The use of compression clothing such as elastic shorts, full-length tights and knee-high socks has become more common among weight trainers, serious athletes and fitness enthusiasts. The increased use of compression clothing is likely due to accumulating scientific evidence showing enhanced exercise performance1,2 and muscle recovery3,4 when using compression garments.
Enhanced Blood Flow and Muscular Endurance
While initial studies investigating the use of compression garments for medical purposes showed a reduction in blood clot formation within the veins of postoperative patients that were prone to clot formation due to inactivity from being bedridden, these patients also demonstrated an increase in venous blood flow within their lower extremities. The increased blood flow led scientists to believe that compression garments could also improve exercise performance, as increased blood flow would bring more essential nutrients and oxygen to laboring muscles while simultaneously removing metabolic waste, which would collectively enhance muscular performance during exercise.
Well, it turns out that several studies have demonstrated the positive influence of compression garments on blood flow, and that the use of compression garments does improve muscular endurance, especially during maximal-intensity endurance training.5,6,7 For example, one study in particular8 examined the effect of wearing waist-to-ankle compression garments on active recovery after high-intensity treadmill running, with one training session incorporating the use of compression garments and a second session having each test subject exercising in regular running shorts. After each training session, blood samples were collected to determine levels of the metabolic byproduct lactate in the blood, and heart rates were also measured. The results of this study indicate that wearing compression garments augments the active recovery process by reducing lactic acid levels and lowering heart rate after high-intensity training.
Boost Strength and Power Output
The positive influence of compression garments doesn’t simply stop with enhanced endurance, as maximal strength and power can also be improved with the use of compression clothing.2 This effect likely stems from the rather unique capacity of compression garments to improve overall body movement and joint mechanics by enhancing a process known as proprioception, which is essentially the ability of the central nervous system to perceive body position and movement.4,9 Proprioception is a highly advanced system regulated by a variety of neural pathways coming from receptors in the skin, muscle and ligaments.2,3,10 The enhanced proprioception believed to be triggered by compression garments is mediated by receptors in the skin, known as mechanoreceptors, which are activated by the tension created from the compression garment. Greater activation of these mechanoreceptors increases feedback signals to the central nervous system11, which fine-tunes the perception of body and joint motion, ultimately improving proprioception.12,13 The enhanced proprioception likely improves control of all proprioceptors within this system, including those within muscle tissue that have the ability to increase muscle cell activation and muscle fiber recruitment, which should improve muscular strength and power.
While studies14 have reported mixed results regarding gains in strength when using compression clothing, a review of the literature by Born et al.15 revealed several positive results associated with the use of compression clothing in specific types of strength and power displays, such as sprint performance and vertical jumping. As a matter of fact, improvement in short sprints separated by short recovery periods was shown to rely heavily on several different metabolic and neuronal factors that enhanced muscle activation and muscle fiber-recruitment strategies16, indicating that improved proprioception, caused by the use of compression garments, played a significant role in improving sprint performance.
Improved Muscle Recovery
Weight training can induce muscle damage, especially when performing new training regimens or movements involving a lot of eccentric muscular contraction.17 The resulting muscle soreness is accompanied by a feeling of stiffness within the exercised muscle groups18 as well as a loss of strength and range of movement, also within the trained muscle groups.19,20 Some have claimed that compression garments can attenuate the negative symptoms associated with muscle damage by providing mechanical support to the injured muscle tissue, thus lowering the requirement for activity of the damaged muscle tissue, which will most certainly speed up the healing process.21
In fact, research has clearly shown that wearing compression sleeves for several days, following a muscle-damaging training session, does actually lead to a more rapid reduction in blood concentrations of the muscle damage marker creatine kinase, indicating a greater rate of recovery. Reductions in muscle soreness and decreased range of motion have also been observed when using compression garments, further indicating a greater rate of muscle recuperation.21
The squeezing effect from compression garments has also been shown to minimize swelling of the damaged muscle tissue by increasing the flow of lymph fluid from the lymphatic system, in a process known as lymphatic outflow. Since some of the swelling that occurs in muscle tissue is due to an increased pooling of lymph fluid within the muscle, the increased efflux of lymph from the muscle tissue caused by compression garments reduces post-exercise muscle swelling and pain.21 In fact, one study in particular looked at the effect of compression clothing, showing that reductions in muscle swelling when using compression clothing 24 to 48 hours after exercise was complete.14 Moreover, this reduction in swelling corresponded to improved recovery of muscular strength and power.
In conclusion, it is pretty clear that compression clothing can enhance performance, especially while engaging in short bursts of high-intensity exercise such as repeated sprinting and jumping. This is likely because this form of anaerobic work generates high amounts of lactic acid, which reduces muscular function – and compression garments effectively remove lactic acid from muscle tissue, ultimately promoting a longer duration of muscular function. Additional benefits of compression clothing use also involves a greater rate of muscle recuperation stemming from the capacity of compression garments to reduce levels of muscle damage, swelling and soreness, resulting in greater recovery rates. Moreover, the improved recovery seems to be most pronounced when compression is applied for as long as one to two days after engaging in damage-inducing exercise to the muscle.
For most of Michael Rudolph’s career he has been engrossed in the exercise world as either an athlete (he played college football at Hofstra University), personal trainer or as a research scientist (he earned a B.Sc. in Exercise Science at Hofstra University and a Ph.D. in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology from Stony Brook University). After earning his Ph.D., Michael investigated the molecular biology of exercise as a fellow at Harvard Medical School and Columbia University for over eight years. That research contributed seminally to understanding the function of the incredibly important cellular energy sensor AMPK – leading to numerous publications in peer-reviewed journals including the journal Nature. Michael is currently a scientist working at the New York Structural Biology Center doing contract work for the Department of Defense on a project involving national security.
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Ron Harris is pictured wearing compression garments.