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If you’ve ever gotten a shot or given blood, you’ve had some sort of elastic band tied around your biceps. After just a short time, your veins probably started to stick out and your arms become super vascular. While this might look cool, this idea can also be an excellent addition to your hypertrophy workout. It’s called “blood flow restriction training” (otherwise referred to as ‘occlusion training’), and it could be your key to adding new muscle mass quicker.
Simply put, blood flow restriction training is when you “tie off” an appendage, causing blood to pool in it while you train. So say you wanted to perform blood flow restriction training for the arms. You’d use an elastic band, something like a blood pressure cuff, or even knee wraps tied to approximately 70% tightness around the upper arm. This will still allow blood to be pumped into the arms, but will restrict it from being pumped back out.
Because you have to be able to isolate a body part, you can’t really use this style of training for the shoulders, chest, traps, or back. If you want to use it for the biceps/triceps, you’d place your “tie” at just below the shoulder, and just below the elbow for the forearms. For the quadriceps/hamstrings, place your “tie” as high up on the leg as possible, and just below the knee for the calves.
While you wouldn’t want your entire workout to be comprised of blood flow restriction training (adding just 1-2 exercises done in this manner for 3-5 sets to failure with 30-60 seconds rest after your normal strength-based hypertrophy work is enough), there are numerous reasons to add it to your routine. The first of which being that according to a study in the Strength & Conditioning Journal, you can get serious strength and size gains using as little as 20% of your 1RM.
When you first start a set, you’re targeting slow twitch muscles fibers, which are aerobic. When those fatigue, anaerobic, fast twitch fibers then take over. This is important because fast twitch fibers have much greater potential for growth than their slow twitch counterparts. Research in the Journal of Applied Physiology shows that restricting blood flow fatigues the slow twitch fibers quicker than normal, allowing fast twitch fibers to engage sooner.
What this results in are strength and hypertrophy effects mimicking the use of heavy weights, only via the use of much lighter loads. Blood flow restriction training can not only let you build more strength and muscle than your normal efforts might allow, but is also a virtually perfect option for injured lifters who can’t currently handle heavy training.
While blood flow restriction training might seem like a hypertrophy shortcut, don’t go in thinking it’s an “easy way out”. Properly performed, this style of training is incredibly painful. Since you want the cuff or wraps tied on the entire time you’re utilizing this method (i.e. – during both your sets and rest breaks), your muscles will likely start to throb almost immediately In fact, if you’re not in borderline agony the entire time, chances are you’re performing it incorrectly.
This type of routine is going to get you crazy looks in the gym, but there is a lot of science to back up its strength and size building benefits. In addition, while it will be highly uncomfortable in the short term, it can actually be good for you in the long run as you can use such light loads. This reduces overall damage to the muscle, as well as lessens the chance of overtraining.