Occlusion training – doing weights with blown up blood pressure cuffs around your limbs – is set to blow (you) up, science says. Yes, scientific studies are analysing whether cutting off the blood flow to the muscles during resistance training may make you: (men) more ripped, rugged and ravishing; (ladies) more sexy, shaped and seductive! So, does it? Or are you looking like a dickhead – that’s Australian for idiot – in the gym for no real reason? Let us examine, scientists!
Why would I even occlusion train?
Before I confirm whether you are, in fact, looking like a DH for no reason, let me answer the more pressing question: why would you EVEN occlusion train? Great question! Well, the cuff aims to partially cut off the blood going from the heart to the muscle via the arteries and to a greater degree, blood returning form the muscles to the heart via the veins. Oh and because you’re cutting off that blood, you only have to lift a portion of the weight you normally would. Great news if you’re lazy!
Occlusion training may work for two reasons. Firstly, if there’s less oxygen available via the arteries, this should in theory preferentially target the type two muscle fibres. What are the type two muscle fibres, I hear you ask? These are the muscle fibres that use energy from non-oxygen sources and contribute more significantly to muscular bulk, my dear Watson.
Secondly, cutting off the blood returning back from the veins means lactic acid is not getting cleared away from the muscle. Growth hormone loves acidic environments and will therefore be present in greater amounts if there’s more lactic acid about. Greater growth hormone equals greater growth – if the Chinese swim team is anything to go by. But will occlusion training actually make you grow?
The cold, hard science:
If you’re wearing your blood pressure cuff to the gym, you’d want it to make you grow. No, I retract that statement, you’d really, really, really badly want it to make you grow!
So, aghh, does it work?
Good news, cuff wearers! A meta-analysis – a really good review of the results of multiple studies – found that an occlusion training program led to large increases in strength and muscle mass, in both the muscles directly occluded and other nearby muscles (including the abs). Interestingly, occlusion training appeared to bring on hypertrophy (an increase in muscle size) earlier than you would witness during a traditional resistance training program. This is likely since during normal resistance training the central nervous system limits how much you can lift initially to avoid muscle damage. Occlusion training adaptations are more related to hormonal change, so this lifting limit doesn’t matter so much – likely making you bigger, earlier (1). Excellent!
If that previous study didn’t quench your thirst, another two reviews found the same thing: occlusion training makes you strong and big, in the muscles directly cut off and again those nearby muscles. Oh but only when you lift weights while cuffed. Yes, sadly for the walkers out there, this review noted that walking with cuffs around the legs ain’t enough to make you really large. Wahhhh (baby sound) (2)!
Is it better than traditional resistance training?
Okay. Great. So, these studies tell us that occlusion training works, but should you ditch your traditional resistance training program and clutch the cuff? Well unfortunately that’s unclear at the present time.
A small study had a group of healthy, young people perform six weeks of traditional resistance training, or occlusion training to fatigue using an equivalent weight. Both groups increased their muscle mass equally, although the occlusion group had greater increases earlier on in the program (3).
Another study then analysed a group of university students who performed a resistance training exercise program in either a hypoxic (decreased oxygen) environment, or a normal oxygen environment. This is essentially occlusion training for the entire body. Those in the hypoxic group had significantly larger muscles than those that trained in a normal oxygen environment, essentially contradicting the previous study (4). So. frustrating.
Well, where does this leave us?
The science tells us that occlusion training with a lower load is probably as good as traditional resistance training with a heavier load, if muscle growth or strength is the aim. It may even be better, but that isn’t clear from the current state of evidence.
However, based on the above research I believe there are three scenarios where this technique can be highly, highly useful:
1. During injury: occlusion training uses lower loads for similar results, making it a great alternative if you’re injured.
2. During early stage resistance training: combining in an occlusion training session or two per week may add size where traditional training wouldn’t.
3. One session per week as part of a traditional program may provide a hormonal spike not normally seen and make you stronger and bigger than following a solely traditional based resistance training program.
I’m worried it’s not safe?
So you want to give it a go, but you’re worried it’s not safe. Such a worry wart! Stop worrying, worry wart. Largely it appears to be safe. Yes, a study of 12,600 occlusion trainers in Japan found adverse events to be extremely low (5) and similar to that of standard resistance training. Furthermore, multiple studies have been conducted on elderly individuals with very few adverse events reported.
However. Yes, however! Those with endothelial dysfunction, other significant vascular pathologies, or unstable cardiovascular conditions probably should avoid occlusion training for the time being, as this in theory may aggravate your pathology.
How do I occlusion train?
So you’ve gotten over your safety concerns and definitely want to occlusion train. Well, a review paper found that the most effective studies generally incorporated the following parameters. So I recommend that you follow these:
Weight: 20-50% of 1RM (the maximum you can lift one time) without cuffs on.
Repetitions: until fatigue. This will generate more of those beautiful metabolites.
Cuff pressure: generally around 100mm Hg is best. Less (50-99mm Hg) if you can’t handle it, up to 150mm Hg if you’re in beast mode, or some sort of similar, beastlike mode.
Rest periods: 30 seconds to one minute.
Sets: 3-5 sets of each exercise.
Frequency: 2-3 times weekly has been found to be more effective than 4-5 weekly sessions. Overtraining: ain’t nobody got time for that.
Where to wrap: around the upper quads and around the upper biceps – it will effect the muscles downstream and also the nearby trunk muscles (6).
For all you visual learners out there, just check the video below.
Is it healthful?
Occlusion training is moderately healthful. It appears as good as traditional training for developing hypertrophy (muscle size) and strength and may complement it nicely. Furthermore, it’s a great tool to use during injury or in early stage training.
I hope this has been healthful and as always please share your opinion on the topic.