You might have been slightly intimidated when you heard about Blood Flow Restriction (BFR) training. Well, you are not the only one. It does sound like a hack that might be too hard to pull off. But is that the case? Are BFR bands dangerous?
The answer is a bit more complicated than to summarize in one sentence. BFR training promises to offer the same results as a hardcore gym workout session at its core. This training program is a lot different from traditional weight training programs.
And if you want to know how safe are BFR bands, you need to stick to the end. This guide will provide all the ins and out of the topic.
1. What Is BFR Training Or Occlusion Training?
So, BFR training, otherwise known as occlusion training, requires you to wear a cuff or band around the upper arm or leg while exercising. And when you wear the band correctly during occlusion training, you can restrict the blood flow during aerobic exercise or resistance training sessions.
So, how does BFR work? Occlusion training primarily focuses on restricting blood flow into the limbs. The venous blood flow, which is basically the blood pumping out of the limbs, will be impeded.
The great thing about occlusion training is that you can perform it through resistance training and aerobic exercises such as walking. You can even carry out the restricted exercise without doing any workout, which is known as passive BFR training.
You will notice significant improvements when you properly carry out the blood flow restriction exercise. Through blood flow restricted exercise sessions, you can enjoy greater muscle growth, higher muscle mass, better muscle function, and can increase your muscular strength.
Blood flow restriction training can also help recover from injuries, otherwise known as clinical musculoskeletal rehabilitation. It can even help with muscle activation and eliminate physical limitations.
In short, occlusion training shines the most at enhancing muscle growth and increasing muscle size and muscle strength. And it emphasizes low-load training than high-load training sessions.
2. How Is BFR Used in Physical Therapy?
Resistance training through moderate to heavy weights is often impossible in clinical practice. That is why a physical therapist will not ask you to lift heavy weights in the clinic.
However, occlusion training can easily lower the loads in the upper arms, lower body parts, and other areas in these. And that is without the cardiovascular risk and the risk of high levels of joint stress, at least according to this 2016 study.
Moreover, according to this 2017 article, blood flow resistance training can be considered an emerging clinical modality. However, a study also indicated that more research is required to establish safety protocols.
3. What Are The Risks Related to BFR Training Or Occlusion Training?
Now that you have a fair idea regarding occlusion training. Let’s get into the central part of this discussion. Understanding the risk related to BFR training can let you know whether blood flow restriction exercises with bands are dangerous or not.
Basically, the primary concerns regarding the blood flow restriction training are in four key areas.
3.1 Muscle Damage
There has been a lot of research regarding blood flow restriction training and muscle damage. However, the bad news is that the results are highly varied. But it does appear that BFR training can induce muscle damage and delayed onset muscle soreness.
That said, the extent of the damage to the muscular system will depend on the training method. And it highly depends on the amount of time you use the blood flow restriction bands or blood pressure cuff.
Nonetheless, muscle damage is a pretty normal response to unaccustomed training sessions. And not much evidence suggests that adding BFR training methods can put too much pressure on the muscle to cause excessive muscle damage.
In contrast, many indicate that BFR can effectively increase muscular strength and muscular hypertrophy. But to avoid serious complications, you should start blood flow restriction training on a low-intensity level and with a lighter load. Focus on the working muscles and gradually shift to intensive strength training methods.
3.2 Blood Clotting
Another rising concern regarding blood flow restriction training is blood clots. Research from surgical tourniquet states that arterial occlusion can cause the formation of a blood clot. However, the incident rate of blood clots and deep vein thrombosis due to BFR training is pretty low. It stands at 0.06 percent.
There are many factors to consider if you are talking about the exercise science of BFR. Firstly, the blood flow does not get completely blocked during the sessions. Secondly, the time frame for BFR is reasonably low, which is around five to ten minutes. A traditional exercise lasts longer than that.
Finally, this low-load and low-intensity training method will promote active muscle contraction through the exercising limb. However, you will be at risk if you do not opt for a lower intensity or lighter weight and use the device for a prolonged time.
3.3 Blood Pressure
Worries regarding blood pressure are the third of the four significant safety considerations around BFR. Although this issue is relatively understudied, some suggest that BFR can increase the cardiovascular response to exercise.
But the thing is, the changes in blood pressure and heart rate are pretty much comparable to a regular exercise session that include resistance training. Systematic review hypothesizes that these changes are driven mainly by the decreased venous return and stroke volume.
Alternatively, much research backs up BFR training stating that it improves vascular function among healthy individuals and older adults.
3.4 Pain and Discomfort
The research and studies regarding BFR and pain are somewhat conflicting. Common perceptual body responses include numbness, fainting, and dizziness. But fainting and dizziness are most likely to be caused by post-exercise hypertension.
On the other hand, the thing that can drive numbness is likely to be peripheral nerve compression. The band or cuff pressure is expected to influence the compression. It will not damage the nerves.
Again, the incidents around pain and discomfort are pretty low as well. The rate is anywhere from 0 to 2 percent. And this rate is equivalent to cardiovascular and resistance training.
Now, if you talk about nerve damage, it is not likely to be caused by BFR. In fact, emerging clinical studies and sports medicine specialists could not find any long-term health implications for the sensations that BFR causes.
4. How to Use BFR Safely
With the risks related to BFR bands out of the way, let’s get into the ways of using BFR devices safely.
4.1 Use Personalized LOP
Firstly, you need to opt for personalized LOP, which states limb occlusion pressure. You see, the amount of pressure required to occlude the blood flow is highly individual. And it is driven by loads of intrinsic and extrinsic factors. That includes the cuff shape, cuff width, material, blood pressure, limb circumference, and others.
A lot of smart BFR cuffs are out there that can measure how much pressure is required to occlude the blood flow. You should opt for one of those instead of the others.
4.2 Progress the Training Gradually
Like any other health and fitness training, you will need some time to adapt to BFR. The thing is, BFR will be unique stress for your body when you start. For that reason, it is highly recommended to start with lower pressure. Target 30 to 50 percent LOP at the beginning and slowly progress it as you get more comfortable.
But what do you do when you have achieved the targeted pressure? You can challenge yourself! Increase the intensity of the exercise and opt for heavier weights when you reach the target.
4.3 Listen and Understand Your Body
BFR training is not an exception when it comes to risk and health complications. Every exercise has those. And it is pretty normal to face muscle soreness, numbness, bruising, fainting, and dizziness when you are starting the training sessions. But there is no evidence of long-term effects regarding these symptoms degrading your health.
In most cases, the symptoms should go away right after you release the pressure from the band or cuff. However, if the symptoms are too extreme, you need to cease the exercise protocol. Seek advice from your healthcare professional and follow all of the guidelines that the professional tells you.
5. Who Are at Most Risk?
Although a growing body of evidence suggests BFR is a safe training method, some things are still understudied. That is why people with an increased risk of cardiovascular complications, nerve injury (such as diabetics patients), and those with higher chances of muscle damage should monitor themselves excessively.
According to a recent study from Kacin et al., which took place in 2015, a comprehensive screen protocol is the best practice when assessing sustainability for BFR training. So, if you do not want BFR training to be dangerous for your health, consider strictly monitoring yourself.