Adding Occlusion Training to your Workout Routine
You might be thinking that the scientifically named Occlusion Training is some new form of system applicable only to advanced athletes. In reality, though, this form of training is easily available, and even beneficial, to a huge variety of people.
The definition of occlusion is literally a closure or blockage; and from a physical training perspective it simply means the restriction of blood flow within the body. More specifically, occlusion training aims to give enough of a closure or blockage to prevent venous blood flow out of the body part being trained, whilst still leaving that body part with the ability to pump arterial blood in. Not only does this give the body part an undeniable pump, it has been suggested that the method could actually improve strength and size development even when lifting as low as 20% of your one rep max. Read on to learn a little bit more about where occlusion training began, how it works, and how you can put it into use yourself.
The Science behind Occlusion Training.
Occlusion Training was first developed in Japan by Yoshiaki Sato, who began experimenting with the idea as early as 1966 after noticing the strange sensation he would get in his legs after being sat upon them for many minutes. Unfortunately his uncontrolled occlusion sessions in the sixties and seventies resulted in him developing blood clots and severely jeopardised his health. Working to solve this problem, Sato eventually released a device that he called the Kaatsu Master (Kaatsu literally means ‘added pressure’) which induces occlusion but monitors pressure and blood flow to reduce risk. Since then, Sato’s ideas have spread worldwide, and numerous studies have been conducted based on the principles he laid out.
There have been plenty of reasons laid out as to how occlusion training works, including the concept of ‘cell swelling’, In which the muscle cells become so ‘full’ in training that they either have to grow or burst! More reliably, however, is that occlusion training works by preventing the release of lactic acid and other waste products from the working muscle group. The result of these products remaining inside the muscle is one of increased muscular stress, which in turn creates a chain of hormonal responses that encourage muscular growth. Going into a little more detail, increased muscle stress specifically stimulates an increased production of IGF-1, otherwise known as Insulin Growth Factor. IGF-1, like testosterone, is a growth hormone, and one of its main functions is to synthesize protein uptake both by creating new muscle fibres and by acting to prevent muscle wastage or ‘atrophy’. It has also been suggested that the process of metabolite build up in the muscle leads to the quicker fatigue of type I muscle fibres, meaning that ‘fast twitch’ type II fibres have to be recruited as well. These type II fibres are usually reserved specifically for explosive movements utilising a much higher percentage of a one rep max.
If these claims are true then blood flow restriction as a training method could hold massive benefits. It could serve to increase muscle mass and strength development as well as stimulate muscle fibres not usually stimulated by training with lighter weights. Moreover, as a training method it is cheap to set up, simple to follow and could work for a wide range of different individuals.
You’re probably thinking at this point, “okay, sounds good in theory, but give me some proof,” and luckily for you, dozens of studies have been undertaken on occlusion training. One of the most prominent was undertaken by Takarada in 2000, and looked explicitly at growth hormone response to blood flow restriction when paired with low-intensity knee extensions at around 20% of the subject’s one rep max. The study found that IFG-1 levels were elevated an astounding 290 times after 5 sets. For further reading check out:
Takarada Y, Nakamura Y, Aruga S, Onda T, Miyazaki S and Ishii N., ‘Rapid increase in plasma growth hormone after low-intensity resistance exercise with vascular occlusion.’ Journal of Applied Physiology 88: 61-65, 2000.
Another more recent study by Manimmanakorn in 2012 looked at the impact of low intensity resistance training in combination with blood flow restriction and/or hypoxic training (limited oxygen at around 80%) The study used thirty netball players from the same team, all in their late teens to early twenties. For five weeks the subjects trained three times per week using knee flexion and extension at 20% of their one repetition maxes. The end results were pretty clear, both the occlusion trained and hypoxic trained subjects showed significantly greater improvements in comparison to the control group, with the occlusion trained group also showing greater improvements than the hypoxic group in tasks such as sprinting and agility.
Last but not least, JP Loenneke, the so called ‘godfather of occlusion training,’ has personally conducted multiple studies into blood flow restriction training, and his results have been promising. For more on his work check out:
Loenneke JP, Abe T, Wilson JM, Ugrinowitsch C, & Bemben MG (2012) Blood flow restriction: how does it work? Front Physiol, 3, 392.
Loenneke JP, Wilson JM, Marin PJ, Zourdos MC, & Bemben MG (2012). Low intensity blood flow restriction training: a meta-analysis. Eur J Appl Physiol, 112(5), 1849-1859.
