In the past, I’ve heard clients continually say that they wish there was an easier way to add quality muscle mass to their frame without the need to put wear and tear on their body by using heavier and heavier weights to overload the muscles. Well, with blood flow restriction occlusion training, we all might finally have the answer to our prayers.
It’s common for bodybuilders and powerlifters to have beat up joints from years and years of lifting heavy. When their joints are holding them back from lifting heavy, they think that their mass building days are over and they might as well join a Zumba class instead. However, with blood flow restriction occlusion training, you can actually use lighter weights and still have the potential to add the quality size you want. Say it ain’t so! It’s true!
Restrict Blood for Maximal Gains?
Occlusion training is where you actually block the blood flow to certain muscles groups during training. Sounds odd, right? It is. Through the use of bands, wraps, or specific and dedicated occlusion training cuffs, individuals do not allow blood to enter or exit their working muscles for a short period of time. The bands/wraps/cuffs should be tight, but not tight enough that your limb turns blue or you get the sensation of pins and needles.
Such a technique can allow the body to respond to a lower level of overall activity and intensity. The most common uses for occlusion training are on the arms and legs.
*DO NOT attempt to occlude around your neck or genitalia. This should be pretty common sense, but, unfortunately, I feel the need to toss it in there based on today’s society. Pretty sad, no?
When you look at normal weight training, you need to lift a weight around 65% or higher of your max. Yet, through the use of occlusion training, you are able to use as little as 20-50% of your max in order to produce strength and size gains. When done correctly, you should feel an insane pump in the working muscle. Additionally, occlusion training can increase your IGF-1 and growth hormone levels which also provide several benefits to your muscle gaining efforts.
How Does Occlusion Training Work?
As you know, our body is made up of Type 1 and Type 2 muscle fibers (slow and fast twitch fibers). Type 2 muscle fibers are the ones recruited when you are resistance training and when short bursts of energy are needed such as with sprints while Type 1 is more for endurance.
Through occlusion training, when blood flow is restricted for a muscle group, your body will recruit Type 2 muscle fibers much earlier on in a set – allowing you to use a much lighter weight to get the same recruitment when compared to a heavier workload. Commonly used exercises for occlusion training include the squat, leg press, leg extension, leg curl, bench press, and biceps curl.
Choose if you want to work your arms or legs. Do not use occlusion training on both your upper and lower body at the same time. Pick or choose only one per workout. The nice thing about the workout is that they are to be kept short and intense. Think no longer than around 10-15 minutes.
In order to utilize occlusion training, you need to follow these guidelines:
- Tightly secure a wrap, band, or cuff around the muscle you plan to work
- As a guide, use the “high and tight” method where you go as high on your upper arm or thigh as possible to restrict blood flow
- Ensure that you have it tight and secure around the muscle which can also be slightly painful due to the pressure needed to restrict blood flow to the muscle (think of a pain level of 7 out of 10)
- Begin your workout using light(er) weights (20-50% of your 1RM)
- Your first set should be a set of 30 repetitions
- After your first set rest 30 seconds
- Then, complete 3 sets of 15 repetitions with 30 seconds’ rest between sets
- Make sure to not loosen the wrap/band/cuff around the muscle between your sets to allow the blood currently in the muscle to remain trapped
Is Occlusion Training Safe?
While this protocol sounds odd to even the most extreme lifters, it is indeed safe for most to utilize assuming you follow the protocol as directed and don’t decide to “make your own adjustments.”  Occlusion training is to only be used between 10-15 minutes and due to the short nature of the protocol, it will not cause any damage to the limbs being occluded. That being said, if you have any type of vascular disorder, you should not implement this strategy as it could cause severe health complications.
Overall, listen to your body. No, occlusion training isn’t going to be something fun that you’re going to want to smile and tell jokes while implementing. But, occlusion training works! If at any point during your training you feel your limb getting numb or experience severe pain, stop occlusion training immediately and remove the wraps/bands/cuffs from the limbs.
- Cook, C. J., et al. (2013). Three weeks of occlusion training can improve strength and power in trained athletes. International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance. 9(1), 166-72.
- Park, S. Y., et al. (2015). Low intensity resistance exercise training with blood flow restriction: insight into cardiovascular function, and skeletal muscle hypertrophy in humans. The Korean Journal of Physiology & Pharmacology. 19(3), 191-196.
- Vanwye, W. R., et al. (2017). Blood flow restriction training: implementation into clinical practice. International Journal of Exercise Science. 10(5), 649-654.