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In 1973, Sir Yoshiaki Sato, MD, PhD, developed the KAATSU (“training with added pressure”) training method in Japan, which is now commonly known as blood flow restriction (BFR) training or occlusion training. This strength-training method uses restrictive bands (tourniquets) placed around the arms or legs to limit the amount of blood flow to a muscle in close proximity to the band during a small portion of a workout. Exercising with tourniquets in this way allows for you to use a lighter set of weights while working out as you increase the strength of the restricted muscle faster than if you were to not use the bands.
Dr. Sato refined the BFR training method after he severely injured his right ankle and knee in 1973. Using his tourniquets, he successfully rehabilitated his joints — “doing isometric exercises for 30 seconds on and a few seconds off three times per day.” Since its development, BFR training has been used by athletes (like Olympic swimmer Michael Andrew), celebrities, and other people who need help increasing the strength of their muscles. Tracee Ellis Ross, for example, posted a video to Instagram of her using large BFR training bands at the top of her thighs during a workout session with her trainer. “BFR or blood flow restriction training allows you to get the same results with a lighter load as you would with a heavier load. I use these for the first 10 minutes of my workout,” she wrote in the caption.
To learn more about BFR training, POPSUGAR spoke with Melissa D. Leber, MD, an orthopedic surgeon who’s additional certifications include sports medicine, via phone call. If you want to incorporate BFR training into your workout routine, Dr. Leber says to check with your medical provider to see if this method is safe for you to do before proceeding.
Blood Flow Restriction Training: Benefits and Precautions
Dr. Leber mentioned that she’s noticed an uptick in the amount of people inquiring about BFR training. But, it’s not something everyone needs to start folding into their fitness routine. “If someone wanted to try it, it’s pretty low risk and safe. It’s just not something that we recommend for the normal population who is healthy and fine,” she explains. According to Dr. Leber, BFR training is usually recommended for people who are recovering from surgery, have chronic pain, or have trouble getting stronger. “If you put this blood flow restriction tourniquet on, [you’ll] able to do more reps at lower weights,” Dr. Leber says. “And what that does is allow you to strengthen or hypertrophy the muscle at lower resistances, meaning you can have less weight and use less power to get the same or have good results in muscle strengthening.”
Want to try BFR training on your own? Dr. Leber says that you should have a professional show you how to put on a tourniquet. “If your trainer has a lot of experience with [BFR training] and you trust them. I think it’s something you could try along with the help of [a physical therapist] . . . If you’re doing it on your own, then I think it’s better to talk to a professional beforehand,” Dr. Leber explains. She continues, “If you don’t know how to do it properly and you put the tourniquet on too tight and it [restricts] your arterial blood flow, that would be bad. So you don’t want it to be too tight.”
It’s important to only use tourniquets designed for BFR training to avoid blocking the arterial blood flow — which travels to and from the heart. “We see people trying to use [resistance bands] for blood flow restriction, but it’s almost too narrow and it can irritate the skin and almost be an uneven occlusion of the blood flow. . . proper tourniquets are actually quite wide, like 10 to 14 centimeters wide. And so those give much more even blood flow in a safer way.”
Image Source: POPSUGAR Photography / Sam Kang