Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Blood Flow Restriction Training. Wait, What do you Mean? How Does it Work?

Blood flow restriction, also referred to as occlusion, training is becoming a popular strategy among both gym rats and injured populations alike. So what is this form of training and why can multiple threads of people benefit from it? Just as the name implies, blood flow restriction training is a method of strength training during which you partially occlude venous blood flow of a targeted muscle or muscle group during a specific movement or exercise. 
For example, if you were to do a bicep curl and incorporate occlusion training into the program, you would wrap a tourniquet or strap around your upper arm while you perform your set of bicep curls.  You may be wondering, how the hell does that improve performance, don't we need blood flow to our muscles during training?

How it works:
During occlusion training, you aren't completely eliminating blood flow to the tissues/muscles during the movement. You are reducing venous blood flow which results in a "pooling" effect within the muscle as the venous blood has no where to go. For those who strive for the "muscle pump" during  high volume training, you can imagine how magnified this effect would be during occlusion training as you continually pump blood to the muscles yet occluded it from returning to the heart (temporarily). 

Keep in mind you are not occluding arterial blood flow so blood is still entering the muscle.

What does this do?
By occluding venous blood flow you are increasing the metabolic stress imposed on the muscle and increasing cell swelling within the muscle. These are two factors that help stimulate the muscle growth responses. You may be asking yourself: "Doesn't this occur naturally?" The answer is yes, cell swelling and metabolic stress are natural results of strength straining, however not to this degree. In addition, you can benefit from occlusion training while using half the load/weight you may normally use for a certain exercise.  For example, if you normally do bicep curls with 40 lb. dumbbells to increase muscular development of the biceps, you could see the same growth stimulus using 20 lb. dumbbells if using occlusion training. This can help reduce the mechanical stress and load to the joints or tissues as you are using a much lighter weight yet still getting the anabolic stimulus needed for muscle growth.

Why Can Injured People Benefit?
Even though you may be injured or have mobility limitations and unable to fully participate in strength training exercises, occlusion training may still help you.  For example, let's say you sprained your ankle and cannot put pressure on it.  Even when a muscle group is immobilized, occlusion training has been shown to stimulate muscle growth.  As you rehab, you may be able to do some walking and/or light body weight exercises.

Again, by incorporating occlusion training into your regimen you will be able to get an anabolic response even though you aren't doing heavy sets of squats or lunges etc. Obviously this won't be as effective as a full-blown lower body hypertrophy training program but it will help mitigate muscle loss during a period of disuse.

How to Implement it?
Occlusion training appears to work best when used with single-joint isolation exercises such as knee extensions, bicep curls, triceps pushdowns etc. This strategy can be incorporated into more complex multi-joint movements but concerns with being able to execute the lift properly may be an issue.  Try adding it on 1 or 2 days a week towards the end of your workout and drop the load down to ~30-50% 1RM but increase rep ranges to 12-20 for the lift.  Get ready for an insane muscle pump!

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