Blood flow restriction (BFR): What is it good for?
Blood flow restriction (BFR) training is an exercise training technique to induce performance enhancing benefits.
Such performance benefits include increases in muscle size and strength and improved muscular endurance. These are important components for performance as well as in the area of injury prevention and rehabilitation. But let’s talk about blood flow restriction training for athletic performance first…
Once the cuff is in place (on the top third of the limb) the exercise is then performed at low intensities for short durations. Both resistance- and aerobic-based exercises have been performed and investigated through research, with substantial benefits reported via both methods.
When is BFR training utilised?
This type of training is not designed (or utilised) to replace normal training sessions. BFR training is an alterative method usually utilised during a tapering programme in the run up to competition or in the rehabilitation process following an injury. BFR in combination with low intensity training allows for a reduced workload thus reducing the risk of fatigue (or injury!).
This is incredibly important when athletes taper their training as they are attempting to reduce work-load but maintain muscle mass and strength. Muscle atrophy and weakness often occur rapidly due to inactivity or reduced workload. This process of muscle degradation occurs after as little as 6 hours of inactivity!
BFR training can also prevent injury by working at a lower intensity or a lower weight during training but maintaining those crucial measures of muscle mass and strength. Again, vital in the height of a competitive season.
Is it just maintenance or is there scope for improvement?
BFR training can improve athletic performance: There are well over 60 research papers published that report BFR training is successful at inducing increases in the cross-sectional area (CSA) of large muscle groups, 1RM capacity, and muscular endurance. BFR has been combined with several different types of exercise (squats, knee extension, knee flexion, leg press, bench press, isokinetic contractions, cycling, walking and running) and most have observed significant increases in muscle hypertrophy ranging from 1.7-15 %; strength from 4.4 % up to as much as 30 %; and muscular endurance by up to 31%.
Interestingly, performing BFR training on 2-3 days per week can induce the greatest increase in strength and hypertrophy compared to 4-5 days per week. This suggests there is an optimal dose.
Is there a relationship between muscle mass and strength gains?
Research has shown that initial increases in strength when utilising BFR training are related to increases in muscle hypertrophy. So generally the bigger the muscle, the more type 2 muscle fibres, the stronger the muscle. The result being a greater weight can be lifted or moved.
Last, but not least, performing BFR training can prevent loss of muscle strength and atrophy (loss of muscle mass) that occurs following detraining and cessation of high intensity training. So…we’re back to the maintenance properties of BFR training!