Occlusion Training: What, Why, and How? by: Todd Tolosa

Occlusion Training

It’s really a thing, like, for real.

You may have seen a few people around the gym inflating things that look like small blood pressure cuffs around their arms and/or legs before doing short, high rep workouts with light weights.  This is a real, scientifically-proven training method! You can find a ton of information about it
(including many peer reviewed studies) if you google all its different names; blood flow restriction exercise, occlusion training, ischemic training, and the japanese Kaatsu.  Outside of that, I’ll do my best to summarize here!



Occlusion training involves working a muscle while blood flow to that muscle is restricted.  Blood flow should only be partially restricted, as total occlusion can be dangerous and is less effective.  For this reason, it should only be done with special devices designed for this purpose, and should never be done with bands or other devices that do not indicate how much pressure is being applied.  A common protocol is 3 sets of 30 reps, with 30 seconds rest between sets, using a load equivalent to 20% of a 1RM in the exercise used. Pressure adds another variable to consider, and appropriate pressure depends on the device being used.  I use B-Strong Cuffs, where 270-330 mmHg is a common training range. Because there is not much oxygen getting to the muscle, the anaerobic environment forces recruitment of type 2 (fast twitch, more powerful) muscle fibers even at lighter loads.  Type 2 fibers increase lactate levels inside the muscle when used, and because there is not much blood leaving the muscle, local concentrations of lactate shoot through the proverbial roof. This leads to crazy insane amounts of muscle burn. This protocol produces more local muscle burn than literally anything I’ve done without the cuffs on at much higher loads (Fran? Cindy? Karen? Check, check, and check).  


That sounds awful, why on earth would I want to do that???

That short, sub-5 minute protocol causes a growth hormone spike 3 times as large as a 45 minute bodybuilding workout.  It turns out that the human body contains a feedback loop; afferent nerves that are sensitive to high local concentrations of lactate that trigger a growth hormone release by the pituitary when stimulated.  This makes sense because growth hormone is one of the chemical messengers responsible for increased vascularity (the limb says, “Hey I’m not getting enough blood!” so the body says, “Let’s grow more blood vessels, ASAP!”).  Growth hormone also does a lot of other things; it spares muscle glycogen forcing the body to burn its fat stores as fuel, it speeds recovery, and it promotes joint and muscle building. So, you could think of occlusion training as a time saver for active recovery, only without all the extra wear and tear that heavier loads would cause (basically, just skip past the “tear down” phase and go straight into the “rebuilding” phase).


But wait, there’s more!

In addition to the systemic benefits of increased growth hormone, there is also a significant local training effect (just the parts below the cuff, the arms and/or legs).  Occlusion training builds muscle STAMINA (think lots of push ups/air squats, etc, basically anything where muscle burn becomes a limiting factor) in the trained limbs better than any other method out there, and also causes fast, measurable increases in sarcoplasmic muscle mass.  One of the first studies published on blood flow restriction exercise (BFR) took a population of elderly patients with muscle wasting disorders and had them walk on a treadmill with leg occlusion for 2 minutes, twice a day. The group, who was chosen specifically because of their inability to put on muscle, put on an AVERAGE of 20 lbs of muscle in just a couple weeks!  These results are not unusual. Other studies have shown that the body has a hard time figuring out exactly what muscle involved in a movement isn’t getting enough blood flow, so the nervous system actually changes the recruitment pattern for all muscles involved in the task (even the non-restricted muscles). I’m always on the lookout for new research in the area!


That stuff sounds dangerous…

Just like with most things in the gym, if you do it wrong, it IS dangerous!  BUT, both Jose and I have equipment specifically designed for this sort of training, and the knowledge required to keep it safe!  Just ask one of us to help you give it a shot, we’d be happy to coach!

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