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Get Swole! What is Blood Flow Restriction Training?

Oct 10, 2018 | The Pointe

If you are looking to get scary huge via bodybuilding, there are a plenty of methods to research and follow. First, let it be clear that bodybuilding techniques are useful for anyone looking to increase strength. Improving strength and increasing and maintaining muscle mass is important for all of us. Depending on fitness goals, however, attempting to dramatically increase muscle size may or may not be for you. Bodybuilding science is always on the forefront.

Those that participate in the sport, just like any other sport, are looking for an edge. Finding new workout methods to grow the muscle is an endless search. If you are considering ways to "get swole‟, the following breaks down the most recent method bodybuilding has incorporated into the sport. Blood flow restriction (BFR) training (aka occlusion training) is the newest kid on the block. As the name implies, blood flow is being restricted while the exercise is performed. This sounds counterproductive to just about everything ever stated about exercise. Improving circulation to deliver nutrients and oxygen is usually the goal with training. The difference with BFR is that the goal is to restrict only venous blood flow. When muscles are working, arteries are delivering energy to the muscles. The blood flow return from muscle via veins heads back to the heart for more oxygen. BFR attempts to allow arterial flow to the muscles and restrict venous return. This accomplishes several objectives.

1. “Getting Swole”: Simply put, the pooling of blood in the trained muscle by restricting venous return increases the pumped feeling. This mechanical stress on the cells promotes growth.

2. Lactic Acid: This by product of fatigue is increased (a result of the blood pooling). Traditional strength workouts will also result in lactic acid build up, but BFR attempts to hold more of it in the muscle for a longer period of time during the training session. Lactic acid plays a role in building muscle by promoting increased levels of human growth hormone. The physiology behind lactic acid and its role during exercise is a bit more than this newsletter allows, but when you "feel the burn‟ that‟s when it becomes a player and it‟s not a bad thing for building muscle.

3. Fiber Recruitment: The goal of strength training is to fatigue the muscle fibers. When fatigue is achieved more fibers must be used to continue the activity. That makes sense, right?

Taking this one step further, the more overall muscle fibers recruited it stands to reason that the more fast twitch fibers are being used. It is these fast twitch fibers that are primarily responsible for muscle size. Recruiting and training these fibers results in more size and strength. This also occurs with traditional strength training. BFR attempts to reach fatigue more rapidly and with less resistance than traditional workouts.

There are some specific "how-tos‟ to consider before attempting BFR training. First and foremost is how to restrict the blood flow. This is the tricky part. While performing a basic arm curl exercise, for example, where should the restriction (essentially a tourniquet) be placed and how tight should it be? The wrap/tourniquet can be an elastic wrap such as a knee or elbow wrap. The amount of pressure should be a trial and error approach. The obvious concern is wrapping too tight and not allowing blood flow to the muscle. Most recommendations use a scale of 1-10 with 10 being extremely tight. It is recommended to wrap at a 6-7 pressure on that scale. A second consideration on the wrap is where to wrap. For the arm example, the wrap should be on the upper part of the arm (at the top of the biceps muscle). This goes for leg exercises as well. Wraps should be near the top of the limb. A final consideration is how much weight to lift. The resistance should be at a very moderate level. This varies depending on the source, but as low as 20% to 40% of one repetition maximum is recommended. To put it another way, you should be able to complete at least 12 repetitions before complete fatigue. So, in a nutshell......wrap loosely to start to see how it feels and adjust accordingly and choose a light resistance and adjust accordingly.

BFR training is not the end all magic pill for building muscle. It should be noted that its origin is from therapeutic applications. It allows therapists to use light to moderate resistance to train an injured muscle while maximizing the muscle building benefits of strength training. Bodybuilding enthusiasts have adopted the method and the science to have yet another way to train. The concept of continually changing routines (periodization) is the overall rule to force our bodies to adjust to new stimuli. BFR can be incorporated if you are looking to get swole, but caution must be taken to make sure proper pressure and resistance is being used. The jury is still out on long term affects when used as a training modality versus temporary use as a therapeutic modality. BFR should not be an exclusive training method as there are many other training methods to build muscle.


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