Compression Garments: A Thing or a Fad?
Walk into any weight-room (or mall for that matter) and you’re likely to see a few people wearing a pair of those tight looking thingamajiggies that make them looked jacked.1
Thingamajiggies aren’t their technical term by the way. They’re actually compression garments. They’ve grown in popularity in recent years and there’s a growing debate on their efficacy and use.
Is the juice worth the squeeze or are we being pressured into following another trend? See what I just did there? That’s called word play.
Today’s guest post by Dr. Nicholas Licameli tries to answer the question(s).
Compression Garments: A Thing or a Fad?
NOTE: Be sure to check up with a healthcare practitioner before using compression garments, especially those with cardiac or circulation pathologies.
In order to fully understand the theory behind compression garments, it’s important to quickly review how blood flows through the body.
The system is a cycle with the heart at the core.
Oxygenated blood enters the heart and is pumped (with great force) into the arteries. The arteries carry oxygen rich blood to all the tissues of the body, including muscle.
For simplicity, let’s use the biceps muscle tissue as an example.
As the arteries approach the muscle, they become thinner and thinner until they become so thin that the nutrients and oxygen diffuse across its walls and into the tissue. These super thin blood vessels are called capillaries.
After the blood “drops off” its oxygen and nutrients, it is picked up by more capillaries, which feed into larger blood vessels called veins. The veins passively carry the un-oxygenated blood back to the heart. Once back at the heart, the un-oxygenated blood gets sent to the lungs to get re-oxygenated, sent back to the heart, and is pumped back into the arteries to start the cycle all over again.
So the force from the initial pump from the heart is enough to send the blood from the heart, through the arteries, through the capillaries, into the veins, and back to the heart all while fighting gravity, plaque build up, etc. (pretty amazing huh?).
So it is easy to see that the velocity of blood flow is MUCH greater in the arteries than it is in the veins. Think of pushing a toy car across the floor. The initial push (the heart beat) gives the car a decent amount of velocity, however as the car travels further and further away, its velocity lessens.
What Are Compression Garments Meant To Do?
Compression garments are commercially available from companies such as Under Armour, Nike, and CEP in the form of full-length tights, partial and full-length tops, knee length stockings, and even full-body suits.
For those who don’t wear these just to be trendy, they are typically worn by runners, weightlifters, and other active individuals in hopes to improve performance and recovery (or feel like a superhero in superhero tights).
How to Use Compression Garments?
The garments are worn over the muscles being worked during or after exercise. For example, a runner may wear knee high compression garments in hopes to target performance and recovery of the calf muscles.
As part of an overall recovery strategy, wearing a compression garment over the affected area for 12 – 24 hours in the 1-2 days following exercise seems to be most effective.
Improvements in recovery have been displayed over a wide range of pressures and there has not been an exact or optimal pressure found at this time.
How Does It Work?
Compression garments are thought to function through changes in blood flow, perfusion (blood flow to body tissues) and muscle swelling, however the exact mechanism by which compression garments improve recovery is unclear at this time. They actually were first used as a medical intervention to increase blood flow to the heart (venous return).
It has been suggested that reductions in muscle swelling following exercise-induced muscle damage may limit further structural damages to the muscle or influence the brain’s fatigue regulation by affecting the signals (chemical or neural) the brain can interpret.
Tissue Oxygen Saturation:
Tissue oxygen saturation refers to how much oxygen from the blood is actually being taken up by tissues.
Aerobic (oxygen present) vs. Anaerobic (no oxygen)
More oxygen to tissues —> greater capacity to do work—> helps prolong the time it takes to get into an anaerobic state (burning and muscle fatigue).
Once we run out of oxygen supply to our muscles, the environment changes to an anaerobic state. It is at this point that we feel “the burn” due to an increase in acidity. This causes us to reach failure.
Basically, more tissue oxygen saturation prolongs the onset of the burn, which prolongs muscle failure, which enhances performance.
So if you’re doing a set of 10-15 reps, the first 6-7 reps will not burn because your muscles are getting adequate oxygen from blood. As you keep going through your set, you begin to feel a burn because your muscles are requiring more oxygen than what is being supplied. This causes the environment to change from aerobic to anaerobic, which causes lactic acid build up and “the burn.”
Can Compression Garments Improve Performance and Recovery?
Studies have shown that compression garments may provide the following benefits to an athlete.
Muscle Soreness: May decrease soreness 24-48 hours following exercise.
Strength: May limit the loss of strength typically seen following exercise.
Power: May help maintain power or limit the loss of power following exercise.
Range of Motion (ROM): May slightly limit loss of ROM typically seen following exercise.
Sprint and aerobic performance: One study showed that they may preserve sprint performance and improve time trials.
What Are the Limitations to Using Compression Garments?
It may not be feasible to wear compression garments for long durations in the days following a training bout due to job requirements, comfort, daily life, etc.
What Type of Athlete Might Benefit the Most From Compression Garments?
Compression garments have been shown to be effective for men and women as well as those performing aerobic or resistance training. Greater overall benefits are seen in higher volume and higher intensity training.
Are Compression Garments Worth Purchasing?
Compression garments can be a cost effective way to improve recovery, however they are not essential.
It is important to note that no recovery technique, including compression garments, will be effective without proper sleep and nutrition.
Getting your Z’s and eating properly to fuel and refuel your body are most important. Seeing a qualified healthcare practitioner, such as a physical therapist, can also improve recovery, prevent injury, and enhance overall health and wellness.
For More Information:
For a more comprehensive and evidence-based look into compression garments, as well as a full reference list used for this article (and absolutely anything else related to training), be sure to check out the great work at StrengthandConditioningResearch.com as well as my video on compression garments and blood flow restriction:
About the Author
Dr. Nicholas M. Licameli, PT, DPT
Love. Passion. Respect. Humility.
His passion lies between his love for the journey of bodybuilding, education, spreading happiness, and helping others. Nick is a doctor of physical therapy and professional natural bodybuilder. He views bodybuilding through the eyes of a physical therapist and physical therapy through the eyes of a bodybuilder. He graduated summa cum laude from Ramapo College of New Jersey with his bachelor’s degree in biology, then furthered his education by completing his doctoral degree in physical therapy from Rutgers School of Biomedical and Health Sciences (previously the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey) at the age of 24. His knowledge of sport and exercise biomechanics, movement quality, and the practical application of research combined with personal experience in bodybuilding and nutrition allows him to help people from all walks of life in truly unique ways. Never an expert. Always a student. Love your journey.