If you want to know if Occlusion training, otherwise known as blood flow restriction training, can help you build muscle faster, then you've come to the right place.
Blood flow restriction training is a bit of a hot topic in the bodybuilding community. Along with it sounding scientific, some are saying introducing blood flow restricting bands may be one of the most revolutionary developments in weight training of the 21st century.
What is occlusion training? Here is a brief definition:
Occlusion training, or blood flow restriction training, can be defined as the training of muscle(s) while limiting blood flow to these muscles. This is typically done by performing high intensity, low weight, lifts while using some form of tourniquet or band to limit blood supply to limb being trained.
Occlusion Training - The Basics
First things first, you need to be aware that a lot of online marketers have jumped on the BFR train and are pushing unreliable info to sell their merchandise.
So, if you are reading this with some reservations, great!
You see, the more time you spend educating yourself in the ways of bodybuilding and weightlifting, the more you become sure of one thing: If something seems too good to be true -- too powerful, too easy, it almost always is. There are no silver bullets to building a powerful, muscular, lean body.
There are right and wrong ways of going about it, of course, but at least 80 percent of your long-term results will come out of the meticulous application of the principles:
Everything that falls outside of these cornerstones of muscle development is considered niche and the subject at hand: Occlusion Training (which means training with restricted blood flow) is no exception. But I digress!
Since this is a niche topic, I am writing for the reader who knows very little about blood flow restriction training, so if this is not you, please bear with me, as we will get to the nitty gritty a bit later. I decided to segment this post into five sections, aiming to do the following:
- Define BFR training
- Explain the theory behind it
- Try to give you the lowdown on how effective is it at developing muscle
- Establish if it's safe
- Determine how to do it correctly
By the end of this article, you are going to get all you want to decide if occlusion training is really for you and to do it safely and efficiently.
Blood Flow Restriction Training - Let's define it?
Simply put, BFR training involves, well, restricting blood flow into a muscle group while working out.
It's also known as occlusion training or "KAATSU" training. The first thing you want to learn about BFR is your objective isn't to cut off blood supply to a muscle, but merely to slow down the rate at which blood returns from the muscles to your heart.
This causes blood to stay inside your muscles for a longer period than normal, which influences muscle building is many ways. More on this later.
How Does Occlusion Training Work?
Blood is the body's delivery system for oxygen, glucose, nutrients and other substances required just to stay alive, let alone perform arduous tasks like weightlifting!
That's why muscles need a steady supply of blood to operate. Your heart pumps blood to your muscles through arteries, which are the large tubes pumping the majority of blood through the entire body. That blood makes it back to your heart through the veins, which are another set of tubes, thinner and more numerous than arteries, covering your entire body.
When you participate in resistance training, and especially in higher rep ranges, your muscles get more blood from the heart than they send back.
This is called, to use a Bro-Science term, The Pump. The pump diminishes when you take a break in between sets because arterial blood flow decreases and blood slowly returns to the heart since your muscles have no further need for the additional oxygen and nutrients which it uses to generate power.
Here is the aha moment - the entire goal of blood flow restriction training is to prolong the pump.
This can be accomplished by tying a noose or a tourniquet around your arm(s) or leg(s), allowing blood to pump in, but limiting blood flow out.
Now, the pump is well known to drive the ladies crazy on a Friday night, that is why any bro-lifter would tell you to max out on curls the afternoon before you plan to go out. But how does it potentially affect muscle growth, you may ask?
Read on for more gains.
How Does Blood Flow Restriction Increase Muscle Development?
I'm afraid I am going to get a bit scientific on y'all, as there are several ways in which this is theoretically possible.
Let's start by looking at the energy expenditure in our muscles during a workout. When you are exercising, your muscle cells burn energy at a much quicker speed than usual. As they churn&burn through fuels, metabolic byproducts build up faster than your body can process or excrete them.
Some of these molecules behave as anabolic agents, signaling to your body that it needs stronger muscles to perform the tasks at hand, and thus triggering the growth process of said muscles.
The above mentioned process is called metabolic stress, and it is one of those three principal ways in which you can stimulate muscle growth (with muscle damage and with progressive overload being the other two).
