How Blood Flow Restriction Builds Better Athletes

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As the global spotlight turns toward the Summer Olympic Games in Tokyo, the focus also grows on the world’s premier athletes and the methods they use to stay at the top of their games.

Blood flow restriction is a not-so-new technique that has received a lot of recent recognition as more and more elite athletes have been using it to build muscle more efficiently and speed recovery in preparation for this summer’s Olympic Games.

Premier Health Now spoke with Aloiya Earl, MD, an orthopedic sports medicine specialist, to learn more about blood flow restriction, along with its potential benefits and risks.

Less Is More

The idea of restricting blood flow to help boost recovery and maximize workout results has actually been used for well over 50 years, but even more athletes have begun to use it to gain a competitive advantage, as studies continue to validate its effectiveness.

“Basically, blood flow restriction works by reducing the oxygen available to a muscle during exercise through the use of strategically place tourniquets,” says Dr. Earl. “The body then needs to recruit more motor units for the muscle to contract. The muscle environment also becomes more acidic, which stimulates something called hypertrophy. In other words, you get some of the same benefits as heavy lifting — in regards to the muscle damage and response causing muscle growth — without the heavy load.”

When athletes are recovering from injury, blood flow restriction may be a useful part of their therapy regimen. As blood flow is strategically and temporarily restricted from certain limbs, it triggers a hormonal release that allows injured muscles to reproduce and recover more quickly, without placing additional physical stress upon the body.

Not For Everyone

Although there appear to be numerous benefits for athletes and non-athletes alike, Dr. Earl is quick to say that blood flow restriction is not for everyone. 

“People with cardiac disease, clotting disorders, vascular disease, and pregnancy should avoid blood flow restriction altogether,” says Dr. Earl.  “If you’re unsure if you fall into a high-risk category, then definitely speak with your physician to find out if it’s right for you.”

Dr. Earl also advises those who are not considered at a higher risk to seek out the advice of a trained sports medicine professional to maximize both safety and effectiveness. There is no guarantee blood flow restriction will take you to the Olympic Games, but when properly used, it may transform the way you build muscle and increase physical endurance.   

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