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Blood Flow Restriction: Effects on Muscle Hypertrophy

blood flow restriction training layne norton

What’s in this article?

  • We will discuss blood flow restriction (BFR) training and its impact on muscle hypertrophy (muscle growth).
  • Learn about the underlying mechanisms behind BFR-induced hypertrophy and the unique physiological environment it creates within the muscles.
  • Understand the limitations and considerations of BFR, such as its restricted applicability to limb muscles and its influence on maximizing strength gains.
  • Gain valuable insights into the proper techniques, safety precautions, and recommendations for incorporating BFR into your training program.

WARNING: consult with a healthcare professional before engaging in blood flow restriction training.

What is Blood Flow Restriction Training?

Blood flow restriction (BFR), also known as occlusion training, is a unique and increasingly popular technique in the realm of strength and conditioning. This method involves the application of a specialized cuff or band around a limb, typically the upper arm or thigh, to restrict blood flow to the working muscles during exercise. Although it may sound counterintuitive, the intentional reduction of blood flow can actually yield significant benefits for muscle growth when combined with resistance training.

The concept of blood flow restriction originated in Japan by Dr. Yoshiaki Satu, where it was initially developed to aid in rehabilitation for patients with musculoskeletal injuries [1]. However, researchers soon began to recognize its potential as a hypertrophy stimulus in healthy individuals as well. Over the years, numerous studies have examined the effects of BFR on muscle development and its practical applications in various contexts.

One of the primary advantages of blood flow restriction is its ability to elicit substantial hypertrophic adaptations using relatively light loads. Traditionally, heavy resistance training has been regarded as the most effective way to stimulate muscle growth. However, BFR allows individuals to achieve similar hypertrophy results with significantly lighter weights, making it a valuable alternative for individuals who may be limited by joint pain, injuries, or a preference for low-load training.

The underlying mechanism behind BFR-induced hypertrophy involves the creation of a unique physiological environment within the muscle. By restricting blood flow, BFR causes a build-up of metabolites such as lactate and hydrogen ions, resulting in increased metabolic stress and local muscle fatigue [2]. These conditions, coupled with the mechanical tension induced by exercise, trigger a cascade of cellular responses that ultimately promote muscle growth.

It is important to note that while blood flow restriction can be a potent tool for hypertrophy, it does have certain limitations. BFR is primarily applicable to the extremities, meaning it is not feasible to use it on muscles such as the chest, back, or core. Additionally, although BFR training can enhance muscle size, it may not be as effective in maximizing strength gains compared to traditional strength-focused training methods.

In the following sections, we will take a deep dive into the positives and negatives of blood flow restriction for hypertrophy. We will explore the benefits of BFR, including its ability to provide an effective hypertrophy stimulus with lighter weights and its potential for reducing joint stress and injury risk. We will also address the limitations and considerations associated with BFR, such as its restricted applicability to the extremities and its potential impact on maximizing strength gains.

Benefits of Blood Flow Restriction for Muscle Growth

The main benefit of BFR is that it allows individuals to achieve muscle hypertrophy with significantly lighter weights than traditional resistance training. Numerous studies have demonstrated the capacity of BFR to stimulate muscle growth even with significantly lighter weights. A 2022 meta-analysis compared the effects of low-load resistance training using BFR to high-load resistance training without BFR on muscle hypertrophy in healthy older adults. The meta-analysis found that BFR training resulted in similar muscle hypertrophy compared to traditional resistance training even though participants only used 20-40% of their 1RM [2]. These results have been duplicated time and time again, with multiple studies showing that BFR can be a viable tool to stimulate hypertrophy to a similar extent compared to traditional resistance training in both upper and lower extremities across different populations [3][4][5][6][7].

There are many benefits to being able to achieve muscle hypertrophy using lighter loads, most of which include reduced stress and strain placed on joints. This is particularly beneficial for individuals with joint limitations or those recovering from injuries. Everyone who trains seriously has experienced joint pain/discomfort previously. Unfortunately, these small nagging pains can negatively impact your training for several weeks if not months sometimes. Thankfully, by utilizing BFR, you can still achieve muscle growth without further exacerbating joint pain or compromising your overall joint health. In addition to normal aches and pains that occur as a result of training, BFR can be utilized during rehabilitation to aid in muscle recovery and prevent muscle atrophy when traditional heavy resistance training might be contraindicated. For example, BFR training at 30% 1RM has been shown to improve muscle hypertrophy and strength on the knee extensors to the same extent as traditional RT using 70% 1RM in adults undergoing rehab after ACL reconstruction surgery [5]. However, those that used BFR experienced greater improvements in knee joint pain than traditional RT, indicating that BFR may be better for rehab purposes in certain scenarios.