Due to occlusion training's unique ability to slow the pace at which these by-products are processed out of the muscles, these metabolic stressors hang around longer and provide an increased anabolic effect on your muscle cells.
Resistance training also causes cells to enlarge and fill with fluids. This is called "cellular swelling," and in turn functions as another anabolic signal for muscle growth.
BFR training magnifies the effect of this, also, by raising the period, your muscle cells stay #swole.
Research also shows that blood flow restriction can improve specific genetic signaling pathways involved in muscle development. Your body is a complicated machine, which uses a complex network of chemical messengers to tell cells to grow or shrink.
One of these chemical messengers, responsible for growth is the protein known as mTOR (the mammalian target of rapamycin).
Another messenger is the protein myostatin, but its responsibility is to inhibit muscle growth.
Occlusion training can induce muscle tissues to release their anabolic hormones through a process called autocrine signaling, and by maintaining blood pressure in the muscles for more extended periods, these hormones have more time to socialize with muscle cells.
Training to failure
Another way that blood flow restriction can help you gain muscle faster has to do with what happens when you push your muscles to failure.
You may have heard of the commonly held belief that your muscles only respond to the hard reps.
As Mohammed Ali once said: "I only count when it starts hurting."
While this statement may not be entirely scientifically accurate, it ain't wholly off-base, either. Among the easiest ways to ensure continued overload, fatigue, and localized muscle destruction, is to push your muscles to failure.
By pushing yourself to failure, you activate more muscle fibers that you would with easier sets, resulting in more gains.
This is why frequently pushing your muscles to failure, or just shy of it, is a really important part of gaining strength and muscle.
I now that this is not exactly breaking news for those of you who anything about weightlifting and bodybuilding, and any workout routine worth its salt will incorporate training to failure. But getting to failure requires a certain amount of initial work or repetitions.
And if you want to increase the number of times your muscles taste defeat in any given workout, you have to increase the number of times repetitions you do.
Even if you are on a program like Starting Strength, which focusses on low repetitions and lifting as heavy as you can, you still might only get to failure once or twice in a workout.
So why don't we just increase the number of repetitions we do in each workout? Well, for one your muscles will struggle to heal, and overtraining symptoms are bound to set in. This is particularly true if you are emphasizing heavy, compound lifts in your workouts like you ought to be.
Blood flow restriction training does not increase muscle activation levels, but it enables you to attain higher levels of muscle activation with less muscle damage. Pretty neat eh?
In a way, it "tricks" your muscles into thinking you're using much heavier weights than you are.
Advantages of Occlusion Training
The list below summarizes the benefits of occlusion training.
So, as you can see, there are plenty of reasons to dabble in this rather unusual training technique. The big issue at this time, however, is safety.
Is Occlusion Training Safe?
Limiting blood supply to muscles while exercising sounds like a bad idea. Right now you are probably expecting me to give you a long list of horrible side effects.
What's important to remember here is that BFR only involves decreasing blood circulation outside of the muscle, not stopping it from entering the muscle, which might be harmful.
This means that you have to make sure the cuffs/bands are not too tight, but, as you'll see, this is pretty simple to do. If they are tight enough to cause problems, they are going to be very uncomfortable, and you are going to start losing feeling in your limb(s), which is impossible to miss.
And even if you have an incredible pain barrier, research on clinical tourniquets have revealed that you would need to fully cut off blood circulation to a limb for around two hours to cause muscle and nerve damage.
So you essentially have to deliberately attempt to hurt yourself, of course, there will be people who do, and cry crocodile tears about it. Sadly the world is full of idiots, and they often end up going to our gym 🙂
Another concern with BFR training is that artificially increasing muscle pump and swelling will harm the muscles in some manner. It won't. Blood flow restriction only makes the pump last longer. Bear in mind the very same effects happen when you do a whole lot of repetitions to failure.
How To Correctly Execute Occlusion Training
The first thing you need to know about BFR is it is just for leg and arm training. There is no practical way to limit blood circulation in any other significant muscle groups. The step is to reduce blood flow. How do we do this safely? Here are a few suggestions.
Quick-release medical tourniquets usually are best for your arms. Here we recommend just getting a simple set of medical tourniquets from Amazon.
