My current opinion on blood flow restriction training is as follows in the year 2018. I feel that it’s such a valuable tool that all strength athletes should be at least somewhat well versed on how to, and when to apply it. I can’t imagine many ambitious athletes who will not at some point find a reason to pull the BFR card.
It was the sometime in early 2008 that I first heard of BFR training, and my reaction was similar to most.
“Is it safe? There is no way this is safe!”
“Won’t ever catch me doing this!”
“What a ridiculous way to train.”
I think at the time it was presented as something more along the lines of those notorious bodybuilding “shock” methods. At best as a way to supplement your current protocol, but at its worst it was presented as a novel stimulus that could potentially help you make gains you would have not made otherwise. Actually, now that I think about it, actually at its worst it was presented as a badge of honor by the pioneers who first used this method. Why? Because at the time they tied the wraps (usually knee wraps) they used way too tightly, and the localized muscular pain was much greater than it needed to be (and you know bodybuilders love pain as a badge of honor). When done correctly, BFR training should be about as painful as a normal working set of 15 to or near to failure.
The point is, at that time I didn’t see how restricting blood flow to your muscles was a solution to any bodybuilding problems. I thought there were many other more practical ways to provide a training stimulus. Looking back, I can see that the problem was that I actually didn’t fully understand how BFR worked, nor did I understand why and when someone should use it. What makes BFR unique is that it can produce muscular gains that are virtually identical to what you can achieve via traditional/high load training. See, when you use BFR you are working with loads far below what you would typically use under most circumstances.
So again, in no way is it any better than high load training, rather its real advantage is that you can achieve the same results using low loads. I’m sure you are asking yourself why on Earth would you want to use the same weight that people who “only want to tone” use. When I found out it worked this way I asked myself the very same thing. I mean yes, I primarily lift to maximize hypertrophy, but I also enjoy being strong, and I enjoy the sensation of feeling actual weight in my hands.
Like many things (or everything) context matters, and years later I’ve found myself in countless situations were BFR has saved my butt. The ones I will list here are the situations that have occurred the most, but I’ve also situations that I suspect will reoccur until the day I decide to hang it up.
Contest Prep Isolation Work
BFR training can be especially useful during the last few weeks of a contest prep diet if done right. Of course, you should have been able to salvage a good chunk of your offseason performance, but you will also be lean enough that your joints are simply not as stable and rugged as they were in your offseason.
The simple act of just being able to use BFR for my isolation work after my compounds has made my preps much more enjoyable. Enjoyable in that I have been able to minimize many of the athletic aches and pains I’ve previously experienced (think tendonitis). In my opinion, BFR has played a major role in keeping me healthy during my last two preps.
Once you get the hang of BFR work, it really is physically easier outside of the few steps it takes to set it up. Those last legs of any single training session deep into a contest prep can be real grinders. As hilarious as it sounds, sometimes it can be easier to finish off a lower body session with leg extensions ala BFR than without.
While smart programming has certainly helped me keep about 90% of my offseason strength while prepping, I do feel that the replacing some of my volume with lighter weight BFR hack squats has helped to keep my joints heathy enough for such strength feats to occur. Also, to some extent using BFR has helped me from overly depleting my mental willpower too early in a workout deep into prep. A leg session deep into contest prep can resemble a Rocky montage or willpower to complete, and heavy weights sometimes feel especially daunting, having the option to pull the BFR cards can help you maintain an appropriate training stimulus without depleting your willpower at these times.
Adding Offseason Volume
Interestingly, BFR is also applicable to the offseason. I have had offseason front squat sessions where my knee is acting a little funny after squats, so I opt to go with BFR on my subsequent isolation work, so I can reduce the absolute load on my knee joints. Other times, even if my joints feel healthy, my main lift is so draining that I choose to use BFR work for my secondaries after to relieve the mental stress of pushing heavy weights. Overall, pulling the BFR card is a way to ensure that I meet my training volume demands, but keep any single session from digging too big of a hole in my recovery.
Additionally, BFR can be a great way to grow into additional volume. For example, say I just added 4 sets of direct triceps work to my week, by using BFR for this additional volume I can ease my connective tissue into the new demands being placed on it. Another BFR perk is that it causes less muscle damage compared to traditional training . It’s much easier to recover from BFR work than traditional training, and this can be useful in the first few weeks when you are adding volume.
So far so good huh? Perhaps you find yourself a bit more interested in learning a bit more about BFR? If so, here is a great podcast on the subject by one of the original pioneers to bring you up to speed a bit.
Part two of this series I will go over the number one reason you should have BFR in your toolbox, and then I’ll cover practical application.
- Sudo, M., Ando, S., Poole, D. C., & Kano, Y. (2015). Blood flow restriction prevents muscle damage but not protein synthesis signaling following eccentric contractions. Physiological Reports, 3(7), e12449. http://doi.org/10.14814/phy2.12449