Occlusion training (also known as blood flow restriction training or BFR) for those that don’t know yet, is when you wrap a band around your upper arms or upper legs while performing load resistance exercises. Doing this basically tricks your body into thinking it’s performing exercises at higher intensities than it actually is, and you’ll see significant gains in muscle hypertrophy, strength, and endurance at a much faster rate.
How does it work?
You occlude a limb by wrapping a band on the upper arm or upper leg before performing load resistance exercises. This restricts blood flow, and slows the movement of blood flowing back to your heart. As the limb is engorged with blood, the level of lactate acid pooling in it increases and your pituitary gland releases over 170% more growth hormones in response, including hormones directly related to muscle hypertrophy or growth (which are IGF-1, MTORC1, and myostatin).
Traditionally, muscle hypertrophy – or the growth and increase in the size of muscle cells – starts at heavier than 65% of your one rep max or 1rm. With occlusion training, this starts at only 20% to 30% of your 1rm.
In a regular workout, slow-twitch Type I muscle fibers fueled by oxygen come into play while the larger, fast-twitch Type II muscle fibers are only recruited during more intense workouts and heavier loads. However with occlusion training, since you’re essentially tricking your body into thinking it’s performing at a higher intensity than it actually is, you also get to recruit Type II muscle fibers to help you reach max gains much faster.
Lifting lighter than you normally would have needed to get those gains also means less actual stress on your tendons and joints and minimizing possible injuries from lifting heavy weights. It’s also great news for anyone recovering from injury and wanting to stay in peak shape.
How to get the best results
Tip 1. Make sure you’re wearing the occlusion band correctly. It should be wrapped at the upper part of the arms just below your shoulders or delts, or around the upper thighs just below the crease of your hips.
Be sure to wrap around the narrow area of the limb.
Tip 2. Only restrict blood flow to your arms OR legs per exercise session. Do not have both arms and legs restricted at the same time.
Tip 3. It should be wrapped tightly, but not too tightly that you begin to feel pins and needles after a while. Aim for a 6 out of 10 for the perceived level of tightness for your arms, and 7 out of 10 for your legs, where 10 is the tightest you could possibly wrap it. Try it out a few times until you’re comfortable it’s at a 6 or 7.
Do not wrap it too tightly that your extremities begin to turn white or blue – this is too tight, and unsafe. Loosen up.
Tip 4. There is no evidence of more gains by lifting heavier than 40% of your 1rm while training with occlusion bands.
While it’s lighter than what you’d normally need to lift for those gains, brace yourself because you will feel the effects of a heavy workout, especially if you’re new to occlusion.
Tip 5. Do 15 to 30 reps, and 3 to 4 sets – and rest for 30 seconds between each set to maximize muscle growth.
If you can’t reach 30 reps on the first set, or 15 reps on subsequent sets, the wraps may be too tight, or the weight too heavy.
Try adjusting the weight first, and if you’re still struggling to reach those reps, loosen the band a little bit until you do (if possible, do not loosen the band between sets as you want the blood to remain trapped in the muscle to maximize the benefits).
Is occlusion training safe?
If you are in pain, or you feel numb while training with occlusion bands, stop immediately and loosen your bands before exercising again.
You can exercise safely with occlusion bands a maximum of three times per week, with at least 48 to 72 hours of recovery time in between each session.
Because it’s training with restricted blood flow, it can intimidate a lot of people. But when done right, occlusion training is highly, highly effective in getting you max gains much faster!