How does BFR stimulate hypertrophy with lighter loads?

Mechanical tension, AKA the force or load applied to the muscle fibers during resistance training exercises, is the main variable influencing muscle hypertrophy. That being said, there are other variables that influence hypertrophy such as stretch-mediated hypertrophy, and metabolic stress during exercise. Blood flow restriction does not create maximal mechanical tension since it inherently forces you to use lighter weights. However, by restricting blood flow, it creates a unique environment within the muscle resulting in an accumulation of metabolites, such as lactate and hydrogen ions, and limited oxygen availability, which leads to increased metabolic stress and fatigue within the muscle fibers. This metabolic stress, combined with the mechanical tension produced by the exercise, acts as a powerful stimulus for hypertrophy by triggering a cascade of physiological responses, including the release of anabolic hormones (e.g., growth hormone and insulin-like growth factor-1) and the activation of molecular pathways associated with muscle protein synthesis [8].

Limitations and Considerations of Blood Flow Restriction Training

While BFR training offers several benefits for hypertrophy, it also has several limitations. Understanding these limitations will help you better understand how to use BFR and how to appropriately include it in your training program if you so desire. Let's explore some of the key limitations and considerations.

Restriction to limb muscles:

The main limitation of BFR training is the fact that it’s only applicable to the extremities. Since BFR requires the application of a specialized cuff or band around a limb, it is not feasible to directly apply BFR to muscles in areas such as the chest, back, or core. There is no way to actually cut off blood flow to these muscle groups using a cuff or band. As a result, BFR is primarily utilized for exercises targeting the arms and legs.

Potential limitations in maximizing strength gains:

BFR training primarily targets hypertrophy, or muscle growth, rather than maximizing strength gains. While BFR can enhance muscle size, it may not be as effective as traditional strength-focused training methods for optimizing maximal strength. Keep in mind, strength is a specific adaptation. If you want to increase your squat max from 300 lbs. to 350 lbs., you’re not going to get there using BFR and lifting at 20-40% of your 1RM. There is ample data showing that in order to maximally improve strength, you have to use heavy loads relative to your 1RM [9].

When we look at the research on BFR and strength, there are some studies showing that BFR can increase strength to a similar extent compared to traditional resistance training. That being said, there are limitations in methodology that explain why this may be the case. For example, individuals recovering from ACL repair surgery may experience similar strength gains using low-load BFR vs. high-load traditional resistance training [5]. This is likely because they’re unable to actually produce maximal force even though they are using “heavy loads” because they are recovering from injury. Furthermore, there is data showing that BFR might be better than traditional resistance training for improvements in strength in healthy adults, but the limitation is that both groups used low loads, rather than comparing low loads using BFR to heavy loads without BFR [10]. Studies in healthy adults comparing low-load BFR to heavy-load resistance training demonstrate that BFR is not as effective for improving maximal strength [2][11][12].

Safety considerations and precautions:

BFR training should be approached with caution and conducted using proper technique and specialized equipment. It is important to follow guidelines for appropriate cuff width, pressure levels, and application protocols to ensure safety and effectiveness. Improper BFR technique or excessively high pressures can lead to adverse effects, such as nerve or tissue damage. It is crucial to avoid excessive constriction and regularly monitor the sensations of the limb during BFR training. Individuals with certain health conditions, such as hypertension, cardiovascular disease, or compromised blood flow, should consult with a healthcare professional before engaging in BFR training [1].

How to Properly use BFR in your Training

Up to this point, it should be pretty clear that BFR is a useful tool that can be used to promote muscle hypertrophy. That being said, there are some potential safety considerations, so it’s important to discuss how to use it appropriately if you want to include it in your training. All of the recommendations in this section are based off data on the review article by Patterson et al., which details the appropriate methods of using BFR based off the current available literature [1]

Keep in mind, since scientific studies are tightly controlled, they use specific types of cuffs at very specific pressures. If you’re using BFR in the gym, you’re likely not going to be using a cuff where you can measure the amount of pressure you are applying to your limbs. You’re likely just going to either wrap or tie something around your arm and call it a day. Below we will share some more practical recommendations if you plan on using BFR.

Tightness of Wrapping:

  • Aim for a perceived tightness level of around 7 out of 10, where 10 is the tightest possible. (Tighter isn’t better and can be harmful.)
  • It should feel snug and secure, but not excessively uncomfortable or causing pain.

Visual Cues:

  • Look for visual cues during wrapping, such as slight swelling of the working muscle or a change in color (slight redness) as indicators that the appropriate tightness has been achieved.
  • Avoid wrapping too loosely, as it may not provide the desired effects of BFR.
  • Avoid wrapping too tightly, as it may completely restrict blood flow and cause discomfort or potential injury.

