Have you ever been lifting weights at the gym – straining, sweating, breathing hard – trying to knock out just one rep at the heaviest weight? When trying to gain muscle strength, focused weight training is the key. When lifting at your heaviest weight, the body is stimulated to develop structural proteins that support the increase in muscle fibers. The accumulation of structural proteins in your body leads to more muscle strength for improved anaerobic endurance. High load muscle development strategies are seen at your local gym, but it limits the muscle development potential for individuals with a musculoskeletal issue such as a fracture or torn rotator cuff. 

High load training is not an option for many individuals recovering from musculoskeletal issues. Instead, Low-load or low weight, weight training paired with blood flow restriction rehabilitation strategies can provide an effective clinical rehab option. Together, low-load weight training paired with BFR is referred to as LL-BFR. An increase in research focused on using LL-BFR training to achieve muscle strengthening has expanded the options for individuals with musculoskeletal issues. For those looking to improve muscle strength while rehabilitating from an injury or surgery, low-load blood flow restriction therapy at Optimal Sports Physical Therapy might be the best addition to your recovery plan!

What is blood flow restriction training?

Blood flow restriction (BFR) training is the process of decreasing blood flow to working muscles.  By decreasing the blood flow, it moves the muscles into a state of hypertrophy. Hypertrophy is the process the body takes to increase muscle size and muscle endurance. Hypertrophy is typically achieved during high weight training. But, BFR can allow the body to capitalize on the muscle development of hypertrophy without the need for intense high weight training. BFR can also help prevent the breakdown of muscle tissue in muscles that are not being used during a recovery period. Individuals with physical limitations due to a disease or injury to the muscles, tendons, ligaments or bones can benefit from incorporating BFR into their regular rehabilitation activities. 

History of blood flow restriction therapy

Blood flow restriction therapy has been around since the 1960s. A Japanese physician, then 18 years old, stood after kneeling for a long amount of time and had a sore lower leg. The leg felt as if it had been through an intense workout. After massaging the leg he noticed that the blood was pumping back into the muscles restoring them to their original strength. This was his lightbulb moment of sorts. The muscle could gain strength by restricting blood flow to a muscle during exercise. When the normal blood flow returned, the muscles had strengthened without high-load weight lifting. He has since spent several decades researching and perfecting his techniques. He often used Japanese bodybuilders as his test subjects. The bodybuilder’s great results using blood flow restriction therapy spread. Eventually, BFR became common practice to treat limb injuries or amputations in military personnel. Olympic athletes also caught onto the benefits of BFR, and many have added it to their training regimens. 

Blood flow restriction therapy research and education has increased over the last decade. And, BFR practice is available in many physical therapy offices as a way to enhance existing rehabilitation techniques. Including at Optimal Sports Physical Therapy!

How does blood flow restriction therapy work?

Blood flow restriction therapy utilizes a compression device, similar to a blood pressure cuff, to isolate blood flow around a particular muscle group. Pressure applied to the muscle cuts off 50% –  80% of blood flow back out of the muscle. The compression device does not limit any blood flow into the muscle. The shift of blood flow, along with isolated low-weight exercise, spurs the body to develop muscle similar to the muscle development from heavy load weight activities. Blood flow restriction therapy supports improved muscle strength and endurance with little damage to the surrounding soft tissues that are common with heavy load weightlifting.  

Is blood flow restriction therapy safe?

Research shows that BFR is a safe and effective rehabilitation tool. Because BFR helps to minimize joint strain while increasing muscle strength, it is safer than high-weight training for post-surgical patients. Bruising around the restriction site is the most common side effect. The bruising will likely decrease with time as the patient adjusts to the therapy. When monitored by a physical therapist, BFR therapy is safe to include in rehab programs.

Dr. Shafer and Dr. Johnanna have completed BFR therapy training. The training allows Optimal Sports Physical Therapy to enhance our current therapy services.

Who benefits from blood flow restriction therapy?

Blood flow restriction therapy has the possibility of supporting muscle gain and anaerobic strength increases for all fitness levels. Even those who take part in heavy load training. BFR therapy is beneficial for patients following most upper and lower extremity surgeries. This includes ACL reconstructions, hip or knee replacements, and rotator cuff repairs. BFR is also beneficial for patients with osteoarthritis who are trying to avoid a joint replacement. Also, BFR may help patients who suffer from recurrent ankle sprains due to lower extremity weakness. Low load BFR can assist patients in improving muscle strength, soft tissue health, and provide extra stability to support healthy body movements and posture. Just about anyone may benefit from low-weight BFR therapies.

Optimal Sports Physical Therapy is one of the region’s only outpatient physical therapy clinics to offer blood flow restriction therapy. We aim to support patients in increasing strength when heavy-load training is not tolerated. Low-load blood flow restriction therapy is an evidence-based rehab option to help you gain strength, avoid muscle atrophy or ligament strain, and put you on the road for a strong recovery. 

Are you struggling to build muscle strength after an injury or surgery? Are the traditional physical therapy strategies alone not providing the benefits you want? Consider incorporating blood flow restriction therapy into your rehabilitation or regular workout. Call our office today to schedule a visit at (406) 502-1782 or check out our website to learn more.