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Occlusion Training/Blood Flow Restricted Training 

By: Josh Bryant

IFBB Pro Cory Mathews

“The difference between the freaks and the flocks is the F@-king Fork,” barked out “The Veteran” at Santa Barbara Gym and Fitness Center to some young punk that complained about his arms not growing—and did not realize he was receiving advice from a legend.

Never formally trained in science, The Veteran always gave advice that science has since proven. He used to always say, “Cheating lost me my old lady, failure is why I am unemployed but cheating and failure in the weight room is how I developed these pipes.”

Hard-nosed, high volume, heavy training built this man.  There is not a gay bone in my body but The Veteran had big, beautiful arms.

So what about the beat-up, old head that wants to pack on some arm size but just can’t handle the heavy, high volume, repetitive strain of this type of training regimen?

Occlusion training may provide some of the same benefits—further providing one more trick in the healthy, muscle head’s training arsenal.

This begs the question:
Is Occlusion training just one more way for the testicular challenged to avoid heavy pig iron or is it legitimate science that can help build muscle?

Instead of turning to the latest glossy muscle mag, I decided to do my own research.

What is Occlusion Training?

A literal definition of occlusion is “a closure or blockage.” The purpose is not restricting blood flow to the muscle but inhibiting blood flow return to the muscle, triggering blood to sit in the muscle and experience a completely new level of cell swelling or, in other words, spark a hell of a pump. 

Occlusion training was first studied in Japan and used a specialized pneumatic tourniquet, basically a fancy blood pressure cuff. This is not practical at the local weight pile, but a knee wrap will suffice. 

If you want to get big—you gotta train heavy.

Most text books and experts recommend weights greater than 65 percent of a trainee’s one-repetition max (1RM).  

Occlusion training is the game changer.

With occlusion training, similar rates of muscle hypertrophy have resulted using 20 percent of a lifter’s 1RM when compared to heavy pig iron.  

Even more interesting is the results have been favorable for experienced lifters and beginners.

How does it work?

Examining a number of studies, occlusion training appears to work by the following mechanisms: increased fast-twitch muscle fiber recruitment, metabolic accumulation, increased anabolic hormonal responses to training, stimulation of protein synthesis and cell swelling.  

These are not competing factors—they work in concert to play a harmonious symphony of muscle hypertrophy.

Large, fast-twitch muscle fibers have the most potential for growth, but are recruited with the high force production demands of moving heavy weights.

When using a light load of 20 percent of a 1RM with occlusion training, fast-twitch muscle fibers are recruited much earlier in the set, so they grow.  The size principle tells us slow-twitch muscle fibers are recruited first; these fibers are mostly aerobic. By restricting blood flow, oxygen is restricted to slow-twitch fibers so they fatigue much faster and the recruitment process hastily shifts to recruiting fast-twitch muscle fibers—the ones that have the most potential to grow. 

Muscle hypertrophy results from mechanical tension, metabolic stress and muscle damage. Occlusion training induces metabolic stress by way of the accumulation oflactic acid and hydrogen in the muscle. Normally, blood flow would remove metabolic byproducts; by restricting blood flow, it keeps them in the target area. 

From a hormonal standpoint–one study showed occlusion training increased growth hormone levels 290 times above baseline levels, twice that of typical heavy weight training.

A 2011 study published by European Journal of Applied Physiology compared the effects of leg extensions performed unilaterally with one leg under an occlusion condition and the other leg under a normal condition.
 Five sets were performed to failure with 30 percent of the subjects’ one-repetition max. Maximal force production 48 hours post workout was significantly less in the occluded leg, DOMS was greater and increased resting tension was greater immediately post workout and 24 hours later in the occluded leg. Intracellular indicators of muscle fiber damage were greater immediately, 24 hours later and 48 hours post workout in the occluded leg. Demonstrating hypertrophic adaptations may also result from increased muscle damage. 

Further benefits:

Myostatin inhibits hypertrophy. That’s why magazines are filled with ads for “Myostantin Blockers;” not surprisingly, so far the results have, for lack of a better term, sucked!

A 2005 study performed occlusion training on rats, published in ACSM’s journal, Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise (MSSE), showed reduced myostatin concentrations.  


A study entitled “The Effects of Low-Load Resistance Training With Vascular Occlusion on the Mechanical Properties of Muscle and Tendon” published in The Journal of Applied Biomehanics showed that induced muscle hypertrophy from light weight load occlusion training was similar to training with heavy weight; tendon stiffness that results from training heavy was absent with occlusion training, suggesting if more traditional heavy weight training is not cycled in a training regimen, muscle strength increase will accelerate past tendon strength increases. 


A 2012 meta-analysis  published in The European Journal of Applied Physiology found superior results in strength and hypertrophy in subjects that performed occlusion training to 2 to 3 times a week, contrasted to 4-5 times. 

When can I expect to see results?

The same meta-analysis showed hypertrophy in untrained subjects in as little as 3-4 weeks, compared to a traditional program that takes two months or more, typically.

Strength showed significant increases after 10 weeks, showing strength gains resulted from increases in cross sectional muscle fiber area not increased neural efficiency.

What about endurance?

A 2010 study published in The European Journal of Applied Physiologytackled this question.  A group of college ball players walked daily for two weeks at a speed of 4-6/km/h on a hill with a 5 percent grade for five sets of three minutes, with a one-minute rest interval between sets; performed twice daily.  

The second group performed the same regimen under an occluded condition (a 110 mm wide occlusion devise was placed at the most proximal portion of the leg).

Two weeks later, endurance had not increased in the normal walking group but the occlusion group had significantly improved stroke volume, VO2 max and decreased their heart rates.  Occlusion training subjects increased anaerobic capacity by 2.5 percent! 

Practically Applied
·       Wrap the strap or wrap around the top of the muscle you’re working (thighs, arms, etc.)
·       Wrap it tight
·       Use 20-40 percent of your one-repetition max
·       Do not loosen the wraps between sets as it will keep the blood trapped in that particular muscle
·       Do not “occlude for more than 10 minutes”

Occlusion training is exciting! 

Benefits range from rehabtohypertrophy or for the old head bodybuilder that needs a break from heavy training.  

Science shows risks from occlusion training are no greater than traditional training.

Final Thoughts
While occlusion training does offer some of the same benefits of heavy lifting, keep in mind no one has built world-class physique with occlusion training alone.  Limit strength is your base but this is one more weapon in your hypertrophy-inducing artillery.