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What Is Occlusion Training?

Reviewed by Melinda Ratini, DO, MS on June 08, 2021

Occlusion training is also referred to as blood-flow restriction (BFR) training. This type of restriction training is good for people with injuries or physical limitations to help build up muscle. 

The goal of occlusion training is to build strength. For healthy individuals, occlusion training will lead to muscle and strength gains. Occlusion training also helps people recover from surgeries and injuries. 

How Does Occlusion Training Work?

Occlusion training involves disrupting blood flow to the limbs at work. A tourniquet or cuff is placed around your limb, and pressure is increased as you begin training. 

The pressure around your limb while exercising restricts blood flow. This leads to a pooling of blood in your limbs, leading to an effect called hypertrophy. To help prevent serious complications, it must be done by a trained professional. 

Muscle hypertrophy. When blood is restricted in your muscles, they get bigger. This swelling of the muscles is called hypertrophy. Hypertrophy kickstarts a series of processes that leads to muscle growth and strengthening. 

Cuffs and tourniquets. Your blood flow is restricted by using a cuff or tourniquet. The type of cuff used will affect your level of occlusion training. Aspects such as the cuff’s width, pressure, and material are all considered when you start occlusion training. 

Types of Occlusion Training

Your occlusion training regime will depend on your purpose. When recovering from an injury, low load occlusion training and low-intensity occlusion aerobic training may be effective routines. 

Low load occlusion training. This type of occlusion training utilizes lower weight with more repetitions. You will lift around 20% of your maximum weight for around 75 repetitions (divided into 3 to 4 sets). There’s a 30-second break between each set. 

Low load occlusion training is most effective when done 2 to 3 times a week. More frequent training is less effective because your muscles don’t have time to recover. Significant results become apparent after around 10 weeks of training. 

Low-intensity occlusion aerobic training. Aerobic exercise, such as walking and cycling, doesn’t usually cause muscle growth. Low-intensity occlusion aerobic training improves cardio endurance and muscular strength. It doesn’t provide the same gains as low load occlusion training, but the growth is significant compared to traditional aerobic exercise. 

A typical low-intensity occlusion aerobic training routine involves walking or cycling, raising your heart rate to a fraction of maximum heart rate. This routine is performed for around 10 to 15 minutes, 2 to 3 times a week. Improvements can be seen after around 6 weeks. 

High-intensity occlusion training. For healthy individuals who are pursuing strength gains, occlusion training can be done with heavier weights and with high intensity. Professional guidance is needed to prevent injury.

What to Expect from Occlusion Training

Workout routine. Your doctor or physical therapist will develop a training program that fits your needs. Sessions are typically less than 30 minutes with constant guidance during the workouts. 

Discomfort. Occlusion training may be uncomfortable due to the tourniquet applying pressure and your swollen muscles working so hard. No pain should be felt during occlusion training. 

Athletic use of occlusion training. There’s still research to be done, but occlusion training may allow athletes to boost their athletic performance without overworking themselves. Occlusion training for athletes is tailored to their specific needs. 

Is Occlusion Training Safe?

Many concerns come to mind when you think of blood flow restriction. There are few actual risks that accompany occlusion training, as long as it’s done safely with help. Most studies show that occlusion training is equally as risky as traditional exercise. 

Blood clots. Many people are concerned about the potential for blood clots in occlusion training. In several studies and surveys, less than 0.06% of people (healthy and older adults with heart disease) had no change regarding blood clots. If you’re prone to blood clots, be careful and talk to your doctor. 

Muscle damage. The risk for muscle damage is equal to traditional exercise. Exercising to the point of exhaustion or using untrained methods raises the risk of muscle damage. But occlusion training causes minimal damage. 

Numbness. Any numbness experienced during occlusion training is often due to the tourniquet or cuff used. If there’s too much pressure, the cuff compresses the nerves and causes numbness. 

People with heart conditions, problems with blood clots, cancer, and those who are pregnant should consult a doctor before attempting occlusive training. 

Show Sources

SOURCES:
The American Journal of Sports Medicine: “Blood Flow Restriction Training for Athletes: A Systematic Review.”
British Journal of Sports Medicine: “Blood flow restriction training in clinical musculoskeletal rehabilitation: a systematic review and meta-analysis.”
Frontiers in Physiology: “Blood Flow Restriction Exercise: Considerations of Methodology, Application, and Safety.”
Institute for Athletic Medicine: “Blood Flow Restriction Training.”
International Journal of Exercise Science: “Blood Flow Restriction Training: Implementation into Clinical Practice.”
Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research: “The Mechanisms of Muscle Hypertrophy and Their Application to Resistance Training.”

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