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Occlusion training, which calls for partially restricting blood flow to extremities, has soared in popularity over the last five years. Most blood flow restricted studies have focused primarily muscle hypertrophy. But for our brethren that want to bench press more — but otherwise are plagued by injury — occlusion training may offer some benefits. A new study suggests that occlusion bench press training, even though it’s done with much lighter weight than normal, may help benchers better hold on to strength and mass during times of inactivity or injury.
This study, published in the journal Clinical Physiology & Functional Imaging, examined the effect of restricting blood flow to the upper arm muscles during a low-intensity bench press regimen. Subjects were divided into a control group and a blood flow restricted group. Both groups bench pressed 30 percent of their one repetition max (1RM) twice daily, six days a week, for four weeks. In all, the workout totaled 75 repetitions.
The blood flow restricted group bench pressed with elastic cuffs on both arms, and pressure increased progressively on both arms, with incremental increases in external compression starting at 100 mmHg and ending at 160 mmHg.
Amazingly, the blood flow restricted group increased muscle thickness in triceps by 8 percent and pectoralis major muscles by 16 percent. Interestingly, the muscle thickness of the control group stayed the same. The control group’s 1RM bench press decreased by 2 percent over the two weeks while the blood flow restricted group’s bench press increased 6 percent.
Both groups in this study were novices. Barring injury, no advanced bench presser routinely trains with 30 percent of his 1RM. Injury is where this study is potentially most applicable. When novices start to train, initial strength gains are neural, meaning they get better at the movement pattern. Strength gains, because of increased muscle mass, take much longer.
By restricting blood flow to the upper arms with light weight, the injured bench presser may be better able to hold on to his bench press limit strength and his hard-earned muscle hypertrophy. Those who may reap similar benefits are those who are training on the road that may have less access to heavy weight. By using occlusion training, you can get away with using less weight and still keep gains on track.
Josh Bryant, MFS, CSCS, PES, is the owner of JoshStrength.com and co-author (with Adam benShea) of the Amazon No. 1 seller Jailhouse Strong. He is a strength coach at Metroflex Gym in Arlington, Texas, and holds 12 world records in powerlifting. You can connect with him on Twitter and Facebook or visit his website at www.joshstrength.com.