Sensations and Feedback:

  • You should be able to feel a moderate "pump" or tightness in the working muscle during exercise.
  • Some people may experience a slight tingling sensation or mild discomfort, which is normal.
  • If the sensations become too intense or painful, the band may be wrapped too tightly, and it should be readjusted or loosened.

Individual Adjustment:

  • Since each individual's limb size and tolerance may vary, it is essential to adjust the tightness based on personal comfort and response.
  • Some trial and error may be necessary initially to find the optimal tightness for an individual.

Exercise Load, Volume, Rest Periods, Duration, and Frequency:

  • Use exercise loads between 20 and 40% of an individual's maximum strength level (1-RM) to maximize muscle growth and strength.
  • A set and repetition scheme involving 75 repetitions across four sets (30, 15, 15, 15) is commonly used and sufficient for adaptations.
  • Rest periods of 30-60 seconds between sets are recommended.
  • Perform BFR-RE 2-3 times per week for enhanced strength and hypertrophy adaptations.
  • Shorter training periods (1-3 weeks) have shown muscle hypertrophy and strength adaptations, but longer durations (>3 weeks) are also effective.

Conclusion

Blood flow restriction training offers significant benefits for muscle hypertrophy. It allows individuals to achieve muscle growth using lighter loads, reducing stress on joints and making it a valuable tool for individuals with joint limitations or recovering from injuries. BFR creates a unique physiological environment within the muscle by restricting blood flow, leading to increased metabolic stress and local muscle fatigue, which stimulates hypertrophy. However, BFR is primarily applicable to the extremities and may not be as effective in maximizing strength gains compared to traditional strength-focused training methods. Safety considerations and precautions should be followed when using BFR, and proper technique and equipment are crucial. Overall, BFR can be a useful addition to a training program for individuals looking to stimulate muscle hypertrophy with lighter loads while minimizing joint stress.

 

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References

1. Patterson, S.D., et al., Blood Flow Restriction Exercise: Considerations of Methodology, Application, and Safety. Front Physiol, 2019. 10: p. 533.

2. Fabero-Garrido, R., et al., Effects of Low-Load Blood Flow Restriction Resistance Training on Muscle Strength and Hypertrophy Compared with Traditional Resistance Training in Healthy Adults Older Than 60 Years: Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. J Clin Med, 2022. 11(24).

3. Centner, C., et al., Effects of Blood Flow Restriction Training with Protein Supplementation on Muscle Mass And Strength in Older Men. J Sports Sci Med, 2019. 18(3): p. 471-478.

4. Bowman, E.N., et al., Upper-extremity blood flow restriction: the proximal, distal, and contralateral effects-a randomized controlled trial. J Shoulder Elbow Surg, 2020. 29(6): p. 1267-1274.

5. Hughes, L., et al., Comparing the Effectiveness of Blood Flow Restriction and Traditional Heavy Load Resistance Training in the Post-Surgery Rehabilitation of Anterior Cruciate Ligament Reconstruction Patients: A UK National Health Service Randomised Controlled Trial. Sports Med, 2019. 49(11): p. 1787-1805.

6. Wang, J., et al., Low-load blood flow-restricted resistance exercise produces fiber type-independent hypertrophy and improves muscle functional capacity in older individuals. J Appl Physiol (1985), 2023. 134(4): p. 1047-1062.

7. Bjørnsen, T., et al., Type 1 Muscle Fiber Hypertrophy after Blood Flow-restricted Training in Powerlifters. Med Sci Sports Exerc, 2019. 51(2): p. 288-298.

8. Yinghao, L., et al., Effects of a blood flow restriction exercise under different pressures on testosterone, growth hormone, and insulin-like growth factor levels. J Int Med Res, 2021. 49(9): p. 3000605211039564.

9. Schoenfeld, B.J., et al., Differential Effects of Heavy Versus Moderate Loads on Measures of Strength and Hypertrophy in Resistance-Trained Men. J Sports Sci Med, 2016. 15(4): p. 715-722.

10. Bowman, E.N., et al., Proximal, Distal, and Contralateral Effects of Blood Flow Restriction Training on the Lower Extremities: A Randomized Controlled Trial. Sports Health, 2019. 11(2): p. 149-156.

11. Loenneke, J.P., et al., Low intensity blood flow restriction training: a meta-analysis. Eur J Appl Physiol, 2012. 112(5): p. 1849-59.

12. Lixandrão, M.E., et al., Magnitude of Muscle Strength and Mass Adaptations Between High-Load Resistance Training Versus Low-Load Resistance Training Associated with Blood-Flow Restriction: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Sports Med, 2018. 48(2): p. 361-378.

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