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Can cutting off your blood circulation, tying bands or wraps around your arms or legs, while lifting weights be a good thing? Can you actually get a crazy pump and increase your muscle size, or it just another crazy fitness fad? These are all valid questions.
Blood Flow Restriction training (also known as Occlusion Training or Kaatsu training) is done by stopping venous return of blood to the heart, while using 20-30% of your max weight on an isolation exercise. This allows the blood to stay “trapped” in the muscles, creating a powerful training effect, and eliciting what might be the most ridiculous pump of your life.
What is BFR Training?
Occlusion Training might sound fringe, but the research is fascinating. Many studies have been done on BFR training both as a mechanism for muscle growth, and as a rehabilitation protocol.
Simply put, BFR training involves wrapping a band around your arms or legs to keep the blood from leaving the muscles while training a single muscle group. The best type of exercise you can do are single joint isolation exercises – bicep curls, triceps extensions, and calf extensions are all good options. Simply applying wraps to your legs and going for a walk can build muscle and strength (1).
Dr. John Rusin, a doctor of Physical Therapy and muscle building specialist, uses BFR training in his programming for high level athletes and regular gym goers alike. “If you’re looking to maximize the training effect while minimizing joint stress, BFR training can be a very unique option for strength, hypertrophy and rehabilitation,” he said.
Rather than beating up your elbows and knees with heavy isolation work, you can get an amazing workout build muscle using less weight. This is a huge benefit, especially after you realize there are no prizes for heaviest dumbbell curl.
Why Does It Work?
By trapping all the blood in the muscle, you’re increasing the amount of metabolic stressors released during exercise. Metabolic stressors are things like heat, acidity, and lactate and hydrogen ions (2). If you’ve ever felt the ‘burning’ sensation in your muscles during the last few reps of hard set, you know what these are.
With BFR protocol, every rep will feel harder and burn more. The more it burns, the more muscle you’re building. The weight will be light but that doesn’t mean you can coast through while scrolling Instagram. By “trapping the blood in your muscles, you ignite a swelling of the cells that helps the muscles to grow, sure, but you’re also fatiguing those slow-twitch fibers much faster than normal. That means your muscles will have to recruit fast-twitch fibers, which you’d generally use for heavier weights, giving you even more growth potential.
BFR Band Basics
Use bands that are between 1-2.5inches in width. A band wider than that has a higher chance of cutting off arterial blood flow, which reduces the overall efficiency of the exercise. There are special bands that you can buy for this technique, many of which are pneumatic and cost thousands of dollars. However, a simple knee wrap or Velcro strap works just as well.
If you were going to measure tightness on a scale from 1-10, make sure that the tension in the straps is roughly a 7. You want to make sure to keep from cutting off all blood flow to the muscles. If it’s too tight, you’ll see more dramatic decreases in strength quickly. The more you use this training style, the better you’ll get at applying the right amount of tension.
Put the bands as high up on the working muscle as possible. When training the upper legs (squats for example), make sure the band goes just under the gluteal fold – just underneath your butt —, and when training arms, make sure it’s under the armpit just below the shoulder cap.
How Long Do You Keep It On?
Keep the band on through the entire exercise (or superset). Taking it off mid-set greatly reduces the benefits that occlusion offers by reducing the metabolic stress (3).
PRO BFR Bands>
Using bands with a strap can make it easier to control the braces and makes the bands easier to ditch once the exercise is completed. PRO BFR Bands are two inches thick, with an elastic nylon strap and a quick-release buckle so you don't suffocate your limbs. These also come with two bands so you can strap up on both legs or arms.
Lifting Lab Occlusion Cuffs>
Sure, the idea is to stifle circulation and trap the blood in the muscle, but you still want your wrap to be flexible enough that you can freely move with comfort. Lifting Lab's nylon cuffs expand and contract with your muscle so you can avoid and skin irritation. The cuffs are 24 inches long, feature a metal buckle to adjust pressure and come with individual carrying cases for each band.
How To Incorporate BFR Training
Note: For the most benefit, use this at the end of a workout after you’ve done your heavy compound movements for the day. Using this as a finisher is the best way to take advantage of this technique without having to reduce weight in your primary exercises.
If you’re finishing up a back workout and want to end with some biceps, here’s what you’d do:
Wrap the bands around the upper arm with the tension about 7 out of 10.
Grab a light weight, and start a set of biceps curls. Make sure to squeeze the muscle hard every rep.
First set: Don’t go to complete failure, but try to get around 20 reps.
Rest 30 seconds and then start your second set.
Second set: Go to failure on this and all consecutive sets. You should be able to get between 15 and 20 here. Rest 30 seconds
Third set: Finish by going all out. Even though the weigh is light, the burn will be intense, but you should be able to push yourself to get between 12-15 reps here. On the last rep, hold the squeeze as long as possible and then lower slowly.
Blood Flow Restriction Workout
Here’s an Upper Body Workout with BFR finisher that you can do at the gym today.
A1. Incline Dumbbell Chest Press. 4 sets of 8
A2. Cable Row. 4 sets of 12
B1. Neutral Grip Pullup. 3 sets of 8
B2. Weighted Pushups 3 sets of Max reps
C1. Dumbbell Rows. 4 sets of 10 each
D1. BFR Seated Incline Dumbbell Curls. 4 sets of 12-15
D2. BFR Incline Dumbbell Skull Crushers 4 sets of 12-15
E1. BFR EZ Bar Biceps Curl. 3 sets of 15
E2. BFR Band Triceps Pressdown. 3 sets of 25
- Blood flow restriction training involves wrapping a band around your arms or legs while performing higher rep isolation exercises.
- Use a piece of fabric, Velcro straps, or fancy BFR bands to keep the blood in the muscle while training, just make sure the tension is a 7 out of 10, and you’re using between 20%-30% of your max load.
- Use these techniques to bring up lagging body parts, or simply to get an awesome pump through a small muscle group with light weight.
- Use this at the end of a workout as a finisher when you do isolation exercises like calf raises or biceps curls.
- Abe T, Kearns CF, Sato Y. Muscle size and strength are increased following walk training with restricted venous blood flow from the leg muscle, kaatsu-walk training. J Appl Physiol. 2006 May;100(5):1460-6.
- Ellefsen S, Hammarström D, Strand TA, et al. Blood flow-restricted strength training displays high functional and biological efficacy in women: a within-subject comparison with high-load strength training. American Journal of Physiology. 2015;309(7):767-779.
- Suga T, Okita K, Takada S, Omokawa M, Kadoguchi T, Yokota T, et al. Effect of multiple set on intramuscular metabolic stress during low-intensity resistance exercise with blood flow restriction. Eur J Appl Physiol. 2012 Nov;112(11):3915-20.
About the Author
Nate Palmer is an internationally recognized coach, speaker, and writer, whose work has been popularized in media outlets such as The Huffington Post, Testosterone Nation, and AskMen. You can find more from Nate at N8 Training Systems.
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