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Blood Flow Restriction (BFR) For Rapid Results – The Ultimate Guide (Backed By Science)

When we talk about resistance training, we tend to lift or think of heavy loads that stimulate muscle growth and strength.

While this type of training is key, you may eventually plateau, be short on time, get injured, be away traveling or just want to progress faster (who doesn’t?!).

If any of these apply to you, a new research proven technique has emerged called Blood Flow Restriction Training (BFR). It started in research as a time effective method to train and still get results as most sessions only take 10-15 minutes but have now been shown to have unique benefits.

For instance, new research has shown it can reduce muscle loss, improve muscle growth for athletes, help recover from an injury and even boost key hormones. While BFR is a great technique, there are very few informational articles that actually breakdown how it works, the benefits, if it’s safe and how to actually use it effectively.

As I’ve researched BFR first hand and used it successfully with 1000’s of clients I’ve finally had time to provide a complete guide, here’s everything you need to know about Blood Flow Restriction Training (backed by science and accurate)…

What Is Blood Flow Restriction (BFR) Training?

 Blood Flow Restriction training involves wrapping your upper limb (normally upper leg or arm) to restrict blood flow.

BFR aims to cut off venous blood flow to allow for blood pooling to occur: blood can enter the muscle, but most of it cannot leave which causes the ‘occlusion’ or pump that you will quickly experience when you try BFR. Although it sounds scary, several studies have shown it to be perfectly safe [1, 2]

Not only is it safe, it’s incredibley effective.

When combined with resistance training, BFR has shown to increase muscular strength by 20-30% of an individual’s one-repetition max. If you are familiar with strength training, these are some MASSIVE improvements, especially as you are using light weights to train with! [2].

 Normally, low-intensity (i.e. using light weights) resistance training does not provide a great enough stimulus to activate muscle protein synthesis. However, when combined with BFR, muscular strength and growth can occur from even short duration and low-intensity weight training [1].

This is important for serval reasons, mainly, it can be used when de-loading (i.e. taking it easy), when you are injured or run down (and can’t train at full intensity), short for time or have limited equipment (i.e. when in a hotel gym or on vacation etc) [2,3].

BFR training should not be used at a high-intensity, but rather a low or moderate intensity. Even an intensity as low as 20% of a 1-RM has shown to increase muscle growth! [1].

Here’s a video of me performing BFR training.

How Blood Flow Restriction (BFR) Training Works

Previous research has indicated that low-intensity BFR utilizes the three key mechanisms in producing muscle growth:

  • Cellular swelling
  • Metabolic stress
  • Increased muscle fiber recruitment

It’s important to note that it’s likely the combo of all 3 mechanisms that provide such impressive results from BFR training [1, 2].

It is thought that cellular swelling is a result of metabolite accumulation, blood pooling, and the reduction of oxygen to the working muscle. If you experience an insane pump when doing BFR then fear not, this is actually one of the key reasons our muscles adapt and we grow [2].

This sudden increase in metabolites which are byproducts from resistance training also activate certain hormones in the body that stimulate muscle protein synthesis, they key driver behind muscle growth and positive training adaptations [2].

Unique Benefits of Blood Flow Restriction (BFR)

Low-intensity Blood Flow Restriction training is a great option or addon to use because you can see similar results in muscle growth and recruitment as if you were lifting at higher intensities [3].

It’s also extremely time efficient. For example, if you train chest first and have only 10 minutes left for triceps, you could do BFR for 10 minutes and likely get superior results than 10 minutes of normal tricep training.

Additionally, if you were going to skip the gym one day because you are super busy or travelling, you could even wrap your legs at home and just do 5 sets of bodyweight squats. While it may not be the same as 90 minutes of heavy squats and weight training, it will be 100x better than no exercise at all J

Not only can you use lower weight with great amounts of muscle recruitment, but you won’t damage your muscles as much, which means better recovery to crush your next workout [3]. For this reason, I also use BFR training with clients on rest days. It’s basically “FREE” training and does not impair your recovery or stress your joints like regular heavy weight training does.

While I’m certainly not saying you should replace normal training, BFR is a great add-on or advanced technique to overcome a plateau, use when travelling, injured or if your body just needs a new stimulus to adapt and progress!

How to Use Blood Flow Restriction (BFR) Training

The purpose of low-intensity BFR training is to fully occlude venous blood flow, but not arterial blood flow. The reduction in oxygen allows for these metabolites to build up [2].

BFR should be used at a low-intensity (20-50% of your 1-RM) to receive the most benefit [1].  In other words, if you normally use 100lb for 10 reps of squats, you would want to use about half of that.

Don’t worry, it’s not going to be easy, even with such light weights. Remember, we need to focus on the PUMP. For that reason, most protocols will use high reps (20-30 reps) with very limited rest, such as 30 seconds. Some protocols are provided below, but…

In theory, you could be doing 100 reps in just 5-6 minutes!!

There is a certain technique that is used for where to wrap on the body, since BFR is mostly used for single-joint exercises.

For example, if you were to go into the gym and perform a leg workout, you should be wrapping the knee wraps on your thigh towards your butt. For an arm workout, you should be wrapping the knee wraps around your upper arm towards your shoulder. The idea is you wrap the limb as close to the heart as possible (as the blood is trying to return here), hence why we wrap at the upper leg and upper arm.

