BFR Training: Using Lighter Loads to Increase Strength

CrossFit has many acronyms associated with the sport: wod, metcon, amrap, emom, and the list goes on. But one acronym that you might not be as familiar with is BFR, which stands for blood-flow restriction. This is a method of training that involves wrapping a device – such as a pressure cuff, KAATSU device, knee wraps, or voodoo floss – around the upper portion of a limb to restrict blood flow out of a working muscle. It was first discovered by Dr. Yoshiaki Sato when he was attending a Buddhist festival. As he was kneeling, he experienced a reduction of blood flow to his calves which resulted in a painful increase in pressure in his lower leg muscles. As Sato started to massage out his calves, he noticed that they looked more defined, similar to that of a ‘pump’ you receive after performing isolated movements, such as calf raises. After this experience, he has spent his professional career researching and perfecting his methods. Even though BFR training has been around for fifty plus years, it is still relatively new to the fitness world. 

In more recent years, BFR training has been introduced to professional sports teams, such as the Houston Texans and Houston Rockets, as a method of strength training. The Houston Texans’ staff decided to start implementing BFR training with several of their athletes because they realized the potential of minimizing early muscular strength deficits while protecting tissue that was trying to heal, such as after a major surgery. The Texans had several athletes who were recovering from surgeries (the article was written in 2015) who reported that overall the players felt better and their legs were getting stronger. The athletes seemed to be showing better muscle control and making further progress than expected (such as moving from double-leg exercises to single-leg exercises faster than expected). Although it’s difficult to draw straightforward conclusions from only small pieces of data, the improvements that were reported for numerous Texan athletes were very promising. 

Another example of the benefits of BFR training can be seen in the athletic career of basketball player Dwight Howard. He was first introduced to BFR training when he was with the Houston Rockets. He had suffered a cartilage injury in his right knee and was forced to miss a large number of games because of the injury. His team doctor introduced him to BFR training as a way to continue to build muscle and strength in his legs while protecting his knees from unnecessary heavy loading. Howard has since moved on from playing for the Rockets and has continued to have a successful career in the NBA. These are only a few examples of the perceived success of BFR training. 

It is important to note that even though research has been done on the subject of blood flow restriction, there is still a lot of data that needs to be collected. With that being said, it is important to do your own research and ask the advice of medical professionals before deciding to use BFR as a part of your training methodology.