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Blood Flow Restriction Training: Your Complete Guide

The History of Blood Flow Restriction (“BFR”) Training

BFR training was originally discovered in the 1960’s in Japan by scientist Yoshiaki Sato. Since that time, thousands of scientific studies from countries all over the world have been conducted researching the effects of blood flow restriction training.

The research continues to show that BFR training can be incredibly beneficial for promoting muscle growth and strength gains with significantly decreased physical stress being placed on the joints and tendons. More on this to come!

So what is Blood Flow Restriction Training?

Blood flow restriction (“BFR”) training is a technique using specialized blood pressure cuffs around the top of your arms or legs in order to restrict blood flow to the veins but not your arteries. The restricted pressure is then maintained while performing various exercises.

As a result of the restricted blood flow, you are allowing blood to enter into the muscle but not letting it leave again. This results in metabolic stress that creates an excellent environment within your muscles for muscle growth and improved strength.

To make it simple, BFR takes an otherwise easy workout and turns it into a max-effort workout, or at least from your muscles’ perspective. The blood flow restriction causes changes to the cellular environment that mimic what happens during high-intensity exercise (think about the famous CrossFit workout “Fran”), leading to similar training adaptations.

How Does BFR Training Work?

BFR works on two levels. Within the muscles, it creates metabolic stress. When you contract your muscles but blood flow is restricted, it produces a hypoxic (low oxygen) environment for the cells, and metabolites like lactic acid start to build up in the muscles. This signals to your muscles that they need to get stronger to deal with future stressors. Your brain also gets the memo that the muscles need help. The brain then initiates an autonomic nervous system response and a hormonal response—notably an increase in growth hormone, as well as insulin-like growth factors—that further promotes muscle protein synthesis.

Due to the metabolic stress they’re under, working muscles reach a point of failure much sooner than you’d otherwise expect. As slow-twitch muscle fibers start to drop out of the equation, fast-twitch fibers pick up the slack. As a result, you end up recruiting more of the muscle with less total effort.

BFR Makes Easy Exercise Hard

This is the part that seems like a gimmick until you understand the underlying science. Normally when you’re resistance training to build muscle, the recommendation is to work at 60% to 80% of your one-rep max (1RM). Your 1RM is the heaviest weight you could use to complete one repetition of an exercise—one back squat, one bench press, one deadlift. With BFR training, you usually lift weights equivalent to 20 to 30 percent of your 1RM.

A typical BFR workout comprises two to four sets of low-intensity, high-repetition exercises. For example, let’s say your 1RM for a squat is 150 pounds. In a regular high-intensity session, you might do three sets of eight 100-pound squats. Instead, with BFR training, you might do three sets of 20 or 30 squats with an empty 45-pound bar.

Despite the much lower intensity, muscles respond as if they are under a heavy load. I say “lower intensity,” but believe me, the weight won’t feel light! If you’ve ever tried BFR, you know that you’ll break a sweat and breathe hard during a workout that should otherwise be easy. That’s because while you’re doing an “easy” workout, your muscles are screaming at your brain, “Hey, we’re working hard here!”

Who is BFR for:

BFR is particularly useful in situations where people are not able to lift heavy weights, or they would like to have a significant training effect without as much stress on the joints and tendons.

Some common populations/situations we would implement BFR training include:

  • Rest/recovery days for athletes and fitness enthusiasts

  • Maintaining or regaining strength after a serious injury that limits ability to load with heavier weights

  • Rehabbing after surgery

  • Folks with osteopenia, osteoporosis, arthritis, balance issues, or other conditions that prevent them from safely lifting heavy loads

  • Athletes and fitness enthusiasts who are concerned about their total training volume

Is BFR Training Safe?

Yes, blood flow restriction training is VERY safe in the right population and when performed using individual appropriate parameters. This is why BFR should only be performed under the supervision and guidance of a trained healthcare professional. It is NOT something you should try on your own due to the risk of occluding the arterial blood flow. To ensure BFR is performed safely at Thrive HQ, we use a pre-BFR screening algorithm to make sure it is appropriate for you and utilize doppler ultrasound to determine the appropriate training pressure for each individual.

Wondering if you could benefit from BFR?

Not quite sure if BFR is for you? We would love to hear from you and your specific story to better understand if BFR training could be beneficial in your individual situation!

Please comment below with any questions, or schedule a FREE 20 minute consultation with Dr. Matt.

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