To remain independent and healthy, an important factor to consider is the maintenance of skeletal muscle mass. Inactivity leads to measurable changes in muscle and bone, reduces exercise capacity, impairs the immune system, and decreases the sensitivity to insulin. Therefore, maintaining physical activity is of great importance for skeletal muscle health. One form of structured physical activity is resistance training. Generally speaking, one needs to lift weights at approximately 70% of their one repetition maximum (1RM) to have noticeable increases in muscle size and strength. Although numerous positive effects are observed from heavy resistance training, some at risk populations (e.g. elderly, rehabilitating patients, etc.) might be advised not to perform high-load resistance training and may be limited to performance of low-load resistance exercise. A technique which applies pressure cuffs to the limbs causing blood flow restriction (BFR) has been shown to attenuate atrophy and when combined with low intensity exercise has resulted in an increase in both muscle size and strength across different age groups. We have provided an evidence based model of progression from bed rest to higher load resistance training, based largely on BFR literature concentrating on more at risk populations, to highlight a possible path to recovery.
The purpose of this study was to investigate the potential mechanisms behind the blood flow restriction (BFR) stimulus in the absence of exercise. Nine participants completed a 10 minute time control and then a BFR protocol. The protocol was five, 5-minute bouts of inflation with 3-minutes of deflation between each bout. The pressure was set relative to each individual’s thigh circumference. Significant increases in muscle thickness were observed for both the vastus lateralis (VL) [6%, p = 0.027] and rectus femoris (RF) [22%, p = 0.001] along with a significant decrease in plasma volume [15%, p = 0.001]. Ratings of discomfort during the BFR protocol peaked at 2.7 (light discomfort). There were no significant changes with whole blood lactate, electromyography (EMG), or heart rate (HR), however, there was a trend for a significant increase in HR during the 5th inflation (p = 0.057). In conclusion, this is the first study to demonstrate that the attenuation of both muscle atrophy and declines in strength previously observed with brief applications of BFR may have been mediated through an acute fluid shift induced increase in muscle size. This is supported by our finding that the changes in muscle thickness are maintained even after the cuffs have been removed.
Blood flow restriction (BFR) combined with low load resistance training has been shown to result in muscle hypertrophy similar to that observed with higher loads. However, not all studies have found BFR efficacious, possibly due to methodological differences. It is presently unclear whether there are differences between cuffs of similar size (5 cm) but different material (nylon vs. elastic). The purpose was to determine if there are differences in repetitions to fatigue and perceptual ratings of exertion (RPE) and discomfort between narrow elastic and narrow nylon cuffs. Sixteen males and females completed three sets of BFR knee extension exercise in a randomized cross-over design using either elastic or nylon restrictive cuffs applied at the proximal thigh. There were no differences in repetitions to fatigue (marker of blood flow) or perceptual ratings between narrow elastic and narrow nylon cuffs. This data suggests that either elastic or nylon cuffs of the same width should cause similar degrees of BFR at the same pressure during resistance exercise.
Discrepancies exist whether blood flow restriction (BFR) exacerbates exercise-induced muscle damage (EIMD). This study compared low-intensity eccentric contractions of the elbow flexors with and without BFR for changes in indirect markers of muscle damage. Nine untrained young men (18–26 y) performed low-intensity (30% 1RM) eccentric contractions (2-s) of the elbow flexors with one arm assigned to BFR and the other arm without BFR. EIMD markers of maximum voluntary isometric contraction (MVC) torque, range of motion (ROM), upper arm circumference, muscle thickness and muscle soreness were measured before, immediately after, 1, 2, 3, and 4 days after exercise. Electromyography (EMG) amplitude of the biceps brachii and brachioradialis were recorded during exercise. EMG amplitude was not significantly different between arms and did not significantly change from set 1 to set 4 for the biceps brachii but increased for the brachioradialis (p ≤ 0.05, 12.0% to 14.5%) when the conditions were combined. No significant differences in the changes in any variables were found between arms. MVC torque decreased 7% immediately post-exercise (p ≤ 0.05), but no significant changes in ROM, circumference, muscle thickness and muscle soreness were found. These results show that BFR does not affect EIMD by low-intensity eccentric contractions.