What if I told you that you could get your beach muscles and increase your muscle strength using significantly less weight and doing less work than you currently train with?
Okay, stop laughing. I’m being serious. I’m talking about a relatively new technique called occlusion training, or, as it was originally called, KAATSU training. KAATSU training is the brainchild of Yoshiaki Sato, MD, Ph.D, of Japan. Essentially, it’s the act of using a blood pressure cuff or similar light tourniquet to restrict blood flow to an exercising muscle.
There is a decent amount of research on the efficacy of blood flow-restricted training. Unfortunately, Professor Sato and his KAATSU training university did much of it. Although those studies may be legitimate, in researching the technique I wanted to exclude any obvious possibility of bias, so I discounted any of Sato’s research right off the bat.
With that done, several studies seem to show that low-load vascular occlusion training bears comparable results to conventional high-load training. Madarame et. al. showed that while occlusion training improved muscle strength and size, it did not improve jump performance in previously untrained young men.1 Kim et. al. demonstrated that while muscle size increased significantly for individuals who trained with and without blood flow restriction, the traditional trainers had a greater increase in muscle size.2
Traditional training also proved to be much more effective for bone turnover than blood flow-restricted training in this study.3 Moore et. al. conducted a study that showed vascular occlusion training increased muscle strength and changed some aspects of neuromuscular function that conventional training did not.4 Yamanaka et. al. found that occlusion training increased both hypertrophy and strength of the muscles of Division IA football players.5 One Japanese study performed in 1999 even showed a 290-times increase of growth hormone levels in occlusion-users, and those levels remained slightly higher than the control level after 24 hours.6
Occlusion training is thought to work through the process of “metabolic accumulation.” Basically, instead of letting your body flush all the metabolic products of exertion through the system, the tourniquet keeps it all in the area. This stimulates a big release of anabolic growth factors, recruits more fast-twitch fibers, and induces more production of protein.7
Occlusion training also seems to stimulate the production of heat shock proteins, which monitor cell proteins and help transport other proteins across cell membranes, aiding in cell repair. Occlusion training appears to affect Nitric oxide synthase-1 (which helps control blood pressure, insulin secretion, blood vessel growth, and peristalsis, and helps catalyze nitric oxide from L-arginine) and reduces myostatin as well (animals lacking myostatin have larger muscles than other animals). More research is needed on the exact mechanisms of occlusion training, but it seems to have many avenues through which it works its magic.
In light of this and other available research on the effectiveness of occlusion training, it would appear there is some benefit to it for both strength and hypertrophy gains for lifters of all kinds. It’s important to note, though, that occlusion training is not meant to replace heavy lifting. It should be seen as an assistance exercise or used as therapy for those who cannot lift heavy weights. It’s great for deloading periods or on lighter training days.
That having been said, let’s talk about how to work occlusion training into your routine. I use TheraBands as my makeshift tourniquets, although you could really use any elastic band you like (including actual tourniquets), or even a blood pressure cuff. You want to tie it at the joint above the muscle group you plan to train. So, for instance, you would tie it off right at the shoulder joint to affect the bicep, or right around the uppermost thigh to affect the quads. Tie it tightly enough that you feel a rather uncomfortable obstruction of blood without cutting off the supply altogether.
I like to combine occlusion training with bodyweight isometric training. For instance, for a set of pushups, I’ll occlude at the shoulders and hold my pushups for five or so seconds at several angles along the movement. For squats or lunges, I do the same with the occlusion at my hips. For weight training with occlusion, go lighter than usual – 50% or less of your max. Perform as many good reps as you are able at that weight with the occlusion point that relates to your targeted muscle group.
Note: Occlusion training is not fun. Like, at all. Occlusion training is extremely difficult and uncomfortable. But it’s quick and dirty, and you should see some impressive enhancements to your muscle size and strength as a result. Let me know how it goes!