Blood Flow Restriction Training: The Science Behind the Trend
Updated: Aug 10
In looking for the newest training and recovery trends in the health and fitness world, we usually look toward the Olympics in hopes of seeing what the best athletes and trainers have been utilizing in the past year. In 2012 it was Kinesio Tape (KT Tape), supportive and stretchy strips of tape applied to painful areas; in 2016 it was Cupping Therapy, cups that use suction on the body to reduce tension and pain; and in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, it was Blood Flow Restriction Training (BFR Training).
Although Olympians such as Swimmer, Michael Andrew, and Diver, Laura Wilkinson, have used BFR training, you don't have to be an athlete to reap the benefits.
The History of Blood Flow Restriction Training
Blood flow restriction training was first conceptualized by Yoshiaki Sato in 1966 when he felt numbness in his legs and realized that his circulation was being blocked. He then began to self-experiment with different bands and pressures on parts of his body, later on rehabilitating his knee injury through this blood flow restriction technique and muscle contraction (isometric) exercises. After achieving success, Sato obtained patents for his BFR training bands and established the blood flow restriction market, creating his brand named KAATSU. BFR training has hit the mainstream after the 2020 Olympics becoming a widely used training, recovery, and rehabilitation technique.
How Does Blood Flow Restriction Training Work?
BFR training is a technique that uses bands or tourniquets that cuff around your upper or lower limbs near the muscles you want to train. The band applies pressure to the cuffed area, reminiscent of a doctor taking your blood pressure, as you perform low-intensity resistance exercises while your blood flow is restricted. Under stress, releasing of hormones, hypoxia, and cell swelling can occur in the restricted muscles, resulting in a sped-up recovery process.
Any form of exercise, including BFR training, increases the release of human growth hormone (HGH), triggering growth in your body's muscle tissue and organs.
Hypoxia happens when there is a low level of oxygen in your body tissues which can improve your metabolism and endurance in BFR training.
BFR training restricts blood from leaving your muscles, causing the cells to swell, which results in muscle hypertrophy (the enlargement of an organ/tissue).
What Are the Benefits of BFR Training?
Now that we know how blood flow restriction training works, how can it help you? BFR training is an injury recovery and athletic training method that essentially gives you the same results as weightlifting, minus the strain.
Injury/Post-Surgery Recovery Method:
Many injuries occur due to muscle weakness; for example, a sprained ankle caused by weak lower leg muscles. Muscles can become weak from not being in use, such as in the case of those who are recovering from surgery and can't be as active as they were before. Blood flow restriction training can assist in both injury recovery and post-surgical recovery. A study was done in the Journal of Arthroscopy, Sports Medicine, and Rehabilitation that showed a significant increase in strength in the weakened muscles of post-surgical patients, as well as a decrease in pain of knee-pain sufferers, both of which BFR training was used in tandem with low-intensity exercise.
Low-Intensity Strength Training:
Low-intensity exercise is a great way for people to reap the benefits of staying in shape without putting too much pressure on their joints. Low-intensity exercise is recommended for older adults, post-surgical patients, those recovering from an injury, and even athletes as mentioned earlier. BFR training utilized in conjunction with low-intensity exercise creates the perfect strength training program for those who either can't perform high-intensity movements or don't want to risk getting hurt. The restriction of your blood flow from the BFR bands essentially mimics resistance training, because your muscles have to work harder to get the movement done.
Increases Aerobic Capacity:
BFR training increases the body's ability to deliver oxygen to the muscles, which improves physical performance. This was demonstrated in a study where BFR bands were tested on ten healthy men. A cuff was used on only one leg of each man and they performed knee extension exercises four times a week, for four weeks. After the trial was over, the number of repetitions the men could do with their non-cuffed leg increased by 36%, and then by 63% in the BFR-cuffed leg.
Blood flow restriction training isn't for everyone; it's not suitable for people with certain conditions and disorders, such as blood clots. BFR training is best done under the guidance of a trained healthcare professional, such as a physical therapist.
Rehab United Offers Blood Flow Restriction Training!
Interested in BFR training? All 8 of our San Diego clinics offer this service! Fill out our contact form to speak with a physical therapist about BFR training. Our staff is highly educated and trained to treat your conditions and provide the utmost care to get you back to feeling like yourself.
Ariela Liberman is a Marketing Associate and a staff writer for Rehab United, with a Bachelor of Arts in Media Studies. Born and raised in San Diego, she is a Southern California native with a passion for writing, digital marketing, health, and wellness.
Medically Reviewed by: Arturo Valle, PT, DPT, FAFS, CSCS, STMT-1, BFR-1, CCI,
Dr. Valle is a Physical Therapist, Clinic Director of Rehab United in Escondido, and Director of Rehab United’s Quality Assurance Program. As a graduate of USC’s Doctor of Physical Therapy Program, Dr. Valle has always emphasized the implementation of Evidence-Based Practice into all plans of care. Throughout his 12 years of experience, Dr. Valle has treated thousands of orthopedic-related and sports injuries and mentored countless Physical Therapists and Students of Physical Therapy.