Whole-body compression helps recovery after strength training


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- Alex Hutchinson (@sweatscience)


Interesting new study on compression garments in this month’s Journal of Strength and Conditioning. A team from the University of Connecticut led by William Kraemer — a big name in the field — had subjects do a heavy eight-exercise weights session, then recover either by wearing an Under Armour Recharge suit for 24 hours or by wearing their usual clothing. It was a randomized, crossover study. (I was very critical of the research Under Armour is using to promote its performance mouthpieces, so I have to give credit here: they funded what I see as a high-quality study.) The punch line:

We observed significant differences between [compression garments] and [controls] in both men and women for vitality, resting fatigue ratings, muscle soreness, ultrasound measure swelling, bench press throw, and [creatine kinase, a marker of muscle damage]. A whole body compression garment worn during the 24-hour recovery period after an intense heavy resistance training workout enhances various psychological, physiological, and a few performance markers of recovery compared with noncompressive control garment conditions.

In other words, it works!

Now, it’s worth noting that they tested a whole laundry-list of parameters, only some of which  showed improvement. The tests of reaction time, sleep quality, countermovement vertical jump and squat jump didn’t show anything. And despite a program that included biceps curl and three other upper body exercises, no changes in upper-body arm soreness were observed. Same for other areas of the body like the thighs.

But overall, it’s a positive message. It’s particularly nice to see changes not just in subjective measures (e.g. How do you feel? How sore are you?) but also in objective measures (e.g. How swollen are your muscles? How far can you throw this?) As I concluded in an earlier post, the evidence is mounting that compression really works — even if we haven’t yet mastered exactly how much is needed where. And of all the proposed uses, recovery after workout-induced muscle damage seems to be the most solid.

7 Replies to “Whole-body compression helps recovery after strength training”

  1. Thanks Alex.
    I find this particular viewpoint a little disturbing. There is so much research that doesnt support compression garments, and then balance this with the idea that studies that display no change are more less likely to get published, the study was sponsored by a group with an interest in positive results, Kraemer is editor of the journal, the references used are either his own or mates at ECU… its all a bit of a worry. And then you are supposed to beleive that wearing a compression garment improves performance by 20% the next day…. c’mon. I would like to see the strong support of evidence from other researchers.

  2. Thanks for the comment, Ben — I’m definitely happy to see this viewpoint represented. I’m generally a compression skeptic: when I moved to Australia, I was absolutely astounded at how many people I saw jogging along the harbour in full-length Skins. Apart from how expensive they are (and the fact that most of the people are recreational joggers for whom even a 20% performance boost would be essentially meaningless), how can it be comfortable to run in full-length tights when it’s 35C?!

    I also worry a lot about the placebo problem. What I’d really like to see is a test of “graduated” compression versus “ungraduated” or even “reverse graduated” compression. That way all the subjects could feel like they’re wearing snazzy super-gear, and we could find out whether proposed mechanisms like the calf muscle pump are actually coming into play.

    In the end, though, I have to be willing to take peer-reviewed results at face value unless I can point out methodological flaws (since, after all, I’m not a sports scientist doing experiments myself!). So if we leave aside the possibility of blatant academic fraud, how do I interpret the findings about CK levels, which should be reasonably placebo-proof? (The researchers do acknowledge the possibility of a “dynamic casting” effect, where the compression subjects stayed more immobile simply because they were wearing the stupid suits, which influenced recovery independently of compression.)

    I guess to sum up: I’d love to poke some holes in compression studies — but if I try doing so without any real ammunition, then I’m not letting the evidence (paltry as it is so far) be my guide.

  3. Hi Richard,

    Well, as you can see from the exchange with Ben above, I’m not ready to make any guarantees about compression. That being said, it’s precisely the kind of thing I’d be willing to try if I had a stubborn problem that I was “hoping and wishing” to get rid.

    The sleeve you linked to looks like a good one (i.e. it’s “graduated”). However, I don’t think I’ve seen anything suggesting that compression would be good for “knots” in a muscle. I think it’s more for dealing with DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness), which is muscle damage at the fibre level that might result from, say, a hard weights session or a longer- or faster-than-usual run that hammers your calves. When I think of knots, I think more in terms of stretching them out, and especially strengthening the relevant area.

    If it’s something that happens only after long, hard runs, then maybe a compression sleeve will help. If it’s chronic problem than plagues you on-and-off, I think it’s less likely to help.

  4. What I have is definitely not DOMS – I’m familiar with DOMS and have experienced it many times in training. The pain in my calves is different. A couple focused areas near the top of my calves become extremely sensitive to the touch and I usually notice it after 4 – 6 weeks of consistent training. No hard workouts, just easy 10 to 6 min/mile for 30 – 60 min per day with a with some cross training as a second workout which is usually plyos. At it’s worst, my feet get numb. One of the remedies is deep tissue massage, which is very painful, followed with rest. I’m trying to figure out a way to avoid this problem completely.

    Here’s something that I read about the cause.

    The root cause of this injury, according to my orthopedic friends, is compartment syndrome, which means that the sheath around the calf muscle isn’t flexible enough, and when the muscle swells up during exercise, it can’t expand enough to accommodate the necessary blood flow. The muscle becomes constricted, and eventually some fibers tear. Even after it heals, scar tissue often remains, which makes the site a prime candidate for reinjury, thus the cyclical nature of this problem.


    I was leaning towards the compression sleeve for help with circulation.

    I’ll give it try. I don’t think that it can hurt.

  5. Ahh, that’s bad news, Rich. For tough-to-solve injuries like that, I’m all in favour of lowering the standards of scientific evidence and giving everything a try! The good news is that compression seems to have a number of different effects, which no one fully understands yet — hopefully one of them will help you break out of this cycle!

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