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Have you ever had something tied around your arm to make your blood vessels pop out – like when giving blood or getting a shot? Restricting the blood flow like this causes the vessels to get bigger because blood is now pooling in that muscle and can’t escape. But did you know you could use this in the gym? It’s called occlusion training or blood flow rescriction training, and could very well be your key to more muscle mass.
Occlusion training is pretty much what was just described. Since you have to be able to separate the muscle group off, it only works for your arms and legs, rather than shoulders, chest, traps, and back. Regardless, tie something like an elastic band just above the muscle group you want to train so that blood pools in said muscle. Only tie it to roughly 70% tightness, as while you want most of the blood to stay in the muscle group, you do still want to allow some of it to be pumped back out
Here’s a short list of where you’d “tie off” for each muscle group when doing occlusion training:
Just because you’re going to use occlusion training, that doesn’t mean you’ll have a muscle group “tied off” for an entire workout. Instead, do your normal strength-based hypertrophy work of compound exercises for sets of 4-6 or 6-8 reps. When you’re done with those, tie off your muscle group and do another 1-2 exercises for 3-5 sets to failure, resting 30-60 seconds between sets.
This probably goes without saying, but you don’t want to be using a lot of weight on these sets. In fact, one study in the Strength & Conditioning Journal showed significant increases in both muscular size and strength when using only 20% of your 1RM.
The science says that occlusion training can actually be quite effective. Every time you start a set, you’re using slow twitch muscle fibers. When those fatigue, your body switches over to using fast twitch muscle fibers. This is important to note because fast twitch fibers are capable of much more muscular growth than slow twitch fibers.
Well, according to a study in the Journal of Applied Physiology, occlusion training will fatigue the slow twitch fibers much more quickly than normal. This means your body will switch over to using fast twitch fibers earlier, and therefore increases your potential of putting on size. You do have to watch what you’re doing, however. Putting excess strain on a muscle via both lifting and restricting blood flow can be dangerous if you’re not careful.
That said, occlusion training can definitely be an effective new tool for your workout arsenal. It’ll let you engage those fast twitch fibers more quickly and potentially allow you to put more size on with the same amount of work. Just don’t tie off the muscles too tight and be prepared to likely get a few weird looks from your fellow gym-goers.