Blood Flow Occlusion/Restriction Training (BFR)

Last summer when I had an arm injury, it greatly disrupted my weight training.  At first, I suffered the loss of strength and then lifting became a struggle. I was not able to lift heavy weights heavy like I used to. As a result, I struggled to achieve even the smallest amount of hypertrophy from my training. 

I was desperate to get stronger and get back to lifting heavier weights. I searched the internet and fitness magazines. I read anything and everything for a quick fix to it but our body needs a good amount of time to recover from injuries. Somewhere in that process, I came across a strength program based on training at low intensities with blood flow occlusion.

Originated from Japan where it was popularly known as KAATSU. Blood flow restriction training provides a unique benefit to promote muscular hypertrophy even at as low intensities of lift as 20% of 1 RM combined with moderate vascular occlusion.

Physiology 

BFR training involves restricting the venous return of blood flow from the muscle and without restricting the arterial blood flow to the muscle. This can be achieved by using blood pressure cuff or Blood Flow Restriction [BFR] bands while tightening a wrap at the proximal part of the targeted muscle. This will stop the venous return of blood from the muscle, causing it to pool in the muscle.

(Photo Credit: Pinterest)

Mechanism 

Metabolic by-product accumulation is the primary factor behind the benefits seen with occlusion training.

Metabolic by-products such as lactate usually get washed out with the blood flow but occlusion forces them to accumulate in the muscle itself. This accumulation of byproduct creates stress and triggers the increases in the growth hormone (GH) concentrations. Research has found that BFR caused a GH increase of 290 times above baseline which is much higher than what is produced by normal heavy resistance training

(Photo Credit: BFRShop)

Along with this metabolic by-product accumulation, BFR training also involves recruitment of more fast twitch fibres which has a better potential for growth.  Fast twitch fibres are the biggest muscle fibres and have the maximum growth potential. These fibres are anaerobic and recruited last during contractions whereas the smaller slow twitch aerobic fibres are recruited first during contractions.

Restricted venous return of blood pre-fatigues the slow twitch fibres in absence of oxygen and recruits the anaerobic fast twitch fibres to handle the load even at low intensities.

Hence, the muscle gets a similar effect of lifting heavy loads but using much lighter weights.  Not only does occlusion training preferentially activate fast twitch muscle fibres, but it also produces the fibre-type transition from slow to fast twitch fibres

Other unique benefits

BFR has also been shown to increase muscle protein synthesis by increased mTOR signalling, and elevating expression of Nitric oxide synthase -1 which has been shown to increase muscle growth through increased satellite cell activation.

BFR training also reduces Myostatin concentrations which is an inhibitor of muscle growth and is thought to limit the potential of muscle gain.

Is Blood flow occlusion training a replacement for heavy weight training?

No, absolutely it’s not a replacement for heavy weight training but a supplement to it.

Practical Uses

BFR training is a useful strategy to incorporate during the deload phase of any program where you can benefit your routine even when you are lifting lighter weights.

It is a solution to someone who is suffering from an injury and can’t lift heavier weights. Including BFR in the training program will definitely help in overcoming the shortage of strength.

Elderly population can benefit from BFR training while exercising with light intensities of weight which will prevent them from age related muscle loss (sarcopenia).

Final Words: BFR training can be a great addition to your existing workout program. But make sure you do it properly as incorrect usage of BFR bands could cause harm to your muscles. 

Article Credits – Siddharth Lall