If you’re looking for an easy and time efficient, but effective way to stimulate muscle growth, look no further than blood flow restriction training (BFR)!
What is BFR?
BFR training is characterised by the use of a pressurised cuff, elastic wrist wraps, or tourniquet, to reduce the amount of blood that leaves a working muscle.
For example, if you’re doing a set of curls whilst using the BFR technique, blood flow is able to enter the working muscle via the arteries, however blood leaving the working muscle through veins is compromised because veins are closer to the surface of the skin.
The resistance that should be used with this technique is light, somewhere in the realm of 20-40% 1RM. Going heavy will not serve the purpose here.
Why Should BFR Be Used?
BFR is fantastic for athletes who have suffered an injury and still need a strength stimulus, but can’t load up with heavy weights to train. It’s also great for adding in extra training volume for those who need to add some size to their frame without largely eating in to their recoverability.
However, if you or an athlete you train suffers from blood pressure problems or dizzy spells, this method of training should not be used due to the high levels of metabolic load and time under tension which can cause drastic increases in blood pressure.
How to Implement BFR
An important consideration is the size of the blood flow restriction cuff that is to be used. For the arms, it is possible to use a cuff that is 3-12cm in width, and for the legs, anywhere from 4.5-18.5cm. However, the general recommendation for arms is 3-6cm, while for legs it is recommended to use 6-13.5cm. A wider cuff is going to cause a higher level of pain, greater rating of perceived exertion, and limit the training volume. Additionally, a wider cuff will transmit the pressure through soft tissue differently as compared to a narrower cuff, and limit the ability to train in a full range of motion.
When applying the cuff, if using a tourniquet or wrist wraps, a subjective measure of about 7/10 of maximum pressure is optimal.
This method of training cannot be used for chest, back, abs, or glute training. This is because we are trying to reduce the blood flowing back to the heart, if blood is in our chest or back then there is nothing stopping is from freely flowing back to the heart!
In terms of setting up the cuff and implementing the training, refer to this table below for an overview.
Some exercises you would generally use are as follows:
Upper Body: Biceps curls, triceps pushdowns, close grip bench press.
Lower Body: Squats, leg extensions, leg curls, calf raises.
The Training Protocol
The training protocol generally prescribed is simple, but not easy. As prescribed in the table above, it goes like this:
Set 1: 30 reps @ 30% 1RM
Rest 30 seconds
Set 2: 15 reps @ 30% 1RM
Rest 30 seconds
Set 3: 15 reps @ 30% 1RM
Rest 30 seconds
Set 4: 15 reps @ 30% 1RM
Be prepared to feel a great burning sensation when performing this protocol, as well as experience a huge pump in the muscles being worked due to the accumulation of blood pooling in the area.
In the video below, you’ll see me performing the 30-15-15-15 protocol using an incline dumbbell biceps curl. I’m using wrist wraps as my cuff with a pressure level of about a 7/10, however I’ll look to get a tourniquet similar to what you’d have when getting a blood test, but a little wider as I find the standard tourniquets are not quite wide enough for me. Trying to put on the wrist wraps by yourself is a bit of a pain to get the desired level of tension! Finally, as you’ll be able to tell from my facial expressions, it’s not always a pleasant feeling when performing blood flow restriction!
And yes, the video is sped up!
To sum up, blood flow restriction training is a fantastic way to stimulate muscle growth using light loads. This may be great for those athletes who have suffered an injury and cannot train with heavy loads, or if an athlete is looking to add some size to their frame without massively fatiguing their system with extra training volume.
Make sure the pressure cuff you choose is not overly large, and is used at about 7/10 pressure. Finally, using the 30-15-15-15 method of training is solid and can be performed in quick time, it only takes around 4-5 minutes to complete!
Give it a shot and let me know how it works for you!
Scott BR, Loenneke JP, Slattery KM, Dascombe BJ. Exercise with blood flow restriction: an updated evidence-based approach for enhanced muscular development. Sports medicine. 2015 Mar 1;45(3):313-25.