What happens to your body during a typical strength training workout?

The prevailing wisdom is that if you intend to add muscle mass and get stronger, you need to overload the muscles, challenging them with heavy weights.

Let’s look at what happens to your body during a workout and what’s the best approach to building lean muscle.

What happens to your body during a typical strength training workout?

In general, for your workouts, you will use at least 60% of the maximum weight you can lift for each exercise. For example, if you can bench press 200 pounds, you’ll use at least 120 pounds (60 percent of max) in your workout, performing multiple sets of eight to 10 repetitions (reps) each. Each set is push-to-fail, which means you perform as many reps as you can, pushing to the point of exhaustion where you can’t perform another rep.

When you train in this manner, you are essentially attacking your muscles and possibly creating some degree of muscle damage that needs to be repaired. During the repair process, the intention is for the body to overcompensate, making the muscle bigger and stronger. This is because the body hates the stress of training and seeks to improve so that when you push it again, it will experience less stress. That’s why when you train, you need to steadily increase the resistance to keep progressing.

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After attacking the muscle, the reconstruction begins immediately by “feeding” the muscle with resources (oxygen and nutrients). The feeding process is a bit complicated, but in a nutshell, here’s how it works.

When you forcefully contract a muscle with at least 60% of its maximum resistance, the muscle swells and presses against the artery that supplies the muscle. This obstructs (cuts off) blood flow to the muscle. Even though blood flow is obstructed and no oxygen can be delivered, the muscle continues to contract. The metabolic rate increases dramatically in the working muscle and it “cries” for oxygen. But none are delivered, so steps must be taken to try to promote increased blood flow.

Nitric oxide is released from inside the artery, causing it to dilate. The small vessels branching off from the main artery open wide, and the gatekeepers that allow blood to flow through the capillaries (the smaller vessels) also open wide. In other words, all the vessels supplying the muscle are wide open, but no blood passes during strong contractions.

Louisville's Tori Dilfer lifts weights during a workout.

At the moment of muscle failure, the contractions stop and the artery is no longer occluded. Blood can now charge through the wide open channels, engorgement of the muscle, “bloating” it. The technical term is “reactive hyperemia” – a delayed and greatly increased blood flow to the exercised muscle.

What are blood flow restriction bands and how do I use them?

The description above is what happens in a typical weight training workout. The key is to use heavy weights at least 60% of maximum to attack the muscle and obstruct arterial blood flow. In contrast, using lighter weights has always been seen as a way to simply “tone” the muscles, maintaining size and strength, but not increasing them. The use of blood flow restriction bands challenges this interpretation and shows that light weights and much higher repetitions can be effective for building size and strength, but in a different way.

Colorful weights sit on a shelf inside Wel at Humana ahead of opening day at the new Main Street gym in downtown Louisville on Thursday, June 21, 2018.

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The blood flow restriction bands wrap around the muscle but are not tight like a tourniquet. Instead, the bands are adjusted to compress the upper arms or legs by approximately 70%. The modest pressure clogs the veins that drain the muscle, but does not clog the artery that feeds it. This allows arterial blood to enter the muscle while contracting with light weights and then traps it in the working muscle, causing blood pooling.

In other words, the bands also “bulk up” the muscle, but in a different, more dramatic way.

A key difference between the traditional approach and blood flow restriction bands is that “aggression” of the muscle is key to the success of the heavier traditional approach, whereas “feeding” the muscle to the excess is the key to strips.

The blood flow restriction bands cause a buildup of various metabolic by-products in the muscle which cause severe swelling. This alters the muscle’s internal environment, stimulating changes in muscle cells that influence genes and promote protein synthesis, resulting in increased size and strength.

But you don’t want to go overboard. It’s best to release the pressure of the band after working a muscle or keep the bands on for no more than 15-20 minutes at a time before loosening them.

Who Can Benefit From Blood Flow Restriction Banding Training?

A Peloton user who trains at home.

Anyone, regardless of training status, can benefit from the use of blood flow restriction bands.

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These bands with much lighter weights can be used for rehabilitation of a current injury and can be used effectively by seniors. The key for older people is to understand that with age, joints tend to dry out and become more fragile, and while muscles can handle heavier loads, joints cannot. Blood flow restriction training spares the joints while challenging the muscles. (NOTE: If you are older and choose to use these bands, first check with your doctor that you are cleared for vigorous training. In particular, make sure there is no blood pressure problems.)

Regardless of age, blood flow restriction bands are a good option for periodic “dump” training. This means less demanding training to give the body a break and promote full recovery, but still impose a good stimulus on the muscles to support progress. Recovery from band-based training is also much faster. In addition, training with these bands can be used by people with degenerative diseases such as arthritis. Arthritis in the joints causes severe pain, especially when lifting heavier weights, which rules out traditional strength training, but can allow for light, high blood flow training.

Where can I buy blood flow restriction bands?

Blood flow restriction bands offer a great alternative to traditional resistance training. They are inexpensive and you can buy wristbands at any sporting goods store or online. The bands are easy to use and are digitally calibrated (the length is numbered) so you can gauge a modest compression of around 70%.

The Velcro makes the bands easy to put on and take off, which is important because you don’t want to leave them on for too long.

Contact Bryant Stamford, professor of kinesiology and integrative physiology at Hanover College, at stamford@hanover.edu.

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