What the Heck is Blood Flow Restriction Training?? The Ultimate Guide to it’s Use and Effectiveness!!
Sounds crazy, right? NOPE! It’s incredibly safe AND can produce some wild gains! Let’s jump right in. Blood Flow Restriction Training (BFRT) is a common treatment method with over 20 years of research, but has only recently started to become a staple in performance PT practice. The primary purpose behind BFRT is to stimulate muscle hypertrophy (muscle growth) which ultimately allows the muscle to become stronger. In the next few paragraphs, I’m going to cover what exactly it is, how it works on the muscles, and how it can work for your athletic and fitness goals!
What is BFRT?
BFRT utilizes a band or cuff placed tightly around a limb to reduce blood flow while you exercise. It doesn’t completely cut off blood flow, but just enough to allow blood flow into a limb, and prevent the flow back out to the heart. These changes in blood flow allow the muscles to use up all of the oxygen available. This creates an advantageous environment which allows us to use low intensity exercise, but still get the benefits of higher intensity training!
Yeah, yeah I know…. train at low intensity and get the benefit of training at high intensity, it sounds like a gimmick. Even I was skeptical of its benefits at first. But after diving into the science and research behind it, it was easy to see how this has made its way into the rehab and performance realm! So, let’s take a look at how it works!
How Does BFRT Work?
The starting point for how BFRT works actually begins at the muscle. How does a normal muscle get bigger and stronger? I could put you to sleep reviewing all the different physiologic pathways involved with muscle growth, but simply put, it’s a combination of mechanical load (how heavy weights are), volume (how many times you lift those weights), neural stimulus (high vs low intensity), and metabolic processes (protein consumption and hormonal changes).
In terms of muscle growth, the hormones and metabolites created from exercise are the key. Big, multi-joint exercises (ex: squats, deadlifts, or push ups), high load (heavy weights), and high intensity, yield high releases of muscle growth hormones such as testosterone, and human growth hormone among others. The important word though is “high load.” However, there's a second piece to the puzzle. Just like you need lumber for a contractor to build a house, these hormones need protein to build muscles. To ensure the desired muscle growth, there must be adequate protein intake to allow for more muscle building than muscle breakdown from exercise.
The heavier you lift, for more reps, using less rest, results in larger muscle gains. Easy right? Except we said previously that BFRT works best at low intensities, which wouldn’t fit the bill for muscle growth… so we need to dive a little deeper into the metabolic processes involved here to learn how BFRT really works!!
So, BFRT reduces the amount of blood flowing to limbs, which limits the amount of oxygen to the muscles. Think of oxygen as the fuel to the muscle. So, when the muscles work while under blood flow restriction, we start to use up all that fuel. As the fuel supplies reduce, it accelerates fatigue (burn, baby burn!) and it becomes an “all hands-on deck” situation for the muscle causing it to recruit more and more motor units (more muscle) to complete the movement!
Ready for the cool part? By restricting blood flow and creating this “all hands-on deck” situation for the muscle, we stimulate those same protein synthesis pathways that are involved in muscle building after heavy workload days.
This results in the increased release of the hormones and metabolites mentioned above that are coming to repair and rebuild muscle. You only have to use BFRT once to know this, because you will 100% feel it as an insane pump!
Here’s the even better part: BFRT results in significantly less muscle breakdown during the session as traditional high load training. So those same metabolites and hormones brought to the area have less repair to complete and get to focus more on building. It also means that BFRT should result in less delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) #gamechanger.
Remember this equation? Well, BFRT ramps up the muscle growth side, and decreases the muscle breakdown side. I may not be the best at math, but I do know that those changes to the equation will result in bigger gainz!
Now… here’s the disclaimer. BFRT used alone without heavy lifting is inferior to high load training alone. In the words of Mr. Olympia Ronnie Coleman “Everyone wants to be a bodybuilder, but don’t nobody wanna lift heavy a** weight.” This still holds true even with the introduction of BFRT. Don’t be discouraged though, the next section goes through who will benefit the most from BFRT (Hint: Mostly everybody!)
Who can benefit from BFRT if it doesn’t replace high load training?
1. Those who currently can't lift heavy:
2. Fully healthy CrossFit, Olympic Weightlifter, bodybuilder, ball/stick sport, and endurance athletes:
The previous section highlights the most common uses of BFRT, but certainly isn’t fully comprehensive.
Here’s a quick recap of important points to remember:
We’re incredibly blessed to have this equipment to use with our patients at The Charlotte Athlete. Just over a year ago, I completed a BFRT certification course to further my knowledge on the benefits, effects, as well as experience firsthand use of the blood flow restriction cuffs. Since then, I’ve truly seen BFRT become a game changer within the rehab process AND performance training. If you have any questions, or are local and want to give it a try, hit the comment section and let us know!
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