.

How it works

Chasing the pump is a good strategy for building muscle. Bodybuilders have known this for a while.

Occlusion straps will simply give you a crazy pump provided you use them correctly. But what exactly is happening here?

Researchers can’t say for certain yet. After all, researchers are still examining what exact mechanisms cause muscle to grow in general. However, there are a number of theories that have come out of the various studies on the topic.

The predominant theory involves something called metabolic stress.

Metabolic stress, the scientific name for the pump, “stimulates a subsequent increase in anabolic growth factors, fast-twitch fiber recruitment, and increased protein synthesis through the mammalian target of rapamycin (mTOR) pathway.”(1) So anytime you can stimulate any of those anabolic growth factors/metabolites listed, that’s going to be great for muscle growth. 

Researchers have found BFR training is a good way to increase the accumulation of metabolites. (2) Therefore, many think this is the main mechanism through which BFR training promotes muscle growth.Interestingly enough though, there have been instances where metabolites did not accumulate yet hypertrophy still occurred. Therefore, it’s thought that cellular swelling induced by BFR may also contribute. That said, when both cellular swelling and metabolite accumulation are present, the hypertrophic effects are greater. (2)

BFR training also increases EMG (electromyography) activity. (3) Granted, EMG activity isn’t the end all be all of muscle mass. Just because exercise A elicits higher EMG than exercise B doesn’t implicitly mean that exercise A is better for building muscle, because there are numerous other factors at play. That said, increased EMG is positively correlated with muscle growth.

 

Lastly, similar muscle gains can be obtained using a significantly lighter weight. (4) This could be because low load BFR training may stimulate a level of metabolic stress which you’d normally need a much higher load to induce.” (3)

And that’s where BFR training really shines -- you can induce an equal amount of muscle growth using significantly lighter weights.

Let’s talk about why this is so important.

Why should you use BFR training?

After all, why not just train hard using heavier weights? Especially if strength and muscle gains are similar?

As much as the meathead in you just wants to lift heavy all the time, you should consider switching it up sometimes and opting for the lighter weights.

If you’ve been in the lifting game for a while, you probably know that training heavy all the time can take its toll on your joints.

And if your joints are cranky, you can’t train hard.

Consequently, your results suffer. And wear and tear can become exacerbated over the long term.

Lifting heavy things can certainly be safe. But even when done properly, lifting heavy things will always yield more inherent risk and stress on the joints than lifting lighter things. 

Using a light load to achieve the same training effect as a heavy load means you can reduce stress on the joints without sacrificing muscle gains. Keeping your joints healthy should take high priority even if your sole goal is to build as much muscle as possible.

Taking a break from the heavy weights will not only give cranky joints time to recover without slowing you down, but may also be helpful in rehabbing the joint.

BFR is especially practical when it comes to the elbow based movements. Lots of heavy arm work can really piss off the elbows. So even if you don’t have cranky elbows yet, adding in BFR to your arm training will make your arm work safer in the long term. 

How to use BFR training

First off, you have to decide which exercise you're doing. Then you want to put the tourniquet around the muscle. Note: Do not wrap the joint e.g., If you’re hitting deltoids, don’t wrap your armpit. More on where to apply the wraps in the next subsection.

When you apply the tourniquet, you want it to be about a 7 out of 10 tightness. The idea is to occlude the veins, but not the arteries. So you definitely don’t want to have it too tight.

Select a weight that is 20-30% of your 1 RM for that exercise. Then start repping it out.

 Focus on squeezing the muscle on the way up and stretching it on the way down. Simple as that. If the weight is 30% of 1 RM, that should put you around 30 reps per set.

What exercises work best with BFR training?

BFR only works well on the limbs. So any single joint exercise involving a muscle located on the extremities is fair game.  BFR works particularly well for bicep curls, tricep pushdowns, leg extensions, and hamstring curls.

With upper limb exercises you’ll wrap the BFR strap just below your deltoid. Whereas with lower limb exercises, you’ll be wrapping the BFR strap on your upper thigh.

BFR training is really useful way to make training safer while yielding great results. We’re still learning about how it actually works, but one thing that’s clear is that it does work.

Pick up a 4 pack of high quality Gymreapers occlusion training bands here. As you can see in the picture below, there are a number of design features which will make your occlusion training easier and more effective.

  

 

 

 

Sources:

    1. Loenneke JP, Wilson GJ, & Wilson JM (2010)A mechanistic approach to blood flow occlusion. Int J Sports Med, Abstract.
    2. Loenneke JP, Fahs CA, Rossow LM, Abe T, & Bemben MG (2011).The anabolic benefits of venous blood flow restriction training may be induced by muscle cell swelling. Med Hypotheses, Abstract.
    3. Loenneke JP, Abe T, Wilson JM, Ugrinowitsch C, & Bemben MG (2012)Blood flow restriction: how does it work? Front Physiol, Abstract.
    4. Wilson JM, Lowery RP, Joy JM, Loenneke JP, & Naimo MA (2013). Practical Blood Flow Restriction Training Increases Acute Determinants of Hypertrophy Without Increasing Indices of Muscle Damage. J Strength Cond Res, Abstract.

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