Blood flow restriction (BFR) or vascular occlusion is a technique that partially reduces blood flow into the arteries by decreasing the outflow of blood from the veins of the exercised muscle in the extremities where it is applied.
You may have seen some weightlifters using bands on certain areas of the limbs to restrict blood flow and train with lower loads to increase their strength and achieve muscle hypertrophy.
The KAATSU technique, which is Japanese for "extra pressure", uses pneumatic bands that are inflated and deflated on a regular basis, via a monitor. The great thing about this technique is that you can increase strength and muscle mass using only a fraction of the weight that would be needed in conventional strength training and in half the time!
It sounds a little unbelievable that a technique that uses virtually a third of the weight you would normally use in weight training can have such powerful effects, in a relatively short time and reduce the risk of injury to virtually zero.
How Does the RFS KAATSU Technique Work?
By fastening the KAATSU bands, either in the upper or lower extremities, venous blood flow through the muscle group involved will decrease, creating an environment of relative hypoxia or low oxygen pressure in the muscle being exercised.
By exercising very gently, for 15-20 minutes, a thorough workout is achieved that sends a signal to the brain of a very hard work out that needs recovery and adaptation. The brain then sends a wide variety of hormonal responses that stimulate the muscles and blood vessels to develop and strengthen.
Believe me, it took me a while to understand that the KAATSU technique using light weights could develop and strengthen the muscles of the whole body, not just the limbs wearing the bands. It has also been shown that this technique allows a muscle strength increase of 40% in just 12 weeks of training (using the bands about 3 times a week), depending on your health and the load used, of course (study).
Effects of Blood Flow Restriction on the Human Body
The decrease in blood flow when the bands are inflated creates an environment of relative hypoxia or low oxygen pressure in the muscle being exercised.
The exercises are performed in cycles with very light weights, first with the bands on the arms and then another cycle with the bands tightened around the groin. During this practice, the brain, due to the restricted blood flow, perceives that a tremendously exhaustive workout is being performed. The brain then sends out a variety of hormonal responses that stimulate the muscles and blood vessels to grow and strengthen.
At the endocrine level there are changes in the concentration of noradrenaline, vasopressin (anti-diuretic) hormone in the blood, as well as renin activity.
When the bands are applied to the legs, the blood accumulates in the extremities, the venous return volume decreases and both arterial and pulmonary blood pressure decrease. This reduces the expansive force in the blood vessels and consequently reduces the load on the receptors in the blood vessels. As a result, the sympathetic system that has been inhibited by the central nervous system starts to show activation signals, which eventually leads to a slowing of the heart rate as well as the blood pressure.
How KAATSU Blood Flow Restriction Bands Help You to Tighten Your Muscles
Muscle structures are divided into two types: fast twitch fibres and slow twitch fibres. When the goal of training is hypertrophy and an increase in muscle strength, to be effective, it is necessary to ensure that the fast twitch muscle fibres that show a high response to training are sufficiently recruited.
Slow twitch fibres are activated when you perform gentler activities such as walking. However, under the effect of KAATSU training and although the exercises are not intense, both types of fibres are engaged in the same way as with high intensity weight training.
Consequently, it improves muscular endurance, increases training frequency, suppresses muscle atrophy as experiments on injured people who have been in plaster casts and to whom the KAATSU technique has been applied have shown. (Takarada)
Sarcopenia refers to the progressive decline in muscle mass that occurs with age, mainly due to a decrease in the supply of blood flow to muscle stem cells or satellite cells.
When your satellite cells cannot be properly nourished, muscle development is hindered. Once you pass the age of 50, this works against you, even if you are used to training hard. The KAATSU banding technique allows you to increase the blood supply to the satellite stem cells, which provide the metabolic support needed to increase muscle protein synthesis and build or tone your muscles.
KAATSU's monitor-controlled inflation and deflation of the bands ensures that the muscles are activated, and the vascular tissue becomes more elastic. You don't feel the pain after training with heavy weights, but your vascular tissue and muscle fibres have been trained just as effectively and you can do it for longer.
But it is not only your muscles that benefit from the KAATSU technique.
The KAATSU technique is truly revolutionary because, although normal blood flow restriction bands may have benefits, the fact that the bands inflate and deflate automatically and consistently negates any possibility of a tourniquet effect and allows so many anti-inflammatory myokines to be activated in the human body.
According to exercise biologist Sebastian del Rosso of the National University of Cordoba, "it is known that muscle contraction releases myokines into the circulatory system and thus stimulates metabolic processes, such as fat oxidation, glucose uptake by cells, among others. Skeletal muscle has been shown to have the capacity to express several myokines including tumour necrosis factor alpha (TNF-α), brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), interleukin 6 (IL-6), IL-8, IL-15, IL 17, IL-10, IL-1RA, LIF, irisin and many other unreported molecules." (article)
To give you an idea of what happens when these myokines are activated,
BDNF (Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor) = plays a key role in regulating the survival, growth, and maintenance of neurons (Mattson et al., 2004).