Elastic knee wraps are often easiest for your legs. If you are not familiar with knee wraps, I suggest you check out our post on the differences between sleeves, wraps, and braces for your knees.
Here we recommend the Mava Knee Wraps (which we reviewed in this post) if you are looking for something high quality, or if you want to get an elastic exercise band, then these will do for very cheap. These bands will also serve you well when you need to find a vein for your testosterone injections...just kidding 😀
The next step on the path to BFR success is learning how to wrap your arms and legs properly.· If you are wrapping your arms, then the ring ought to be tucked into your armpit. When wrapping your legs, the rings should be nudged up from the crotch.
A quick note about tightness, you need to tighten in quite a lot around your arms, the first time you try this you probably want to feel like you are overdoing it. Around the legs, it should also be tight, but not quite as tight as the arms. Here's a good video showing how it's done:
Continue with your current strength training plan
Keep in mind that occlusion training is something to be worked into a well-designed workout program. It should not be part of your core strength training. Save blood flow restriction for your supplementary exercises.
You should still begin your workouts with your heavy compound sets. These are core muscle building and strength builders that may not be replicated or replaced, actually, so save the BFR for later in your workouts.
Use it on your isolation exercises which may be safely taken to muscle failure. For Instance, triceps pushdowns barbell curls, leg extensions, and leg curls.
Start with doing three to four BFR sets per workout using a weight which allows for 20 - 30 repetitions (about 40-50 percent of your one rep max if you are a seasoned weightlifter).
You should follow a 2-0-2 rep cadence, which means two seconds down, no pause, and two seconds up. As you get more used to the exercise, move up to a max of 5 sets at 30 reps, but never go higher than 50% of your one rep max.
Four BFR Mistakes To Avoid
As easy as occlusion training is, there are plenty of ways to mess it up. Here are the four most common mistakes that I see people making:
1.Using blood flow restriction before it can help you
Studies show that beginners do not gain as much from BFR as more advanced lifters.
If you are still on a vegetable diet and are built like the guy on the right, you don't need to concern yourself with occlusion training as of yet.
Therefore, if you have less than a year of appropriate weightlifting under your belt, shelve BFR for the time being. Stick to traditional weightlifting. There are no substitute for learning to squat and deadlift correctly.
The exception here is harm. If you are a newbie but hurt, you can utilize BFR to get in volume as you recover.
2. Tightening the BFR Bands until they hurt
Remember: you are not seeking to cut off blood flow completely. You need enough pressure to limit the flow of blood back to the heart but not so much that blood can not make its way to your muscles.
The sweet spot is in a tightness of approximately 7 (arms) to 9 (legs) crhon a scale of 1 to 10.
3. Exclusively using BFR rather than weighttraining
I'll say it again: occlusion training is not a replacement for traditional heavy powerlift.
While it does produce more metabolic stress, it does not produce much muscle damage or overload, which can be stronger muscle-building stimuli.
There's also the dilemma of exercise limitations. If you want to build a solid, muscular body as quickly as possible, you are going to have to concentrate on several important lifts, namely squats, benchpress, deadlift and military press. And blood flow restriction training only lends itself to the squat.
4. Going too heavy with the weights
You might be surprised how fast you run out of steam when you first attempt lifts while restricting blood flow to your muscles.
That's why you need to err on the side of caution.Start light and increase the weight incrementally until you have it dialed in.
"Wrapping Up" Blood Flow Restriction Training
Workout magazines love to recycle old training methods as soon as they are forgotten by the public, and then getting you to read it with some clickbaity title like:
"Doctors can't figure out how he gained 15 kg of muscle in 2 months!"
Nope...occlusion training is not going to give you massive gains, but while saying this I honestly believe it can allow you to build muscle faster than ever before, IF you are an experienced weight lifter.
Most are unproven. Blood flow restriction training, however, is a valid, science-based way to squeeze more muscle development from your training. By itself, it may create similar results to traditional strength training, and if coupled with it, the overall results are magnified.
Nevertheless, it is not worth the hassle if you are new to weightlifting as it is not going to deliver any noticeable effects. If you are a seasoned weightlifter, though, or if you're injured and cannot lift heavy, then you might have the ability to get excellent results from it.