Occlusion training has been growing in popularity in recent years, so you would be forgiven for thinking that it was a brand new technique. In fact, it has been around since the 1960s but the growing body of scientific evidence showing just how well it works has begun to catch the eye of elite sports teams. If you’ve never heard of occlusion training or are wondering if occlusion training really works, read on and we’ll take you through all of the details.
Before undertaking occlusion training speak with your doctor or healthcare professional to ensure that this type of training is safe for you.
What Is Occlusion Training?
You might have come across occlusion training called by a few different names. In the scientific literature, it is usually referred to as “blood-flow restriction training”.
However, it was first devised in Japan, where it is known as KAATSU training, which means “training with added pressure”. All of these terms should give you a flavor of what occlusion training is and, yes, it really is that simple.
Occlusion training is where you restrict the blood flow to the muscle that you are exercising, using a light tourniquet. So if you are trying to build up your biceps, you would place the tourniquet just above them.
When you train that muscle, the area becomes engorged with blood because it is restricted from flowing back to your heart.
You might be thinking “but why on earth would you do that to yourself?” Well, there is a solid theory behind it. Let’s take a look.
How Does Occlusion Training Work?
For most people, the goal with occlusion training is twofold:
- Build muscle strength
- Increase muscle size (known as “hypertrophy” in the scientific literature)
Traditionally it is considered that the only way to achieve these two goals is through high-intensity strength and resistance training.
Specifically, for each muscle group, conventional wisdom suggests you need to be aiming to lift 70-80% of your IRM (one rep max) of your chosen exercise, for 3 sets of 5-12 reps, twice (or maybe even three times) per week.
This might be challenging to you for a whole host of reasons. Maybe you’ve recently suffered an injury that has interrupted your training, or you’re living with a chronic illness, or maybe you just don’t enjoy doing that much high-intensity exercise each week. Perhaps you’re over 60 and training for the first time.
Whatever the reason for not being able to complete the required amount of high-intensity training to build your muscles and strength, occlusion training can be a saving grace.
How Do Muscles Grow?
So let’s look first at why our muscles get bigger and stronger when we train them hard.
When you put your muscles through their paces during a high-intensity workout, you are causing small amounts of damage to the muscle fibers. Your body will then repair these fibers by fusing them, increasing the size of the muscle.
But that isn’t the only process at play when you are building muscles, and it is the second process that we are most interested in when it comes to occlusion training.
When your muscles are being put under a lot of strain, your brain recognizes this and triggers the release of hormones from your pituitary gland. These include human growth hormones and other hormones that are important for muscle growth.
Why Does Occlusion Training Work For Muscle Growth?
With occlusion training, you are blocking off the vein that allows blood to flow back to your heart from the limb you are training, engorging the blood there.
This increases the concentration of lactate in the blood in that area, and this increase in lactate signals to your brain that you are completing a much more rigorous activity than you actually are.
Your pituitary gland will then release the same amount of growth hormones that it would if you were completing a high-intensity exercise, causing your muscles to grow.
In practice, what this means is that you can complete low-intensity occlusion workouts and achieve the same results as if you were completing high-intensity workouts.
Does Occlusion Training Work?
So that’s the theory behind occlusion training, but is it actually too good to be true?
In short, no it isn’t.
Occlusion training really does seem to work. It is a favorite of physical therapists because it means that their clients, who might otherwise struggle with building muscle mass and strength, can do so with less physically demanding training or training that could cause further damage.
And that’s really where occlusion training sat for decades: a useful tool to help patients to build muscle without putting their bodies under too much strain.
But there has been a push in recent years to find out if occlusion training could also be useful for healthy people, and it looks like it can. Sports physical therapists have started using occlusion training to help their athletes continue their training during recovery periods and after injuries.
But what is the evidence behind occlusion training?
Does it actually work?
One study took collegiate football athletes and assigned them to two groups. The first group completed four weeks of football training plus bench presses and squats three times a week. The other group completed the same training, but occlusion was added to the non-football exercises.