Interleukin 6 or IL-6 = was the first myokine identified. IL-6 is expressed and released from muscle fibres in response to muscle contraction and has an important role in lipid metabolism (Pedersen, 2009).
Or LIF (Leukaemia inhibitory factor) = is produced by contracting muscle and generates myoblast proliferation. Recent studies suggest that LIF may also promote proliferation of satellite cells (Sheele et al., 2011).
At the endocrine level, noradrenaline, vasopressin, and renin are activated:
Noradrenaline or norepinephrine increases your attention and alertness; it helps you keep your blood pressure under control in times of stress. It affects your circadian rhythms, memory, and mood.
Vasopressin regulates the tone of body fluids. It is released from the posterior pituitary in response to hypertonicity and causes the kidneys to reabsorb solute-free water and return it to the circulation from the tubules of the nephron, returning body fluid tonicity to normal.
Renin is an enzyme that helps control blood pressure and maintain healthy levels of sodium and potassium in the body. Made by special cells in the kidneys, renin is released into the bloodstream when blood pressure drops too low.
Who Can Benefit from the Use of Blood Flow Restriction Bands?
Virtually everyone. A year ago, I became certified as a KAATSU specialist and during the preparation I learned that they have been applied as part of physiotherapy protocol in Japan since 1973 and their use ranges from rehabilitation, through training, recovery, to conventional exercise routine and simple wellness.
Dr. Yoshiaki Sato is the creator and developer of the KAATSU technique. Sato and his cardiology colleagues in Tokyo focused specifically on vascular tissue. They knew that, if they could make our vascular tissue more elastic, in other words, anti-ageing, by enabling our vascular tissue to be flexible like when we were teenagers and as young adults, that would be the catalyst for hormone production: from nitric oxide, endothelial-vascular growth factor (VEGF), brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), and many other bodily responses in this regard.
Also, for people who have lost muscle mass because of injury, long periods of immobility or ageing. The use of KAATSU blood flow restriction bands allow these people to regain their physical function in a fraction of the time it would normally take to fully recover.
Advantages of RFS Training Over Conventional Training
You can use the bands without adding any weight and get results in strength as well as more defined arms, legs, and core. This can be very motivating for relatively sedentary people as it can encourage them to get fitter and exercise more.
KAATSU eliminates the need for recovery days. Wearing the bands on the days you want and even training at up to 30% of your maximum weight is enough to keep you in great shape.
KAATSU bands can be used at every stage of exercise, whether as a warm-up, as part of training, training as such and/or in the recovery phase. The monitor consists of a cyclic mode which serves as a warm-up and a constant mode where you simply do 3 exercises and three rounds in which you do the exercises until you fail with the proper pressure of the bands.
How Elite Athletes Apply KAATSU Bands and How You can Use Them
Experienced coaches have found that growth hormone and other hormones are released about 12-15 minutes after removing the bands, i.e. the maximum hormone production does not occur while the bands are on.
According to this premise, if the athlete needs to maximise his training, he can use the KAATSU bands in CYCLE mode during the warm-up, i.e. one hour before training, so that he can arrive with all the adrenaline, endorphins and other hormones activated.
When there are several competitions in a row, the bands have been used successfully between competitions. Even in long events where there are several attempts, athletes use them during breaks for recovery.
As for me and the people who work out with me (often people who work in offices and other slightly sedentary jobs), we alternate some days of gym and some days of KAATSU in CYCLE mode and if the person's time permits, a CONSTANT mode workout either emphasizing upper body, abdominal or lower body. The KAATSU bands should not be used all at the same time, first cycle the arms and then cycle the legs, otherwise the blood flow will be too low which can lead to fainting.
Total Mind-muscle Connection
If you have had the opportunity to exercise with the help of a trainer, he or she has probably suggested that you focus on the muscle you are exercising. It seems that Dr. Sato had this in mind when designing the bands because, due to the pressure that increases in the training cycles, you can get to the end of each exercise (30 seconds) by doing the movements in a slow and controlled manner; breathing and concentrating your technique on the right movement of the exercised muscle. Then the bands are automatically deflated (5 seconds), to inflate again and continue with the next exercise (in total there are 8 per set). At the end of the workout, you will have no post-exercise soreness.
The wonderful thing about this technique is that it can also be applied to patients in rehabilitation after a stroke or an injury affecting one side of the body. KAATSU can be applied to the side of the body that has been injured and movements can be performed with the corresponding limbs. Movements can range from brushing hair, to bringing cutlery to the mouth to miming eating food, concentrating on the movement and technique of the muscle(s) involved.
I invite you to see for yourself the benefits that the KAATSU blood flow restriction technique can provide. There are sales outlets and staff specialised in the application of the bands all over the world. Here is the link to the KAATSU International website in case you are interested: https://kaatsu.com