If you’ve ever hurt your back at the gym or you have an injury, you need to learn about blood flow restriction training.
Estimated reading time: 7 minutes
About 4 weeks ago, I hurt my lower back doing deadlifts in my home gym. I’m 6 foot 5 inches (196cm) tall, so I’ve dealt with a lot of back pain in my life. But, this was very different.
I spent 20 minutes on the floor, unable to get up. Every time I tried to roll over, the pain was so intense that I thought I was going to pass out. After an hour, I was able to muster up the courage to climb up the stairs and onto the living room floor and promptly rang our doctor.
It took about 2 weeks to heal, but I was devastated. I had been making great progress in the gym, adding muscle under the guidance of my coach from renaissance periodisation.
I didn’t want to lose the strength that I’d gained, so I started researching different ways to keep training without having to work under the same amount of weight and risk causing more injury.
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What Is Blood Flow Restriction Training?
Blood flow restriction training is the act of putting your muscles under metabolic stress, by limiting the amount of blood and lactic acid buildup that can be removed through normal blood flow.
This type of training has been studied now extensively in both patients who have severe muscle atrophy, and also people who are merely looking to improve strength who might be suffering from an injury.
Blood flow restriction training limits the amount of weight that is applied to a specific movement to maintain or increase muscle.
The individual results can vary, but it’s been shown to help maintain, and even gain the same amount of muscle as people who undergo lifting with much heavier weights.
Who is blood flow restriction training for?
This type of training is perfect for those who are:
- Recovering from an injury
- Repetitive injuries from specific exercises
- Those who can’t lift as much weight as they used to due to muscle atrophy or pain
- Targeting specific areas without increasing stress
So, for someone like me who has recently suffered an injury, has had repeated exposure to this type of injury in the past, and wants to keep improving without aggravating the injury, this type of training is perfect.
How to train using blood flow restriction?
There are plenty of different ways you can limit the amount of blood that circulates to your limbs:
- Using a resistance band (unsafe)
- Using a floss band (unsafe)
- Using a cheap strap with a clasp (unsafe)
- Using a specific blood flow restriction cuff (safe)
There is only one safe way to restrict blood, and that is by using a device that can precisely restrict a certain percentage of blood flow.
All of the research indicates that completely cutting off all the blood to your arms or legs is a bad idea, and instead should be applied at 80% restriction in your legs and 50% restriction in your arms.
Here in Australia, the only device available that can accurately do this are the Saga BFR Bands (BFR = blood flow restriction). I purchased the large pair to start training my legs the day after my injury, and they kindly also sent me a set for my arms to try out.
You generally want to use weights that are 10-20% of your 1RM (the most amount of weight you can lift for 1 rep).
The most common way to program a specific exercise is to perform 30 reps in the first set, then 15 reps each for the following 3 sets. This would look like this: 30 X 15 X 15 X 15.
The quality of these bands is outstanding. They are made of good quality materials, with metal clasps and excellent velcro. They are medical grade products, so it almost feels like you’re putting on two sets of blood pressure checking sleeves.
The velcro holds even under a great deal of pressure. For the past four weeks, I’ve been using them at 80% occlusion on my legs, which feels tight, and haven’t had them slip off or come undone at all.
The part that inflates the bands are unfortunately made from plastic, and stick out a little, but generally speaking, they don’t get in the way at all (unless you’re doing dumbbell lunges).
They connect to your phone using Bluetooth and can be pressurised and released within an app on your phone. They connect seamlessly, and the app is very simple to use and has been tested well.
The bands are not cheap. They are priced at $279 for the large cuffs (legs), and $249 for the medium cuffs (arms). Compare this to cheaper BFR bands which cost between $30 and $80, it’s a lot more money.
However, as mentioned before, these are the only bands that can accurately cut off 50% or 80% of blood flow, which is the safest (and most researched) way to train using blood flor restriction. The other bands are just guessing, so you may risk injury by using them.
If you’re injured, you don’t want to injure yourself again by using equipment that isn’t fit for the job. My advice is always to be safe and buy the expensive ones first. If they don’t work for you, you can always send them back, or if they go unused, you can always sell them.
I’ve been training with them for 4 weeks now, and I’ve never felt my legs working so hard before. Using blood flow restriction takes all the pressure off your joints, but by no means is it easy.
I’ve been able to fully recover my back, but still maintain the same level of strength in my legs and arms by simply using much lighter weights and doing more reps. With injuries in the past, I’ve had to take 3-4 weeks off from the gym, which negatively impacts my strength.
I’ve also started using them during my upper body training days to add variety to my workout, but also to avoid doing more damage to my back. Using 10kg dumbbells has never felt so hard.
I also spent 5 days in a sleep training facility with my baby daughter without access to a gym. So I took the SAGA cuffs and a light resistance band to continue my workout plan even whilst travelling.
Using blood flow restriction bands isn’t for everyone, however, if you are currently suffering from an injury, or you just have “bad shoulders” and need a way to be able to reduce the load without compromising on your ability to stay fit, then likely blood flow restriction training is going to help you.
I don’t think they replace lifting heavy weights, but they are an excellent way to maintain muscle while travelling, or in periods where you don’t have access to a gym.
The Saga BFR bands are the best blood flow restriction bands you can buy in Australia and the safest. I know that in America there is also a brand called Smart Cuffs, which I’ve heard good things about.
Let me know if you have tried these bands, or if you have any questions about them in the comments below! I’d love to help you decide if blood flow restriction training is suitable for you.