Skip to main content

«  View All Posts

Physical Therapy | Personal Training

What Is Blood Flow Restriction, and How Can It Help Me?

October 13th, 2022 | 4 min. read

What Is Blood Flow Restriction, and How Can It Help Me?
James Ingram

James Ingram

Licensed Physical Therapist, PT DPT // EW Motion Therapy Homewood

Print/Save as PDF

If you have never heard of blood flow restriction (BFR), the phrase may carry a frightening connotation. Why would you want to restrict blood flow anywhere in your body? When used strategically and safely, blood flow restriction can actually be a helpful technique to build strength in a shorter period of time without putting too much stress on healing tissues or joints. Physical therapists, personal and athletic trainers use BFR for clients, and it has been shown to be safe and effective. So what does it do, and should you try it to build strength? 


Suppose you have a condition or injury that makes it difficult to strength train through traditional means, like lifting heavy weights. In that case, BFR can be an excellent method to help you get increased strength and muscle mass while exercising with a decreased load. Our physical therapists at EW Motion Therapy are trained in BFR and use it during sessions when applicable. Even if you are not interested in working with us, after reading more about it, you may be interested in trying BFR for yourself.


This article explains the basics of what blood flow restriction is, the benefits and risks associated, and some professional recommendations for the technique. With this information, you can try blood flow restriction for yourself or ask your therapist or trainer about it during your next session. 



BFR 101 

So what exactly is blood flow restriction? Well, as the name implies, it is a therapeutic technique in which you apply pressure to the top of a limb (your arm, for example) to restrict the blood flowing out of the limb, typically using an inflatable cuff. Blood can still flow into your arm - it does not cut off circulation entirely. It is only meant to decrease the amount of blood flowing out of your limb. The resulting blood concentration allows your muscles to grow and strengthen without placing a heavy load on your joints. For example, if you lifted 10lb weights with BFR, you would get the same muscle fatigue as you would by lifting 50lb weights on your own. 


This kind of result may sound too good to be true, but research has shown its effectiveness, especially in a rehabilitation setting. BFR is beginning to challenge the status quo on muscle growth, and it will be interesting to see how the medical community begins to embrace the technique in the coming years.


What does blood flow restriction do? 

The primary purpose of BFR in a therapy setting is to load muscle without irritating joints. By restricting blood flow, you can increase the stress on muscle from within, avoiding the mechanical stress typically placed on joints with heavy loads. It has been increasingly helpful in rehabilitation settings. For example, ACL patients in physical therapy may use BFR to limit the stress on their post-operative knee while targeting the muscles above and below it. By doing this, they can simultaneously prevent muscle atrophy that generally comes with surgery and protect the surgical site. BFR combined with low-load exercise has been shown to increase muscle size to the same extent as exercising with heavy loads. However, the increase in strength may be less than exercising with heavy loads due to the specificity of the exercise.


What are the benefits of blood flow restriction? 

Along with the benefits of BFR during recovery from surgery, blood flow restriction can help other groups. Athletes can use BFR during strength training to get more bang for their buck, per se, as a lighter load can produce comparable results. Older people or those with osteoporosis or other bone conditions can use BFR to avoid an increased load that could cause injury. It can also be useful for someone who wants to begin a consistent fitness routine to further their progress with less stress on their body. No matter in which setting it is used, BFR is a promising new technique to grow muscle without putting mechanical stress on sensitive areas.


Physical therapists use BFR in rehabilitation after surgery to help strengthen muscles and prevent atrophy. Especially for knee surgery, it can strengthen the quads and reach full knee extension. Personal trainers also use BFR to help clients increase load without endangering other structures, like joints.


When should you not use blood flow restriction? 

While blood flow restriction has many benefits, there are some situations in which it may not be suitable for you. Anyone with cardiac disease, high blood pressure, a history of blood clots or deep vein thrombosis should not use BFR as a treatment intervention. You should also not try BFR if you are pregnant, and it may not work well for people taking blood thinners. You can check with your doctor or physical therapist to discuss any reservations about trying BFR, and it is ultimately up to you whether you try it.


Which professionals use blood flow restriction? 

Now you know more about blood flow restriction and may consider trying it yourself. While physical therapists and personal trainers use BFR, it is possible to do it yourself. You can buy practical cuffs, a set of bands that you can tighten and strap down, or pneumatic cuffs, which automatically inflate to a certain pressure. While some athletes or fitness pros can measure their blood pressure and try BFR independently, we recommend only trying BFR in a professional, supervised environment. Of course, check with your doctor to make sure it is safe for you to do so. 


Whether you use it after surgery or are looking to build muscle size and strength, blood flow restriction can be a great technique to help improve muscle function and allow you to get back to and improve your favorite activities. BFR is still being studied, but research has shown that many can reap the benefits if used properly. Our therapists and trainers at EW Motion Therapy use BFR to help muscles perform to their fullest potential. If you are interested in working with us, fill out our Program Match Tool to see which of our programs would best fit your needs.

New call-to-action