Strength is paramount to staying healthy and active as you age. It is important to learn how strategies for developing muscle mass, such as blood flow restriction, might benefit older individuals.
In a recent Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research study, investigators compared blood flow restriction (BFR) methods to standard strength training methods in an older population.
What the research says:
- Muscle size in quads increased by 6.6% after BFR over a twelve-week period
- BFR only increased strength by 17%, compared to 54% after traditional training
What Is Blood Flow Restriction?
Training with blood flow restriction basically involves putting a tourniquet on yourself, typically around your upper thigh or upper arm. While the research has been mixed as to how tight the tourniquet needs to be, there is no confusion that BFR works, even if you only do it while you’re walking.
The researchers pointed out the advantages of BFR for older people. While a traditional heavy resistance training plan is effective for strength and size, it’s not always a great idea for older populations. The researchers proposed that because blood flow restriction training reduces the load needed to elicit good results from resistance training, it may be ideal for those who can’t lift heavy weights.
23 participants, who were an average of 64 years old, were divided into three groups and completed a twelve-week program. The researchers measured the size of the subjects’ leg muscles, so that one group wouldn’t have more or less muscular mass than the others. The three groups performed the following protocols:
- The subjects in the control group didn’t do any exercise.
- The heavy-resistance training group performed a bodybuilding-style set-and-rep scheme of four sets of ten reps at 70-80% of their maximum.
- The blood flow restriction group performed four sets of fifteen to thirty reps with only 20-30% of their max.
The blood flow restriction group exercised with a tourniquet on, tightened to fifty percent of their arterial blood pressure. Both groups had the cross-sectional area of their quads and their leg press max measured, both before and after the program.
As has been the case with younger populations studied using blood flow restriction, the older participants of this study experienced considerable size gain, which was comparable to the heavy-resistance group. The heavy-resistance group grew their quads by about 7.9%, whereas the blood flow restriction group measured in at 6.6% bigger quads than when they started.
The fact that these two programs yielded such similar gains in size is pretty shocking considering the loads used. In some cases, the heavy-resistance group was working with four times the weight used in the blood flow restriction group. However, the strength improvements between the three groups weren’t as close. With an increase in leg press strength of 54%, the heavy-resistance group realized some pretty big gains. The blood flow restriction group, by contrast, improved by a more modest 17%.
It seems BFR can help build bigger muscles with lighter weight. Perhaps those muscles have potential for strength development in the long run, but it still seems that for strength, nothing beats good old-fashioned hard work, no matter what your age.
1. Laura Ortinau, et. al., “Comparisons between low-intensity resistance training with blood flow restriction and high-intensity resistance training on quadriceps muscle mass and strength in elderly,” The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research 2014, doi: 10.1519/JSC.0000000000000703
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