Blood-flow restriction: Why men are tying up their arms at the gym to build muscle

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There are no shortcuts to getting fit – it takes hard work, dedication and, usually, a fair few visits to the gym.

But that doesn’t mean people aren’t always looking for ways to maximise their workouts and speed up their progress.

And one way they’re doing that is by tying up their arms. Yes, really.

Great chest session (one of my biggest weaknesses is my chest) finished up with some blood flow restriction tricep supersets. Gotta work on this whole picture taking thing…not so good at it #chestday #bfr #bloodflowrestriction #fitnessmotivation #fitfam #gains #fitness #triceps

A post shared by Will L (@trillwill_fit) on Aug 6, 2017 at 2:04pm PDT

You may have seen men – for it is mostly men – doing so in the gym, whether with bands or straps. “Why are these men tying up their biceps?” you wonder to yourself.

Well it turns out there’s real science behind it.

The technique is called blood-flow restriction and it’s supposed to help you build muscle, improve endurance and recover from injury.

Because blood flow restriction does a fraction of the muscle damage that heavy training does, you can train a muscle way more often.

A post shared by Bodybuilding. Science. (@wilfredofitness) on Apr 4, 2017 at 5:50pm PDT

Surprisingly, it also works while lifting rather light weights, or even none at all. 

Blood-flow restriction training was invented by a man called Yoshiaki Sato in Japan, where it’s known as KAATSU.

Now in his 60s, Sato first realised the potential of KAATSU when he was 25 – after breaking his ankle in a skiing injury that should’ve taken him six months to recover from, Sato used blood-flow restriction to be back to full health in just six weeks. 

Often when people break a leg, it ends up far skinnier than the other one after the cast comes off, but blood-flow restriction training reportedly prevents this: “There’s some evidence that applying blood flow restriction in the absence of exercise may be useful for helping to maintain muscle size and strength,” Jeremy P. Loenneke, a professor of health and exercise science at the University of Mississippi, told Tonic

Health experts are excited about the technique’s potential in this vein, but it’s also popular amongst athletes, bodybuilders and those who want to work on their guns.

Here’s how it works:

You tightly wrap up your upper arm, restricting blood-flow from the biceps. You then do bicep curls at a much lower weight than you would usually. 

“The trapping of the blood is going to trap lactic acid,” says Zachary Long, director of physical therapy at Carolina Sports Clinic. “As you’re exercising, you’re building up more and more lactic acid… the growth hormone release that occurs in response [to that] is actually higher than what we see with heavy resistance training.”

On Fridays we flex. The many faces of a successful #ARMageddon day. I could be going for a squat PR and my face would still not be as good as arm day. Oh well! BFR straps for the win. Biceps still twitching out. Hope you all have a good weekend! #everydayisarmday #flexfridays

A post shared by Daniel Guzman_WBFF Pro (@_danielguzman_) on Aug 4, 2017 at 1:16pm PDT

Whilst the prospect of lifting light weights and building muscles at a quicker rate might sound appealing, those who use the technique says it hurts. A lot. 

“It should feel like the largest muscle burn you’ve ever had,” says Long. 

You need to make sure you’re doing it properly though – if your muscles go numb or feel tingly, you’ve tied your strap too tightly. 

Did some BFR today with my coach/boss this guy motivates the Shit out of me!! First time doing Blood Flow Restriction and had a huge PUMP!! Thanks again @ven.cortez this was just the beginning did preacher curls after and I thought my veins were going to explode!! @flexible_anabolic_nutrition #BFR #pump #bloodflowrestriction #vascular #vascularity #gymgrind #coach #islandlife #okinawa #justmove #movement #stayfit #fanfit #flexibleanabolicnutrition

A post shared by Homer Vato (@loco_fit600) on Aug 5, 2017 at 3:50am PDT

And it could pose risks for some people, so experts warn against doing blood flow restriction training if you have high blood pressure, varicose veins or deep-vein thrombosis, for example.

You shouldn’t wrap the straps or ties anywhere other than the tops of the arms or legs either.

But with many people waxing lyrical about the benefits of blood flow restriction – for both fitness and recovering from injury – you may start seeing more and more women and men tying up their arms at the gym soon.

If you want to give blood-flow restriction a try, be sure to ask a fitness professional to show you how to do it safely.

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