Heavy strength training takes the lead when it comes to bone density and boosting metabolism. However, you may have circumstances so that lifting heavy weights just isn’t possible or desirable. If you have arthritis, you’re traveling, exercising at home, or you’re simply reluctant to lift heavy weights, blood flow restriction training may be the answer.
The name may be a little intimidating, but the protocol is built on decades of research. In fact, the earliest studies were done based on the aging population in Japan by researcher Yoshiaki Sato in 1966. The technique termed Kaatsu means “additional pressure.” There are many benefits to trying blood flow restriction (BFR) training, like lifting light weights and still seeing results!
Using bands with variable amounts of restriction limits blood flow to exercising muscles, which tricks the body into thinking it’s working harder. This can be referred to as blood flow restriction, occlusion, or vascular reduction training. The bands allow you to use lighter than usual weight and reach a higher repetition range. The most significant benefit is less stress on joints – a big perk to anyone suffering from arthritis or recovering from an injury.
Large and expensive equipment is available but not required. You can do blood flow restriction exercises at home or the gym with affordable, convenient blood flow restriction bands. Bands for the lower body will range from 1½ inches to 2 and even 3 inches wide. Those for upper body use are usually 1 ½ to 2 inches wide. Smaller widths will allow a greater range of motion, while wider bands don’t have to be as tight. If you’re smaller framed, you’ll want the more narrow bands.
The protocol developed for blood flow restriction exercise used in resistance training includes four sets per exercise for 30 repetitions followed by three sets of 15 repetitions each. You can also follow your own exercise routine using the bands. Just remember to use lighter than usual weights because you want to reach temporary muscle fatigue in each set (as with all resistance exercises intended to boost lean muscle). Studies generally recommend you wear the bands for 15-20 minutes at a time, and armbands should be worn for a lower range (15 minutes) than the lower body.
The recommendation is to lift light weights, but you may be asking how light? Lifting a weight 20-30% of your usual load can reap benefits with blood flow restriction bands. If you’re just starting out, you could use 2- or 3-pound dumbbells, or you may be fatigued with no weight at all.
Blood flow restriction has many benefits, including:
It especially helps three diverse populations: athletes, those in rehabilitation, and aging populations. Athletes achieve additional results or increase training and recover more quickly with BFR. Using bands accelerates recovery from an injury, and for those who want or need to lift light weights, you can avoid frailty and weakness that often comes with age. Passive use of bands during times of bed rest, for instance, can prevent muscle atrophy that results both in a reduction in metabolism and loss of strength.
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As with pretty much any exercise, there are some negative aspects to blood flow restriction training. For one thing, it can be uncomfortable. Bands are tightened to a “7” on a 1-10 scale. It’s hard to get them too tight, but if you notice tingling, numbness, or inability to complete a set of repetitions, it’s time to loosen the tension.
Bruising is possible, though not common in healthy populations. Blood flow restriction does not help bone density, and prime women should consider their exercise priorities before choosing BFR.
Finally, some people may experience possible adverse reactions to blood flow restriction training including those with diabetes, severe hypertension, sickle cell trait, a poor circulatory system, those who have renal compromise, varicose veins, or have undergone a mastectomy.
Before taking on a new exercise program, especially one like blood flow restriction training, you should consult with your physician. During the consultation, discuss any possible complications from medications or supplements that you might experience. Approaching a workout in a safe and healthy manner is the only way to do it.