Blood flow restriction training, or BFR training, is an incredible tool, and while a bit more common nowadays it’s still very much misunderstood. A few years ago, I couldn’t use blood flow restriction training in a gym without continuous looks of concern or a crowd of people around me asking questions. These days, most people are a bit more familiar with this training modality, or at some point have seen their resident meathead use BFR. Yes, it’s a great tool, but since we are restricting blood to a limb (to be accurate, technically you’re only restricting blood flow out, that’s how it works by allowing metabolite build up, but you can still get blood in), it would be in your best interest to learn how to ensure this modality remains safe. In this entry, we will go over practical application and common mistakes most people make. I have seen both BFR newbies and people who use it routinely make the same mistakes over and over, so I will attempt to resolve them in this piece.
I have used everything from bands made for stretching, knee wraps, and medical tourniquets to do BFR. Most of us start with knee wraps, or bands (think voodoo floss,) since they are easily accessible, most of us have them, and they are a pretty solid start. However, there are a few limitations, when using knee bands or wraps. Namely, that you need someone to assist when wrapping your upper limbs, and it’s difficult to consistently apply the appropriate amount of tightness. Also, the lower body requires a wider cuff than the upper body. This can make knee wraps too wide for the upper half, and bands too narrow for the lower half.
Medical tourniquets initially were my go-to for the upper body, and I used this in combination with knee wraps for my lower half. Eventually, the issue I ran into with medical tourniquets was the fact that they would wear out rapidly. They aren’t made for the hundreds of reps that you will put them through after a few weeks, and they lose their integrity quickly. A number of times I have had them fall apart mid-set. I figured it would always be that way, and thus, I kept a pair of at least 3 sets of medical tourniquets handy.
This was until recently I ordered a pair of BFR bands from a company whose ads I had seen here and there while mindlessly scrolling through my phone. There are many companies out there who have similar products, but I went with “BFR Bands” because, after some research, I found their podcast and had seen a few of my scientist friends on them.
I decided to keep my money within the fam, and upon purchasing them, was approached about the possibility teaming up with them. I didn’t want to promote a product that I had not tried yet, so the agreement was that I would test run these for a period of time, and only promote them if I was satisfied with the product. Well, it has been well over 5 months now and I cannot say enough positive things about the bands.
I went with the PRO-X Edition BFR Bands I in the picture below.
The specs were exactly what I was looking for, and the fact that you could standardize tightness via the numbers…bleh. My biggest question was how it would hold up, since at this point 3/4s of my direct arm work is done via BFR.
It’s been five months of constant pounding on these things and they are just as good as day one. With that said, this company and their products have my stamp of approval, and I would certainly recommend them to anyone looking start applying BFR to their training, who like me, is just looking for a practical solution.
I have not used their lower body bands because my knees and ankles are at this point still very resilient joints. However, I trust their build quality and wouldn’t hesitate to recommend their products given my 5 month trial with the model I used. You can see the code “Nunez10” and get a 10% discount on your order.
Applying the Device!
Now you have your equipment ready, and we are ready to go! The confusion that more is better is something we want to address right away. Tightening your device any more that what is recommended is more than likely going to give you less of an effect and can possibly make a training method that is normally safe into something that is potentially dangerous. Using the good old 1-10 scale, I recommend most people start at a 6 on their upper body, and 7 on their lower extremities. Something that is worth noting is that even if you are using it for calf work, the device should be applied at the top of the leg. After wrapping, you should feel like the tightness level is not uncomfortable at all. Remember, we only want to cut off venous blood flow out of a muscle, while maintaining arterial blood flow into the muscle (this is why the pumps are so good, it goes in, but can’t leave). Your fingers and toes should not be numb, no pain should be present. You simply feel that something foreign is tied around your arm, your first set should actually feel almost feel normal.
The tempo of the lifting should be similar to what you would use via traditional weight training. A forceful concentric, and don’t just let gravity take half your volume on the eccentric. You might find this hard to do at first because the localized muscle pain is similar, but if not more than you would feel on a 15ish rep. Overtime this gets better, and because of this, you should use the same load the first few times while focusing on the crispness of the reps.
When picking the correct load, it is best to start low (and for beginners, it can seem comically low) until you get used to it. That is actually the perk to BFR. A good rule of thumb is to pick a weight that you could do for 15 hard reps without the wrap and use 40% of this load. Overtime, you will be able to progress, but the loads used with BFR training should never closely resemble anything you would use for traditional strength training. Case and point, I can curl between 80-100lbs on a straight bar in the high teens, but I am usually quite comfortable using an empty barbell for my BFR curls.
The most commonly used method, when it comes to BFR training, is the 30,15,15,15 series. Your first set will be 30 reps, with 30 seconds rest between that set and your first set of 15 reps. This rep and set pattern has been repeatedly used in some of the most influential research on BFR. However, there are a few alterations I have made in my near decade of using BFR as part of my training. Here are two of my favorite schemes, aside from the good old one mentioned above:
Same scheme as the classic, but if you feel you might have more reps in reserve than usual, go ahead and take it to the house on the last set of 15. Usually, if I end up seeing more than 20 reps on that last set a few times, I decide it’s not just me having a good day, but time to find the smallest possible increment I can add to the load. This is a nice way to progress in an autoregulated fashion with BFR.
For some people, that 30 rep set ends being a rep sucker, and they have hard time getting over 12 reps on the last few sets. This is the case even if the load is appropriate, as I have seen this first hand with others who I have guided through the process myself. This especially seems to be the case for larger muscle groups in the lower half. The total rep count is about the same, and I personally feel that the second cluster set ends up being slightly higher quality than what I get with the traditional dispersion of volume. Thus, the 20, 20, 20, 20 ends up being more balanced and provides more quality work. Also, if you do find you drop off from 30 to 12, before adopting this setup, double check to make sure you simply aren’t wrapping too tight (e.g. 6-7/10 tightness, no pain, numbness, tingling or purpling of limbs).
There You Have It
In the first piece, I gave you a few reasons to consider using BFR, in this piece I talked you through the process. So, next time you are in one of the many situations – typically joint pain related – I mentioned (seems unavoidable for most serious athletes), you now have a new tool at your disposal. In my experience BFR has been very useful, and practical over the last decade or so. It is often misunderstood as being dangerous, impractical, and it was thought to be a “here today gone tomorrow trend”. In reality, it’s a heavily researched, safe, useful training tool that has been around for over a decade and for those reasons probably isn’t going anywhere.I hope you all get some serious gains and let me know if this helped you improve the quality of your BFR sessions, or perhaps made you confident enough to actually try it out.