It is important to not wrap too tight or loose, as this may cut off arterial circulation or not provide sufficient occlusion. Previous research has validated that wrapping at a moderately-perceived tightness 5 to 7 out of 10 is the most effective and safe.

For those wondering, BFR research has shown that low-intensity BFR, in combination with high-intensity resistance training, shows significant increases in muscle growth and strength [3]. In other words, it’s great to pair with your normal training, such as at the end of a workout like we do in the 90 Day Bikini Plan and 20 Week Mass.

I suggest that you use it 2-3 days per week for each muscle (i.e. 2-3 times for arms and 2-3 ti,e for legs) at the end of your workouts or on rest days.

Example BFR Workouts

 Leg Press with BFR

  • 30 repetitions – rest for 30 seconds
  • 20 repetitions – rest for 30 seconds
  • 20 repetitions – rest for 30 seconds
  • 15 repetitions – rest for 30 seconds

Hamstring Curls with BFR

  • 30 repetitions – rest for 30 seconds
  • 20 repetitions – rest for 30 seconds
  • 20 repetitions – rest for 30 seconds
  • 15 repetitions – rest for 30 seconds

Leg Extensions with BFR

  • 30 repetitions – rest for 30 seconds
  • 20 repetitions – rest for 30 seconds
  • 20 repetitions – rest for 30 seconds
  • 15 repetitions – rest for 30 seconds

Calf Raises with BFR

  • 30 repetitions – rest for 30 seconds
  • 20 repetitions – rest for 30 seconds
  • 20 repetitions – rest for 30 seconds
  • 15 repetitions – rest for 30 seconds

Cable Tricep Extensions with BFR

  • 30 repetitions – rest for 30 seconds
  • 20 repetitions – rest for 30 seconds
  • 20 repetitions – rest for 30 seconds
  • 15 repetitions – rest for 30 seconds

Seated DB Bicep Curls with BFR

  • 30 repetitions – rest for 30 seconds
  • 20 repetitions – rest for 30 seconds
  • 20 repetitions – rest for 30 seconds
  • 15 repetitions – rest for 30 seconds

How to Use BFR Bands, Where to Buy BFR Bands

Until recently, BFR could only be used in a research setting with a special device costing several thousands dollars.

Luckily, my laboratory at the University of Tampa and 1-2 other research groups compared this machine to ‘Practical BFR’ methods and found the use of bands to be just as effective.

The best part is that these bands are only $20-40 and will last for years. Now, BFR Is accessible to everyone and can be performed in the gym, at home or when travelling on vacation!

These are the top selling BFR bands that I use and recommend to all my clients:

www.BFRshop.com 

Example BFR Training Split

If you want full BFR workouts and to see how it’s programmed within a periodized transformation plan you can download my workouts here:

Females: 90 Day Bikini Plan

Males: 20 Week Mass

Summary & Take Home Points

  • BFR is both safe and effective as long as you follow the instructions and do not wrap too tight: blood can enter the muscle, but it cannot leave. Plus, the wraps are left on for 15-20 minutes max.
  • When BFR is used over several weeks you will see considerable muscle growth and strength, especially when combined with my 90 Day Bikini Plan or 20 Week Mass.
  • BFR stimulates muscle growth and strength via 3 key mechanisms – cellular swelling, metabolic stress, and an increase in muscle fiber recruitment.
  • BFR should not replace normal strength and heavy weight training, instead, see it as a bonus or add-on to increase your progress. It’s also excellent to add in more frequency (i.e. how often you hit each muscle).
  • BFR should only be used at a low-intensity: 20-30% 1-RM with short rest periods (30 seconds) and lots of reps (around 20-30 reps over 3-4 sets).
  • Make sure not to wrap too tight or too light: use a perceived tightness of around 5-7 out of 10.
  • You can buy BFR bands here: www.BFRshop.com

References

Loenneke, J. P., Wilson, J. M., Marín, P. J., Zourdos, M. C., & Bemben, M. G. (2012). Low intensity blood flow restriction training: a meta-analysis. European journal of applied physiology112(5), 1849-1859.

Wilson, JM, Lowery, RP, Joy, JM, Loenneke, JP, and Naimo, MA. Practical blood flow restriction training increases acute determinants of hypertrophy without increasing indices of muscle damage. J Strength Cond Res 27(11): 3068–3075, 2013

Yasuda, T, Brechue, WF, Fujita, T, Shirakawa, J, Sato, Y, and Abe, T. Muscle activation during low-intensity muscle contractions with restricted blood flow. J Sports Sci 27: 479–489, 2009.

 

About the author

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Rudy Mawer, MSc, CISSN

Rudy has a 1st class BSc in Exercise, Nutrition & Health and a Masters in Exercise & Nutrition Science from the University of Tampa. Rudy currently works as a Human Performance Researcher, Sports Nutritionist and Physique Coach. Over 7 years he has helped over 500 people around the world achieve long last physique transformations.

He now works closely with a variety of professional athletes and teams, including the NBA, USA Athletics, World Triathlon Gold Medalists, Hollywood Celebrities and IFBB Pro Bodybuilders. If you would like to get in contact or work with Rudy please contact him on social media.

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