BFR might be the best (and weirdest) method you've ever tried.
Sean Hyson 1 / 9
Wrap It Up
Steve Michalik, a former Mr. America, once remarked that he’d eat grease from a crankcase if it would help him build muscle. We’d never ask you to go that far, but to take your gains to the next level, you have to be willing to try approaches that are unconventional, counterintuitive, and risk making you look funny in the gym.
To that end, we propose you give blood flow restriction (BFR) training, also known as "occlusion training," a shot. It entails tightly wrapping your limbs to reduce their blood supply while repping out with light weights. Sound scary? At least we’re not asking you to eat grease from a crankcase.
Done right, BFR is safe and works like a charm. And while it may seem a little ridiculous at first, you'll be sure to get the most from this effective method with the right moves. Scroll through the gallery to find eight ideal moves for BFR training, plus some expert pointers.
Blood flow restriction training is a technique born in rehab clinics and has been used for decades. Olympic medalist skier Bode Miller even credited it in 2014 for helping him recover from a lower-back injury. It works like this: wrap a band or cuff—elastic knee or wrist wraps are great—around the upper arms or upper legs. Then perform several high- rep sets of a given exercise using light weights and short rest periods.
The Move: Tie the wrap high around your upper arm and perform a normal dumbbell curl, squeezing your biceps hard in the peak position.
Seated Leg Extension
The wraps restrict blood flow to the extremities, reducing the amount that can be returned to the heart. As a result, more blood is trapped in the working muscles and they swell up—think: the best pump you’ve ever had.
The Move: Be conservative on your weight selection. The tightness of the wraps will bring fatigue more quickly.
While the exact science behind BFR’s effectiveness isn’t clear, its leading researcher, Jeremy Loenneke, Ph.D., assistant professor of exercise science at the University of Mississippi, thinks there are many factors at work. “It appears that cell swelling [the pump], metabolic accumulation [a buildup of organic compounds that contribute to chemical reactions], and mechanical tension are playing a large role,” says Loenneke. What is clear, however, is that blood flow restriction training works well. So well, in fact, it seems crazy not to try it.
The Move: Set up as you would to do a back squat. Bend your hips back as far as you can and lower your torso as far as you can without losing the arch in your lower back. Squeeze your glutes to come back up, pushing through your heels on the ascent.
This year, a study in the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Science in Sports found that subjects who followed a BFR lifting regimen for six weeks made muscle gains similar to a control group that followed a traditional workout protocol—but the BFR group increased strength by 10% versus 7% for the control, even though it used lighter weights. Meanwhile, a review in the Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness found that BFR training produces a range of metabolic and hormonal effects, many of which are associated with muscle growth, including elevations of growth hormone.
The Move: Move your elbows back as you lower the weight and let them drift forward to lift.
Incredibly, BFR seems to spark gains even without the addition of weight training. Loenneke says, “There’s evidence that applying BFR and walking slowly may result in small but meaningful increases in muscle size and strength.” But is it safe? Will your arms turn blue and fall asleep while you’re pressing a weight over your face? Not to worry, says Loenneke. “The BFR stimulus is very [short term]— minutes, not hours. When we compare it with traditional resistance training, it appears just as safe not safer.” However, if you have a vascular disease or disorder, it’s probably best to leave matters of blood flow to your doctor.
The Move: Stand with feet inside shoulder width and grasp the bar just outside your knees. Keep your lower back in its natural arch as you extend your hips.
BFR training can be done with the squat, bench press, leg press, leg extension, leg curl, triceps pressdown, and various biceps curls. (If you don’t have a partner to help you, wrapping your arms can be tricky. Pin one end of the wrap between your arm and your side, just below your armpit, then wind it around from there. Use your thumb to hold it in place while you make the next winding and tighten.) Wrap tightly but don’t try to mummify yourself. Now choose a light weight, about 30% of your max, and do one set of 30 reps. Rest 30–60 seconds and perform three more sets of 15 reps (resting the same time between each one). You’ll know if you wrapped too tightly, or chose too heavy a load, if you can’t complete the reps or get close.
Keep your core braced so your lower back doesn't overextend. If it’s uncomfortable to hold the bar on your lap, wrap a towel around it. Rest your upper back on a bench and sit on the floor perpendicular to it. Roll a loaded barbell into your lap and plant your feet close to your body with knees bent. Brace your abs and extend your hips by driving your heels into the floor.
If you’re an iron veteran with the joint pain to show for it, BFR training will come as a blessing. Because it doesn’t require heavy lifting, it won’t aggravate any injuries. It can also provide the variety your workouts need to be more productive. To make the most of BFR, we recommend using it at the end of a normal workout, after heavier training is done. Follow the sample program here, courtesy of strength coach Bret Contreras, C.S.C.S., for a guide on using BFR for fast muscle gains.
The Move: Hold the bar on the front of your shoulders and squat as low as you can. As long as you keep your elbows pointing forward you’ll be able to balance the bar.