He is also the man most linked to the concept of ‘cell swelling’ as a reason for the muscular growth caused by blood flow restriction. He argues that although lactic acid build up and the Insulin Growth Hormone response is one of the reasons for muscular growth, it cannot explain why a level of muscular growth also occurs when using occlusion training without any form of weight lifting (For example when walking.) Although his work can only be truly called hypothesis, it definitely makes a good starting point for anyone interested in further research on the subject. See these two studies for more information:
Loenneke JP, Fahs CA, Wilson JM, & Bemben MG (2011). Blood flow restriction: the metabolite/volume threshold theory. Med Hypotheses, 77(5), 748-752.
Loenneke JP, Fahs CA, Rossow LM, Abe T, & Bemben MG (2011). The anabolic benefits of venous blood flow restriction training may be induced by muscle cell swelling. Med Hypotheses, 78(1) , 151-154
Practical applications of Occlusion Training
Okay, then, so there’s some science behind occlusion training, but where would it actually be applied? It may have potential benefits but couldn’t you just use heavier weights rather than blood flow restriction? The simple answer to the latter question is yes, you could just use heavier weights, interestingly though, and one of the major practical applications of occlusion training is its use within rehabilitative circles. Imagine, for instance, that you’ve been training intensely for a few months but suddenly you pick up a joint injury. The reality is that you would have to stop you’re heavy training to allow for recovery, and in doing so you would undoubtedly lose some of that hard-earned progress you’ve already made. With blood flow restriction based training, one the other hand, you could continue training using much lighter weights, minimising stress on the joints and ligaments whilst they heal, and also preventing muscle or strength decline.
Occlusion training could also be a great practical choice for travelling, as rather than lugging around dozens of heavy weights you could get an amazing workout using much lighter ones.
As a quick word of warning with regard to practical application, there are certain groups that should not use occlusion training methods, so if you happen to be one of these, best to stay away. Cases for avoiding occlusion include anyone with a blood pressure condition, with a family or past history of circulatory issues, or with any past cases of venous, arterial or nerve related injuries.
Getting started Occlusion Training Bands and How to Use Them
To get started, you won’t actually need one of those fancy Kaatsu Master devices mentioned earlier, all you’ll need is an efficient and easy way of restricting blood flow. Any form of elastic or rubber wrap can do the trick, and even bandages can be used if you can’t find anything fancier. From a gym-goers perspective, most sports shops will stock elasticated knee wraps, and these will also work perfectly well. Once you’ve bought them, all you need to do is literally wrap them around your desired body part and tie them so as to keep them in place.
When applying whichever band you choose to use, the most important thing to remember is that you do not want to make them too tight; if in doubt, always ere on the side of caution. Pressure wise, you should imagine a scale ranging from 1 to 10, where 10 is the most pressure your body part could manage. For your legs, you’re going to want to get this pressure at around a 6 or 7, whilst for your arms you’re going to want to aim for closer to 5 or 6.
Within your workout you should aim to attach the occlusion device to the proximal head of each body part. For example, you should aim to tie your band as close as possible to the shoulder-end of the arm when preparing to do bicep or tricep work. Similarly, you should aim to apply your device at the groin-end of your leg in order to do extension or flexion work.
A good usage of occlusion training, according to most studies, is 2-3 times per week, with 3-5 sets in one session. When performing these sets, you should aim for 15-30 repetitions with a brief rest of 30 to 45 seconds between sets. You should be working between 10 and 30% of your one rep max, any more would place unnecessary and unsustainable stress upon the muscles. With regards to the bands, keep them applied throughout the set and as you recover, removing them only when you have finished all three or four sets.
As a word of warning, be prepared to hurt, occlusion training forces your muscles to hold onto waste products such as lactic acid, and you will feel them.
A One week Occlusion training routine
Here is quick and simple weekly routine that you can use to get started with your occlusion based training. It is important to remember that the routine below is a supplement to a normal training routine and is not the only training method used. In other words, occlusion training is to be used as a ten to fifteen minute ‘finisher’ after you have already completed your chosen workout that day. The routine is based around a very standard upper lower split
Monday – Lower Body
Leg (knee) extension, 3 sets in the order of 30 reps, 15 reps and 15 reps
Leg (knee) curl, 4 sets in the order of 20 reps, 15 reps, 15 reps, 15 reps
Wednesday – Upper Body
Tricep extension, 4 sets in the order of 25 reps, 20 reps, 15 reps and 10 reps
Bicep curl, 3 sets in the order of 25 reps, 20 reps and 15 reps
Friday – Lower Body
Leg (knee) curl, 3 sets in the order of 30 reps, 15 reps and 15 reps
Seated Calf raise, 4 sets in the order of 25 reps, 15 reps, 15 reps and 10 reps
You’ll notice that all the movements are isolation exercises. This is so that you can really target those specific muscles by focusing on that mind-muscle connection and properly going for that pump. Each week you can try to add slightly more weight to each of the individual movements, and in very little time you should start to see some considerable results.