When the athletes were tested at the end, it was found that there was significantly greater muscle growth and strength in the occlusion training group.
This is just one of many studies showing that occlusion training really works. Whether that means it’s something you want to add to your routine or not is another question.
A concern that many people have is whether or not occlusion training is safe, and it’s understandable why.
Cutting off blood to one of your limbs definitely seems like it could cause you some damage, but let’s take a look at whether or not that’s the case.
How Safe Is Occlusion Training?
While it is understandable to be concerned about a technique that involves restricting blood flow to one of your limbs, actually, occlusion training is pretty safe.
A group of researchers conducted a literature review (they compiled all of the evidence from all of the studies published on the matter) and found that “minimal to no muscle damage” occurs when doing this type of training.
Muscles don’t take longer to recover, nor do they swell up for longer. Muscle soreness is similar to normal exercise, and there is no increase in biomarkers that indicate muscle damage.
So if you want to give occlusion training a try, don’t be put off by safety concerns. Of course, it is important to make sure that you’re using the correct equipment in the right way, as with any other type of exercise equipment.
And, as I mentioned at the beginning of this article, speak with your doctor or healthcare professional before trying this kind of training.
What Equipment Do I Need for Occlusion Training?
There are two types of bands used for occlusion training:
- KAATSU bands – these are the original Japanese bands and they work similarly to blood pressure cuffs, linked to an electronic monitor
- Resistance bands – many people use resistance bands as a convenient alternative to a KAATSU band and you can buy occlusion training-specific bands
If you are using a KAATSU band, you should aim to have it set to 40-80% AOP.
In other words, you should measure what the pressure is to completely cut off the blood supply and then set it to a percentage of that.
If you are using a resistance band, you are going to have to make it a bit more of an estimate.
You should aim for a 4-7 out of 10 for tightness, with 10 being the band tightened as much as possible.
A good rule of thumb is that when you press down on your palm and the skin turns white, the color should come back within two seconds. If it takes any longer that, the bands are too tight.
You should wrap as close to your heart as possible. So if you are training your biceps, you should wrap close to your armpit. Don’t wrap too close to the joints that are going to be under pressure.
How Often Should I Do Occlusion Training?
If you are looking to build muscle strength and size, you should train:
- 2-3 times a week
- 5-10 minutes per exercise (don’t keep the bands on for longer than this)
- 2-4 sets
- 20-40% 1RM (one rep max) for high reps – around 30.
The way I have been incorporating occlusion training is to do two light sets with my bands on at the end of my normal arm or leg workout.
Can I Train My Chest Using Occlusion Training?
We’ve spoken mainly about how occlusion training can help to build muscle in your arms and legs, for obvious reasons.
But if you are looking to build muscle in your chest, glutes, or back, you might be wondering if occlusion training could be of any benefit at all.
Of course, you can’t very well restrict the blood flow to these areas. It wouldn’t be practical and would probably be dangerous!
But that doesn’t mean that occlusion training can’t help you to build muscle there.
When you restrict the blood flow from your limbs, they get fatigued very quickly. And when you are completing compound movements, this means that the other muscle groups involved will have to compensate and work harder.
Which means that they will grow and get stronger more quickly.
One study found that people who completed bench presses while restricting the blood flow to their arms had a 16% increase in pectoral strength compared to people who didn’t use occlusion training.
So you can incorporate occlusion training into your compound movement training and see an increase in strength in other muscle groups.
If you’re enjoying this article and are wondering which occlusion training bands to buy, why not check out our review of BFR Bands?
Occlusion training is one of those techniques that just work, even though it seems at first glance that it might be too good to be true.
It can help to increase your muscle strength and size without the need for high-intensity workouts and it is pretty safe – as long as you’re sensible.
Incorporating occlusion training into your routine doesn’t need to complicated because you don’t need to get a huge amount of equipment and it can even help to boost strength in other areas, such as your chest.
So if you’re on the fence about trying occlusion training, jump right off and give it a go.