Is Blood Flow Restriction the New Cupping?

Think back to the 2016 summer Olympics in Rio. Remember seeing athletes—most famously, Michael Phelps—with red, circular bumps on their bodies and finding out that they were the result of cupping, an ancient practice that uses suction cups directly on the skin to promote circulation and relieve muscle tension? Then remember how regular people (non-Olympic athletes) started trying out cupping as a way to treat muscle pain and speed up recovery? Well, there’s another technique utilized by Olympians that experts say might trickle down to the masses. It’s called blood flow restriction training (BFR), and it’s basically a practice in which pressurized cuffs are worn around the arms or legs to slow blood flow to specific muscles during training in an attempt to build more muscle mass. Read on for everything you need to know.

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What Is Blood Flow Restriction?

Developed by Dr. Yoshiaki Sato, a Japanese former power lifter, back in 1966, blood flow restriction training is the practice of placing a specialized tourniquet (that kind of looks like a blood pressure cuff) around one of your limbs to control blood flow. In theory, this should allow you get more gains out of lower-intensity exercise. The idea is that the tight band or strap restricts the blood flow in and out, which temporarily creates a low oxygen environment for the muscle. This low oxygen environment forces the muscles to work harder, which could lead to muscle repair and growth. Though right now it’s predominantly used by elite athletes, like cupping, BFR is trickling down to more casual exercisers, including celebs like Tracee Ellis Ross, who shared her experience on Instagram.

Does It Actually Build Muscle and Speed Up Recovery?

While there aren’t a ton of studies on the efficacy of BFR, the research that is out there is promising. For example, a 2019 study published in the Journal of Applied Physiology found that BFR paired with low-intensity resistance exercise yielded similar muscle gains when compared with high-intensity resistance exercise in a group of adult men over a 14-week period.

It’s important to note that, because BFR isn’t super widely practiced yet, there are some issues surrounding proper technique. A 2017 study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine found that many rehabilitation professionals were still unclear about how to use it, meaning both more training and more studies are necessary to establish BFR as a

How Can You Try BFR?

Not by yourself, certainly. Trying practices like blood flow restriction without being trained to do so can be dangerous, so if you’re interested in trying it out, it’s crucial to do so under the supervision of a physical therapist with experience in BFR who can monitor you. Still, if you’re a biohacking enthusiast who’s constantly searching for ways to get the most out of your gym time, it might be worth looking into PTs in your area who can help you try BFR for yourself.

sarah stiefvater

Wellness Director

Sarah Stiefvater is PureWow's Wellness Director. She's been at PureWow for ten years, and in that time has written and edited stories across all categories, but currently focuses...